LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Seventy-nine percent of Americans profess a belief in the Trinity, while 74 percent reject the concept of original sin; 59 percent say Satan is merely a symbol of evil; and nearly 80 percent believe in the eternality of the soul.
The latest study of American theological beliefs by Christian researcher George Barna is certainly a mixed bag of belief and disbelief.
However, it should not be surprising that lost people are confused regarding matters of Christian doctrine, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. noted.
Barna surveyed 630 American adults — Christians and non-Christians alike- – and asked them their view on various Christian beliefs. The research was conducted in August and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
While a majority of Americans are self-described Christians, far fewer show evidence of a saving faith, Mohler said.
“Asking the general population any number of questions about orthodox doctrine is going to lead to a very confusing picture,” he said. “The more significant challenge is doctrinal confusion in the church. That’s where we should properly start with our concern. We shouldn’t expect that lost people would be experts in Christian doctrine, but we have every reason to expect that healthy disciples would be well-grounded in biblical truth.”
Americans professed a belief in a handful of orthodox beliefs.
Seventy-nine percent said they believe that “every person has a soul that will live forever, either in God’s presence or absence.”
Seventy-nine percent also embraced the concept that “God is one in three separate and equal persons — God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Three-fourths of Americans (76 percent) also rejected the idea that “the Bible can only be correctly interpreted by people who have years of intense training in theology” — an argument that goes back to the Protestant Reformation.
However, the remainder of the research wasn’t so positive.
— 50 percent of adults embraced a works-based approach to salvation, agreeing that anyone who “is generally good or does enough good things for others during their life will earn a place in heaven.” Surprisingly, some 40 percent of self-professed Protestants also agreed with the statement.
— 74 percent rejected the concept of original sin, believing that “when people are born, they are neither good nor evil, they make a choice between the two as they mature.” Twenty-one percent disagreed.
— A plurality of adults — 44 percent — agreed with the statement that “the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths.” Thirty-eight percent disagreed.
— 59 percent believed that “the devil, or Satan, is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.” Only 34 percent disagreed.
— 54 percent embraced a key concept of relativism, agreeing that “truth can be discovered only though logic, human reasoning and personal experience.” Forty-three percent disagreed.
— 51 percent agreed with the Catholic belief that “praying to deceased saints can have a positive effect in a person’s life.” Thirty-nine percent disagreed. Surprisingly, one out of six evangelicals agreed with the statement.
— A large minority — 42 percent — believed that Jesus sinned while on earth. Fifty percent said he did not sin.
The research also found that 54 percent of adults believe that a person can be under the control or influence of “spiritual forces such as demons.”
A majority of adults also agreed with the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality. Fifty-tree percent disagreed with the statement that “the Bible does not specifically condemn homosexuality.” Twenty-seven percent agreed with it.
Also, 55 percent rejected the notion that people can communicate with the dead. Thirty-five percent believed it was possible.
Taken together, the research shows that Americans prefer a pick-and-choose brand of Christianity, Mohler said.
“It shows that in the consumer culture of modern America people want a Christianity they can assemble by themselves,” he said. “They’ll take what parts seem best to them and will reject those that are offensive to the modern mind. For instance, original sin is one of those. But that’s the difference between cultural Christianity and authentic Christianity in any generation. Our generation is probably a bit more confused than what was the case in previous times, but that confusion is our missiological opportunity and challenge.”
The research is not all bad, Mohler said. For instance, the belief in the eternality of the soul and the concept of a Triune God are solid starting points for evangelism.
“There’s enough residue of Christian conviction in the American population that most Americans still understand what we’re talking about when we begin to speak of Christianity,” he said. “They have some knowledge of Jesus, and [it] is basically a positive knowledge of Jesus. They may not understand that he is fully God and fully man and the substitutionary Savior, but they do understand that he is properly the focus of our faith. I think that explains why Americans, by a huge majority, indicate that they are Christian. …
“The problem is that so many of those persons do not have a personal relationship with Christ,” Mohler said.