The last decade has revealed a trend in Americans' approach to the Bible. According to national surveys conducted by Barna Research, in 1992 nearly half of all adults (47 percent) read from the Bible during the week. That figure plummeted to just 31 percent by 1995, then rose slightly to 36 percent in 1999. The proportion of adults who read from the Bible during the course of a week, other than when they are in church services, has declined dramatically since the early '90s.
Pollster George Gallup and Michael Lindsay cowrote a book that documents the shallowness of American Christianity. Two of the underlying themes suggested by their findings are "the glaring lack of knowledge about the Bible, basic doctrines, and the traditions of one's church .... [and] the superficiality of faith, with many people not knowing what they believe, or why" (George Gallup Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay, Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs, 1999, p. 4).
About 93 percent of Americans have a Bible or portion of the Bible (the New Testament) in their homes. However, the number of Americans who view the Bible as infallible and having authority over their lives is decreasing sharply (ibid., pp. 34-35, 50).
"Most Americans consider the Bible to be a collection of inspired writings, but 'not everything in it should be taken literally.' This move toward understanding the Bible as the inspired, and not necessarily as the actual, word of God, is one of the most dramatic shifts in religious beliefs since the 1960s. As recently as 1963, two persons in three viewed the Bible as the actual word of God, to be taken literally, word for word. Today, only one person in three still holds to that interpretation" (ibid., pp. 35-36).
Surveys reveal how little the average American knows about the Bible. The religion section of The Dallas Morning News on Nov. 27, 1999, featured an article on the declining readership of the Bible. The headline reads: "Who Reads It? Fewer and Fewer, Say Those Bemoaning Bible Illiteracy." The article noted that, when quizzed on simple basic questions about the Bible, most people score poorly, even though most of them own Bibles.
Unbelief in Europe has been growing for decades. Northern Europe has long been known as the "North German Plain of Irreligion." Serious Bible reading is definitely on the wane-likewise living by its values.
Christianity is increasingly disconnected from the book on which it was founded, while forces hostile to Christianity grow ever stronger. As a result, scholars have described the late 20th century as the post-Christian era, and some say we are entering an anti-Christian era.
Brief upturn in Bible interest
In spite of these trends, 1999 saw an upsurge in interest in the Bible. What sparked it? Largely the fears and hopes associated with the approaching year 2000. People expressed a mix of secular and spiritual fears-apprehension about possible Y2K computer malfunctions, terrorism, a possible stock-market slump with major financial losses, conspiracies, apocalyptic events climaxing in Armageddon, and the fear of many that they weren't ready to meet their Maker.
There were hopes too. Many hoped for a large-scale spiritual revival. Many hoped the dawn of the year 2000 would see the second coming of Christ and the ushering in of the messianic millennium.
These fears and hopes were stirred up by what preachers and authors were saying about the Bible rather than what the Bible actually says. Listeners and readers were led to believe messages that were a mixture of truth and error. This eventually led to disappointment and disillusionment. Tragically, as people lose trust in sermons and books that are misrepresented as being firmly rooted in the Bible, they tend to lose trust in the Bible itself.
But Bible teachers are not the only ones to blame for biblical illiteracy. Christ wants us to be His disciples, and a disciple is a student. Bible students need to read the textbook for themselves.
Paul's and Silas's audience in Berea had the ideal attitude and approach: "These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11).
Why apathy toward the Bible?
Why have we seen an overall decline in respect for and readership of the Bible?
Several factors are at work. First, our very nature-our tendency to self-centeredness and to act as if we were independent of God's authority over us—is a constant pull away from God's law and way of life (Romans 8:7).
Second, we are heavily influenced by an increasingly secular society and the perception that the Bible is irrelevant—a perception craftily encouraged by a powerful spirit being, Satan the devil, who "deceives the whole world" (Revelation 12:9). He is always at work to discredit the Bible and the concept of absolute truth.
Third, when people prosper they tend to forget God and His purpose for mankind. An easy life makes it easy to forget the Bible. As financial confidence increases, reliance on God wanes. The year 2000 started with a booming economy and great optimism for continued prosperity. But devotion to materialism is a mortal enemy of true spirituality.
God warned the Israelites that once they were in the Promised Land they would be inclined to forget God and not give Him credit for their prosperity. God warned them not to forget the true source of their prosperity, lest "you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth'" (see Deuteronomy 8:11-18).
Christ said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread [material things] alone, but by every word of God'" (Luke 4:4). But self-reliant and materialistic man foolishly tries to live by bread alone.
