Christianity is the world’s largest religion with 2.1 billion practitioners. It originates from the ancient patriarch Abraham whose faith in God was the wellspring of Judaism. Islam also calls Abraham the father of its faithful. In addition to sharing this common origin, the world’s three major monotheistic religions each focus on sin as the world’s most pressing problem, and each offers a path from sin to salvation.
Unlike the other two, Christianity demands no human effort to take at least the first steps along the path of salvation. Those steps come from “grace,” a free gift from God. God desires people to be saved from the consequences of their sin and, according to Christian doctrine, takes on those consequences. God then expects people to work toward holiness so that they may together have complete fellowship.
Christians do not think that individuals can understand God except as God reveals Himself to them. God is an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal presence who chooses to deal with a finite, limited, and willfully rebellious humanity because of love. Human rebellion began with what Christians call “Original Sin.”
Original Sin is represented by the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the progenitors of the human race. They were created as free moral agents, and God did not interfere with their free choice to break God’s single warning to them: do not try to be as gods. From their act of rebellion, all people throughout all ages have inherited the propensity for wrongdoing. Because humanity is corrupted, we cannot approach the incorruptible God unless God makes the first move.
God’s first and continuing move is the revelation of Himself as creator of the natural world and as lawgiver of the processes that keep the universe ticking. Like a father, God historically showed his plan and purpose for creation to the prophets of Israel, charging the children of Israel to take their knowledge of God and be “a light unto the Gentiles.” God eventually demonstrated Himself in ways that all humans could possibly understand. God became incarnated as, living as a man, Jesus Christ, in first-century Palestine.
Because no human can do anything about his or her sin except to become more enmeshed in it (and more distant from God), the mercy of God is embodied in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was the perfect human representation of God’s love and forgiveness. As such, Jesus was the only worthy sacrifice whose death could pay for the cost of sin for all of humanity. Once Jesus had died for the sins of humanity, he was raised from the dead and became united again with the Father in heaven, yet still distinct as the second person of the Trinity.
The Trinity is the Christian term for a single God composed of three distinct persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That a triune God can still be one is like a woman simultaneously being a beloved child, a faithful wife, and a devoted mother.
Obviously, God is more complex than any maleness attributed to God by the limits of human language, and the Trinity is only a limited explanation of all God’s attributes. Yet for Christians, it is the Father and in the male-like persons of the Trinity that God chooses to show some of the vast majesty and mystery of Himself. These revelations suggest the familial relationship God hopes for, with and among humankind.
The faithful who trust in Jesus for the grace of salvation take his promise literally that the Holy Spirit dwells within them and that, together with the Holy Spirit, they will be with Jesus and the Father in heaven after they die. What exactly that looks like or means has bankrupted the vocabulary of theologians from the earliest Christian times to the present. This is the one reason that makes Jesus fully God yet fully human, immediate and approachable.
Over its 2,000-year history, Christianity spread from ancient Palestine to Europe, the Americas, large parts of Africa, and Oceania. It is growing rapidly in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia, particularly in China. Although difficult to calculate because of persecution by the Communist government, Chinese Christians probably represent the greatest increase in converts in recent years.
Christianity is based upon the claims of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew who lived in first-century Palestine, a Roman province in the Middle East. Indirectly at first and then with increasing boldness, Jesus said that he was God incarnate, the long awaited Messiah. The Hebraic word Messiah suggests a priestly “King of kings,” not necessarily supernatural, but one who would bring justice to all the earth. Supernatural or not, this implies quite a bit of power and presumably would make ordinary leaders, both secular and religious, redundant. The implications of this claim hounded Jesus until his execution at the age of 33.
During his three-year public ministry, Jesus performed numerous miracles, claiming they were part and parcel of the kingdom of heaven. He alleged that he had the authority to perform miracles because he was the son of his father in heaven and, more importantly, that he had the power to forgive sin. Indeed, Jesus claimed for himself the sacred name of God, a blasphemous crime under Hebraic law. Because the Jewish religious authorities were subservient to Rome, they turned Jesus over to Governor Pontius Pilate for punishment for these claims. Pilate did not recognize the blasphemy but ordered the prisoner crucified on the grounds that Jesus could perhaps lead a revolt against Caesar.
