From the moment the pilgrims fled England because of persecution and settled in what would become the United States, American society has been deeply intertwined with religion.
While drafting the Constitution, Founding Fathers George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry and James Madison, among others, strove to incorporate the idea that church and state should remain separated, yet God should still be central in a nation’s affairs.
During his 1796 farewell address, Washington stated, “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle” (Religion and the American Presidency).
The thinking was similar 70 years later under the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, who outlined the concept of “divine providence” in a public speech proclaiming a “National Fast-day” in 1863: “It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God…and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”
While the nation’s culture and history are clearly inundated with mementos of a pious past—from its currency stating, “In God We Trust,” to the country’s constitutional laws, many of which are based on Old Testament laws—religious freedom was always a mainstay, causing the country to become known as a place for those previously persecuted for their beliefs. Think Puritans, Quakers and Jewish settlers.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, when most Americans still classify themselves by their religious beliefs. In fact, over 90 percent of Americans believe in a form of God.
Almost all worship in their own way, often with beliefs that run contradictory to each other. A tattooed pastor sporting a Bible in one hand and a cigarette in the other believes God condones his preaching in a bar, while another man believes that God views drinking as sin, worthy of hellfire. Rosary beads in hand, an elderly lady listening to the soft sounds of a preacher reciting a Sunday mass in Latin believes that God expects somberness, while another woman believes He wants her to honor Him by jumping, dancing and speaking in unrecognizable languages. Some believe God expects them to don dresses and suits for church services; others maintain God takes a more laid-back, come-as-you-are approach, meaning it is acceptable to wear T-shirts and ripped jeans.
In the chaos of opposing views of what God expects—and how He should be worshipped—is there any way to know which is correct?
According to Baylor University researchers Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, Americans view God in one of four ways: authoritative, benevolent, critical or distant. In their book, America’s Four Gods, the authors propose that the non-mutually exclusive views that Americans hold of God are based on opinions about His judgment and involvement in society. This, in turn, affects the way in which they rear their children, handle finances, and treat other people.
The book reports that 31 percent of Americans believe an authoritative God is directly involved in many aspects of society and individual lives. Those with this view maintain God helps them in their daily decision-making, but also perceive Him as angry, constantly bringing down harsh judgments on those who directly oppose His rules. Some believers even go so far as to say that God hates people, stating, “It is simple: God loves us and hates you” (ibid.).
Another 24 percent of Americans hold the belief that God is benevolent—the kind of Being described by the apostle John in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
“Their God is a force for good who cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts and will comfort all,” Mr. Froese told USA Today.
Similarly, America’s Four Gods states that up to 16 percent view God as “highly judgmental but simultaneously disengaged.” This “critical” God is perceived to be keeping some type of spiritual “score” on all human beings, but never directly involves Himself. Americans who hold this assumption believe heaven or hell waits for people after death based on that score.
Then there are the nearly 24 percent who believe in a distant God. They suppose that God is not concerned with human beings and their existence. He simply created the “game pieces,” set the rules, and pressed “play.”
Benjamin Franklin held a similar view, as demonstrated in his book The Works of Benjamin Franklin: “…I cannot conceive otherwise, than that he the Infinite Father expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that he is even infinitely above it.”
All four views of God—authoritative, distant, benevolent and critical—appear to be biblically endorsed.
Consider. The Bible seems to support the idea of a harsh and punishing God: “God is jealous, and the Lord revenges; the Lord revenges, and is furious; the Lord will take vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies” (Nah. 1:2).
On the other hand, the Old Testament records His benevolence: “…The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Ex. 34:6-7).
In addition, King David stated that God considers everything a person does, which appears to support the notion that God is critical. “The Lord looks from heaven; He beholds all the sons of men. From the place of His habitation He looks upon all the inhabitants of the earth. He fashions their hearts [minds] alike; He considers all their works” (Psa. 33:13-15).
Yet the prophet Isaiah apparently recorded that God distances Himself from mankind: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither His ear heavy, that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear” (Isa. 59:1-2).
The apostle Paul understood that people develop their own ideas of God. While in Greece, “Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, you men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, to the unknown god. Whom therefore you ignorantly worship…” (Acts 17:22-23).
The same is true for many today. While most assume they know Him, many rarely (if ever) consider peering into their bibles for any type of instruction.
A February 2008 Pew Research Center survey revealed that over three quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian, but only about 20 percent read their bibles at least once a month outside religious services. On average, they could correctly answer only 50 percent of religious-based questions. In addition, roughly 70 percent knew that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem—and less than half knew the four gospel accounts are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
While only 16 percent claim to read the Bible daily, a Gallup survey found that only 31 percent of Americans believe the Bible is God’s Word and should be taken literally. Almost half of those surveyed believe the Bible is God’s inspired Word, but not everything included in it should be taken literally.
Without looking to the correct source for information, an improper foundation of understanding is created. With so little biblical information, Americans are in fact worshipping an “UNKNOWN” God, developing views of what He is like based on their own opinions and ideas.
