Many Americans still wonder about nature of Jesus

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: December 18, 2003

Who was Jesus?

Americans, for the most part, believe in the historical reality of the itinerate Jewish rabbi who nearly 2,000 years ago proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God to his friends and neighbors in Judean towns along the Sea of Galilee.

A survey of 1,054 adult residents of the United States conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that 75 percent "absolutely believe" that Jesus was a real person. Sixteen percent said they "mostly believe" in his historical reality, 5 percent "do not believe" and 4 percent were uncertain.

But what Americans accept about Jesus is much more complex.

Nearly one out of five people don't believe that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary, one of the central points in the traditional story but the most disputed idea in the survey.

Sixty percent said they "absolutely believe" Jesus was born to a virgin, 16 percent mostly believe and 5 percent are uncertain.

Americans have slightly more confidence that Jesus "died and physically rose from the dead," with 63 percent saying they "absolutely believe" this central theme of the Easter story. But, surprisingly, adults in the poll were more likely to conclude that "Jesus was the son of God" and that "Jesus was divine" _ for which absolute belief was at 69 percent and 67 percent, respectively _ than to believe the biblical accounts of his birth and death.

The survey results prompted deep disagreement among prominent U.S. theologians.

"This shows a glaring inconsistency in the American mind to hold that Jesus was divine but that he did not rise from the dead or was born of a virgin," said the Rev. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"Americans are growing increasingly comfortable with a cafeteria-line-style spirituality in which they pick and choose whatever doctrines seem pleasing and leave those that seem distasteful," Mohler said. "The denial of the virgin birth eventually comes as a part of a wholesale denial of orthodox Christianity itself."

Marcus Borg _ distinguished professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and author of the best-seller, "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time" _ said the poll shows that many Americans are re-evaluating past, literal interpretations of Jesus. Borg, an Episcopalian, believes Jesus is the revelation and incarnation of God, but does not believe in the virgin birth or physical resurrection.

"There are a growing number of Christians who understand the story of Jesus' birth and resurrection as metaphoric and symbolic," said Borg. "There are millions of Christians and former Christians who simply can't be biblical literalists or absolutists. They want to take the Bible seriously, but not literally."

The study found that belief in the virgin birth varied considerably among different groups. Men were significantly less likely to believe this than were women, and residents of Southern and Midwestern states embraced the doctrine of virgin birth at a higher rate than residents of the Northeast or West.

Despite the Roman Catholic Church's historical emphasis on the theological importance of Mary, Catholics in the poll were somewhat less likely than Protestants to believe in the virgin birth. Theologians attributed this to the doctrine in many Protestant churches that the Bible must be accepted as literal truth.

Adults with children were much more likely to believe in the virgin birth than were adults who have never been parents. This reflects a well-documented trend in which adults resume churchgoing habits of their youth when raising their own children.

Although many Americans discount some of the claims about Jesus, both liberal and conservative theologians point to the overall finding in the poll that most Americans still believe in Christianity's core traditions: that Jesus was the physical incarnation of God and that he experienced bodily resurrection following his crucifixion. Fifty-one percent said they believed all five attributes of Jesus that were tested in the study.

"Putting all of this in context, even in this secular age, a great percentage of Americans get it right when they reveal their most fundamental understanding of who Jesus is," Mohler said.

But liberal and conservative theologians also noted that a significant number do not strictly adhere to the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith first adopted by Christian bishops in 325 A.D. Most Americans have recited that famous creed beginning with: "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. ..."

Few theologians dispute that Jesus himself believed that he was "the son of God" and told his followers that he had a divine revelation of this following his baptism by John in the Jordan River. But it took nearly three centuries for the church to conclude that Jesus was "God from God ... of one being with the father" _ the words of the Nicene Creed.

The survey found significant differences between a belief that "Jesus was the son of God" and that "Jesus was divine." More than 110 people in the poll reacted to the two statements differently, with many accepting that Jesus was God's son but less certain of his divinity.

"That's very interesting because it was once an enormous issue, the most divisive struggle in the church's early history," said Richard Rubenstein, professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University and author of "When Jesus Became God," about the tempestuous Council of Nicaea.

"I've given a lot of talks among church groups and I'm surprised by how many Christians have questions about this," said Rubenstein, who is Jewish. "People come up to me to say that they are still trying to figure it (the nature of Jesus) out. The mystery of the Trinity is not universally accepted today, which surprises me."

The survey was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from Oct. 20 through Nov. 4 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

The overall poll has a 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey.