What do professing evangelicals in the United Kingdom actually believe about God, Jesus Christ, sin, and eternity? Ligonier Ministries’ — founded by the late R.C. Sproul to support local churches in gospel ministry — recent State of Theology survey for the UK uncovers some answers.
For the first time, Ligonier has taken the theological temperature of the UK, the purpose being to help Christians better understand today’s culture and to equip the church with another tool for discipleship. Some of their key findings and their reflections on those findings are given below (also, see TheStateOfTheology.co.uk):
Only 2-3% (up to about 2 million) of the UK population have ‘evangelical’ beliefs. This survey counts ‘evangelicals’ as those who strongly agree with the following four statements: ‘The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe’; ‘It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Saviour’; ‘Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin’; ‘Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Saviour receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation’. Yet the survey found key gaps in professed evangelicals’ theological understanding.
The Holy Spirit
More than two-thirds of UK evangelicals believe regeneration by the Holy Spirit occurs before a person has faith, as the Bible teaches (John 3:3). Yet many do not understand who the Holy Spirit actually is, denying that he is a personal being (compare John 16:13-14; Revelation 22:17). It is clear that Christians need more teaching on Trinitarian theology.
‘The Holy Spirit gives a spiritual new birth or new life before a person has faith in Jesus Christ’: 68% agree, 27% disagree.
‘The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being’: 55% agree, 40% disagree.
There is also confusion in the UK over the person of Jesus Christ. Three-quarters of evangelicals agree that Jesus was created by God, even though this is a core belief of Arianism, one of the earliest heresies.
‘Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God’: 74% agree, 24% disagree.
These results show the pressing need for Christians to be taught Christology, a doctrine for which the early church fought so hard. Resources like the Ligonier Statement on Christology (ChristologyStatement.com) have been carefully formulated to restate historic, orthodox, biblical Christology. At the same time, almost all evangelicals say they agree with the doctrine of the Trinity.
‘There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit’: 93% agree, 7% disagree.
UK evangelicals affirm strong support for the Bible. But in one answer, more than a quarter say the Bible is not literally true.
‘The Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true’: 28% agree, 71% disagree.
Similarly, a third of UK evangelicals say that religious beliefs are not concerned with objective truth.
‘Religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth’: 36% agree, 59% disagree.
Evangelicals in the UK are divided on the right approach to church worship, with slightly more than half rejecting an entertainment culture in services.
‘Churches must provide entertaining worship services if they want to be effective’: 42% agree, 52% disagree.
A higher percentage of evangelicals say that worshipping at home should not replace worshipping with a church congregation.
‘Worshipping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church’: 37% agree, 59% disagree.
The prevailing secularism in the UK has opened a deep divide between the beliefs of the general population and the beliefs of evangelicals. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to ethics.
85% of evangelicals agree that abortion is a sin; 67% of UK adults say that abortion is not a sin.
87% of evangelicals agree that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin; 74% of UK adults say that sex outside of traditional marriage is not a sin.
However, there is confusion among evangelicals on the issue of gender ideology. While 100% of evangelicals surveyed agree that God created male and female, 38% of them also agree with the statement that ‘gender identity is a matter of choice’.
‘Gender identity is a matter of choice’: 38% agree, 61% disagree.
‘I don’t know’
This first UK State of Theology survey finds widespread lack of knowledge and confusion about the Christian faith. A sizeable minority answered ‘I don’t know’ to many questions on theology. This survey presents the UK as a mission field in continued need of the gospel and clear biblical teaching. (Figures from now on relate to the UK population as a whole, not just evangelicals).
‘There is one true God in three persons — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit’: 30% agree, 38% disagree, 31% don’t know.
‘God is unconcerned with my day-to-day decisions’: 31% agree, 35% disagree, 34% don’t know.
‘Biblical accounts of the physical (bodily) resurrection of Jesus are completely accurate. This event actually occurred’: 21% agree, 46% disagree, 33% don’t know.
‘The Holy Spirit gives a spiritual new birth or new life before a person has faith in Jesus Christ’: 21% agree, 39% disagree, 39% don’t know.
