Over half of US Christians believe good works will get them into Heaven: study

A man reading the Bible.
A man reading the Bible. | Getty images/stock photo

Less than half of U.S. Christians expect to experience eternal salvation because of their confession of sin and acceptance of Christ as their Savior, while a larger number of professing Christians believe good works will get them into Heaven, a new survey has found. 

The American Worldview Inventory 2020 survey conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University found that a majority of people who describe themselves as Christian (52%) accept a “works-oriented” means to God’s acceptance. 

In contrast, a minority of adults (46%) who describe themselves as “Christian” expect to experience eternal salvation because of their confession of sin and acceptance of Christ as their savior.

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The study also found that “huge proportions of people” associated with churches whose official doctrine says eternal salvation comes only from embracing Jesus Christ as savior “believe that a person can qualify for Heaven by being or doing good.” That includes close to half of all adults associated with Pentecostal (46%), mainline Protestant (44%), and evangelical (41%) churches. A much larger share of Catholics (70%) embrace that point of view. 

The survey of 2,000 individuals found that one in three Americans (33%) say they consider themselves to be a Christian and affirm the statement that “when you die you will go to heaven only because you have confessed your sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as your savior.”

Len Munsil, president of Arizona Christian University, said the “lack of understanding of basic Christian theology is stunning,” with “potentially devastating consequences for individual souls and really for all aspects of American life and culture.”

“It’s a wakeup call for the church, and for leaders in all areas of influence, to speak, teach and work to restore biblical truth,” Munsil said. “Many souls will be lost if people are misled by the false notion that we can earn our way to heaven, rather than recognizing the truth that Christ alone and His righteousness are the basis for our salvation.”

Overall, 54% of U.S. adults believe they will get to Heaven after they die and only 2% believe they are going to hell. Additionally, 63% of adults believe “having faith matters more than which faith you have.”

George Barna, director of research for the Cultural Research Center, said Americans are “in an ‘anything goes’ mindset when it comes to faith, morals, values and lifestyle.”

“Americans appear to be creating unique, highly customized worldviews based on feelings, experiences and opportunities rather than working within the boundaries of a comprehensive, time-tested, consistent worldview,” he said.

“... By abandoning our moral standards and traditions, and replacing them with inclusive and conditional preferences, we are losing the foundations that have enabled the ‘American experiment’ to succeed for more than two centuries,” Barna added.

“We can only hope that our critical moral institutions — particularly the family and churches — will wake up and help the nation to get back on track.”

The survey corroborates a previous report released by the Barna Group and the American Bible Society which found that Scripture engagement is on the decline, with U.S. adults who say they read the Bible daily dropping from 14% to 9% between early 2019 and 2020. 

Another recent poll from LifeWay Research, in partnership with Explore the Bible, found that 57% of Protestant churchgoers say the Bible is “challenging” when read alone.

In recent years, a  number of pastors have stressed the importance of discipleship within churches amid a nationwide decline in biblical literacy.

“You and I are so overstimulated, you and I are so overwhelmed with fast-paced, energized entertainment that we have developed a real idealized sense of life with a real low pain tolerance,” megachurch Pastor Matt Chandler said in a sermon last year. “The Church herself no longer is about discipleship, no longer is about being shaped, no longer is it about being formed. It’s about being entertained in the gathering.”

Chandler noted that in Acts, Paul warns the Ephesians, “After I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.”

“How do you fight that? You walk with one another in community, you encourage one another in your giftedness, and you embrace that you’ve been called a minister of reconciliation and an ambassador of Christ for the building up of the body,” he said.

Pastor H.B. Charles Jr. told The Christian Post that every aspect of corporate worship should be a means of “making disciples of Jesus Christ,” from the preaching of the Word to singing. 

“Faithful shepherds are needed to oversee the worship life of the Church to keep the Church focused on the Word of God,” he said. “Every element of a worship service must be geared around the Word of God so that we sing the Scriptures, read the Scriptures, pray the Scriptures, preach the Scriptures and enact the Scriptures in prayer and the ministry of the word.”

“We need to build safeguards around the Church so that the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ are central,” Charles added.

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