Following Jesus’s death upon a cross and burial in a tomb, witnesses said that he rose from the dead. As this gospel (from the Greek, literally “good news”) spread from Palestine into the wider Roman world, Jesus was increasingly referred to as Christ, the Greek title for Messiah. “Christian” originally meant “little Christ,” a term used derisively at first, but by 313 AD, it had gained full honor when the Emperor Constantine elevated Christianity to the state religion of the Roman Empire.
Christians believe that Jesus was born at the time of the census of Caesar Augustus and that his birth is the dividing point of history. Because of the pervasive influence of Christianity in the West, calendar dates were delineated as either BC (Before Christ) or AD (Latin for Anno Domini, meaning “In the year of the Lord”). Elsewhere, the success of Christianity’s material offspring—capitalism, scientific rationalism, and technological innovation in warfare—caused non-Christian cultures to utilize the same dating system, at least in international affairs. The more recent usages of BCE (Before the Current Era) and CE (Current Era) are secular attempts to diminish Christianity’s influence and be more inclusive of other religions, but they are anchored to the same historical points in time.
Secular criticism of Christianity’s role in Western history and in the colonization of the Developing World presents a laundry list of crimes—the Spanish Inquisition, witchcraft trials in the British colonies, forced conversion of indigenous peoples and disdain for pagan cultures worldwide, pogroms against Jews, enslavement of blacks, and so on. The specific charges are very often true. However, just as often, the numbers of victims are exaggerated; the guilt of singular nations or ethnic groups is expanded to include all of Christendom, and what happened centuries ago gets telescoped as if to appear it was regular practice only yesterday.
More scholarly secularists do not disagree with other claims made for Christianity—the creation of capitalism and the university system, the transformation of magic into science, the overturn or downsizing of monarchy, tolerance of other religions, the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, legislation to end the exploitation of child labor, and the ironic notion that it is possible to have non-religious governance of devoutly religious people.
Christians read of the life of Jesus and his predecessors in the only Christian holy book, the Bible. It consists first of the Old Testament, the longer part, sections of which are considered sacred to Judaism and Islam. Some Christians refer to the Old Testament as the Hebrew Bible. By any name, it chronicles the lives of Jews and others who lived before Jesus and to whom God had promised a messiah.
The second, longer part is called the New Testament, or sometimes the Christian Bible. Unique to Christianity, it centers around the figure of Jesus and his effect on the world. Christians believe that Jesus is the savior foretold in the Old Testament, so instead of looking for a new savior, they await the return, or Second Coming, of Jesus.
The New Testament is comprised of the Four Gospels (gospel meaning “good news”). The good news records the ministry of Jesus and his promises of salvation. History of the early church follows with Acts of the Apostles. Next, the Epistles are letters to some of the early churches, but in large part they are meant to be instructive to all churches for all time. The New Testament closes with the Book of Revelation, an apocalyptic filled with metaphors about the end of time.
Bibles used by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches include apocryphal and deuterocanonical books. They are not considered sacred but are regarded as literature with didactic purpose and explain the origins of some doctrines. Most Protestants, while accepting their literary value, think it is unnecessary, if not subversive to the faith, to include the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon in the Bible.
The Four Gospels
The Gospel of Matthew, according to Christian tradition, was authored by a hated tax collector named Levi. At the time of his writing, however, he had become known as Matthew, one of the twelve Apostles proclaiming the love of Christ. His target audience was Jewish-Christian communities in predominantly Jewish areas.
Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses—the lawgiver who led the Jews from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, or from sin to salvation. Matthew includes the Beatitudes that resemble the Ten Commandments in their guidelines about how to live. They call Christians to engage in humility, peacefulness, and prayerfulness, and ask them to willingly fast, mourn, and undergo persecution.
The Gospel of Mark is tantalizingly vague about the background of its author. Mark is not mentioned in the list of the disciples, but according to an early church tradition, Mark followed Peter and copied down Peter’s words. Mark is generally considered the oldest Gospel and a source for the other Gospels.
