David Murray

Professor, Pastor, Author

How Well Do Americans Know Theology?

Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research have just published the results of a survey that measured Americans’ theological knowledge. The aim was to “help to point out common gaps in theological knowledge and awareness so that Christians might be more effective in the proclamation, teaching, and defense of the essential truths of the Christian faith.”

I’m deeply grateful to these Christian organizations for funding and carrying out this research. It’s true, there are some discouraging findings; but I was surprisingly encouraged by some of the results.

First, though, the bad news, in three particular areas:

The Doctrine of The Trinity

Although there was evidence of good Bible knowledge in some areas, there was also significant doctrinal confusion. For example, more than 6-in-10 Americans deny the doctrine of the personhood of the Holy Spirit. 64% say the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being. There’s also widespread uncertainty about the equality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It could be argued that these are fairly fine points of doctrine and that we shouldn’t expect accuracy among the general public about such sophisticated doctrines. Even mature Christians can struggle to understand and articulate the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Doctrine of Salvation

For me, the most alarming findings were found in answers about the doctrine of salvation:

  • Only 16% agree with the doctrine that says “People do not have the ability to turn to God on their own initiative.”
  • Instead of acknowledging depravity, the majority of Americans believe the good in people can outweigh the bad.
  • 67% agree “Everyone sins at least a little, but most people are by nature good.”
  • 4-in-10 agree “God loves me because of the good I do or have done.”
  • 71% of Americans agree that “an individual must contribute his/her own effort for personal salvation.” 
  • 64% of Americans agree “a person obtains peace with God by first taking the initiative to seek God and then God responds with grace.”

The church clearly has much work to do in teaching more effectively about total depravity, spiritual inability, and that “salvation is [totally and completely] of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9; John 1:13).

The Doctrine of the Church

The third area of major concern was that 52% of Americans agree “Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid
replacement for regularly attending church.” That’s horrifying, and perhaps reflects the historic American traits of independency and individualism. But we also have to face the possibility that it may indicate the poverty of spiritual nourishment on offer in many churches.

The Good News

But it’s not all bad news, Sure, if we’re comparing the statistics with the America of 20 and 50 years ago, then yes there’s a serious slide in biblical knowledge, faith, and practice. I don’t want to underestimate or minimize that and the work that’s needed to change this.

But if we compare the findings to almost every other country in the world, the picture suddenly looks a lot brighter. I’d be delighted if some of these statistics were true in places like Scotland or England – it would be considered a revival! I’d be surprised if most Western European countries would even make it into double figures compared to these quite stunning American statistics:

  • 60% agree that Jesus is fully God and has a divine nature, and Jesus is fully man and has a human nature.
  • 71% agree that there is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
  • 47% agree that God is the author of Scripture.
  • 61% agree that hell is a real place, not just a concept
  • 67% agree that heaven is a real place, not just a concept.
  • 42% agree strongly that there will be a time when Jesus Christ returns to judge all people who have lived.
  • 43% agree that the Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches.
  • 53% agree that salvation is found through Jesus Christ alone.
  • 61% agree that God has authority over people because he created human beings.
  • 66% agree  that God continues to answer specific prayers.
  • 68% believe the biblical accounts of Christ’s resurrection

Of course, we can flip these round and highlight where the glass is half-empty, but in many cases the glass is more than half-full! So let’s not discourage and depress ourselves too much.

Yes, lots of room for concern, some strange inconsistencies, and many areas for the church to focus attention and resources on. But to me these are also massively encouraging statistics. I doubt if there are many places on earth, or even in all of history, that would have such high numbers.

Considering all that we know about human nature, about the unceasing malice of the devil, and about the fanatical anti-Christian cultural pressures over the last fifty years, these figures are remarkably strong and resilient and give much cause for thanksgiving and motivation as we continue the work of teaching, preaching, and evangelizing both the world and the church.

