Christianity is the largest religion in the world today. Adherents to it are called Christians. Although beliefs within Christianity are extremely varied, it can for the most part be characterized by the following beliefs:
Most Christians believe in one and only one God, Creator of heaven and earth. Christians worship the same God as Jews and Muslims. He is eternal, uncreated, all-powerful, all-knowing, merciful but just, absolutely good, and possesses many other divine qualities. Most Christians believe that God exists in a Trinity (tri-unity): that is, there are three Beings or Persons within God. These are the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is not to be mistaken for polytheism, or belief in multiple gods. No, Christians believe in a single God in three Persons. They are united in substance, will, nature, and so on. This is called hypostatic union. Specific beliefs on God vary very much in Christianity.
When referring to God, most Christians use male pronouns, for many reasons, but increasingly in churches affected by feminism God has begun being referred to as a She. This has pagan connotations, however, and a mother, as the passive partner in sex (the one being penetrated while the man penetrates), does not accurately reflect the active Creator aspect of God. Furthermore, God is a spiritual Being (according to most Christians, at least), not One who is physically male or female. In any case, Christians usually capitalize words referring to God: “Lord” instead of “lord.” God has many names and many epithets, but He is commonly referred to as Yahweh, Yahveh, or Jehovah. According to the Bible, when asked His Name by the prophet Moses, God said that His name was, “I AM THAT WHICH I AM,” emphasizing the pure being of God.
2) Jesus Christ
The majority of Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jewish preacher, is an Incarnation of the Son of God, as the second Person of the Trinity, and thus God Himself. It should be stressed that Christians believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man. Christians view Jesus as being prophesied by the Prophets before Him as the Messiah. In this context, Jesus is often called “Christ,” a title from the Greek word Christos, meaning “annointed one” or Messiah. Christ, however, is not a part of His Name. Specific information on the life of Jesus can be found in His definition; see Jesus. Jesus was killed by Roman and Jewish authorities by being crucified. Christians believe that three days after He died, He rose from the dead, called the Resurrection, after which He ascended into Heaven, the Ascension. Christians attach special significance to His death. It can be summed up as follows:
A) All people have sinned and therefore fall short of the glory of God.
B) Sin separates a person from God.
C) Jesus Christ died as a substitute for us. He lived a perfect life under the Law and our sins were placed on His head. All believers are in the body of Christ, and so all believers died with Christ.
D) Therefore, all believers have paid the penalty for the sins because of Christ’s sacrifice.
E) Having paid the penalty for their sins, all believers are thus sinless, forgiven, without having died themselves. In other words, anyone with faith is accounted righteous.
F) Removing sin removes separation from God.
G) Therefore, faith in Christ brings a person to God (salvation).
This is how Christian salvation works in its most basic form, although different churches attach other requirements to achieving salvation, or exempt certain groups from these requirements. Certain churches teach that there are other ways than this to achieve salvation.
Jesus told His apostles, those of His disciples whom He chose to preach in His Name, that in the end times He would return to earth. Christians believe that when the Prophets foretold the Messiah, they spoke of two advents, or comings, by implication. His first advent was as a rejected King who died for the world’s sins, as foretold in Isaiah 53, a prophecy made hundreds of year before His birth – “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa. 53:5). His second advent, or parousia, will be in glory and power, as in Isa. 9:7 – “He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” In His second advent, Christ will judge all people, assigning them to Heaven (salvation) or Hell (condemnation).
3) The Bible
The holy book within Christianity is called the Bible, and it consists of two main parts. The first part, called the Old Testament (it is the same text as the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, but reorganized), includes three sections called by Christians the Law (mostly concerned with the origins of the world and a legal code concerned with righteousness), the Histories (records of history in Israel), the Wisdom books (poetic books that reflect the author’s wisdom), and the Prophets (books containing prophecies). The Old Testament focuses on God’s relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. The New Testament, the second part of the Bible, consists of four parts – the Gospels (accounts of Christ’s first coming, i.e. short biographies of Jesus Christ), the Acts of the Apostles (details about the establishment of the early Church), the Epistles (letters that contain doctrinal statements), and the Revelation (an account of the end times and the second coming of Christ in prophetic symbolism – the hardest book of the New Testament to understand). The New Testament focuses on Jesus Christ explicitly.
