By Aaron Earls
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Christmas is a celebration of a real event, according to most Americans. Just don’t expect them to know exactly why Jesus was born and came to earth.
A new study from Lifeway Research finds close to 3 in 4 Americans believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. Even more say Jesus is the Son of God the Father, but less than half believe Jesus existed prior to being born on that first Christmas.
“Most Americans consider Jesus’ birth a historical fact,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “It can be easy to only evaluate Jesus like you would any other historical figure—thinking about when he lived and what he did. However, the Bible also describes Jesus in a way that one must evaluate who you believe he was. Most Americans believe his origin was from God the Father, but half as many believe he existed before his birth.”
More than 9 in 10 Americans (91%) celebrate Christmas, according to a previous Lifeway Research study released this year. For most of those celebrating, Christmas is about a historical occurrence. More than 7 in 10 (72%) say the Jesus Christians believe in was born in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago, including 49% who strongly agree. Few (9%) disagree, while 18% aren’t sure.
Most Americans (80%) agree Jesus Christ is the Son of God the Father, while 10% disagree and 10% aren’t sure.
The average person isn’t quite as sure about the Son of God’s existence prior to Jesus’ birth. Around 2 in 5 (41%) say God’s Son existed before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Close to 1 in 3 Americans (32%) disagree, and 28% say they’re not sure.
“The 2020 State of Theology Study showed that 72% of Americans believe there is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit,” McConnell said. “Prophecies such as those in Isaiah 9 reflect that the Messiah would be the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. While these titles reflect the Trinity, some Americans do not connect the Jesus born in Bethlehem with the Messiah who already existed as God now coming in the flesh.”
The religiously unaffiliated are least likely to agree with any of the statements surrounding Jesus’ birth and identity, but some still believe despite their stated disconnect from organized religion. Almost half (48%) believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God the Father. A third (33%) say Jesus was really born in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. Fewer (15%) believe the Son of God existed before Jesus was born.
Among Christians, those who attend church four times a month or more, are most likely to believe each of the statements about Jesus and his birth: 98% believe he is the Son of God the Father, 95% say he was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, and 63% agree the Son of God existed before Jesus was born.
Americans aren’t always sure what motivations Jesus ascribed to himself and his coming to earth. When given seven options—four correct and three incorrect—for reasons the Bible records Jesus as saying why he came, only one choice garnered a small majority.
Americans are more likely to choose a correct answer than the false ones. Half (51%) say the Bible records Jesus as saying he came to give his life for many, which Jesus does say in the Gospel of Mark: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, CSB).
Around 3 in 10 Americans (31%) rightly say Jesus came to give life in abundance (“I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance,” John 10:10, CSB) and testify to truth (“I was born for this, and I have come into the world for this: to testify to the truth,” John 18:37, CSB).
Far fewer (9%) believe the Bible records Jesus saying he came to bring division rather than peace, despite him making that claim in Luke 12:51. Altogether, only 3% of Americans recognized all four options in the list that match biblical quotes from Jesus.
Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans falsely identified other reasons for Jesus’ coming to earth: 9% believe Jesus said he came to be served (contradicted by Mark 10:45), 8% think he said he wanted to abolish the Old Testament law and prophets (contradicted by Matthew 5:17), and 8% say Jesus came to condemn sinners (contradicted by John 3:17).
“Despite widespread belief that Jesus really came to earth as a baby, there is far less familiarity with why Jesus said he came,” said McConnell. “However, the majority of Americans believe Jesus came to give his life for many, which is reflected in the angel’s words to Joseph in Matthew 1, ‘She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’”
Aaron Earls is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.
The online survey of 1,005 Americans was conducted Sept. 3-14, 2021, using a national pre-recruited panel. Quotas and slight weights were used to balance gender, age, region, ethnicity, education and religion to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,005 surveys. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error from the panel does not exceed plus or minus 3.3%. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Evangelical beliefs are defined using the NAE Lifeway Research Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition based on respondent beliefs. Respondents are asked their level of agreement with four separate statements using a four-point, forced choice scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree). Those who strongly agree with all four statements are categorized as having evangelical beliefs.
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
About Lifeway Research
Lifeway Research is a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect churches.
About Lifeway Christian Resources
In operation since 1891, Lifeway Christian Resources is one of the leading providers of Christian resources, including Bibles, books, Bible studies, Christian music and movies, VBS, and church supplies, as well as camps and events for all ages. Lifeway is the world’s largest provider of Spanish Bibles. Headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, Lifeway receives no denominational funding and operates as a self-supporting nonprofit.