What can we expect for the near future? Should we anticipate further disinterest in the Bible? Most likely. Based on the present spiritual disillusionment and the renewed faith in our technological society, it seems almost certain that reading, believing and obeying the Bible will continue to decline.
End-time secular society
What does the Bible itself reveal about the spiritual conditions and attitude toward God and the Bible in the end time? What will be the consequences, and what can we do to prepare for Christ's return?
Jesus tells us: "But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be" (Matthew 24:37-39).
Jesus predicted that many people would live rather normally, actively and comfortably until only a short time before He would suddenly intervene. The scene He describes is one of prosperity, with no apparent sense of alarm, no wake-up call to search the Scriptures.
We know that in the days of Noah "the wickedness of man was great in the earth" (Genesis 6:5). So Christ was warning that the way of life of many in the end time would be wicked as well. Many would be contemptuous of the Word of God.
Jesus asked, "When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8, RSV). His question implies that doubt will outweigh faith, with relatively few exceptions.
Prophecies of spiritual apathy
Paul describes people's focus in the last days: ".... For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, .... lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God ...." (2 Timothy 3:1-4). The list doesn't indicate many will be lovers of God's Word.
Verse 5 tells us that many will have "a form of godliness but denying its power." Gallup polls show that, although Americans want "spirituality," they don't necessarily want it to be Bible-based. According to recent surveys, "the percentage of Americans who say they feel the need in their lives to experience spiritual growth has surged 24 points in just four years—from 58 percent in 1994 to 82 percent in 1998" (Gallup and Lindsay, p. 1).
But people seek spirituality through various forms and methods, through countless Christian and non-Christian religions and customized combinations of beliefs and practices. "The United States is brimming with .... myriad religious faiths [and] .... diverse foreign ideologies and philosophies .... The options for those religious convictions will become even more manifold than they are today" (ibid., p. 23).
It is sad that the true religion God reveals in His Word—the one with real power—is losing favor and growing rare.
In 2 Timothy 3:7 Paul adds that some will be "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." Compare this with Jesus' definition of truth in His prayer to His Father: "Your word is truth" (John 17:17).
Many people have inquiring minds, but much of their inquiry is the pursuit of the trivial and the tantalizing. Those who seriously search for truth and the meaning of life often fail to look for it in the right place—the Holy Scriptures.
But this, too, was prophesied. "For the time will come when .... they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Paul warned the church at Thessalonica about conditions in "that Day"—the time at which Jesus Christ would decisively intervene in human affairs. He said many would be deceived "because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved" (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 9-10).
Be the exception!
The good news is that we can be exceptions, different from the complacent, uncaring masses in these last days. We have the wonderful opportunity to develop "the love of the truth"—a love of God's Word—that will keep us from being deceived as we approach the end of the age.
Significantly, the longest chapter in the Bible—Psalm 119 —is devoted to praising God for His Word and His laws. Its writer exults, "Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day" (verse 97). Each of us can develop this same love and reverence for God's Word.
The world is falling asleep spiritually, but we can choose to stay awake and alert and aware of trends. As Paul says, "let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober" (1 Thessalonians 5:6). To "watch" means to be spiritually alert and attentive, like a sentry or watchman.
Paul tells us to "put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil" (Ephesians 6:11). Then Paul lists the pieces of God's armor, including "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (verses 14-18). God's Word is our chief weapon in our spiritual warfare against the forces of evil.
God gave us His Word to serve as the foundation for all knowledge, understanding and wisdom. Those who are wise will replace aversion to study with an earnest desire to study. Jesus said that "blessed are those who hear [read and understand] the word of God and keep it!" (Luke 11:28).
How to be ready
At the right time Jesus Christ will suddenly intervene with apocalyptic judgments and actions. People are skeptical, thinking such will never happen. They think: I've heard that too many times before, and it never happened.
The apostle Peter predicted that "scoffers will come in the last days .... saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming?'" (2 Peter 3:3-4).
You may remember how, in the familiar Aesop fable, the townsfolk became skeptical after the shepherd boy repeatedly cried "wolf, wolf!" when there was no wolf. By the time a real wolf threatened, the people would not believe the boy's cry for help.
There have been countless false teachings and misunderstandings about Bible prophecy. Nevertheless Bible prophecy is true. Jesus promised He will return, and He will. It is a tragedy that many think the true preaching of prophecy is a mere cry of "wolf."
The Bible is God's great gift of divine revelation to mankind. It is His handbook for life. It is the Book of Books. Let's thank God for inspiring it, preserving it and making it increasingly available and accessible throughout the world. Let's turn to it, not away from it. GN