More than half of Americans say religious beliefs are a matter of personal opinion, not objective facts. And this is made clear by examining the varying, and sometimes contradictory, theological doctrines they hold.
The biennial Nashville-based LifeWay Research State of Theology Study explores the religious and cultural beliefs of American adults.
For 54% of Americans, theological beliefs are not a matter of objective truth, but rather belong to the category of subjective personal opinions.
“Many Americans treat theology like a book of self-made adventure,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. âIt is clear from some beliefs that some people think that the truth is something that people are free to define for themselves, and in doing so, they hold seemingly incompatible beliefs. “
Confusion of the Trinity
A clear majority of Americans (72%) say they believe in the classic Christian doctrine of the Trinity – one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet most also believe that Jesus was just a great human teacher and that the Holy Spirit is a strength.
âChristianity historically began with an understanding of God as the creator and source of reality itself,â McConnell said. “While many Americans commonly repeat a definition of this one Triune God, a closer examination of their beliefs reveals that a majority do not believe in every Person of the Trinity as described in the Bible.”
Most Americans have no problem asserting divine perfection, as 65% say God is a perfect being and cannot be wrong.
Half of Americans (52%) agree that Jesus was a great teacher, but not God. Just over half (55%) believe that Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God, which goes against the historic Christian belief that Jesus is eternal as God the Son.
While many reject his divinity, most Americans say that Jesus physically rose from the dead. Two-thirds (66%) believe the biblical accounts of Jesus’ bodily resurrection to be quite accurate.
Three in five Americans (59%) agree that the Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being. For 1 in 5 (19%), the Holy Spirit can tell them to do something that is prohibited in the Bible.
Two-thirds of the United States (64%) say God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Few Americans think that learning theology is reserved for pastors and scholars (15%).
Sin and salvation
When it comes to sin, most Americans say a little doesn’t hurt, but a growing number believe even the smallest sins warrant eternal punishment, according to the 2020 State of Theology study.
Two-thirds of Americans (65%) agree that everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature. Another 26% say that even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation, the highest percentage in the history of the study.
âThere has been a slow but steady increase in the proportion of Americans who believe that the deserving punishment for all sin is eternal damnation,â McConnell said. “While the number of believers in Hell has remained stable, those who believe that God does not give free passes for small sins has increased from 18% in 2014 to 26% today.”
A majority of Americans (56%) say hell is a real place where some people will be punished forever.
Over half (56%) believe that God views a person as righteous not because of that person’s good works but because of their faith in Christ.
Most Americans believe that they can only find salvation through Jesus. Three in five (60%) believe that only those who trust Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
A quarter of American adults believe salvation was determined a long time ago, as 26% agree that God chose who he would save before creating the world, a doctrine known as predestination.
Three in five (62%) believe there will come a time when Jesus Christ will return to judge all who have lived.
For some Americans, they think the rewards don’t have to wait. One-third of Americans (36%) believe that God will always reward true faith with material blessings in this life, a doctrine associated with what has been called the prosperity gospel.
Americans are divided over what the Bible is and how much authority it has over our lives.
The 2020 State of Theology study found that a third of American adults (34%) think modern science disproves the Bible.
Almost half (48%) believe the Bible is 100% accurate in everything it teaches. The same percentage (48%) say that the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains useful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true. This number rose from 41% in 2014.
About half (51%) say the Bible has the power to tell us what to do.
A quarter of American adults (25%) think God doesn’t care about their day-to-day decisions.
For half of Americans (51%), sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin. In contrast, 2 in 5 (40%) believe that the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior does not apply today.
Half (51%) say abortion is a sin. More than a third (38%) believe that gender identity is a matter of choice.
View of the benches
Most Americans (58%) agree that worship alone or with one’s family is a valid substitute for regular church attendance. These questions were asked of respondents in March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly blurred the lines between home worship and church attendance.
âThose who responded had no idea what COVID-19 would do to normal worship patterns in America. March 15 (64%) was the last week the majority of Protestant churches met in person until June 7 (55%), âsaid McConnell, citing LifeWay Research polls of Protestant pastors conducted at March and July.
“As the pandemic has suspended the ability to come together as a local church for worship, a large minority of Americans recognize that there is something more to this assembly than a family cannot accomplish by herself.”
For a third of American adults (36%), churches must provide entertaining worship services if they are to be effective.
Previous studies by LifeWay Research have found little support among Americans and Protestant pastors themselves to gain political approval from pastors and churches. For a quarter of Americans (24%) in the latest State of Theology study, that doesn’t go far enough. They believe Christians should be silent on matters of politics.
âAn individual’s theological beliefs have a great bearing. They impact views on God and the Bible, but also on morality, justice, authority and how to treat others, âsaid McConnell. “A previous LifeWay Research poll found 80% of Evangelicals say the Bible informs their political views. In this election year, however, Christians need to be aware that not only will there be people who disagree with their views, but one in four Americans will disapprove of a Christian talking about issues. policies. “
A demographically balanced online panel was used to interview American adults for the 2020 State of Theology study sponsored by Ligonier Ministries. A total of 3,002 surveys were completed from March 10 to 18. The sample provides 95% confidence that the online panel sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 2.0%. The margins of error are higher in the subgroups. Light weights were used to balance gender, age, ethnicity, income, region and religion.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Aaron Earlis is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.)