The State of Theology: The Questions that Matter Most
The year 1971 was a tumultuous time in American history. Three years earlier, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago became a stage for riots, with armed police and guardsmen marching through the city streets. That same year, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. The nation was divided over the war in Vietnam. In May of 1970, gunshots rang out on the campus of Kent State University. In 1971, the Nixon Administration declared a “War on Drugs.” Onlookers thought the American nation might unravel before it was to reach its bicentennial anniversary.
In that precise moment, R.C. Sproul founded Ligonier Ministries. R.C. was well aware of the times. He knew fully that America was a nation in turmoil. He responded to that cultural moment by pushing past the political and cultural matters to the issues that were truly the heart of the problem. He answered the crisis of the day by turning to theology.
There are many who think we are at a crisis in 2018. We have become a nation of security in the face of terror, and many live in fear. We are deeply divided politically, cultivating suspicion and hatred. Our entertainment culture has become more loud, more violent, more graphic, more sexual. We can hardly be shocked anymore, let alone be shamed. Many have lost faith in the American institutions that former generations relied on. Many are asking, “What is the future of America?” Many wonder if indeed it even has one.
As in 1971, the nation in 2018 is in turmoil. And, as in 1971, the heart of the matter is theological.
While we avail ourselves of the political process and apply ourselves to loving our neighbor, we also realize that we must help people—both inside the church and outside of it—confront the questions that dive deeply to the heart of the matter. More importantly, we must help people find biblical answers to those questions. No matter what year it is and no matter what the particular conflict of the day is, the questions that matter most are always the theological questions. The answers that are needed the most are always the sound, time-tested answers that have come down to us in the Bible.
That is why we conduct The State of Theology survey. We started in 2014, administered the second survey in 2016, and now have the results fresh from our third survey. Each of these surveys provides insight into what Americans believe about key doctrines and also significant ethical issues. We are now gaining longitudinal data that will help us see trends. We can see where we are, and we can also begin to see where we are going. All of the data can be analyzed demographically, allowing us to compare by age group, church attendance, and religious affiliation. We can see what Millennials believe. We can compare evangelicals to the general population. We have captured all of this data at The State of Theology website.
The website provides more than enough data for deep forays into particular theological beliefs. For now, consider the survey results on the character of God. If we do not see God as He reveals Himself to us in the Bible, then we will not understand why Jesus died on the cross.
Key Findings on Key Doctrines
One of the most striking findings is that Americans continue to fail to grasp that God is holy. A strong majority, 69 percent, disagree with the following statement:
Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.
If we fail to see how God is holy, we miss who we are as radically corrupt by nature. As the survey reveals, many evangelicals have extreme difficulty in accepting the biblical teaching that we are by nature depraved and under the wrath of God. A slight majority of evangelicals—52 percent—agree with the following statement:
Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.
A total of 44 percent of evangelicals disagree with this statement. If we start with the false notion that people are good by nature, we will end with a false gospel.
Through Jesus Christ, sinners can have access to the Father because of His death on the cross (Eph. 2:18). Jesus famously insisted that no one can come to God the Father any other way (John 14:6). Yet a majority of evangelicals (51 percent) agree that God can be worshiped by people who do not believe in Jesus Christ:
God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
This has increased slightly since 2016, when 48 percent agreed.
One of the most disappointing outcomes of the survey was evangelicals’ lack of clarity on who Jesus is. Evangelicals say they believe in the Trinity, but more than three-fourths (78 percent) also agree that Jesus was in some way created by God the Father:
Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.
But Jesus is the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh. The Son was not created (John 1:1). We must grasp the true identity of our Savior before we urge others to believe in Him. Jesus is truly man and truly God. And we must be alert to heretical teachings which suggest otherwise.
The Sky Is Falling?
The temptation may very well be to use the survey results for a lot of finger wagging and even self-righteous posturing. We might be equally tempted to despair and simply write off those who hold these false beliefs. From the days of the Old Testament and since the first century, orthodoxy has always been countercultural.
But the survey should not lead us to despair. Rather, the results should serve as yet another reminder of our task of making disciples and teaching sound doctrine. We are surrounded by people in turmoil, distress, and confusion. They have questions, and they have wrongly believed false answers. The results of this survey spur us on to seek out and proclaim the right, biblically sound answers to the questions that matter most.