A re-wording of a question about religious beliefs coupled with a more precise definition of a Christian group found that far fewer evangelicals are universalists than what the Pew Forum reported in its landmark report last week.
LifeWay Research, associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, found that only two out of 10 evangelicals – as defined by their belief system rather than what church they attend – agreed with the statement that eternal life can be obtained through religions other than Christianity.
"When we define evangelicals as not just those who sit in pews but who agree with certain evangelical beliefs, we find a different picture than was widely reported in the news about the recent Pew study," said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources, in a statement.
The "evangelical" beliefs were based off of The Barna Group's definition, which include saying one's faith is very important to one's life; a commitment to sharing one's religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and asserting the Bible is accurate in all its teaching, among other criteria.
In the Pew Forum's "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey," evangelicals were defined only as those attending evangelical churches. Based on this definition, Pew found that 57 percent of evangelicals agreed with the idea that other religions than their own can lead to eternal life.
"The Pew Forum accurately reported the question they asked and accurately reported the responses they received, but I do not think that led to an accurate portrayal of evangelicals," Stetzer said.
Other critics of the Pew's definition of evangelical explained that many Christians when asked the question if they belief other faiths other than their own can lead to eternal life mistakenly consider their denomination rather than the Christian religion in their response.
As a result, these respondents agree with the statement because they believe Christians of other denominations can also find salvation through Jesus Christ.
"I believe the Pew study is directionally right in pointing out that a surprisingly small number of self-identified American Christians believe in the exclusivity of Christ as a means of salvation, and therefore, getting into heaven," explained Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research.
"But the way they worded their question may have had some impact; many people think of 'denomination' when they hear 'religion,' so it isn't that surprising that a Lutheran could think a Methodist would also go to heaven or a Catholic could think that a Protestant would go to heaven," said McConnell.
LifeWay made sure to clarify the question by asking, "How much do you agree/disagree: If a person is sincerely seeking God, he/she can obtain eternal life through religions other than Christianity."
"There is enough of a difference in the results for me to conclude that their (Pew Forum) choice of wording likely led a number of folks away from the exclusive response," Stetzer stated.
"The Pew research is helpful even though this question needs clarification," he added. "However, the bigger issue here is why there are so many self-identified evangelicals who sit in evangelical pews but do not evidence evangelical beliefs, particularly in regard to universalism."