The State of Theology: A Poll of Eternal Significance

from Sep 28, 2016 Category: Ministry News

It’s an election year. That means, among other things, that we are treated to a new poll every day. We may be tempted to roll our eyes at the flood of polls, but instead we lean in, wanting to know what our fellow Americans might be thinking. The stakes are high when we consider the presidential election. The national attention is not only on who occupies the Oval Office next, we also find ourselves too often confronted by Islamic-based terrorism. As we deal with these new threats we are not helped by a secular left that is unable to define right and wrong and unable to see good versus evil. This is no mere ideology and no mere issue of statecraft. We know that we are dealing with matters that are theological at their very core.

Toward that end, we are releasing an entirely different kind of poll today. This poll penetrates right to that very core of theology and the stakes of this poll are far higher than the outcome of an election. The stakes of this poll are not simply matters of life and death. The stakes are matters of eternal life and eternal death.

Ligonier Ministries teamed up with LifeWay Research, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, for The State of American Theology Study 2016, a poll which gets at the theological beliefs of Americans. This was not the first time we at Ligonier partnered with LifeWay. We undertook the same venture in 2014. We surveyed 3,000 Americans on questions regarding beliefs about God, sin, salvation, heaven and hell, the church, and the Bible.

Over the next few weeks we will have a series of articles to highlight and help interpret the key findings of this survey as we attempt to understand the beliefs of Americans today. You can find all of the survey results here, including a discussion of key findings and inclusion of the full demographic data and breakdown of results. You can also compare results of the 2014 poll over and against the 2016 poll. Even in this short two-year period trends are already emerging. Whether you skim the surface or take a deep dive into the results, you will find much that is helpful in this survey. We trust the churches and ministries will be helped by these findings. We have already been using this data here at Ligonier.

To highlight how this survey might be of use, consider this one key finding. One of the statements in the survey concerns sin. R. C. Sproul’s quote, “Sin is cosmic treason,” made its way in the famous Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. We wanted to see if this belief made its way into American thinking. We framed the statement this way:

Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.

This statement received one of the strongest responses—in the disagree strongly column. In fact, this statement garnered one of the most striking results of all the survey questions. Many of the responses throughout the survey evened out over the spectrum from agree strongly to disagree strongly. Not this one. 61% disagree strongly with another 12% disagreeing somewhat. Just a breadth shy of 3 out of 4 Americans fail to see the full weight and significance of sin.

Of course, what we think about sin impacts our view of nearly everything else in theology. It impacts how we think about God, about salvation, about Christ, about other religions, and about the church. Take a look at the survey and you will be able to trace the impact yourself.

A sampling of our ministry partners took the same survey. The results on this particular question revealed that our students went in the entirely opposite direction of their peers. 93% agreed strongly with the statement with another 2% agreeing somewhat. That can be encouraging when set against the dismal findings of Americans in general.

For five decades now, Ligonier Ministries has been committed to proclaim, teach, and defend the holiness of God in all its fullness to as many people as possible. This survey shows us that inroads have been made and that much has been accomplished. This survey reminds us at Ligonier of the necessity to keep a laser-focus on that mission. And this survey also serves to encourage us to keep hand to plow as much work remains to be done.

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Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and teaches on the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.