Who do Americans say I am?
The reality of Jesus’ identity is increasingly lost in a secularized maze
By John W. Kennedy
Our nation has become one of great spiritual contrasts, one in which an overwhelming majority claim to believe Jesus is the Son of God, yet where comparatively few comprehend Christ’s mission on earth or what His death and resurrection actually signify.
Jesus in Matthew 16:15 asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
Various disciples replied that many people believed Jesus to be merely a prophet. Peter correctly replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Two millennia later, Americans may call Jesus God’s Son, but they are bewildered about what to make of that declaration.
An escalating number of Americans today seek to consign Jesus neatly into a category of one religious leader among many equals. The notion that one faith would dare to proclaim an exclusivity to truth doesn’t mesh well in today’s diverse and tolerant environment.
A Newsweek poll conducted in December found that 82 percent of all Americans — including 35 percent of non-Christians — believe Jesus is God or the Son of God. Only 6 percent call Him just a religious leader, while a mere 3 percent don’t believe Jesus ever lived.
A 2004 Gallup poll reported that 84 percent of Americans identify with some form of Christianity. Yet far fewer — 42 percent of the total population — describe themselves as a born-again or evangelical Christian, terms that Gallup uses broadly. George H. Gallup Jr., recently retired chairman of the George H. Gallup International Institute, told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel that only one out of five Americans adheres to three marks of evangelicals: believing in the authority of the Bible, having a born-again experience and feeling the need to lead others to Christ as Savior.
Gallup, whose father began tracking public opinion in 1935, himself has been studying religious data for half a century. Some findings: Only half of those who recognize Jesus as God’s Son concur with the scriptural teaching that Christ did in fact represent God dwelling among humanity. Another 27 percent call Jesus divine, yet see Him primarily as a man uniquely called to reveal God’s purpose in the world. Nine percent view Jesus as divine in that He embodied the best in all people. Six percent call Him a great man or teacher, but not divine. Two percent believe Jesus didn’t exist, Gallup reports.
Despite overwhelming evidence of the historical Jesus, more and more Americans are questioning His existence. Certainly mainstream media do their part to try to deny Jesus’ unique claims. In what has become a biannual tradition, major newsweekly magazines devote Christmas and Easter cover stories to how the Gospels couldn’t really mean what they say.
Higher education also has contributed to the effort to discredit the scriptural claims of the validity of Jesus as the Messiah.
“There’s almost a sense of antagonism to even thinking about the historicity of Christ in some academic circles,” says Barry H. Corey, vice president for education and academic dean of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.
Corey, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, recalls a dinner discussion among seminary professors from mainline schools in which they denounced the historical relevance of last year’s The Passion of the Christ but praised the merit of the 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ, which includes an erotic fantasy sequence involving Jesus.
“Whenever we try to deal with a biblical view of Christ and an orthodox understanding of who He is, there’s almost an inherent animosity by liberal scholars,” Corey says. “They’d much rather see an imaginative, far-flung human side of Christ.”
Twin growing movements are squeezing out the Bible’s view of Jesus. On the one hand, there is a push for all religions to be unified in the belief that all paths point to God or a higher power. With that thinking, Jesus is just another spiritual leader to add to the growing list that includes Buddha, Mohammad and the Dalai Lama.
The other course gaining momentum is that all religions are bad, with radical fundamentalist elements being the root cause of ethnic strife, lack of social progress and war. Because of Christianity’s long history in this country, atheists see the faith as the source of all ills. The apostle Paul talked about how the gospel would be offensive, and an ever-increasing vocal minority in this country is trying to stifle any public expression of the Christian faith.
The decline in understanding Jesus is connected to a plunging number who believe the Bible is the actual Word of God. According to Gallup, two-thirds of Americans in 1963 believed the Bible to be inerrant. Now it’s barely one-fourth. In a new report, the Barna Group, a marketing research company in Ventura, Calif., says 9 percent of Americans are atheist or agnostic, while 12 percent are aligned with other faith groups.
LIVING LIKE JESUS
What should a Christian look like according to American standards today?
“One of the earmarks of the postmodern era is the highjacking of vocabulary — to use words to mean anything you want them to mean,” says Mark Rutland, president of Southeastern College of the Assemblies of God in Lakeland, Fla. “It’s become the age of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Lewis Carroll evidently was prophetic.”
Rutland notes that a confused, pagan generation originally coined the term Christian to be used as an epithet against the church. Not much has changed in 2,000 years.
“I’m seeing more people emphasizing the love of Christ and the teachings of Christ rather than His divinity, His dying for our sins and His bodily resurrection,” Corey says.
Barna says 53 percent of adults think that a good person can earn a place in heaven. Even one-third of born-again Christians believe people can gain salvation through a route other than Jesus, according to Barna.
Americans tend to interpret Jesus through a cultural filter rather than a biblical filter, Barna says. He doesn’t find that surprising, considering that the average churched Christian spends less than three hours a week engaged in any kind of spiritual activity — including praying, reading the Bible, and attending services, Sunday School, or small groups. Meanwhile the average Christian watches four hours of television a day, where most of the messages — plus additional ones from music and the Internet — are decidedly nonbiblical.
Still, among the general population there is a consensus that Jesus is special.
“Even quasi-religious people see Him as somehow divine,” Rutland says. “But they have no concept of the propitiation of His blood for our sins.”
Many today see Jesus as a good man who perhaps came into the world to offer universal salvation. What are missing are the supportive doctrines of the Virgin Birth, the purpose of the Cross and the Resurrection.
“Modern America has a sense of God’s goodness, love and forgiveness, but no prevailing concept of God’s judgment,” Rutland says.
