By Kent E. Fillinger
In Bible college, I encountered this simple but powerful two-question outline to discuss the resurrection of Jesus: What proves the resurrection? And what does the resurrection prove?
I don’t have the space to unpack the answers to these questions, but I do want to explore what people believe about the resurrection of Jesus to help you consider the array of beliefs you might encounter in your church (and with your family) this Easter. I also want to examine current beliefs regarding the afterlife—heaven, hell, and reincarnation.
Views on the Resurrection
The 2020 Lifeway Research State of Theology study discovered that half of Americans (52 percent) agree Jesus was a great teacher, but not God. Slightly more than half (55 percent) believed Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God, which runs contrary to the historical Christian belief that Jesus is eternal as God the Son.
While many reject his deity, most Americans say Jesus physically rose from the dead. Two-thirds (66 percent) believe the biblical accounts of Jesus’ bodily resurrection are completely accurate. One-in-five U.S. adults (20 percent) don’t believe in the resurrection, while 14 percent are unsure of their belief on this matter.
These percentages have remained consistent for years. A 2005 Harris Poll found that 66 percent of Americans believed in the resurrection while 17 percent each either “did not believe” or were “not sure.”
Likewise, a 2013 Rasmussen Report national telephone survey found that 64 percent of American adults believed Jesus rose from the dead, while 19 percent rejected the resurrection and 17 percent were not sure.
The 2020 State of Theology report found that younger adults are less likely to believe in the resurrection, with 59 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds saying they don’t believe the biblical accounts of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
Worship attendance habits impacted people’s beliefs regarding the resurrection. The Lifeway study found that 29 percent of people “who do not attend religious services at least monthly” do not believe in the resurrection, while only 8 percent of people who do attend religious services express the same lack of belief.
Adults who attend church services at least once or twice a month are more likely to say they believe in the resurrection (89 percent). Even among those who don’t attend as frequently if at all, however, almost half (48 percent) agreed Jesus’ bodily resurrection happened just as the Bible describes it.
These statistics may change how we think about apologetics and evangelism. Rebecca McLaughlin, the author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, told Lifeway Research in 2021,
Traditionally, one big focus of apologetics has been arguments for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But the 66 percent of Americans who say they believe this don’t need those arguments. Instead, they need to understand what difference it makes that Jesus rose from the dead. We need to show them that it makes all the difference in the world, and that if Jesus is risen, He is also Lord.”
The Afterlife—Heaven, Hell, and Reincarnation
Jesus talked on multiple occasions about both heaven and hell, and he painted a picture of what each place entailed.
It might not surprise you that more Americans believe in heaven than in hell. Almost three-fourths of U.S. adults (73 percent) say they believe in heaven compared with only 62 percent who believe in hell. Evangelical Christians are the most likely of any religious group to believe in both heaven and hell (96 percent and 91 percent, respectively) according to a 2021 Pew Research study.
Twenty-six percent of agnostics and 3 percent of atheists said they believe in heaven, but only 14 percent of agnostics and 1 percent of atheists believe in hell.
Older adults are more likely than younger adults to believe in heaven and hell. For example, 81 percent of adults ages 50-64 believe in heaven compared with only 63 percent of those ages 18-29.
Sixty-one percent of U.S. adults believe in both heaven and hell, but just over a quarter of all adults (26 percent) said they do not believe in heaven or hell, including 7 percent who say they do believe in some kind of afterlife and 17 percent who do not believe in any afterlife at all.
Among the 7 percent of U.S. adults who say they do not believe in heaven or hell but believe in some kind of afterlife, 21 percent said they believe in an afterlife where one’s spirit, consciousness, or energy lives on after their physical body has passed away, or in a continued existence in an alternate dimension or reality.
An additional 17 percent who don’t believe in heaven or hell but do believe in some kind of afterlife expressed a belief in reincarnation or becoming enlightened after death. Overall, one-third (33 percent) of all U.S. adults believe in reincarnation—the idea that people will be reborn again and again in this world. Even 16 percent of Evangelical Christians said they believed in reincarnation.
The percentage of adults who believe in reincarnation has grown over time. In 1976, only 9 percent of adults said they believed in reincarnation. This percentage grew to 25 percent by 1998 and to 27 percent by 2003.
Just as with heaven and hell, women are more likely than men to believe in reincarnation (38 percent vs. 27 percent). Likewise, younger adults (ages 18-29) are more likely to believe in reincarnation than adults ages 65 and older (40 percent vs. 23 percent).
The top three beliefs American adults have about heaven are that deceased people are free from suffering (69 percent), are reunited with loved ones who died previously (65 percent), and can meet God (62 percent). Thirty-nine percent of all U.S. adults said that someone can go to heaven and not believe in God. One-in-five evangelical Christians (21 percent) said the same.
Fifty-three percent of U.S. adults believe that people in hell both “experience psychological suffering” and “become aware of the suffering they created in the world.” Almost half believe that those in hell “experience physical suffering” (51 percent) and are “cut off from a relationship with God” (49 percent).