Despite more than nine out of 10 Americans agreeing Jesus was a historical figure, what they believe about Him diverges widely, according to a newly released survey from the Barna Research Group, a nonprofit organization that has been analyzing cultural trends related to religious belief since 1984.
The survey of more than 4,000 U.S. adults online and by phone suggests Americans are conflicted about the central figure of Christianity and have failed to successfully pass on their faith to succeeding generations.
That Jesus once walked the Earth as a man was accepted by 92 percent of respondents, with even 87 percent of Millennials (those born between 1984 and 2002) agreeing. This overwhelming belief in Jesus’ historicity is reflected in the success of popular movies and television shows such as “Son of God,” “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Bible” and “A.D.: The Bible Continues.”
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But when the divinity of Jesus is asserted, only 56 percent of Americans agreed. Among Elders – those born before 1946 – 62 percent said Jesus was God, but among Millennials, the number dropped to 48 percent. Those rejecting Jesus as God said He was a just another spiritual figure, comparable to Muhammad or Buddha.
With the question of divinity in play, it is perhaps no surprise a majority – 52 percent – of Americans said Jesus was a sinner like other people while living on Earth. The sinlessness of Jesus has always been a central tenet of Christian theology as His unique qualification to be an effective sacrifice for the sins of others.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “For He (God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews echoed the same point, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Once again, Millennials showed the greatest departure from orthodoxy with 56 percent saying Jesus sinned.
“There isn’t much argument about whether Jesus Christ actually was a historical person, but nearly everything else about His life generates enormous, and sometimes rancorous, debate,” said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and director of the national study.
Despite the influence of secularism in education, politics, entertainment and public morals in America, a majority – 62 percent – reported having made a past personal commitment to Jesus that remains important in their life. Among blacks, 80 percent claimed to have made a commitment, while only 60 percent of whites said so. Only 46 percent of Millennials said they had made such a commitment, compared to 59 percent of Gen-Xers, 65 percent of Boomers and 71 percent Elders.
“Much has been made about whether Millennials will get more serious about church and faith as they age, but the fact is younger Americans are not as connected as older generations are to Christ,” said Kinnaman. “Jesus is a friend of sinners, but many Millennials are ‘unfriending’ Him at a time when their lives are being shaped and their trajectories set toward the future.
“This study shows the extent of Christian commitment in the nation – more than 150 million Americans say they have professed faith in Christ,” said Kinnaman. “This impressive number begs the question of how well this commitment is expressed. As much of our previous research shows, Americans’ dedication to Jesus is, in most cases, a mile wide and an inch deep.”