The Most Honest Atheist In The World

The Atlantic has published a startlingly honest article by Crispin Sartwell, as you can see even from it’s title, Irrational Atheism: Not Believing in God Isn’t Always Based on Reasoned Arguments And That’s OK. In it Sartwell admits:

  • The atheistic worldview “is similar to the worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.”
  • His view of the universe as a natural, material system is based on his interpretation of his experience not on a rational argument.
  • “I have taken a leap of atheist faith.”
  • Atheism can be as much a product of family, social, and institutional context as religious faith.
  • “The idea that the atheist comes to her view of the world through rationality and argumentation, while the believer relies on arbitrary emotional commitments, is false.”
  • Just as religious people have often offloaded the burden of their choices on church dogma, so some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on “reason” or “science” without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data.
  • Science rests on emotional commitment (that there is a truth), a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up.

What a refreshing blast of humble and honest air! You cannot but admire such a sincere, transparent, and honorable atheist. But the article ends on a painfully sad note, which may partly explain Sartwell’s atheism, and maybe even his humility:

Genuinely bad things have happened to me in my life: One of my brothers was murdered; another committed suicide. I’ve experienced addiction and mental illness. And I, like you, have watched horrors unfold all over the globe. I don’t—I can’t—believe this to be best of all possible worlds. I think there is genuinely unredeemed, pointless pain. Some of it is mine.

By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world’s indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering…I’m perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God. I can see that there could be comfort in believing otherwise, believing that all the suffering and death makes sense, that everyone gets what they deserve, and that existence works out in the end.

But to believe that would be to betray my actual experiences, and even without the aid of reasoned arguments, that’s reason enough not to believe.

As is so often the case, the agony of suffering is a large contributor to Sartwell’s atheistic faith. There are many like him, young and old, who find personal and global pain an insurmountable obstacle to Christian faith. In my experience, quoting Romans 8:28, preaching God’s sovereignty, or offering philosophical arguments about suffering in such situations is usually ineffective.

If I had the opportunity, I’d take Crispin to the historic events around Calvary and especially to the sufferings of God’s Son. I’d try to keep him at the cross as long as possible, and I’d work at explaining what happened there and how this is the only way into the power and wisdom of God. It’s also the way God calls both religionists and atheists to saving faith. As the Apostle Paul said:

We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

"The American Family Is Making a Comeback"

How about this for some modern logic:

1. Families are a massive blessing to society and to individuals

2. Families are facing extraordinary pressures, obstacles, and burdens.

3. This is an ideal time to redefine what a family is.

The first two premises are taken from Michael Wear’s article in The Atlantic, The American Family Is Making A Comeback and, as Wear’s article demonstrates, almost everyone agrees with them. The fallacious conclusion is what we see going on all around us, especially in politics, the media, the judiciary, and education, but also in the business world too.

Using only Wear’s piece, let’s take a closer look at the facts and quotes supporting the first two premises in order to feel more deeply the fallacy of the conclusion.

1. Families are a massive blessing to society and to individuals

“Our current policies have failed to address this new landscape, and because of it we are inhibiting one of our nation’s greatest contributors to the public good, and Americans’ most personal aspirations: family.”

“It can be easy to miss the value of family to our nation because its contributions are so ingrained into our lives.”

“Its value can be partly calculated by estimating the cost of broken families because when Americans don’t have family to care for them, government must step in to provide those services.”

  • State and federal governments spend billions of dollars each year to care for children in foster care ($9 billion through Title IV-E of the Social Security Act alone.)
  •  There are longer-term costs for children who grow up outside of safe, permanent families as well, including the $5.1 billion the government spends incarcerating former foster-care youth each year.
  • Familial bonds help defray the costs of caring for the elderly.
  • In 2009, 61.6 million Americans gave uncompensated care to an adult “with limitations in daily activities” at some point during the year—an economic value of $450 billion in unpaid services.

“From cradle to grave, the social and personal benefits of a healthy family, and the costs of its absence, are evident.”

“Every family in America is a little business … in fact, the word economy comes from the Greek word ‘oikos,’ which means home. Every home is a little economy. And when those little economies struggle and suffer … then America fails.”

“In 2009, the Brookings Institute released a study that, among other things, said if you graduate from high school, get a job, get married and then have children (in that order), your chance of being in poverty is just 2 percent.” 

