By Thomas Lambrecht –
What is God like? That seems to be the most fundamental question any religion has to answer. Each religion has their own answer to that question, which in turn makes each religion distinctive.
Christianity has a particular answer to that question that has been taught and believed for over 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian faith. We believe in a personal God who is the “all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect and just creator of the universe who still rules the world today.” That description is from the recent survey conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University under the direction of Dr. George Barna.
Strikingly, the survey found that only 51 percent of Americans believe the Christian definition of God. This is down from 73 percent in 1991. The result points to the steady erosion of the Christian worldview from American society over the past 30 years.
Twenty-six percent are either agnostic (“a higher power may exist, but nobody knows for certain”) or simply don’t know what to think about the notion of God. Ten percent hold a “New Age” view, claiming that “God refers to the total realization of personal, human potential or a state of higher consciousness that a person may reach.” Seven percent hold a polytheistic (“there are many gods”) or pantheistic (“everyone is god”) view. Amazingly, only six percent claim to be atheists (“there is no such thing as God”).
The good news is that 94 percent of Americans believe in some sort of god, or at least the possibility that God exists. The downside is that opinions about God are all over the map and quite confused. Even as many as 20-30 percent of those claiming to be Christians are either not sure whether God exists or have a non-Christian view of God.
The survey found that 71 percent of Americans say they “have no doubt that God loves you unconditionally.” That means that 20 percent who are either unsure about God’s existence or have a non-Christian understanding of God nevertheless believe God loves them.
Only one-third of the public believe that it is possible to be certain about the existence of God, while 57 percent feel “it is impossible to be certain about the existence of God; it is solely a matter of faith.” In a further example of inconsistency, 66 percent believe “God has a reason for everything that happens” to them. And of the 51 percent who hold a Christian view of God, only one-third believe that God is involved in their lives.
Combining a number of questions about God, only ten percent of the American public have a robustly Christian view of God. They believe he is all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect, the just creator of the universe, that he still rules it today, that he loves the person unconditionally, that he has a reason for everything that happens in a person’s life, and that he is involved in the person’s life. Yet that is what the Bible teaches us about God. Apparently, most do not completely accept those teachings.
Who Is Jesus? Satan? The Holy Spirit?
Christians believe that Jesus is God, the second person of the Trinity, while at the same time human. Fully 85 percent of Americans get that Jesus is fully divine and at the same time fully human. However, 44 percent believe that Jesus “committed sins, like other people.” Only 41 percent accept the biblical testimony that Jesus was without sin. Hebrews reminds us, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (4:14-16). Paul affirms, “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin [or a sin offering] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). It was Jesus’ very sinlessness that qualified him to be the “lamb without blemish,” the perfect offering for the forgiveness of our sins.
Meanwhile, Americans appear more confident in the existence of Satan than they are in the existence of God. While only 51 percent believe in the existence of a God who is at work in the world today, 56 percent believe that “Satan is not merely a symbol of evil but is a real spiritual being and influences human lives.”
Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is a spiritual being who is God, the third person of the Trinity. Only one-third of Americans agree. Over half (52 percent) contend that “the Holy Spirit is not a living entity but is a symbol of God’s power, presence, or purity.” Yet, on the night before he died, Jesus promised his disciples, “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor [Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. … But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. … All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (John 16: 7, 13, 15). It certainly sounds like the Holy Spirit is a real, personal being. And that has been the verdict of Christian theology for 2,000 years.
As I mentioned in last week’s blog, “Losing the Gospel,” we cannot assume that Americans in general or even the people sitting in our pews (or watching on Zoom) understand the very basics of the Christian faith. As a lifelong Christian who has read the Bible and studied in seminary, these basics often seem like they are “old hat” to me. But for many people, the basics are “new news” that they are unfamiliar with.
The most pressing need is to address those who are uncertain about God. The fastest-growing group in the survey is those who say “a higher power may exist, but nobody really knows for certain.” That group “has exploded from 1 percent of the public thirty years ago to 20 percent today.”
We are on our way back to ancient Athens. Paul addressed the Athenians this way, “I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown, I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23). Paul then proceeded to teach them a biblical view of God. That is precisely what we need to do for the increasingly many who have no real idea who God is or what he is like. We have a great opportunity here for evangelism to people who are confused, but who are open to the idea of God.
An emphasis of our Wesleyan understanding of the faith is that we can have certainty about God. We call this the doctrine of assurance. We can be certain that God exists. We can be certain that he loves us and has sent his Son Jesus to die for us. We can be certain that we have been saved by his grace from sin and death to receive eternal life, if we have put our faith and trust in him.
Our faith is not a “hope so” kind of faith. We do not just hope that we have it right about God, we are certain, because he has revealed himself to us through his Son Jesus Christ, through the words of Scripture, and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. … And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:1, 6).
We do not need to buy into the uncertainty of our time. Instead, “we have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf” (Hebrews 6:19-20). As the old hymn puts it, “the anchor holds.” We have a firm and secure hope in a “God who is there, and who is not silent” (in the words of Francis Schaeffer). He has revealed himself to us and invites us to earnestly seek him.
In a time when the world seems to be falling apart, we can find security and hope in the God who made us, who loves us, and who gave himself for us. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.