‘God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ’: 19% agree, 45% disagree, 37% don’t know.
‘Only the power of God can cause people to trust Jesus Christ as their Saviour’: 20% agree, 44% disagree, 36% don’t know.
The uniqueness of Christ
More than half the British public reject the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and his redemptive work. This is likely because many do not believe the Bible to be literally true.
‘There will be a time when Jesus Christ returns to judge all the people who have lived’: 17% agree, 51% disagree, 31% don’t know.
‘Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin’: 16% agree, 53% disagree, 32% don’t know.
‘Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Saviour receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation’: 14% agree, 55% disagree, 32% don’t know.
Most people in the UK no longer accept the authority of the Bible. One aspect of witnessing in this nation will involve proclaiming and defending the Bible’s reliability and truthfulness. Christians would do well to study these matters, so as to engage the culture effectively.
‘The Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches’: 12% agree, 64% disagree, 23% don’t know.
‘The Bible has the authority to tell us what we must do’: 16% agree, 64% disagree, 20% don’t know.
On a more encouraging note, less than half the UK population say that modern science
disproves the Bible. This is unexpected, given that Charles Darwin popularised the theory of evolution in Victorian-era England, and even today the UK remains the home of scientists who promote the ‘new atheism’. Perhaps this trend represents a moving away from rationalism in the UK.
‘Modern science disproves the Bible’: 46% agree, 24% disagree, 30% don’t know.
There were also indications that the British public values freedom of speech, with very few people wanting Christians to keep quiet in the public square. Though many people in the UK don’t know much about many Christian ideas, they seem open to the marketplace of ideas. This is encouraging because it shows that Christians still have the opportunity to speak truth publicly.
‘Christians should be silent on issues of politics’: 18% agree, 57% disagree, 24% don’t know.
The wages of sin
If people are unfamiliar with the Bible, it is not surprising that they are strangers to the holiness of God and the depth of sin. Interestingly, people in the UK still have some conception of what sin is, though perhaps the word sin doesn’t have the theological definition it once did. In any case, this presents an opportunity for Christians to discuss with non-Christians what sin actually is and how we can be forgiven.
‘Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature’: 60% agree, 23% disagree, 17% don’t know.
‘Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation’: 6% agree, 76% disagree, 19% don’t know.
If more Christians helped people understand the reality of sin, perhaps more opportunities would arise to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
Is it possible to discover the truth about ultimate questions of life and eternity? More than two-thirds of people in the UK appear to have decided ‘no’, relegating religious beliefs to the realm of speculation. Against this stands the declaration of Jesus to his followers, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32). The Bible reveals the true knowledge of God and the true knowledge of mankind.
‘Religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth’: 68% agree, 14% disagree, 18% don’t know.
The State of Theology survey finds some significant differences between the religious outlook in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. For example, a much higher percentage of the population of Northern Ireland accept the truth of Jesus’ bodily resurrection and the return of Christ to judge the world.
‘Biblical accounts of the physical (bodily) resurrection of Jesus are completely accurate. This event actually occurred’: Northern Ireland 43% agree, 31% disagree; England 21% agree, 46% disagree.
‘There will be a time when Jesus Christ returns to judge all the people who have lived’: Northern Ireland 41% agree, 32% disagree; England 17% agree, 51% disagree.
However, Northern Irish adults are just as dismissive of the statement, ‘Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation’, as people in the rest of the UK.
‘Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation’: Northern Ireland 12% agree, 78% disagree; England 5% agree, 76% disagree.
Modern-day Britain needs the gospel. This gospel was taught by the Reformers and embraced in awakenings stretching into the twentieth century, but now its message appears to have been largely forgotten. Please join us in praying that God would strengthen his church in the UK and raise up more gospel preachers to bring the truth of the Bible to the lost.
Ligonier Ministries is an international Christian discipleship organisation founded by theologian Dr R. C. Sproul in 1971 to equip Christians to articulate what they believe, why they believe it, how to live it, and how to share it. Proclaiming God’s holiness is central to Ligonier’s purpose..