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Study: Majority of Self-Identified Christians Don't Believe the Holy Spirit is Real

Study: Majority of Self-Identified Christians Don't Believe the Holy Spirit is Real

SEPTEMBER 18, 2021

According to a new study, more than half of self-identified Christians in America say the Holy Spirit is not a real, living being.

The Background

The latest report from the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University shows that self-identified Christians in America tend to hold beliefs that are thoroughly unbiblical--even on basic issues of theology.

Determining how many Christians are in America depends on how we limit the term. For example, the vast majority of American adults (69 percent) still self-identify as "Christian." If we consider only those who consider themselves to born-again Christians, the number drops to about 35 percent of the population. Self-identified evangelicals constitute 28 percent.

The study breaks it down even further by classifying "theological born-again Christians" as those who say that "when they die they will go to heaven, but only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior." The smallest group in the study are labeled as "Integrated Disciples" since they hold such beliefs as that the Bible is the accurate and reliable Word of God, that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful, and just Creator of the universe who still rules the universe today, and that every moral choice either honors or dishonors God. This group is a mere 6 percent of the population.

Of self-identified Christians, 58 percent contend that the Holy Spirit is not a real, living being but is merely a symbol of God's power, presence, or purity. Surprisingly, those who identify as born-again Christians are even more likely to hold that view (62 percent), and half of "theological born-again Christians" also deny the Spirit is a being. Even among those with the most biblical worldview--the "integrated disciples"--40 percent hold an unbiblical view of the Holy Spirit.

What It Means

Hearing such statistics can make orthodox believers want to rend their garments in grief. But perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised by such misunderstandings about the Holy Spirit, for he is much more mysterious than we often admit.

Consider, for instance, the name we use for this being--the Holy Spirit. We can understand by analogy how God the Father and God the Son can be persons, since we have experience with fathers and sons who are also persons. When it comes to incorporeal spirits being persons, however, we have less direct analogical experience to aid our understanding.

Even the biblical evidence for the Holy Spirit being God is less direct that what we might want, and less direct than it is for Jesus being God. The evidence is there within Scripture, of course, but it requires us to apply logical inference rather than looking for direct statements of affirmation.

For instance, there are passages in the Bible that refer to the Holy Spirit in ways in which the term is interchangeable with "God." If the terms are convertible as equivalent ("Holy Spirit" = "God"), then the concepts must also be convertible (the Holy Spirit is a being that is God).

A prime example is found in Acts 5, when Peter uses the terms "God" and "Holy Spirit" as synonyms. In verse 3 Peter says that Ananias has "lied to the Holy Spirit," and in verse 5 he tells him, "You have not lied just to human beings but to God." Paul makes a similar interchange of terms in 1 Corinthians 3. In verse 16 he says "God's Spirit" dwells within "God's temple," implying that the Spirit is God.

The Holy Spirit also possesses attributes reserved for God alone. An example is 1 Corinthians 2:11, where Paul says that the "Spirit of God" knows the "thoughts of God." Any being who know the thoughts of God must be God.

Finally, the Holy Spirit is referred to in terms of equality with God the Father and God the Son. Jesus says in Matthew 28:19 that his followers are to baptize and make disciples in the name (singular) of the "Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The apostles also use phrases that imply equality, such as when Peter says, "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood" (1 Pet. 1:2).

But that merely proves the Spirit is God. How do we know the Spirit is a different person than God the Father? To show that the Spirit is a different person than the Father we have to take two distinct steps: (1) show that the Spirit is different from the Father and (2) show that the Spirit is a person.

For the first step, we rely on the words of Jesus in John 15:26: "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father--the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father--he will testify about me." We must note that Jesus did not say he was sending the Father, or even the Spirit of the Father. Instead, he says that who is being sent "goes out from" the Father. To go out from the Father, the being must be distinct and different in some way from the Father.

The second step is to show that the Spirit is a person. To be a person, in the biblical sense, a being must be able to do things considered personal and relational. The Bible speaks of numerous ways the Spirit shows such personal and relational attributes, but it should suffice to present three examples:

The Spirit can be grieved: "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption" (Eph. 4:30).

The Spirit can be insulted: "[A]nd who has insulted the Spirit of grace" (Heb. 10:29).

The Spirit can help and intercede on our behalf: "the Spirit helps us in our weakness . . . the Spirit intercedes for God's people" (Rom. 8:26--27).

We must conclude that the Spirit is a person who is different from the Father. And if the Spirit is a person, then he must be a being and not a "power, presence, or purity."

While fully comprehending the mysteries of the Spirit remains beyond our capacity as humans, we can at least know that the Spirit, like us, is a being and a person.

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and coauthor of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an associate pastor at McLean Bible Church in Arlington, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter.

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