2. Families are facing extraordinary pressures, obstacles, and burdens.

“Marriage is on the decline, birthrates are down, and divorce rates are high.”

“The strains on families and family formation are real, rational, and profound.”

“The old-fashioned family plan of stably married parents residing with their children remains a source of considerable power in America—but one that is increasingly seen as out of reach to all but the educated elite.”

“The average American family is poorer than it was 10 years ago.”

“Over the last 40 years changes in the workforce and growing socioeconomic inequality have conspired to stoke familial instability.”

Student loan debt is causing many to delay marriage.

“Today, it is harder and harder to be good parents and good workers for many working families. That’s a tradeoff that is neither good for our country or our families.”

“Our country—whether through tax policy or through the rhetoric of our current president—does very little to support the institution of marriage.”

“The popular conception of the American Dream is a spouse, two and a half kids, and your own house with a car in the garage and a picket fence around the yard. When we talk about the American Dream slipping away, we tend to focus on the possessions: the house, the car, the picket fence. At a time when the income of American families is declining, this makes some sense…. [But] it is a more fundamental hope that is challenged today. The people that make up the American Dream—the spouse, the children, our dearest relationships—seem out of reach for millions of Americans.”

3. This is an ideal time to redefine what a family is.

Given these two premises, we would expect some moves to support families better and some of these are highlighted in the article.

We should consider options—tax credits, interest-rate incentives, family-friendly zoning and city planning—that align America’s interest in marriage as a public good, and stability as an important factor in a child’s educational and social development, with our housing policies.

Wear commends some British moves and calls for something similar in the USA:

British Prime Minister David Cameron has recognized the new burdens families face. He recently announced that policies in the U.K. must pass a “family test,” which means “every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family.”

However, there’s a massive elephant stampeding round the room, and it’s the utter refusal to define family in the same way as its Inventor, and also to reject all counterfeit substitutes. As even Wear notes:

For all the “pro-family” policies that progressives are putting forward none of them explicitly value stable, two-parent families over other family types

Democrats continue to show no interest in meeting Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s call to “stigmatize illegitimacy indirectly” through tax benefits available only to married parents.

As the costs of family breakdown become even more apparent, Democrats’ no-judgment approach may seem insufficient in the face of a demographic and sociological tidal wave.

Glimmers of hope

Wear does highlight a few conservative republican efforts to support traditional families while also helping families that face different and less-than-ideal realities. But after summarizing the American dream with a focus on the people who make the dream a dream, he concludes:

Politics alone cannot restore this hope, but it will only further fuel Americans’ cynicism if Washington does nothing to address it.

Let’s not give up the fight for biblical marriage and the biblical family. We may have lost the argument based on Bible verses. But there are going to be plenty of shocking statistics to build arguments upon in the coming years. It’s just sad and cruel to think of the many millions who will be damaged as a result of the biggest and most dangerous social experiment ever conducted.

Obamacare Architect Wants Us To Die Age 75

In Why I Hope To Die At 75 Ezekiel Emmanuel, one of the primary architects of Obamacare, argues that we, our families, and society would be better off if we all died about age 75.

Needless to say (and thankfully), his family don’t share with his desire and have pointed him to numerous people aged 75 and older who are doing quite well. They think that when he gets nearer 75, he’ll push the desired age back to 80, then 85, and so on. But Emmanuel’s not budging. “I’m sure of my position, ” he insists.

He accepts that death produces loss.

Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value.

But he says that “living too long is also a loss.”

It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

Reassuringly, he’s not planning suicide 18 years from now, nor does he support euthanasia. He just wishes that when he reaches 75 his life would end. He’s already planning his own memorial service to be held before he dies, along the usual lines of many modern funerals: no crying, lots of funny stories, a celebration of life, and so on.

The American Immortal

Throughout the article, Emmanuel contrasts himself with “the American immortal.” He writes:

Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.

I reject this aspiration. I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive. For many reasons, 75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop.