Some suggest that Mark wrote to a Latin community, gearing the text to Gentiles who struggled with the idea of following Jesus because he was a Jew. The majority of Jews at that time were meticulous in their exclusivity and regarded Gentiles at the level of dogs.
The Gospel of Luke was written by a physician who never met Jesus but who is widely recognized as a good historian, and who meticulously gleaned information from others.
Luke portrays Jesus as a prayerful teacher and devoted to the salvation of all people. Luke’s Gospel is particularly partial to women. Of all the Gospels, Luke most completely portrays Jesus as a master in the use of parables, stories about everyday matters that evoke deeper spiritual meanings.
The Gospel of John was written by one of the first of Jesus’ disciples, probably the youngest and the one to whom Jesus was most endeared. Jesus charged John to take care of his mother after his crucifixion.
John is more poetic and symbolic than the other Gospel writers, and he paints a portrait of Jesus as pre-existent and divine. John describes Jesus as “the bread of life,” “the light of the world,” “the good shepherd,” and “the way, the truth and the life.” For John, disciples are called to believe in Jesus with their entire minds, hearts, and souls.
The Acts of the Apostles
This book details the history of the beginnings of Christianity after Jesus’s death and resurrection. It was written by Luke as the second part of a long letter to a friend (the Gospel of Luke). Naturally, Luke did not expect his letter to be divided into a Gospel and Acts. Like all New Testament writers, he could not foretell that anything he wrote would be made part of a holy book.
The first part of Acts is about the Apostles in Jerusalem. Then the focus switches to a persecutor of Christians, a zealous, scholarly Jew named Saul. Saul experiences a miraculous encounter with God, converts to Christianity with the same zeal that he previously persecuted them, and becomes known as Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles.
Twenty-one letters are attributed to Peter, Paul, James, John, Jude, and others. These writings address specific spiritual and social problems in the early Christian community.
The Book of Revelation
This blood-and-thunder account details the end of time. Its authorship is attributed to John when he was very old and in exile from Rome. He was encouraging his contemporary Christian community that was undergoing a new and seemingly relentless wave of persecution. The book is filled with symbolism, dream sequences, and visions. They are meant to remind believers that their suffering will end soon and that a new life with God will bring peace for all eternity.
When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the late fourth century AD, he noted that the Septuagint had many more books than the Hebrew Bible itself. He called these books Apocrypha, meaning “hidden.” Many biblical scholars suggest that the Apocrypha was withdrawn from mainstream use because the text was too mysterious or contained esoteric lore that could not be proven.
Christian apocryphal books have been discovered in addition to the Hebrew apocryphal books. These present information about the beliefs and practices found in the various movements of early Christianity as well as some strange and heretical stories, teachings, and beliefs.
The Christian church never accepted any of these apocryphal or deuterocanonical books as canonical. Historically, the importance of the Apocrypha is that these books give insight into the religious climate that prevailed for roughly 300 years, between the last writing in the Hebrew Bible, about 250 BC, and the beginning of New Testament writings at about 50 AD. The Apocrypha describes political upheaval, war, hostile occupation, religious conflict, and a falling away from faith. The strong implication is that the world was on its last leg and a great battle between good and evil would soon occur.
The Gospel of John
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.”
Jesus answered and said unto him, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus saith unto him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and [of] the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus answered and said unto him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered and said unto him, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up. Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face-to-face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
Christianity adopted from Judaism the concept of a single, eternal God who created the universe from nothing and invented time at the point of creation. Christianity expanded this understanding of God with unique beliefs about the divinity of Christ and the nature of God as a Holy Trinity.
Many Christians believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is not a mere spirit but retains a bodily form that is no longer subject to either decay or to the laws of the natural world. He can be in many places at once, and in one of his post-death appearances to his earliest disciples, he barbecued fish and ate with them.
The anniversary of Jesus Christ’s resurrection is the most important date on the Christian calendar. The day of Christian celebration, Easter, was originally a pagan holiday that Christians subjugated for their own use.
Jesus’s miraculous birth to a virgin is celebrated at Christmas with hymns, special services, and the giving of gifts. Most Protestant Christians did not regard Christmas as a special day until the end of the nineteenth century, when manufacturers and merchants saw the potential of commercializing the holiday.