Opinions about the Bible vary within Christianity. Many Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God and is inerrant (has no errors), as long as it is translated correctly (the text was written over 1,500 years by some 40 authors in Hebrew and Greek). Other Christians believe it’s generally reliable and truthful, but deny that it’s inerrant. Most Christians interpret the Bible, or have it interpreted for them by their church, literally in some cases and symbolically in others, whereas some Christians interpret it literally throughout. Specific interpretations vary from denomination to denomination. Also, it should be noted that some churches have different versions of the Bible than others – Catholic Bibles have seven extra books and additions to other books; Orthodox Bibles contain those and possibly other books depending on the type of church.
In Christian usage, the Bible is called the Scripture(s), or sometimes a passage a Scripture.
Most Christians believe that either after one dies or after a day of judgment (the Day of the Lord) in the end times, a person will go to either Heaven (paradise with God) or Hell (condemnation). Catholic Christians believe in a third option, Purgatory. If one doesn’t go to Heaven (or, in Catholicism, Purgatory), they go to Hell. Christians are split on the exact nature of Hell. A common belief is that Hell is a physically real place in which the souls of the unsaved are tortured in flames for all time as a punishment for their sins on earth. Although many Christians do believe this, many do not. Another common belief is that Hell is a state of eternal separation from God with no active punishment; another is that Hell is the same place as Heaven, but that the righteous experience God’s love in a positive way, while the unrighteous experience extreme guilt from God’s love. Still other Christians believe that Hell is temporary, a place one goes to gain faith, or pay for their sins themselves, before being accepted into Heaven, like a hospital for the soul (alternately, some believe that Hell is temporary, but one just ceases to exist afterwards). Other Christians say that though it exists, God won’t use Hell, while still other Christians deny the existence of Hell altogether.
It should be noted that several words translated “Hell” in English Bibles actually refer to entirely different places than this “place of condemnation” – Sheol, Hades (Greek equivalent of Sheol), and Tartarus. The fiery abyss most people associate with the English word “Hell” is rendered by the Greek word “Gehenna.” So, many English Christians may be surprised to learn that “Hell” is three different “places.” Further, the word often translated “eternal” from the Greek word “aionios” is derived from the Greek word “aion,” meaning “age” or “eon” (in British English, “aeon”). In other words, the fire in the Bible probably isn't "eternal" so much as "age-long." So, these various understandings of Hell may simply be the result of translation errors.
There are three main types of Christian (size estimates as of 1995, Encyclopedia Britannica):
1) Roman Catholic (968 million)
Roman Catholicism sees itself as the continuation of the original Church tracing back to the apostles of Jesus Christ. Catholics believe that the authority the apostles had (called apostolic authority) was passed down to their heirs, who passed it down to their heirs, and so on. This is especially true of Simon Peter, one of the apostles to whom Catholics believe Jesus gave special authority. Simon Peter became bishop of Rome, and so Catholics believe that all bishops of Rome (called Popes) have that special authority – in fact, Catholics believe that Popes are capable of making infallible (absolutely true) statements for all the Church to follow. The Pope is the highest rank in the Church, and he is seen as a representative of Christ on earth.
Catholics believe that the Bible is a source of authority in the Church, but they also believe that Holy Tradition, those beliefs passed down from early Christians that are not contained within the Bible, is a co-source, equally important as Scripture. Historically, Catholic writings have been written in Latin, and they still are today, but (largely as a response to the rise of Protestantism) now Catholic documents, like Bibles, written in the vernacular (common languages like English) are acceptable.
Catholics are said to perform “latria,” or adoration, for God, and “dulia,” or veneration, for saints. The term “hyperdulia” refers to the Virgin Mary (mother of Jesus), whom Catholics venerate much more than other Saints. Catholics, like the Orthodox, hold that a Saint is a person recognized by the Church to be in Heaven currently, and Catholics pray to Saints to make intercession for them. The reasoning is that asking a saint to pray for them strengthens the prayer, as God will much more likely listen to a righteous person than one who isn’t.