If I had to choose between Emmanuel’s “75-and-no-more model” and the “American immortal” model I think I’d go with the former. Because, while there’s something bizarre about Emmanuel’s desire, in some ways it’s more realistic than the “I’m going to live forever” mentality that never really faces up to personal mortality and the need to prepare for the end of life.

A Modern Problem

Large proportions of the population living into their seventies and eighties is, of course, a relatively recent “problem.” In 1900, the life expectancy of an average American was 47; it took until the 1930′s to reach 60; and today a newborn can expect to live an average of about 79 years (76 for men and 81 for women).

Emmanuel recognizes that on the whole this has been a wonderful blessing to society, to families, and to individuals. The increased productivity has also been the main factor in driving the economic boom of the last 65 years.

As Christians, we thank God for His common grace that has produced the knowledge, medicines, environment, and technology that has not only lengthened so many lives, but also improved their quality. But there’s still much for the church to do in adapting to this new reality of so many living so long and how to minister better this increasingly large group of people.

A Confirmation of the Bible

Emmanuel cites oodles of statistics to prove his argument that living past 75 produces more loss than gain. Apart from the obvious physical losses, there are huge mental, social, and productivity losses that impose burdens on others. The Bible agrees with Emmanuel’s observations, although it sets the “turning point” at 70:

The days of our lives are seventy years;
And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,
Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;
For it is soon cut off, and we fly away (Ps. 90:10).

But the Bible disagrees with Emmanuel’s conclusion: die healthy. We are to submit to God’s timetable, and we’re to do so with the faith that every single day God gives us has a purpose and a meaning, even when every sense in our bodies may be saying, “My life is pointless and worthless.” No, we are to glorify God in our weakness, demonstrate that we trust Him in sickness and health, in old age and youth, when weak and when strong, and so on.

But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in Your hand (Ps. 31:14-15).

The Best Memory

Unlike Emmanuel who expresses the wish to be remembered by his children and grandchildren as “active, vigorous, engaged, animated, astute, enthusiastic, funny, warm, loving” and “not stooped and sluggish, forgetful and repetitive,” Christians want to be remembered for their faith in Christ whatever their physical or mental abilities.

Emmanuel wants to be “remembered as independent, not experienced as a burden.” Christians want to be remembered as dependent on God and casting all their burdens upon Him. 

Emmanuel says that leaving our family “with memories framed not by our vivacity but by our frailty is the ultimate tragedy.” No, no, no! The ultimate tragedy is to leave our family without the example of a Christ-like life and without a well-grounded hope for our eternal life.

I’m sure many of us remember with fondness the beautiful example of a godly grandfather or grandmother who despite physical and mental weakness demonstrated strong and steady faith in the face of years of sickness and eventually death. The memory is not of an ultimate tragedy but of an ultimate triumph.

If Emmanuel would come to know the One who bore his own name 2000 years ago, he’d be able to face his days of aging, weakness, illness, and death with a hope-filled spirit, knowing God was with him.

One Advantage

I do agree with Emmanuel that having a set age to die might focus the mind better on spiritual and eternal realities. As he said:

75 defines a clear point in time: for me, 2032. It removes the fuzziness of trying to live as long as possible. Its specificity forces us to think about the end of our lives and engage with the deepest existential questions and ponder what we want to leave our children and grandchildren, our community, our fellow Americans, the world.

The Bible, though, calls us to consider existential questions not in our latter years but in our earliest years. We are to seek Christ and His salvation in our childhood and youth. And when we find Him it transforms our life and our death. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Where’s the loss there? However long we live, there’s gain. And whenever we die, there’s gain.

That’s Christcare, not Obamacare.

About David Murray

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He blogs at HeadHeartHand . and you can follow him on Twitter @DavidPMurray .

  • Editors' Picks

    Are You Thinking Like a Real Christian?
    Are You Thinking Like a Real Christian?
  • Gospel-Motivated Modesty Is Better than Legalism
    Gospel-Motivated Modesty Is Better than Legalism
  • How to Criticize Other Christians without Being Mean
    How to Criticize Other Christians without Being Mean
;