The purpose of life for Christians is to do the will of God in this world and, by Jesus’s death on the cross, be worthy of a heavenly life with him in the next. Christians understand that one of the commandments for this world is “The Great Commission,” the marching order for evangelism. Christians are to go out into the entire world, converting non-believers, baptizing them in the name of the Trinity, and teaching them to be disciples of Christ. At the very least, Christians are supposed to pray for those actually going out and doing the discipling and, if they can, provide financial support.
New Christians are baptized by being either sprinkled with water or through total immersion. Symbolically, the water cleanses them from sin and drowns them as sinful people. Coming out of the water ritualizes the resurrection of a transformed life. Depending on the branch of Christianity, people are baptized either as babies or when they reach an age of moral awareness and consent. A phrase often heard, “born again,” is not the result of baptism but rather a description of a person who has declared Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.
Christianity teaches that the most intimate connection God can make with his people is to suffer along with them. Although Christians are urged to pray for healing and for relief from tribulation, the knowledge that God is with them during difficult times offers comfort to those who believe that personal suffering can lead to positive outcomes. Trusting in God no matter what the circumstances is difficult, but Christians accept this as essential if they are to mature in faith.
In Christianity, time is linear, although there are two different understandings of where it is headed. One suggests that, as believers become more and more Christ-like, they will be able to pacify and renew the world, bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth. The second views the world as so full of suffering and wrongdoing that an antichrist will rise to rule it. Then Christ will return and defeat the antichrist in a great battle that inaugurates a reign of peace. In the minds of many Christians, these views are not mutually exclusive.
Christianity views itself as the fulfillment of Judaism, whereas Judaism views Christianity as a heretical cult. Jewish converts to Christianity sometimes call themselves Completed Jews or Messianic Jews, terms particularly irksome to friends and family still awaiting a messiah. Strange, but nonetheless heartening to beleaguered Jews in Israel, is how many Evangelical American Christians offer them political and humanitarian support due to the scriptural promise of God’s favor on nations and individuals who bless the Jews.
In some Muslim and Hindu countries, it is a crime to practice Christianity and a capital offense to convert. Nonetheless, many Muslims regard Jesus as a prophet, and many Hindus accept him as a sage. Those terms rankle some Christians because of Jesus’s claims to be God. They argue that a mere prophet or teacher who says he is God must either be mentally ill or lying.
Jesus’s claims to be the only way to salvation and eternal life imply an exclusivity in Christianity that may anger those who would rather tolerate many paths to salvation. Oddly, this anger is most apparent among nominal Christian theologians and preachers who question the historical existence of Jesus. They take biblical accounts of Jesus and his miracles as myth invented by followers to bamboozle the unwary. Practicing Christians wonder why these skeptics bother to include themselves as fellow believers.
The basic beliefs of Christianity are summed up in what is called the Apostles’ Creed. It has received this title because of its great antiquity, dating from within a half-century of the last writings of the New Testament. With very little variation, it is recited in unison by Christians of all stripes. Some do it every Sunday, others much less often.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
BRANCHES OF CHRISTIANITY
As time progressed, Christianity divided into three major branches. Today there is a diversity of doctrine and practice among numerous groups that label themselves Christian. These groups are sometimes called denominations, although for various theological reasons some reject that classification. However, widely divergent groups can be described in terms of common traditions brought about by historical similarities and differences.
The Roman Catholic branch is the successor to the church established in Rome soon after Christ’s death. Its spiritual genealogy begins with the earliest disciples of Jesus. The Pope, the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church, traces the lineage of his office back to St. Peter.
Currently, the Roman Catholic Church composes the largest branch of Christianity. In it are included the so-called Latin Rite churches and several Eastern Catholic communities that have closer affinity with what became known as Orthodoxy. Together, their baptized members total about one billion.
During the fourth century, the governance of the Roman Empire became distinct from that of the Byzantine Empire. Mirroring the distinction between East and West, the churches in Europe displayed some doctrinal differences from those in Asia Minor. In 1054 AD, for mostly political reasons, the Roman Catholic Church broke from the church headquartered in Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey, in what has been called the Great Schism. As a result, Eastern Orthodoxy was officially born.
