As you may have heard, a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the majority of those affiliated with a religion do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. This includes 57 percent of evangelicals who say that many religions can lead to eternal life.
It’s amazing to me how quickly this study has become fodder for evangelical outrage over relativism, particularly here in Dayton. To the collective gasps of their congregations, pastors are misrepresenting the study’s findings by making claims like, “most Americans are universalists” or “a majority of evangelical Christians no longer believe Jesus is the only way to eternal life” or “most Christians think all paths lead to God.” I’ve heard the study used to support everything from buying more Christian apologetics books to sending kids to private Christian high schools and colleges.
Such a reactionary response fails to factor in the inexact science of polling and what may simply be a more nuanced view of pluralism among religious people.
The Actual Question: How would you answer it?
First of all, we’ve got to look more carefully at the actual question that was asked of those taking the survey. Here it is:
Question: Which of the following statements comes closer to your own views, even if neither is exactly right:
a) My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life
b) Many religions can lead to eternal life
Now, how would you answer that question?
Personally, I’d prefer there be an Option C that states: “Religion itself has no saving power, so no religion (including my own) leads to eternal life.”
But there is no Option C. So, given the circumstances, I’d probably choose Option B, simply because it is more open-ended. I think that people of all religious traditions are loved by God and that God is capable of using religion to draw people to Himself, even if that religion is not Christianity.
Furthermore, considering the fact that in this survey, Protestants and Catholics were separated into different “religions,” many people may have confused “religion” with “denominational affiliation.” In fact, a LifeWay study to be released in the fall used more specific wording, asking Protestant churchgoers whether a person can obtain eternal life through “religions other than Christianity.” That survey found that only 31 percent agreed “strongly” or “somewhat.”
Of course, I would also prefer an Option C in that survey as well.
A More Nuanced Approach to Religious Pluralism
I suspect that the Pew Research Center’s survey simply reveals the fact that Americans, including evangelicals, have a more nuanced approach to religious pluralism. This, I think, is a very good thing. It would mean that evangelicals are moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to the gospel to one that appreciates the scope of God’s love for the world. It would mean that evangelicals are perhaps finding a “middle way” between traditional exclusivism on the one hand and outright universalism on the other.
The bottom line is that the yes-or-no, black-or-white nature of a survey doesn’t really lend itself to the complexity of this important issue. Even the question, “Do you think Jesus is the only way to salvation?” fails to factor in the dynamic nature of the Trinity, especially as it concerns those who have never heard the name of Jesus to begin with.
My feeling is that the survey should not be taken too seriously, and it certainly should not be used to try to sell more apologetics curriculum to an “increasingly relativistic evangelical community.” There was plenty in that survey regarding evangelical attitudes toward homosexuality, conservative politcs, science, and abortion to keep the Religious Right happy for a while...(but that's for another post!)