By Carol Pipes
LifeWay Christian Resources
NASHVILLE — Six in 10 Americans say religious belief is a matter of personal opinion. For 7 in 10 Americans, such religious beliefs include one true God existing in three persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But an increasing majority of Americans deny Jesus has always existed and many say the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a personal being.
Those are among the findings of a new study of American views on Christian theology from Nashville-based LifeWay Research.
“When the majority of Americans believe religious belief is more personal opinion than objective truth, then we expect to see contradictory beliefs as well as beliefs that change over time,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.
The survey of 3,000 Americans was sponsored by Orlando-based Ligonier Ministries. Titled the “2018 State of Theology Study,” it is the third in a series of surveys examining Americans’ theological beliefs. Previous surveys were conducted in 2016 and 2014.
Survey questions focused on key doctrinal beliefs and included a number of areas where Americans often differ from historic and orthodox Christian views. Among the findings:
Character of God
A majority of Americans (70 percent) believe there is one true God in three persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Eighteen percent disagree while 12 percent are not sure. This has remained consistent since researchers began asking the question in 2014.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans say God is perfect and cannot make a mistake, which is higher than both the 2016 (65 percent) and 2014 (63 percent) surveys.
Fifty-seven percent of Americans say Jesus is the only person who never sinned; 29 percent disagree; and 15 percent are not sure.
Nearly 6 in 10 (59 percent) say the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a personal being. Twenty-five percent disagree; 16 percent are not sure.
Researchers found Americans are split on their views of the Bible. More Americans believe the Bible is completely accurate but a growing number say the Bible is not literally true.
In 2018, half of Americans say the Bible is 100 percent accurate in all that it teaches. up from 47 percent in 2016 and 43 percent in 2014.
Researchers also found 36 percent of Americans say modern science disproves the Bible while 48 percent disagree.
“The last writing included in the Christian Bible was completed nearly 2,000 years ago,” McConnell said. “Yet Americans’ beliefs around this book are shifting more than most other theological beliefs.”
Sin and punishment
More than 6 in 10 Americans (62 percent) expect Jesus to return and judge all people. However, fewer expect people to be punished in a place called hell. While 54 percent of Americans agree hell is a real place where certain people will be punished forever, 30 percent disagree.
According to the study, a majority of Americans (66 percent) admit everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature. Twenty-seven percent disagree and 7 percent aren’t sure.
Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of Americans say even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation. Sixty-nine percent disagree and 8 percent aren’t sure.
A majority of Americans believe Jesus is the only way to eternal salvation. Six in 10 (62 percent) agree Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of sin from their lives. Thirty-eight percent disagree.
Fifty-seven percent of Americans say only those who trust in Jesus alone as Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation. Forty-three percent disagree.
And slightly more than half (53 percent) believe righteousness comes only through faith in Jesus Christ not because of one’s actions. A third disagree while 14 percent aren’t sure.
The share of Americans who believe the Bible has authority to govern our actions grew to a slim majority in 2018.
Fifty-three percent agree “the Bible has the authority to tell us what we must do.” This is higher than both the 2016 and 2014 surveys with 50 percent and 49 percent agreeing, respectively.
Americans are fairly split on whether sex outside traditional marriage is a sin. Half (51 percent) say they believe sex outside traditional marriage is a sin including 33 percent who strongly agree. Forty-one percent disagree including 27 percent who strongly disagree.
Slightly more than half (52 percent) of Americans say abortion is a sin. Thirty-eight percent disagree while 10 percent are not sure.
Americans’ views of homosexuality continue to shift from historically orthodox Christian views.
Forty-four percent believe the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today. Forty-one percent disagree and 15 percent are not sure. In 2016, 42 percent agreed, while 44 percent disagreed and 14 percent weren’t sure.
LifeWay Research asked Americans about gender identity. The study found 38 percent believe it is a matter of choice while 51 percent say it is not a choice and 11 percent are not sure.