Orthodox churches are largely national, each associated with a particular country. Orthodoxy is common in Russia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, and Armenia. Baptized parishioners in these countries and in enclaves abroad number about 300 million.
Deeply rooted issues of dogma and practice caused a further split in the West. The Protestant branch of Christianity denounced the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope during the Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The results were at times very bloody, as in the case of Hundred Years War. Ironically, what began as violence between Catholics and Protestants ended with more important secular divisions, giving rise to armies of Catholics and Protestants fighting the mixed armies of political and national rivals.
Initially, the Protestant movement became popular in Germany, Scandinavia, England, and the Netherlands. It swept North America, starting with the successful settlement of English colonies.
Protestantism eventually divided into many denominations that arose in response to further disputes over doctrine and practice. Some of the denominations today are Anglican, Baptist, Anabaptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal. Members of each sometimes distinguish themselves as unified on cross-denominational issues, e.g., charismatic, evangelical, and reformed. A growing trend in Protestantism is the rise of non-denominational churches with no centralizing beliefs or organization.
The worldwide total of Protestants ranges from 592 to 650 million.
CHRISTIANITY IN THE MARKETPLACE
Christian business ethics can be summed up as, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and have become the de facto standard in international business today, even in countries where native religions do not encourage business ethics.
The Bible is the bedrock on which all Christian conduct is meant to rest. In his letter to the Romans, Paul teaches, “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.” He expounds on honesty in a letter to the Ephesians: “Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor.”
Christians nurture patience and diligence through their expectations that Jesus will return and finish the work of the Messiah. Hebrews 6 sums the result in an admonishment not to be lazy: “And we desire that each one of you may show the same diligence unto the fullness of hope even to the end: that ye be not sluggish, but imitators of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
Christians view The Bible as containing the moral duties for the entire human race. God expected Adam and Eve to work both before and after the fall. Psalm104 places human work in the cycle of nature: “When the sun rises...Man [or Woman] goes forth to his [or her] work and to his [or her] labor until the evening.”
Other parts of The Bible likewise treat work as a duty and industriousness as a virtue. Paul enjoined Christians to “be ready for any honest work.” To the Thessalonians, Paul commanded, “We exhort you...to work with your hands.”In the Old Testament, Nehemiah recalled that the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt with dispatch because “the people had a mind to work.”
Industriousness is one of the chief traits of the virtuous wife described in Proverbs 31. “She does not eat the bread of idleness,” but instead, “works with willing hands...and rises while it is yet night.” Proverbs suggests many rewards for diligence in labor, among them, “He [or she] who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit.”
Conversely, The Bible condemns laziness or sloppiness in work. Ecclesiastes reads, “Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks.” To the Thessalonians, Paul disparaged those who lived, “in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.”
Again to the Thessalonians, Paul uses his work ethic as a model for others to follow: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate.”
However, Christians often separate faith from business dealings. The rationale for the dichotomy is two-fold.
First, there are many degrees of belief among Christians. Some are culturally Christian, wearing only the label, while others are zealous in their faith. The nominal Christian borrows ethics from the world, not the church.
Second, one of the central theological tenets of Christianity is grace from God for forgiveness of sins. Therefore a number of practitioners erroneously believe that they can commit premeditated sin in the marketplace (or anywhere else for that matter) and expect God to forgive them without having to genuinely repent and change their ways.
Such behavior, however, is inherently un-Christian because it ignores the twin doctrines of creation and sovereignty. The apostle Paul states in his letter to the Colossians that no realm of life is beyond the lordship of Jesus. Indeed, all things were created “through him, in him and for him.” Christ’s authority sustains the created order, extending over “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers.” This accords Jesus Christ power over all beings and institutions. No human activity, including the practice of business, falls outside of his lordship. To argue otherwise is heresy.
Christian ethics cannot be relegated to part-time status, applied only on evenings and weekends. On the contrary, Martin Luther correctly asserted that Christian vocation is best expressed in life’s most common experiences.