Since the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholicism has taught that not only Catholics, but also the Orthodox, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others who try to live moral lives will go to Heaven, but this was not always so, historically speaking. Catholics believe that, for a Catholic to be saved, they must have faith in Jesus Christ as God and Redeemer and also should perform good works and receive baptism. Catholics also believe that some will go to Purgatory, a place to purify the soul, if they were Christian but sinned after baptism.
2) Eastern Orthodox (218 million)
Eastern Orthodoxy also sees itself as the continuation of the original Church tracing back to the apostles of Jesus Christ. At first, there was only one Church, but schisms within it eventually led to the birth of two sects in 1054: the Latin-speaking Western Christianity (Roman Catholicism) and the Greek-speaking Eastern Christianity (Orthodoxy). Orthodox believers are classified according to the region they live in; hence, one might be a Greek Orthodox, a Russian Orthodox, etc.
Like Catholicism, Orthodoxy also uses both the Bible and the Holy Tradition, but, as in secular matters, traditions do not always agree with each other. As a result of this, and also the Orthodox emphasis on the Greek Fathers (distinguished Christians who spoke Greek), Orthodoxy disagrees at times with Roman Catholic traditions. For instance, the Orthodox Church uses a different calendar than the Roman Catholic Church. It should be noted that Orthodox believers usually emphasize Tradition even more than Scripture, as they hold that Scripture sprang from Tradition, not vice versa. But on the whole, Eastern Orthodoxy is very much like Catholicism.
Distinctive features of Orthodoxy include the use of icons to pray (to saints or to God), very specific architecture in churches, and no absolute condition for salvation – the Orthodox hold that their Church represents the best path to salvation, but not necessarily the only one. The goal of any Orthodox Christian is theosis, or Union with God. It is often said, “God became Man so that Man might become God.”
3) Protestant (466 million)
Protestantism originates in 1517 and was founded because some Christians became concerned with corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. Their name comes from protesting Roman Catholic practices. Generally, Protestantism was originally characterized by belief that only the Bible is a source for doctrine, not traditions or popes/councils, belief that only faith is necessary to salvation, not good works or anything else, that no one can earn salvation, but that it is only by the grace of God that anyone is saved, and that Christ is the only mediator between God and men, not the pope, saints, or oneself, but Protestant has since come to mean any non-Catholic and non-Orthodox. As a result, the beliefs of Protestants are extremely varied.
Different denominations interpret the Bible differently, and some denominations have other Scriptures than the Bible (i.e. Mormons). Also, the Protestant Bible is shorter than the Catholic/Orthodox Bible. Protestants removed several books, the ones found in a Greek translation of the Old Testament (Tanakh) called the Septuagint but not included in the Jewish Bible. It is significant that one early Christian, a certain Athanasius, believed that the Bible should consist only of the books Protestants now consider acceptable. It is difficult to discuss any Protestant views in depth, however, as they are so diverse.
About 275.5 million Christians identify themselves as “other.”
Christianity, as the world’s largest religion, is often attacked or insulted, but such people who attack it most likely do not have a good understanding of the actual religion; they are attacking a caricature of Christianity as practiced by a minority of Christians. Many non-Christians associate hypocrisy, bigotry, absurd beliefs like creationism, stupidity, or other negative qualities with Christianity. It is true that, historically, Roman Catholics and some Protestants have persecuted other groups or began wars (rather ironically, in the Name of Jesus Christ), but Christianity does not preach persecution. There are also many lies concerning Christianity, but these are simply untrue and malicious, made specifically with the intent to detract others from the faith. Many, many books have been written that provide reasons for believing Christianity’s claims against those often provided for not believing; popular ones include Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, and many others. For a list of web sites that defend Christianity, try http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Christian_apologetics#See_also (make sure to take out the space inserted here) for a large number, some very nice in the list. God bless!
For the message of the cross Christianity is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. - 1 Cor. 1:18
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