Many Christians do not believe the Holy Spirit is real

Life in the Postmodern Shift

April 6, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 7
Troy Watson | Columnist
(Photo by Joseph Barrientos/Unsplash)

In my eyes, Pauline (a pseudonym) is a more faithful and mature Christian than I am. She embodies the servant-hearted love of Christ. Her life and faith inspire me.

Imagine my surprise when Pauline told me she has never experienced the Holy Spirit. She has prayed and asked God for Spirit baptism for many years, but nothing has happened. She doesn’t understand why. She is beginning to wonder if the Holy Spirit is real.

Pauline is from a church I used to pastor, but she is also a composite of others I have met since. She is not alone. According to a recent study by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, 58 percent of Christians in the United States don’t believe the Holy Spirit is real. Surprisingly, this number jumps to 62 percent for people who identify as born-again Christians. This puzzles me.

I’ve had a number of powerful experiences with the Spirit. A few of these divine encounters have been sea-change moments for me. However, most of the time, my connection with the Spirit is a subtle awareness of Divine Presence around me and within me.

I’ve endured two periods I’ve labelled as “dark nights,” where I experienced the absence of God, but that’s another subject for another time. My point is, the Divine Spirit is a very real presence in my life. However, after 25 years of pastoral ministry, I realize this is not the case for many Christians.

Earlier in my ministry, this bothered me. I assumed every Christian should experience a personal Pentecost. Yet after meeting so many sincere and devout Christians, who have never sensed or experienced the Holy Spirit, I’ve started to wonder, is Pentecost for all? Or just some?

A part of me suspects people like Pauline do experience Divine Spirit; it just doesn’t fit their assumptions or expectations of what it should look or feel like. Many Christians like Pauline have told me they’ve had moments of feeling God’s peace, hope, comfort or joy. I believe these moments are Spirit encounters. The Spirit is often subtle. The Divine relates to us in different ways. We are all unique children of God. It shouldn’t be surprising we experience the Divine differently.

One of the so-called Big Five personality traits is openness. I’m extremely high on the openness spectrum. It makes sense that I would be more open and spiritually sensitive than someone who is much lower in the trait of openness.

This doesn’t mean I’m more spiritual or mature in my faith than that person. In fact, the opposite is often true. Most of the Christians I know, who say they’ve never experienced the Holy Spirit, are like Pauline—faithful, devout and Christ-like. The truth is, we all have different gifts and roles in the Body of Christ. It would be counterproductive if we were all spiritually sensitive “mystics” who are often “so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.”

Regardless, I’m still puzzled by how many Christians have told me they’ve asked God for Spirit baptism and have never experienced a Divine encounter or Spirit awakening. Jesus’ primary mission was to baptize people with the Holy Spirit. But most Christians assume that Jesus’ primary mission was to die on that cross and rise again.

This is why Christians tend to celebrate Easter as if it’s the triumphant end of the Gospel, and hardly even notice Pentecost. Yet all four Gospels introduce Jesus as the one who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. His mission is not completed until Pentecost. See Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:7-8, Luke 3:16, and John 1:26-27, 30-34.

I realize we all experience God’s presence in our own ways. We are awakened by, and to, the Spirit differently. Yet I struggle to understand why many Christians have no sense or awareness of the Divine around them or within them. Do us “weaker” Christians receive more tangible experiences of Divine Spirit because our faith needs it? I don’t have answers. What I have are questions.

Have you experienced the Spirit in some way, at some point in your life? Do you have an awareness of the Divine around you and within you? Have you asked for the gift of the Holy Spirit, to no avail? Is the Spirit real to you?

I invite you to share your stories with me. I will hold everything you share in confidence. I’m genuinely curious to hear how you have or haven’t experienced Pentecost in your life. Note: I may not be able to respond to everyone who shares.

Troy Watson is looking forward to hearing from you at

Read more Life in the Postmodern Shift columns:
The pendulum, Hegel and Christ
The complexity and simplicity of Christian unity
Makin’ space
Who is my Samaritan?
The end is probably nigh, but I’m optimistic

(Photo by Joseph Barrientos/Unsplash)

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