Yesterday we started looking at the five questions in which student’s responses diverged the most from my own.
Today I’d like to continue looking the results from our beliefs survey, continuing to move from the questions where student opinion diverged the most, to those in which they were most aligned with my own.
Care for some Ebionites to go with your Sabellius?
We asked students to choose the answer that best reflected what they belived about Jesus Christ, in particular who he was. 40% correctly identified orthodox Christology: “I believe that there really was a man named Jesus from Nazareth. He was the eternal God, made in human flesh. His miracles proved that he was God and he gave his life to save the world from their sins. After his resurrection, his disciples finally realized who he really was and begin spreading the word about what he had done.”
36% chose the option which read “I believe there really was a man named Jesus from Nazareth. When he was baptized God’s Spirit filled him, giving him special power and wisdom. He was a great prophet and teacher that reminded the people about the truth about God and the importance of loving each other. His teachings threatened the religious rulers of his day, so they killed him to try to shut him up, but his followers created a religion based on his teachings that changed the world.”
The options which suggested that Jesus was a good teacher about whom his followers created exaggerated stories which hinted at divinity, or a construct created from the imaginations of early Christians to lend their personal beliefs credibility, or a gnostic savior disguised by gospel accounts and best understood in light of the non-biblical stories of him suppressed by the church each recieved 8 votes.
In retrospect, the difference between the top two vote getters was very subtle, and the distinction was more a matter of what one answser lacked (a reference to Christ’s divinity) than what it included. Yet it does serve as an important reminder that we are called to affirm and proclaim the confession of Thomas, that Jesus is our Lord and our God.
Missing the Mark with our Hamartology
Responses to our question about the nature of sin were divided almost the same way as our question about Christology. 40% recognized the classic definition of the twofold nature of sin, as both our specific acts of disobedience to God’s law, and also as the attitude of rebellion that insists we are not beholden to the law.
36% chose the more karmic definition of sin as the pollution on our soul from our bad acts, which if not washed away by the blood of Jesus, prevents us from entering heaven when we die.
12% argued that it was the difference between our understanding of God and the divine reality, 8% said it was an invention of the church to control people, and 4% said it was the unavoidable difference between finite humanity and the infinite God.
Again, this division between two very similar definitions is only slightly troubling. However, it does reflect the common physical rather than relational understanding of sin so prevalent in Western Christianity. And a failure to recognize the twofold nature of sin can lead to confusion about our need for a twofold work of grace — our need for not only pardon but also healing.
The B-I-B-L-E, Yes, That’s the Book for Me!
When we asked students what they believed about the Bible, 46% responded that they believed in the divine and plenary inspiration of the Bible, though not in those exact words. “The Bible is a collection of writings, written and collected by human authors as God’s Holy Spirit directed them so that we would have everything we need to know about God,” is exactly how that response read.
31% specified a mechanical means to the divine and plenary inspiration of Scripture, noting their belief that God either handed a hard copy of his Word to his people (e.g., Moses handed the tablets of the law on Sinai) or dictated the message to his prophets who wrote it down word for word.
11.5% indicated they believed the Bible was a purely human creation which, if handled carefully, can point us in God’s direction, and another 11.5% argued that it was only one of many scriptures by which God attempted to convey his truth to humanity.
The fact of divine inspiration of Scripture is the essential in which we must be unified. As problematic as the idea of mechanical inspiration is to me, the means of divine inspiration is one of the non-essentials in which we can be charitable. And I’m not surprised the more humanistic philosophies about the Bible so prevalent in our culture are present within my youth group.
Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
Our question about eschatology was the first time at least half of the responses to a question reflected by own opinion. 50% of my students acknowledged an expectation that in the future “Jesus will return, the dead will be resurrected, all humanity will be judged and the world will be transformed. Heaven will come to earth, and God will make his dwelling among the righteous, while the wicked will be cast into hell.”
Not surprisingly, the second most common response was an expectation that “Jesus Christ is going to come back to earth, gather up the souls of the Christians who are still living, and take them to heaven to live with God and all the souls of Christians who have already died. Then God will destroy the earth once and for all and will send the wicked to hell (23%).”
11% expect a future in heaven for the souls of all humanity after death, while the earth will continue on forever. The Buddhist ideal of absorption into the divine after death, and the Hindu notion of reincarnation according to karma each received 8% of the votes.
