According to a poll of 3,000 people living in England, conducted jointly by the Church of England, Hope and the Evangelical Alliance, 39% of those questions didn't believe Jesus was a real person. This was particularly marked amongst the under 35 year-olds who were 25% more likely to reject the historicity of Jesus than the over 35's.
The same survey also found that 'over 43%' of those interviewed believe Jesus rose from the dead. Stated that way round it doesn't look quite so bad for Christianity, but it implies that a little under 57% either don't believe in the resurrection of Jesus, are unsure or at best haven't even formed an opinion. This figure simply does not square with the finding that 57% of respondents identified themselves as Christian unless by 'Christian', people are using the term as a cultural identifier rather than a description of religious belief. It's hard to think of a religious Christian who doesn't believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
This is reinforced by the fact that under 10% described themselves as 'active' Christians (i.e., going to Church regularly, praying and reading the Bible).
In what looked like an attempt to draw a few crumbs of comfort from these frankly dreadful figures for the Christian churches in England, Dr Rachel Jordan, the national adviser for mission and evangelism, said:
We think because people grow up in this country, they'd know that Jesus was a real person... so it's a challenge to make sure that news gets to people. I wonder if we've got complacent or assumed it was the school's job, and actually maybe there's something about us as the Church recognising that we have a clear responsibility... to make sure everybody... hears about Jesus Christ.
What doesn't seem to have occurred to Dr Jordan is that they need to do more than simply tell people about Jesus. Telling people about Jesus would no more convince them that he was ever anything more than a character in a book than would telling them about Wotan, Horus or King Arthur. What they need is definitive evidence, and that's where evangelicals come up against a brick wall, since they have none. What has decreased in younger people is not so much their awareness of the character of 'Jesus' but their willingness to defer to authority and accept what they are told without question. Younger people in England today are far more sceptical and far less deferential than their parents and grandparent were.
Our grandparents generation, for example, would have assumed that the Archbishop of Canterbury was deeply wise and knowledgeable having spent his life in study and having risen to the top of his profession. What he said came from an irrefutable source so should be accepted on his say so alone. Nothing more was needed. The same generation sat listing to the vacuous, self-satisfied ramblings of CS Lewis on their radios of an evening and thrilled at the thought that an Oxford don, no less, was confirming that they had exactly the right religion. What more proof was needed than the word of a wise and wonderful man with a brain the size of a planet? Who was going to stand up and say, "but the emperor has no clothes!"
As a data analyst, I would like to have seen the raw data. For example, how many of those describing themselves as Christian didn't believe Jesus was real? How many of those believe Jesus was real don't believe in the resurrection? Opinion polls have a habit of producing these sorts of illogical answers which call into question the amount of thought the people in the sample have given to their (in this case) religious opinions. Dr Jordan's point, for what it's worth, could largely have been dealt with by a simple question - Have you ever heard of Jesus? We don't know if this was asked because we aren't told. What would you guess the answer to be? 90%; 98%? I'd be amazed if it was less than 95%. Remember, these were adults aged 18 and over, living in England in 2015. Dr Jordan thinks they may not have heard about Jesus!
Although this survey was reported by premier.org.uk on 21 September, the BBC didn't see fit to report on it until today and then included a quite astonishing level of bias which practically shouted itself out when I heard it on BBC Radio 4 this morning. The BBC website contains a verbatim account of what was said at least twice, once at 7 o'clock and again at 8 o'clock. Someone really needs to be taken to task for this piece of biased and inaccurate reporting which should more properly be described as subliminal Christian propaganda.
Many scholars agree that Jesus was a real man, who lived in Galilee over two thousand years ago, although many details surrounding his life are still debated.
But, the Church of England survey found that four in 10 people did not realise Jesus was a real person, with a quarter of 18 to 34 year olds believing he was a mythical or fictional character. [My emphasis]
Note that deference to authority? These 'many scholars' are who exactly? How many of them came to their 'scholarship' from a pre-existing acceptance that Jesus was a real figure and how many have assessed the objective evidence? And what objective evidence, exactly? Where is the objective, extra-biblical evidence of these 'details surrounding his life' over which the debate rages? Or is this debate carried on at the level of "What I reckon could have happened..." or, "If Jesus was real this is what he would have done..."? with no hard evidence it can never be anything more than these superficial attempts to rationalise a pre-existing bias. Why is there no scholarly debate and disagreement about the details of the life of Ra or Finn MacCool? Because no-one has a personal investment in them which depends on them being real.
And what of that phrase, 'did not realise'? There is a very clear assumption that these 'many scholars' are right but what of those many scholars who don't agree and what about the indisputable fact that there is not a single scrap of irrefutable, extra-biblical evidence for either Jesus or any of the events associated with his life and death? It would be equally accurate to say that people surveyed did not realise Finn MacCool was a real person.
Lastly, we have the misleading statistic '...a quarter of 18 to 34 year-olds believing he was a mythical or fictional character'. Deliberately or otherwise, this is vastly different to what the survey actually found. The survey report in premier.org.uk makes it clear that 39% of all those surveyed think Jesus is mythical but that 18 to 34 year-olds were 25% more likely to believe this than those over 34 years old. This is not the same as 25% of those surveyed. Assuming this means 25% of 39% over and above the average figure for the whole sample, this gives about 49% of 18 to 24 year-olds, almost double that reported by the BBC.
And that, I would suggest, is a very significant figure - about half of young people in England today think Jesus never existed.
Whoever inserted that into the BBC News, and it would almost certainly have come from the BBC Religious Affairs Department, is guilty of trying to mislead the country by implying the evidence for Jesus' existence is beyond doubt, and is guilty of assuming that it is mere ignorance on the part of those who disagree rather than an indicator of healthy scepticism and a refusal to defer to authority. They are also guilty of deliberately or otherwise, falsifying a very embarrassing statistic.
Sorry, BBC, but we need something more substantive than a dishonest assertion by a BBC News copywriter with an agenda. This is not the level of objectivity we are entitled to in a public service broadcaster being funded by a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic population in which practising Christians are small and dwindling minority.
Why not produce a documentary on the evidence for Jesus? Could it be that there is not enough material for one, maybe?
[Update 02 November 2015] More details of this poll, including the questions asked, are available in this Church of England booklet.[pdf]