This page in brief
This page is an outline of what Christians believe. It covers these topics
There are many different “brands” (denominations) of christianity, with three main groups: Orthodox (ancient Middle Eastern or central European churches), Roman Catholic and Protestant (many smaller and diverse denominations, including independent and house churches). This is summary of what would be common between most of the different denominations, plus my own assessment of what the scholars tell us about Jesus.
What christians believe
Christians believe there is one God, all-powerful, all-knowing and good, the creator of the universe and the source of all that is good. God is revealed in nature, in the Old Testament of the Bible, through people’s experience of him, and supremely in the person Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the New Testament of the Bible. God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us, but is opposed to wrong behaviour and will one day pass judgment on all people and all that is evil.
Christianity grew out of Judaism, the religion of the Jews. The Jewish scriptures (The “Tanakh”) tell of the stories of creation, God choosing the Jews as a special people, his refining of their beliefs and ethics through many troubles and primarily through prophets whose words have been recorded, and his promise of a “new king” or Messiah who would put things right. Until recently, most Jews and Christians accepted all these stories as historical, but now many think the earlier stories are sometimes legendary.
Christians have included the Tanakh in their scriptures, the Bible, as the “Old Testament”, but base their beliefs more on the New Testament, which tells of the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. The New Testament contains biographies of Jesus, letters of instruction and a few other writings.
Jesus was a Jew who lived almost two millennia ago. Christians believe he was the son of God, God on earth as a human. The Christian belief in Jesus is based on the following (for more information, see Who was Jesus?):
Jesus as a figure of history
In most religions, the teaching is what is most important, and the messenger is secondary. But with Christianity, Jesus is in many respects the main message. Whether Jesus actually lived, and did and said the things recorded of him, is therefore an important question. Christians believe there is good historical evidence for the accounts in the New Testament (for a summary of what objective, expert historians conclude about Jesus, see Jesus in history).
The Kingdom of God
Jesus’ main message was that, in him, God was invading history to set up his rule on earth (the Kingdom of God), to undo evil and put wrong things right. The Jews had been waiting for the Messiah (God’s anointed king) to free them from bondage to other more powerful nations, so they were expecting a conquering Messiah, but Jesus had different ideas.
Jesus said God’s kingdom was not external but within people, indicating he was addressing the needs of individuals, not the nation. God was not seeking to exercise power over us, but calling on people to voluntarily embrace his loving rule over them; Jesus was a “servant king”.
Jesus taught that following religious rituals would not provide entry into the kingdom, for it is open to all who will accept it, and receive the offered forgiveness. And so Jesus urged people to recognise the urgency of the situation, choose to follow him in making a positive difference in the world, and start to live in a new way that he outlined.
Jesus’ announcement of the coming of God’s kingdom should have been really good news, for God’s rule is good. Many people saw it that way, but many others, including the religious authorities, did not, and rejected Jesus. Christians believe it is still good news today.
Miracles of healing, deliverance, and power over nature were an integral part of Jesus’ mission. They are seen by Christians as a demonstration of God’s rule and his compassion for hurting people. While some people say that miracles are contrary to science, and cannot happen (arguing they were only believed by superstitious people who didn’t know science), Christians believe God, as creator of the universe, is quite capable of working miracles if he chooses to.
Jesus the teacher
Jesus is perhaps best known today as an innovative ethical teacher, but his teachings were not so much new as extensions of ideas in the Old Testament and contemporary Judaism. His teachings were all related to living in the kingdom of God. Some of his main emphases:
- He taught that some common ideas about God were mistaken. Many people see God as a stern killjoy, but Jesus taught that God is love and wants us to have meaningful and fulfilled lives. In fact he said God is as near and as loving as a good dad, and he taught us to pray to him as his children.
- Jesus taught that some common ideas about religion were mistaken. Many people think we can earn God’s favour by following religious rituals, but Jesus taught that God loves us regardless, and we don’t need to appease him because he is willing to forgive us if we ask. Justice and mercy are more important than religious observances.
- In the new community of those who are following Jesus, a new standard of behaviour is required, based not on external rules but on a heart attitude to love God and love towards others (where “love” means serving sacrificially to do good to others). His followers were called not just to care for their family and friends, but to love their enemies.
Death and life
After less than three years of public teaching, Jesus was executed for disturbing the religious status quo and offending the religious authorities by claiming to be God and forgiving people’s sins. But Jesus had predicted his death and had said that his dying would be the means of opening up the kingdom and providing forgiveness – he had come, he said, “to give his life to redeem many people” (Mark 10:45). Although Christians have explained how his death achieves this in several ways, it remains somewhat of a mystery.
Jesus’ followers were devastated by his execution, but three days later it all changed for them as they found his tomb empty and saw him alive – not as a ghost, but as someone who has conquered death and returned bodily to tell us. This motivated them to begin to spread the word about Jesus in Israel and then throughout the Roman empire.
Christians believe Jesus’ death and resurrection are the centre of their faith, and of history.
After Jesus’ death, christians believe that God led his followers to take the message beyond the Jewish nation to the known world. Believers, notably Paul, travelled all over the Roman empire with the message. Acting on Jesus’ command to show God’s love to all, they set up impressive welfare measures for the poor (not just christians, but everyone), such as food distribution, orphanages, hospitals and prison visiting. Early Christianity also emancipated women and protected women and children in a radical way for the time. Sociologist Rodney Stark credits these actions with leading to the massive growth in the church at that time.
