The Deity Question

The Deity Question July 9, 2012

Mike Nappa did a survey of 845 Christian teenagers, The Jesus Survey, and asked them the deity question — in particular, he asked if they thought Jesus was God.

I have some quibbles with his own theological explanation and one of the questions, but the numbers below may surprise some but shouldn’t surprise those who minister to and alongside teens. My quibble about his first question: “Jesus, in some mysterious way, is both the Son of God and God himself.” Well, OK, but what does “Son of God” mean here? Human? Messiah? or God? He seems to think the first, which is an odd use of Son of God, and the second is surely very Jewish, and the third a later trinitarian use of the term. The question is not a good one, but it may do the job since it seems to be asking if Jesus is human and God. My quibble with his own explanation: he seems to think what Jesus thinks of himself (Did Jesus think he was God?) is the same as what Scripture says (Does Scripture say he was God?). These are two different approaches, and the two are not the same. His harsh language about “toilet habits” here doesn’t help.

Do you think the deity question is important? How important? Why do you think teenage Christians waver on this one? Do you think the “Jesus” books and teachings and preaching of the last two decades have anything to do with the numbers below?

On to the survey: Do Christian teenagers think Jesus is God?

1. Again, the positive statement got a stronger affirmation of orthodoxy than the negative one. 56% strongly agreed (Son of God and God himself) and 31% somewhat agreed. 87% orthodox teenagers! But when approached from a negative — Jesus was not God — only 62% strongly or somewhat disagreed. The numbers move from 87 to 62%.

2. His synthetic conclusion: 34% believe Jesus is God; 25% say he might be or he might not be; 30% haven’t decided or don’t know; and 11% say No.

3. 66% of teenage Christians can’t commit to Jesus being God.

4. On “Jesus did not sin” probe: 54% strongly agree; 17% somewhat agree. On “Jesus wasn’t sinless” probe: 14% strongly agree and 25% somewhat agree, while only 49% strongly disagreed.

5. Nappa’s synthetic conclusion: 24% of Christian teenagers [added: strongly affirm] the deity of Christ while 75% are on a spectrum of doubting his deity.

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  • I find this interesting – not for what the findings says about teenagers beliefs, but in terms of what it might reveal culturally about youth culture and relativism. I wonder whether it is cultural that the teens were less willing to disagree and negatively critique another viewpoint and much more willing to affirm in the positive. Maybe American Christian teenagers are just too polite/nice to disagree so strongly with an alternative viewpoint?

  • Mark

    I’m wondering how today’s students bent toward tolerance is affecting their ability to speak about anything with certainty. Making declarative statements of belief means someone is “totally” wrong in what they believe. Their culture, and our social climate makes that very difficult to say.

  • Random thought. Having read your two posts of the day so far it popped into my head that these numbers really can’t be surprising if these same teens attend the churches that are described there.

    I have not read the book and don’t really know what denominations are represented nor how healthy the churches are that these teens attended. But that would impact the results. However, as someone who works with youth I do appreciate the need to deal with the tough questions in a forum that allows them to voice doubt/concern and help them work through their faith and beliefs.

  • This is kind of unfair. The “control” should have been asking the same question to adult church goers who self-identify as Christian and then comparing the two. I imagine the results would be just as *ahem* interesting!

  • Mike B,

    Our Sunday school discussed this topic just yesterday. The young need a lot of room for doubt while they integrate their beliefs into their thought patterns and lives. Heck, I know plenty of grownups who need the same thing!

  • DRT

    I find myself defining my belief as “Jesus is what god looks like in a human form”. All of the other definitions seem to have other implications that I feel distract from the point.

  • Cal

    Even the statement of Jesus’ divinity is ambiguous. Arius was even able to say this until pressed by what he meant and he would worm out Jesus is some sort of lesser god.

    Then there are some Teens think that this implies Jesus was essentially superman, didn’t get tired or hungry, just flew around saving Lois Lane, Mary Magdalene and the rest of the gang.

    Not that the Nicene or Chalcedonian creeds are flawless in description or depictions of our Triune Lord, but they’re certainly starting points.

  • Clint W

    Scot, you seem to be missing a word in point #5 above: “24% of Christian teenagers the deity of Christ.”

  • Kristin

    What this tells me is that many teenagers unsurprisingly have a hard time thinking critically about theology with the ability to understand hard questions from multiple angles. Part of this is just how their brains work. Part of it is that they simply have not had the chance to really ponder theological questions. The other part is that kids are trained at a young age to simply regurgitate the right answer, whether in church, school, or home – a habit that doesn’t translate very well into adulthood.

  • These findings are consistent with my experience over the past few years teaching introductory level Christian theology courses to undergraduates. I see in my classes 1) a palpable unwillingness to say anything too definitive or dogmatic, 2) a general misunderstanding of orthodox christology (and forget about Trinitarianism), and 3) an overall inability to think critically about these kinds of questions from a variety of perspectives.

    That said, I agree with Scott F. that we need a comparison of this data with that of adult Christians. I fear they will display similar problems.