If statistics are to be believed (which is a big “if”), the vast majority of adults in the United States believe in the existence of God. Despite all the hubbub about New Atheism and the rise of the Nones (those with no religious affiliation), between eighty and ninety percent of us still think God is real. For those committed to the mission of the gospel, this would appear to be good news. After all, having to convince people of God’s existence before persuading them to follow Jesus Christ is an uphill slog.
If belief in God remains so high, why are fewer of us attending churches or identifying with a religious tradition? There are many answers to that question, and I’ve addressed many of them in other articles, talks, and videos. Here, I want to address just one.
A few years ago, Julia Duin wrote an insightful piece in The Washington Times about the religious questions being asked by young adults. A generation ago, the central question was, “Is there a God?” While the question still fuels the books of popular atheist writers, Duin reported that the issue of God’s existence is not on the mind of most Millennials. Most of them, as the surveys reveal, do not question whether God is real. Instead, they question whether he is good. Duin wrote:
The current 20-something…may believe God exists but is not worthy of his or her worship or devotion, much less obedience. The God who gets communicated to the young sounds vengeful and angry and over-anxious to consign people to hell, plus he gets all wrought up about divorce, homosexuality and whether people sleep together before marriage — which are non-issues to them. Plus, the typical Gospel presentation of God becoming a human and dying for the sins of the world does not reach these students. No court of law would punish an innocent person for the sins of the guilty, they reason. Why kill off an innocent man for the trespasses of a world that didn’t ask to be saved in the first place?
One pastor near the University of Virginia confirmed Duin’s report. He described the young adults he tries to engage as turned off by what they know about God. “Their biggest complaint,” he said, “is that God acts in morally inferior ways compared to us.” In other words, young adults formed by a tolerant, open-minded culture without sexual boundaries or limitations on self-expression, believe they are more moral than God.
Much has been written about the inflated self-esteem of Millennials—a generation coddled by helicopter parents and taught by social media that narcissism is a virtue—but could their self-image really be so high that even God is below them? Do they really believe they are all that and a bag of chips?
Scot McKnight thinks so. He has taught college students for decades and has recognized a shift in the latest generation to come through his classroom. He calls them “iGens” and believes their self-esteem is a significant barrier to Christianity. In the past, the gospel had been received by people who felt guilt for their transgressions; they recognized a gap between their sinfulness and God’s righteousness. Into this gap was inserted the Good News of Jesus Christ because they felt the need for a savior.
When asked why he shared a table with tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Awareness of their own depravity is what made sinners receptive to Jesus; they recognized their illness and need for healing. The Pharisees, on the other hand, rejected Jesus because they were convinced of their own righteousness; they were perfectly healthy (or so they thought). Today, we increasingly live in a culture of secular Pharisees—non-religious people convinced of their own righteousness who view Jesus as a morally inferior kook followed only by simpletons. Will we be more effective at reaching today’s Pharisees than Jesus was?
I doubt it, but that doesn’t mean there is not hope. Some of Jesus’ most devoted disciples had been Pharisees—the Apostle Paul being the most famous. Paul hated Christians and despised their message, and it was only a great display of Jesus’ power and presence that opened him to the gospel. Because our culture lacks the basic ethical framework into which the gospel can be received both traditional apologetics (arguing for God’s existence) and traditional evangelism (arguing for our guiltiness) are very difficult endeavors. Like Paul, today’s secular Pharisees need an encounter with God not to convince them of his existence but to awaken them to his goodness.