Christians believe it is very important that each of us put our own agendas aside and get onside with God, through seeking forgiveness and following Jesus in faith. We can be part of God’s kingdom, now and forever, simply by being willing.
Christians have different emphases in how to take this step, but most would involve expressing belief in Jesus, both to God and publically, asking God’s forgiveness from previous wrong attitudes and actions, resolving to follow the way of Jesus, and perhaps being baptised as a sign of beginning a new life.
Believers are then part of a new community, with a whole new family of brothers and sisters, and a new way of living. They commit themselves to following his teachings, putting others before themselves and allowing God to change them and call the shots.
But believers don’t go it alone. Jesus promised that God’s Spirit (not just an influence, but as much God as Jesus was himself) would lead and empower his followers. He encouraged them to ask God to work on their behalf and believe that he will. They see the Bible as God’s written revelation and the community of believers as support and encouragement.
It is unfortunately true that Christians haven’t always lived up to these high aspirations. Human weakness, self interest, wrong thinking and the presence of ambitious non-believers in the church (when it was a powerful political organisation – a sad mistake) may be some of the causes of this.
Some other important teachings are found in the New Testament or developed since:
- Grace is one of the most important Christian words. It means “unmerited love”, and describes both God’s attitude towards us all, and what should also characterise Christians’ attitude to all. It is God’s grace that leads to our acceptance by God, not our good deeds.
- The Christians of the first few centuries grappled with how to explain that there was one God, yet Jesus and the Spirit were both divine. Building on clues in the New Testament, they came up with the doctrine of the Trinity – there is truly one God, but there are three “persons” (Father, Son and Spirit) within the Godhead. Not easy to understand.
- Christians generally meet together in groups or “churches”, mostly in buildings set apart for the purpose, but also in houses, to encourage each other, learn, and worship God (although the Bible actually teaches that our whole life is to be offered as worship to God – Romans 12:1-2).
- Sacraments are actions which have sacred meaning. Almost all Christians practice the sacraments of baptism (a symbolic washing with water to signify washing away of sin) and the Lord’s Supper (sometimes called the eucharist, which means “thanks” or “grace”), a ceremonial sharing of bread and wine/grape juice in memory of Jesus’ last meal with his followers. Some practice other sacraments also.
- Christians believe Jesus will return to earth some day and wind up history, put all things right in the universe and make all things new. Those who are already in the kingdom will continue to live with God in the age to come, when God’s kingdom will be everywhere (i.e. there will be nowhere where God doesn’t rule through Jesus).
- Interacting with the people around them is also important to Christians, whether through acts of service or sharing the good news about Jesus. Christians remain active in various forms of social welfare, at home and abroad.
Why christians believe
Is it reasonable to believe in Christianity, more reasonable that to believe anything else? Some Christians think it is unnecessary to argue this matter, but most Christians certainly think their belief is true, for the following reasons.
Humanity and the world around us
Most Christians, like other theists, believe that observation of the world around us points to the existence of God as the best explanation (for more on this, see Why believe?):
- The existence of the universe, without any other apparent cause, and the fine-tuned design of the universal laws, as discussed in How did the universe start? and Was the universe designed for us?, support the Christian view that the universe is the handiwork of God.
- Most of us live as if people really matter, we have freedom to make choices, there are ethical standards that are really true, and our reasoning on abstract matters (such as this page) reaches true conclusions. Christians believe that creation by God, is the only basis for believing in these things (as discussed in Right and wrong).
Jesus is the most important reason why Christians believe.
- They believe that the historical records are reliable, as discussed in Are the gospels historical? and Jesus in history.
- They believe that the best, and only, way to explain a person universally regarded as a great and compassionate moral teacher, yet who did and said so many things that indicated he was God in a human form (see Who was Jesus?), is to believe him. It is hard to see how a great ethical teacher could lie, and difficult to believe he was mistaken.
- Christians believe that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact, and the only reasonable explanation for the evidence, thus putting God’s seal on Jesus’ status as the Son of God.
In more ways than one, the Christian faith stands or falls with Jesus. If you can believe Jesus told the truth as recorded in the New Testament, you can believe the rest. If you can’t believe in him, then there is little remaining.
Experience of God
Most Christians also point to their experience of God as a reason they believe.
- Once they choose to follow Jesus and live under the grace of God’s rule, Christians say that their life takes on new meaning, and they see God’s hand at work in their lives. Christians believe they have entered into a relationship with a personal God. Most Christians say God has, on occasions, protected them in marvellous ways, guided them supernaturally and healed them miraculously. These claims are, of course, subjective, and generally impossible to verify, but millions of people would say such things – for example a poll in the US found that almost half the population claimed to have experienced or observed a miracle.
- Christians may also point to stories of the miraculous worldwide. While most of these are untestable, and some sound like urban myths, some are better documented. For example, thousands seek miraculous cures at Lourdes each year. The most plausible claims of cures are tested stringently by several medical panels, and more than sixty are considered to have been demonstrated. Many others have been documented, and Christians believe they constitute evidence of their faith.
For the above reasons, Christians believe their faith is reasonable, and a better explanation of all the facts than any other.
While Christians are encouraged to “give the reason for their hope”, they also believe that faith rests on more than reason alone. People respond to God’s call, or not, also because of their attitude and willingness. The influence of God’s Spirit is a factor. Each person has a choice and God respects that choice.
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons.