2008 Pew Survey & Universalism


Hat-tip to s8int.com, whom I love to read, even if I don’t always agree with every little thing he reports. (Notably, he makes a point of mentioning sometimes that he simply reports items of interest he finds; his reporting doesn’t mean he necessarily sanctions the item in question.)

In this case, he’s posting up David Yount’s article (for the Scripps Howard News Service – Religion desk) on this year’s polling results from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (According to the article, Yount combines these results with that of another major poll, but the article isn’t clear how.)

The item of interest for orthodox universalism and ecclesiology (or potential ecclesiology anyway), is this:

“Only 29 percent of Americans believe that anyone is excluded from heaven. Three-fourths of Americans also believe in hell”.

This is what we may call an interesting statistical spread. :sunglasses: It implies that around 53% of Americans believe in hell (i.e. that God punishes the unjust in some way) yet also don’t believe that (or don’t know whether) anyone is excluded from heaven (which delimits the kind of punishment.)

Or anyway, that’s how it seems. Anyone better at stats than I am, care to have a crack at this?


Hi Jason,

I think surveys like the Pew Forum are particularly interesting because they show little most people in most churches actually know. How many Presbyterians know what TULIP stands for? How many Anglicans have heard of Hooker and Jewel? How many Lutherans have read anything by Martin Luther? How many Catholics really know what transubstantiation is? It doesn’t surprise me that people’s surveryed opinions and views are so different from the official teachings of their churches.

The kind of Universalism we can extrapolate from these surveys (I would guess) is very different from the kind of universalism found on this forum. The universalists on this forum have generally read lots of books about Christian theology, biblical studies and particularly universalism. Many of us/them are pastors or theology graduates, others are just very interested amateurs. I’m trying to draw a distinction between the intellectual universalism on this forum and the fuzzy/slushy universalism which I encounter when speaking to some members of my own congreation.

Perhaps that’s unfair - it might be better to say that my universalist leaning friends have a more experienced view. They have experienced God in thier lives as Love and they cannot imagine his love to be limited to some. It’s more of an intuition than a tightly argued systematic theology.

As a praying atheist (some days) I’m not surprised to see that there are more of us. A godless world is dark and God is Hope. :slight_smile:


That, too. :wink: (Notably, in my other stat report, the polled people were graduating seminary–and I did make a note that the result might only reflect poor seminary education in some regards.)

Still, I like to think in terms of potential: a significant number of people, in effect, answered something other than “yes” to the question of whether anyone was ever excluded from heaven, while also answering “yes” to a belief in some kind of hell. Even if they themselves haven’t made the connection yet, the possibility is there… :bulb: :bulb: :bulb: :smiley:

What would be even more interesting would be to see how the poll numbers break out on those two topics across more particular categories, both denominationally and otherwise.


Doesn’t sociology of religion just give you a warm, fuzzy feeling on the inside? :slight_smile:

I’m glad of the trend though, I can imagine a similar survey taking place in 16th century Europe with far less positive results :slight_smile:


This reminds me of an episode of the West Wing (forgive me - I’m a fan). Josh and Will are talking about the results of a poll on foreign aid in the budget…

JOSH: …No one who’s ever said they wanted bipartisanship has ever meant it. But the people are speaking. Because 68% think we give too much in foreign aid, and 59% think it should be cut.
WILL: You like that stat?
JOSH: I do.
WILL: Why?
JOSH: Because 9% think it’s too high, and shouldn’t be cut! 9% of respondents could not fully get their arms around the question. There should be another box you can check for, “I have utterly no idea what you’re talking about. Please, God, don’t ask for my input.”


Seriously though, it makes you realise the gulf that sometimes exists between popular Christian spirituality and Christian theology, with varying degrees of impact. That’s not to sound patronising and academic-elitist. I’m reading Tom Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” at the moment and one think it’s highlighted for me is how far we’ve come when simple orthodox theological tenets (like the resurrection and new creation) are seen as radical thoughts in mainstream evangelicalism. I’m sure I’m viewed by some in my church as an annoyance for correcting people when they talk about “souls going to heaven when they die”, as if my petty theological ideas keep getting in the way of their otherwise satisfactory spirituality. Ho hum.


:laughing: :laughing: :laughing: :laughing:

I want a box like that on my presidential ballot, too.

I know what you mean. I was listening to my mother yesterday, talking with one of her friends, basically denying the physicality of the resurrection-to-come and that there would be a new, redeemed cosmos (though she wasn’t putting it in so many words). As far as she’s concerned, there’s no need for such a thing, therefore there won’t be such a thing; we’ll all exist in incorporeal ‘spiritual’ form, praising God so focusedly that we not only won’t be aware of other people but wouldn’t recognize them if we were were aware of them–which of course means there’s no purpose to recognizing them at all, therefore all people will be functionally unrecognizable from each other (except to God, I suppose).

Anything in the scriptures (not to say coherent metaphysical reasoning) that might suggest otherwise, is simply irrelevant to her.

I should add that, from my conversations with her, she developed this belief in large degree as insulation from the pain and sorrow of believing that people she loves are lost forever. (Technical heresy strikes again from non-universalism…) But I should also add that it also derives strongly from how much she believes we ought to love God, thus from a real love for God now.


…and of course we can start to anticipate that ‘heavenly future’ today through the way we ‘do church’!

I’ve heard this argument advanced to tackle problems with annihilationism. I don’t buy it. The God I know causes me to care more about others when I worship him, not less…

At times like this I’m comforted to know that people are generally better than their theology.


While doing some research today on another topic, I ran into another facet of what appears to be the same Pew Survey and how it relates to one kind of “universalism”.

The article is at this Lifeway page here.

The topic is different from the previous article that I mentioned at the top of this thread, but obviously still related in a way. (Also of personal interest to me is that Ed Stetzer is quoted several times remarking on the survey. I find this amusing because I myself wrote up an analysis of some stats he came up with as part of a LifeWay project a few years ago, where he totally failed to recognize that the results pointed toward a near majority of Baptist seminary graduates both denying that they accept Calvinism while affirming they accept a key doctrinal tenet Calvs insist upon versus Arminians. Sooooo… what’s left? :unamused: :laughing: :smiley: )

I wish to point out that in this article (and in the survey questions that the article discusses), the emphasis is constantly on whether we receive eternal life through only one religion or perhaps through other religions. And yet the people involved in analyzing the responses never point out that this is flagrantly gnostic. (Being too busy worrying about whether the results point toward a significant amount of “universalism” among evangelicals or not.)

Sigh… Oh well, back to my other project I’m trying to finish up this weekend… :wink:


It seems to me that this poll question is aimed at detecting unitarianism, not christian universalism. The question is whether eternal life can be obtained through religions other than Christianity. I would disagree with this since Christ says that eternal life is to know God and the one whom he has sent. (obviously that’s to know Christ). :sunglasses:



More specifically, the poll question is aimed at detecting things like the so-called Unitarian Universalists, who aren’t even particularly unitarian (and who are nothing like our local unitarian universalists–except in sharing a profound rejection of ortho-trin. :wink: But the UUs would and do reject real unitarian Christianity, too, as being far too doctrinaire.)

It’s thanks to the UUs that religious pluralism (where more than one, or even all religions, can be equally true) is now commonly mistaken either for ‘unitarianism’ or ‘universalism’. (And, to be fair, the organization did develop out of congregations which once were both universalist and unitarian in their proper senses. We’re often condemned based on the association with a bad precedent.)

But I agree, the poll question isn’t really aiming at Christian universalism per se.


And then, there’s the old Mark Twain quote: “There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics.”