I am happy so many of my students understand the orthodox Christian teaching on eschatology, but the fact that 50% of my students expect something less than Biblical (no resurrection, nihilism or reincarnation) demonstrates a continued need for sound Biblical teaching on the subject.
The Scope of Christ’s Atonement
One question in the survey sought to explore students understanding of exactly whom Jesus Christ died for. 62% of them responded that they believed that Jesus Christ died for everyone in the world, so that whoever believes in him might find eternal life.
19% of them chose a more universalistic response, arguing that Jesus Christ died so that hell would be empty and everyone would go to heaven. 8% indicated they believed Jesus died only for the elect, chosen by a sovereign God for heaven. 8% thought he died for his message, unwilling to be silenced by the authorities. 4% said he died for nothing, the victim of a senseless act of state-sponsored violence.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this isn’t the fact that 62% understood that Christ gave his body for the life of the world. Rather, while 58% of students indicated that the penal satisfaction theory was the primary way in which they understood the means of the atonement, only 27% of them carried that through to the logical conclusion of either limited atonement or universal salvation which such a position would seem to suggest.
Would the One True God please stand up, please stand up?
The first question on our survey asked students what they believed about God. 66% of them believed that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the creator of the universe who became flesh in Jesus Christ.
15% indicated a belief that the Judeo-Christian God is but one aspect of the Divine that is worshiped by different religions by different names. Another 15% indicated a belief in an impersonal, panentheishtic God who is the force that connects all things in the universe. And 4% admitted to doubting the very existence of God.
Again, while it is reassuring that the majority of students believe in the God of Scripture, it is troubling that, if correct, that means one in every three of my students has an unscriptural understanding of God.
Why did Jesus die?
When we asked why Jesus died, 69% said “for the sins of the world.” 27% chose the more governmental understanding “to demonstrate the seriousness of sin.” And 4% said because the authorities didn’t like his message and tried to shut him up.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these responses is that while in the question on the scope of salvation, 19% said they believed Jesus died so that no one would go to hell and all would go to heaven, not a single person chose the answer “to destroy hell so no one will go there” on this question.
Hopeful, but not too surprised.
When we asked about Jesus’ ascension, 69% indicated a faith that Jesus returned bodily into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God and intercedes for believers. 19% answered that Jesus’ spirit returned to a non-material heaven. 8% opted for the more modalistic view that the God who left heaven to become Jesus went back to heaven where he came from, and 4% assumed that because Christians stopped imagining they saw the risen Christ, someone had to come up with a story to explain why.
I was surprised that so many students opted for a bodily ascension, especially given the apparent prevalence of the idea of a non-material heaven in a spiritual realm where the souls of Christians go to be with God when they die. I am also surprised that after a full 50% of students chose the modalistic option to explain the Trinity in question 2, by question 6 all but 8% had left modalism behind. More on that tomorrow.
An Easter Faith
When we asked students what we celebrate at Easter, 73% of them indicated a faith in a bodily resurrection. 15% indicated a preference for a more figurative resurrection, a celebration of the fact that while the authorities killed Jesus, they couldn’t kill his message.
8% apparently believe in a recovery, not a resurrection, indicating they believe that despite the Roman’s best efforts, Jesus didn’t die and after he recovered from his wounds met with his followers. And 4% believe in the Sanhedrin’s explanation, that the followers of Jesus managed to steal his body and perpetrate a lie.
Pneumatology Alive and Well
Who is the Holy Spirit? According to 77% of them, he is “the real presence of God, active in the world, continuing to direct human beings to the truth.” 11% argued the Spirit is a personification of reason and wisdom. 8% believe the Spirit is the church’s way of explaining the force that binds all things together. (What happened to the other 7% who opted for the panentheistic/Lucasian understanding of God?) 4% opted for a gnostic spirit who represents the spark of divinity inside every human waiting to return to God.
Speaking of Lucas; Help Us Jesus Christ, You’re Our Only Hope
The question on which there was the greatest degree of agreement was the question about Jesus Christ as the Way. When asked, 81% responded that without Jesus, “We have no hope. Only his death and resurrection makes it possible for us to be saved.” 9% indicated that without Jesus, living a life of goodness is possible, but much more difficult. 5% indicated a belief that there are other options for salvation, but Jesus is the one that makes the most sense in a Western context, and another 5% went so far as too suggest that given all the extra baggage that comes along with faith in Christ, we might be better off without him.
Those are the results of our basic belief survey, at least for our youth group here. Tomorrow I will break down some lessons that I have taken away from this study.