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Most Americans doubt the resurrection of the body

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: April 05, 2006

Most Americans don't believe they will experience a resurrection of their bodies when they die, putting them at odds with a core teaching of Christianity.

The findings of a new Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll surprised and dismayed some of the nation's top theologians since it seems to put Americans in conflict with both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed, ancient statements of faith meant to unify Christian belief.

The Nicene Creed, adopted in 325 at the First Council of Nicea under Roman Emperor Constantine, concludes with the famous words: "We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen."

Similarly, the Apostles' Creed professes a belief in "the resurrection of the body."

Only 36 percent of the 1,007 adults interviewed a month ago by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University said "yes" to the question: "Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?" Fifty-four percent said they do not believe and 10 percent were undecided.

"This reflects the very low state of doctrinal preaching in our churches," said Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.

"I continually am confronted by Christians, even active members of major churches, who have never heard this taught in their local congregations," Mohler said. "We have a lowest-common-denominator Christianity being taught in so many denominations that has produced a people who simply do not know some of the most basic Christian truths."

The survey also surprised a prominent revisionist theologian who discounts a literal belief in a physical resurrection of Jesus.

"I don't know what to make of this," said retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, author of "Resurrection: Myth or Reality" and other books that downplay supernatural events in the Bible. "Maybe the old Greek idea of an immortal soul has taken over and the idea of a resurrected body has fallen into disrepute."

Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, said the poll seems to have broken new ground in understanding America's popular theology.

"This is definitely interesting. I haven't seen a similar question asked before," Wuthnow said. "In a way, though, it doesn't surprise me. I can think of interpretations of the creeds that would suggest a spiritual resurrection rather than one of the physical body."

The poll found that most Americans embrace other major elements of traditional Christian dogma. Ninety percent said they believe in a God or a Supreme Being, with 65 percent saying they are "absolutely certain" that God exists. Seventy-two percent said they believe in an afterlife in which they will have "some sort of consciousness," although slightly less than half (47 percent) said they are "absolutely certain" of this.

Previous Scripps Howard polls have found evidence that Americans embrace other key elements of the creeds. A survey in 2003 found that 63 percent were "absolutely certain" Jesus died and physically rose from the dead. That poll also found 60 percent "absolutely believe" that Jesus was born of a virgin mother.

"Most Americans, when asked survey questions about religion, tend to answer in very theistic ways. They tend to affirm what they believe Christianity teaches," Mohler said. "Therefore, I have to conclude they simply do not know what orthodox Christianity teaches about the resurrection of the body."

The poll found that half of all people who have attended church recently said they believe they will experience a physical resurrection someday, while only a quarter of those who have not publicly worshipped recently said the same.

Fifty-nine percent of people who profess a "born again" faith, one of the hallmarks of evangelical Protestantism, said they believe in personal resurrection, the highest level of belief among any group in the poll.

The survey was conducted by telephone from Feb. 19 to March 3 among 1,007 adult residents of the United States. The study was sponsored by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.