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 varied and sometimes conflicting 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 do not fall under objective truth, but rather belong to the category of subjective personal opinions.
“Many Americans treat theology as a book of adventures to choose for yourself,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “It is clear from certain beliefs that some people believe that truth is something 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 power.
“Christianity historically began with an understanding of God as the Creator and Source of reality itself,” McConnell said. “While many Americans repeat with agreement a definition of this one Triune God, a closer examination of their beliefs reveals that a majority do not believe in each Person of the Trinity as described in the Bible.”
Most Americans have no problem affirming 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%) think the biblical accounts of Jesus’ bodily resurrection are completely accurate.
Three in five Americans (59%) agree that the Holy Spirit is a force but not a personal being. For 1 in 5 (19%), the Holy Spirit can tell them to do something that is forbidden in the Bible.
Two-thirds of Americans (64%) say God accepts worship from all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Few Americans believe that learning theology is reserved for pastors and academics (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. Still 26% say even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation, the highest percentage in the history of the study.
“There has been a slow but steady increase in the proportion of Americans believing that the deserved punishment for all sin is eternal damnation,” McConnell said. “While the number of believers in Hell has remained stable, those who believe that God gives no free pass for small sins have fallen 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.
More than half (56%) believe that God considers a person 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 in Jesus. Three in five (60%) believe that only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
A quarter of American adults believe salvation was determined long ago, as 26% agree that God chose the people he would save before creating the world, a doctrine known as predestination.
Three in five (62%) believe there will be a time when Jesus Christ will return to judge all people who have ever lived.
For some Americans, they believe the rewards don’t have to wait. A 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 on what the Bible is and what authority it has over our lives.
The 2020 State of Theology study found that one-third of American adults (34%) believe modern science disproves the Bible.
Almost half (48%) think the Bible is 100% accurate in everything it teaches. The same percentage (48%) say the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful retellings of ancient myths but is not literally true. This number rose from 41% in 2014.
About half (51%) say the Bible has authority to tell us what to do.
A quarter of American adults (25%) believe that 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 biblical condemnation of homosexual behavior does not apply today.
Half (51%) say abortion is a sin. More than a third (38%) believe gender identity is a matter of choice.
View of the benches
Most Americans (58%) agree that worshiping alone or with family is a valid replacement for regular church attendance. Respondents were asked these questions in March at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has significantly blurred the lines between worshiping at home and attending church.
“Those 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%),” McConnell said, citing LifeWay Research surveys of Protestant pastors conducted in March and July.
“While the pandemic has suspended the ability to come together as a local church for worship, a large minority of Americans recognize there is more to this congregation than one family can accomplish alone. .”
For a third of American adults (36%), churches must provide entertaining worship services if they are to be effective.
Previous LifeWay Research studies have found little support among Americans and protestant pastors themselves for the political endorsements of pastors and churches. For a quarter of Americans (24%) in the latest State of Theology survey, that doesn’t go far enough. They believe that Christians should be silent on political issues.
“An individual’s theological beliefs are far-reaching. They impact the view of God and the Bible, but also impact morality, justice, authority and how to treat others,” McConnell said. “A previous LifeWay Research survey found 80% of evangelicals say the Bible informs their political views. In this election year, however, Christians should be aware that not only will there be people who disagree with their views, but 1 in 4 Americans will disapprove at all of a Christian speaking out on 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 10-18. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error of the web panel does not exceed plus or minus 2.0%. Margins of error are higher in subgroups. Slight weightings were used to balance gender, age, ethnicity, income, region and religion.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Aaron Earlis is a staff writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.)