Gallup data bears out Rutland’s assessment. In response to what most frequently draws them to Jesus, Americans answer His love for humankind, His willingness to forgive, His kindness and His compassion for all people.
Barna Group founder George Barna has been collecting meticulous data on evangelical beliefs for more than two decades. Barna defines 40 percent of Americans as born-again, which he interprets as those who have made a personal commitment to Christ and believe they will experience eternal salvation because they have confessed their sins and accepted Christ as Savior.
But Barna has a much stricter definition for evangelicals, a subcategory of born-again Christians for which he believes only 7 percent of the population qualifies. The seven criteria Barna lists include the beliefs that Satan is real, the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches and sharing one’s faith with non-Christians is essential. The good news for the Assemblies of God, according to Barna’s figures, is that the Fellowship leads all denominations in the ratio of its members who are evangelicals. The bad news is that even in this leading position only one out of three adherents qualify.
Barna calls about four out of 10 Americans “notional” Christians who claim they will go to heaven for reasons other than having confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their Savior.
While those defined as evangelical do show distinguishable behavior from all other segments of religious believers, Barna says there is little difference in how notional and nonevangelical born-again Christians live. Godly beliefs don’t necessarily impact ethical behavior. Subsequently, countless people — including many who sit in the pews each week — have no qualms about living immorally. They don’t think personal holiness is a doctrine that applies to them.
Born-again believers rely solely on Christ’s death, resurrection and forgiveness for their salvation, yet even they don’t exhibit an understanding of what it really means to follow Christ, Barna says.
Whatever numbers are considered, there is a consistent discrepancy between expressed beliefs and behavior. Gallup notes that less than one in 10 Americans has a sincere, integrated faith that has transformed his or her life.
If anyone asked Jim Blessman during his first 48 years about his religion he told them of his Christian faith.
“My sense was that I was born a Christian,” Blessman says. “After all, I lived in a Christian nation.”
Blessman attended a mainline church nearly every week and served on various congregational committees — including the evangelism committee. But members of the evangelism committee didn’t tell strangers about the Lord; they invited them to the church.
Blessman knew a lot about Jesus from hearing New Testament sermons, but he rarely read the Bible himself. “I didn’t understand who Jesus was or what He had done for me,” Blessman says. “I didn’t have a relationship with Him.”
For most of his adult life, Blessman believed that God required good works. A medical doctor, he headed plenty of humanitarian efforts. In his free time he donated his medical services to the needy and even started a free clinic in the church he attended.
Not until after he met his wife, Beth — who attended First Assembly of God in Des Moines, Iowa — did Blessman understand the essence of salvation in Jesus Christ. He made a personal confession of faith at the altar of the church, and participated in follow-up discipleship at Men’s Ministries meetings.
Blessman, who is now a full-time medical missionary, acknowledges that some people have strong relationships with the Lord in the denomination he left. He now knows that sitting in a pew and being on church committees in any denomination, including the Assemblies of God, doesn’t make a person a Christian.
Gallup finds Blessman’s experience to be common. “Eight in 10 Americans say they are Christian, but four in 10 don’t know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount,” Gallup says. “There is an appallingly low level of biblical knowledge.”
Rutland believes Christians need to recapture that distinctive joyful and holy lifestyle that caused them to be labeled Christians at Antioch in the first century.
Students at Southeastern must sign a statement of faith, co-signed by their parents and pastors, proclaiming their Christianity. But because of cultural influences, some college students are unsure what being a Christian means, according to Rutland, who spent nearly a decade as a minister in a mainline denomination.
Some Christians now prefer the term follower of Christ, believing that Christian has lost its meaning, co-opted by a culture adrift in relativism. For instance, a December Gallup poll found that 96 percent of all Americans celebrate Christmas.
Barna contends that Christian has become a generic term, much like Kleenex for tissues or Xerox for photocopies. “We have a lot of people who call themselves Christian who certainly don’t have any real relationship with Christ,” Barna told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. He also believes evangelical is misapplied, as nine out of 10 Protestant senior pastors describe their churches as evangelical.
THE CHARGE TO CHRISTIANS
While nonbelievers may be clueless about the unique role of Jesus, millions who call themselves Christians have fallen into the pluralism trap.
“Christians need to be biblically literate about the exclusive truth claims about Christ,” Corey says.
Numerous Christians are satisfied to follow a Christian value system but not really have it as the bedrock of their faith, Corey says. Barna notes that just 7 percent of born-again Christians tithe.
According to the Barna Group, 42 percent of Americans believe Jesus sinned on earth. “In a lot of ways this reflects the dumbing down of Christianity,” Barna says. “We’ve tried to make Jesus so consumer-friendly that now many people think, ‘Oh, yeah, He was just like me; He sinned. The only difference was His resurrection.’”
The world’s tremendous misunderstanding over Jesus’ identity shows that Christians need to do a better job of explaining who He is: the Savior, Redeemer, King of kings, Lord of lords and Son of God.
“There are reasons to be discouraged because of increased secularism, but the confusion and uncertainty in the world also mean people are eager to grow spiritually and find meaning in their life,” Gallup says. “The challenge for churches is to channel this into solid, lived-out faith.”
“We have to clearly and unequivocally communicate the truth of the gospel — not what culture wants to hear,” Barna says. “We also need to think through how people so immersed in this culture will interpret what we are saying. We need to clarify every point.”
John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. Despite being a minister’s son and attending church every week from birth, Kennedy didn’t come to a real understanding of who Jesus is until he made Him Savior at age 24.
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