By Aaron Earls
The theology of many Americans—and some evangelicals—belongs in a galaxy far, far away. They see God more as a force—like what is depicted in Star Wars—than a person.
Theologians distinguish a person as one with characteristics such as a personality, the ability to form relationships and a will, while a force is impersonal like gravity.
According to Pew Research, a third of American adults say they don’t believe in a personal God of the Bible, but rather some higher power or spiritual force in the universe.
More than half (53 percent) of “nones”—the religiously unaffiliated—believe in a higher power or spiritual force.
Young people are more likely to believe in an impersonal God. Almost 4 in 10 American adults younger than 30 (39 percent) say they believe in a higher power. Only slightly more (43 percent) say they believe in God as described in the Bible.
The older people are, the more likely they are to believe in a personal God versus a force. Among those 65 and older, 65 percent say they believe in God as described in the Bible, while only 26 percent say they believe in a higher power or spiritual force.
Education also plays a role in how likely someone is to believe in a spiritual force. Thirty-eight percent of college graduates and 36 percent of those with some college say that describes their theology. Only a quarter of those with high school or less say the same.
LifeWay Research found Americans are particularly confused about the nature of the Holy Spirit. More than half (56 percent) say He is a force rather than a person.
There’s no difference among all Americans and evangelicals in their attitude toward the Holy Spirit. Despite 97 percent of evangelicals by belief saying God exists in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—56 percent believe the Holy Spirit is a force.
Seeing these numbers are not necessarily surprising for Nathan Finn, dean of the school of theology and missions at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.
He says the biblical language of “spirit” could confuse some people who have been in contexts where there was a lack of clear teaching on the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
“It is a great mystery that the Spirit is both a spirit and a person, so it’s understandable so many are confused by this truth,” he said. “This is all the more reason we must be diligent about clear teaching on the Spirit.”
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AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.