Even many churchgoing Christians are confused about Jesus’s existence before Bethlehem. What can we do to help them?
By Aaron Earls
According to most Americans, Jesus was born in a manger 2,000 years ago and He is the Son of God the Father. They just aren’t quite sure He was around before that first Christmas. Even many churchgoing evangelicals are confused about Jesus’s existence before Bethlehem.
Lifeway Research found 9 in 10 Americans celebrate Christmas. And 72% believe the Jesus Christians believe in was born in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. Additionally, 80% say Jesus Christ is the Son of God the Father. Yet, just 41% of Americans believe the Son of God existed before Jesus was born in Bethlehem.80% say Jesus Christ is the Son of God the Father, but just 41% of Americans believe the Son of God existed before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Click To Tweet
To make matters even more theologically muddled, 71% of Americans say there is one God in three Persons. But 55% believe Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God, according to the State of Theology study.
This is not the first time Christmas has been connected with theological confusion. In fact, according to legend, Saint Nicholas, a historical precursor for Santa Claus, slapped Arius during the First Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 for arguing that Jesus was not equal to God the Father.
Throughout history, the church has recognized Jesus as God the Son is coeternal with God the Father. He did not come into existence in Bethlehem, nor did the Father create Him at some previous point in history. As Jesus is one Person in the Trinity, He has always existed.
John 1:1 tells us Jesus, as the Word of God, was with God “in the beginning” at Genesis 1 “and the Word was God.” Colossians 1:16-17 says that everything was created by Jesus and “all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and by him all things hold together” (CSB). Evoking and claiming for Himself the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3, Jesus told a doubting crowd in John 8:58, “Truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (CSB).
So how can we help people better understand who Jesus is and how He existed before the manger? Frequently, church attendance helps clear up many theological confusions. In most questions on the State of Theology survey, the more often someone attended church, the more likely they were to have a better understanding of doctrine. But that gets more complicated with Jesus’s pre-incarnate existence.
When church attendance helps
Christians who attend a worship service regularly are more than twice as likely as self-identified Christians who attend less than once a month to say they can accurately tell the full Christmas story from the Bible.
The increased knowledge and exposure to the biblical narrative probably contribute to Christians who attend worship services weekly being the most likely to believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago (95%), that Jesus is the Son of God (98%), and the Son of God existed before Jesus was born in Bethlehem (63%).
But still, there’s a significant drop when churchgoing Christians specifically consider Jesus’s existence before the angels appeared to the shepherds. That confusion grows when they’re forced to think about Jesus being created or not. At that point, being a churchgoer doesn’t help. It actually makes them more likely to be confused.
When church attendance hurts
Christians are more likely than others to believe Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God, according to the State of Theology. Non-Christians may disagree with the “first and greatest” aspect of the statement. But historic, orthodox Christian theology disagrees with the “created” part. Despite that, many Christians, including churchgoers, don’t see anything wrong with the statement.
Among evangelicals by belief, 97% believe God exists as a Trinity in three Persons, yet 73% say Jesus is a created being. Specifically, Americans who attend religious services at least once or twice a month are more likely than those who attend less frequently to say Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God (69% v. 44%).Americans who attend religious services at least monthly are more likely than those who attend less frequently to say Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God (69% v. 44%). Click To Tweet
Identifying as a Christian, holding traditional evangelical beliefs, and regularly attending church make someone more likely than the average person to believe Jesus was created by God as the first and greatest being. That should bother pastors and church leaders everywhere as they plan their Christmas sermons and events.
Clearing up the confusion
Other questions in the State of Theology report make it clear most Christians aren’t actively trying to hold heretical beliefs. When asked directly about Jesus being a great teacher but not God, evangelicals and churchgoers are more likely than others to disagree. Still, half of those who attend church at least monthly say Jesus was a great teacher but not God.
As church leaders think through the activities during December and beyond, consider incorporating passages like John 1 and Colossians 1 to help people understand who Jesus was before Bethlehem. Don’t assume people understand or accept difficult concepts like the Trinity or eternal existence.
But also, don’t assume they’re heretics. Most likely, many people in your pews are simply confused about how it all works. They just need some help in fitting it together. As we reflect on the incarnation, what a great time to help fully flesh out the good news of Christmas to those at your church.
For permission to republish this article, contact Marissa Postell Sullivan.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.