Bible knowledge among Americans, in recent years, has plummeted. And, unless God’s people immerse themselves day and night in God’s Word – reading it, praying it, sharing it, obeying it – America will face a devastating spiritual famine.
The dire warning in Amos 8:11 should capture our attention: “‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD God, ‘when I will send … a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.”
Already, only 6 percent of American adults hold to a Christian worldview, evangelical pollster George Barna tells us. Many struggle with basic biblical facts, familiar even to atheists in days gone by. For example, the Barna Research Group reported in recent years that only 60 percent of American adults can name even five of the 10 Commandments; 12 percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife; and 50 percent believe Sodom and Gomorrah were married.
That’s no wonder, since – despite a rise in U.S. Bible sales in 2021 – American engagement in Scripture drastically declined last year. In its 2022 State Of The Bible, the American Bible Society reported the largest decline in “Bible users” among American adults that the study has ever recorded—a 10 percent drop, from 49 to 39 percent.
Defining “Bible users” as those who read or listen to the Bible outside of church only three or four times per year, the study sets an admittedly low bar for performance – especially considering Scripture urges us to meditate on the Law of the Lord day and night (Joshua 1; Psalm 1).
Though U.S. Supreme Court rulings banning school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading are often accused as the primary culprits for modern-day biblical illiteracy, the root of the problem started long before these 1960s rulings. According to Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero, in his book Religious Literacy, evangelical Christians in 19th-and-early-20th-century America began to emphasize religious emotions and experience, often to the detriment of learning Scripture and understanding the truths of the faith. Moreover, those who fell captive to liberalism and secularism elevated emotions and experience above a Bible that they saw as imperfect and historically inaccurate.
According to Timothy Larsen, Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, the more recent “freefall” in biblical knowledge has “many contributing factors”: the general decline in “long-form reading”; an emphasis in churches on entertainment, rather than instruction; and, of course, “the exclusion of the Bible from many school curriculums.”
To this list, we can add the “rise of the age of hyperlink browsing and social media” as well as the “increasingly frantic pace of life,” New Testament professor George Guthrie, author of Read the Bible for Life (B&H, 2011), told The Pathway.
But the problem goes much deeper than this, he said: “The root cause … has to do with the condition of our hearts. Are we drawn to the beauty and power of God’s good Word because we are drawn to God Himself?”
Writing in 1950, Christian scholar and author C.S. Lewis warned that the future of the King James Version of Scripture depended not on its literary merits, but on its spiritual authority. “For the Bible, whether in the Authorised or in any other version,” he wrote, “I foresee only two possibilities; either to return as a sacred book or to follow the classics, if not quite into oblivion, yet into the ghost-life of the museum and the specialist’s study.”
In other words, in the long run, Scripture will be read as God’s Word, or it will be read rarely. As such, the future of Scripture’s impact on American culture depends largely on Christians who sincerely confess, to borrow words from the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, that the Bible “has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.”
As we consider America’s dearth of biblical knowledge, we must see not only the great challenge facing us in this cultural moment, but also the great hope of what we may find by renewing our own commitment to reading God’s Word.
For even in the darkest moments on the pages of church history, we find stories of how lives, communities and cultures were transformed because God’s people devoted themselves day and night to God’s Word. In His Word, they found faith, hope, love, sanctification, spiritual renewal and revival. Through His Word, they were called to proclaim the message of redemption to all people. And, in His Word, they found the confidence to live faithfully as witnesses to Christ – knowing that, even though kingdoms and cultures fade away like flowers of the field, “the Word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).