Most American Christians believe many religions can lead to eternal life and among them, the vast majority says you don't even have to be Christian to go to heaven, a new survey shows.
Sixty-five percent of all Christians say there are multiple paths to eternal life, ultimately rejecting the exclusivity of Christ teaching, according to the latest survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Even among white evangelical Protestants, 72 percent of those who say many religions can lead to eternal life name at least one non-Christian religion, such as Judaism or Islam or no religion at all, that can lead to salvation.
Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the survey results "a theological crisis for American evangelicals," according to USA Today.
"They represent at best a misunderstanding of the Gospel and at worst a repudiation of the Gospel," the prominent evangelical theologian said.
Majorities among white evangelicals, white mainline Christians, and black Protestants who do not believe in the exclusivity of salvation say Catholicism and Judaism can lead to eternal life, Pew results show.
Smaller but still sizeable percentages (more than half) of white mainline Christians, black Protestants and white Catholics who say there are multiple ways to eternal life also say Islam can lead to salvation; among white evangelicals, 35 percent agree. And more than half of white mainline Christians and white Catholics who view heaven's gates as wide say Hinduism can lead to eternal life compared to 33 percent of white evangelicals and 44 percent of black Protestants.
Surprisingly, Christians also believe atheism can provide a ticket to heaven. Forty-six percent of white mainline Christians, 49 percent of white Catholics and 26 percent of white evangelicals who believe many religions lead to salvation say atheism can lead to eternal life.
Mohler called the findings "an indictment of evangelicalism and evangelical preaching."
"The clear Biblical teaching is that Jesus Christ proclaimed himself to be the only way to salvation," he told USA Today.
Explaining the challenge many believers face in today's culture, Mohler noted, "We are in an age when we want to tell everyone they are doing just fine. It's extremely uncomfortable to turn to someone and say, 'You will go to hell unless you come to a saving knowledge of Jesus.'"
The Pew Forum first surveyed Americans on the exclusivity view of salvation in 2007. The survey of 35,000 adults provided startling numbers with 57 percent of evangelical church attendees saying they believe many religions can lead to eternal life and overall, 70 percent of Americans sharing that view.
But when the survey results were released in June this year, critics reported flaws in the survey such as the Pew Forum's definition of evangelical and the vagueness of the statement "many religions can lead to eternal life." Critics say it was possible some respondents may have interpreted "many religions" as other Christian denominations besides their own while others might have thought more broadly to include non-Christian faiths.
The new survey, conducted July 31-Aug. 10, 2008, among nearly 3,000 adults, serves to clarify the previous findings.
And alarmingly, 52 percent of all American Christians think that at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.
Additionally, only 30 percent of those affiliated with a religion say one's belief determines eternal life; 29 percent say eternal life depends on one's actions and 10 percent believe it's a combination of belief and actions.
White evangelicals were less likely to say actions determine who obtains eternal life compared to white mainline believers, black Protestants and white Catholics; and they were more likely to agree that salvation is dependent on belief (64 percent) compared to only 25 percent of white mainline Christians.
Despite the alarming findings, the Pew Forum provided one trend that may be good news for evangelical Christians.
The percentage of evangelical Christians who say theirs is the one, true faith has gone up from 39 percent in 2002 to 49 percent in 2008. The religious exclusivity view has also grown among black Protestants, all Catholics, and slightly among white mainline Protestants.