Notice what Paul recorded concerning such individuals: “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:21-22).
Given this, it is not surprising that so many competing and confusing opinions exist. God, however, is not the author of this confusion (I Cor. 14:33). He leaves clues throughout the Bible about how He should be viewed—if one is willing to look.
For centuries, most have paid more attention to things that have been created by the hand of man, such as lifeless statues, pictures and inanimate stone carvings, while ignoring the true God—the One who is actually alive.
To understand the true God, it is necessary to examine His characteristics, starting at the beginning of the book He inspired—the Bible. The following section is filled with Bible references to fully paint the correct picture of God.
Genesis 1:1 states, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Recognize that everything in the entire universe was created by God. This includes even those things that are invisible, such as gravity, magnetism, time and space. Colossians 1:16-17 states, “For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by Him...”
Because God is a Spirit (John 4:24), He is not confined to physical boundaries. This does not mean He is a blob that permeates the universe, coequal with His creation. As no human being is amorphous, neither is God. Genesis 1:26 states that humans were created in God’s image and likeness. In fact, God has features just as humans do (Rev. 1:14-16; Ezek. 1:26-28).
As Creator of time and space, God is also eternal. In Exodus 3:14, God revealed Himself to Moses as “I AM,” which means ever-living, existent one. God has no beginning or end of life (Heb. 7:3). He has always existed (Rev. 1:8).
God is the most dynamic of all beings. The Bible reveals God’s true qualities—His character—as holy and perfect (Matt. 5:48). Later in His Word, God is described not only as having love, but also as being love (I John 4:8, 16).
The Creator ponders each and every situation and decides the absolute best way in which to act. He is wonderful, mighty and fair (Isa. 9:6; 45:21), as well as comforting, merciful, faithful and forgiving (II Cor. 1:3; I John 1:9).
Some people have the misconception that the Old Testament God is harsh and authoritative, while the God of the New Testament is benevolent and merciful. This idea divides professing Christians, leaving most to form their own opinions. According to the Bible, however, this assumption is false. Malachi 3:6 states, “For I am the Lord, I change not…”
In actuality, the One who became Christ is the God of the Old Testament, who created all things! “And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (I Cor. 10:4; Psa. 18:1-2).
Although there is only one true God, the Bible reveals that God is actually a family, currently composed of two members: Father and Son.
Notice what God said in Genesis: “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness…” (1:26). In this verse, the pronouns “Us” and “Our” are used in direct reference to the original collective Hebrew noun for God, Elohim.
Further, John 1 states, “In the beginning was the Word [meaning “Spokesman” in Greek] and the Word was with God [the Father], and the Word was God…And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…” (vs. 1, 14). The Word, who later became Jesus Christ, was in the God Family with the Father before the creation of time.
This truth is contrary to the common belief that God is a three-in-one being, composed of the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit—a doctrine the Bible simply does not teach.
In fact, throughout Scripture, no mention is made of a supposed third God-being. Notice: “…there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by Him” (I Cor. 8:6).
The Godhead currently consists of two distinct beings, not some mysterious and strange three-in-one enigma as the trinity doctrine purports. When understood in its entirety, the trinity doctrine limits God and His ultimate purpose for mankind!
The Ten Commandments detailed in Exodus define how God wants people to live—and give an inside look into how to view Him. The first four Commandments address how to show God proper respect, while the last six teach how to treat fellow human beings.
The First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3), leaves no room for personal opinions or ideas. God expects that everyone will not worship other gods. In return, He promises to disclose His true nature.
Traditional Christianity does not understand God or His nature because it does not keep His Commandments (Psa. 111:10). On the other hand, true Christians, those with God’s Spirit (Rom. 8:9), understand His nature and know who and what He is (I John 2:3).
Yet many today believe that the Commandments are done away. Deceitful ministers, who themselves are deceived, have taught many that God’s Law is a “heavy burden” or “Christ kept it for us.”
But God can only be understood by keeping His Commandments, which, in turn, can only be fully internalized through practice. Keeping them, however, requires real effort, which does not come naturally (Rom. 8:7).
King Solomon was inspired to record, “…there is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:12, 16:25). In addition, the prophet Jeremiah was stirred to write, “It is not in man to direct his steps…” (Jer. 10:23). Taken together, these verses reveal that human beings on their own cannot do what is right.
Without God’s Spirit, the human mind is unable to properly discern between right and wrong—including the concept of God’s true identity.
There will always be those who do not want to obey God and who find ways around His Law. Professing to follow the “Lord,” they do not do what He says (Luke 6:46). They fail to recognize Christ’s plain words in Matthew 5:17: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” Instead, God describes His Law as a blessing—“holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12).
Positive effects flow from keeping the Commandments versus negative consequences that occur when they are broken. When the effects are considered, greater understanding, appreciation and reverence are natural byproducts that illuminate the true identity of the One who created these spiritual laws—God.
To learn more about how to be in contact with the true God, read David C. Pack’s books The Ten Commandments– “Nailed to the Cross” or Required for Salvation? and The Trinity– Is God Three-In-One?