Christianity is a monotheistic religion centered on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as depicted in the New Testament. Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament, and that the New Testament records the Gospel that was revealed by Jesus. With an estimated 2.1 billion adherents, or approximately 33% of the world's population in 2007, Christianity is the world's largest religion. It is the predominant religion in Europe, the Americas, Southern Africa, the Philippines and Oceania. It is also growing rapidly in Africa and Asia, particularly in China, South Korea and the Middle East.
Christianity began as an offshoot of Judaism, and includes the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) as well as the New Testament as its canonical scriptures. Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity is classified as an Abrahamic religion (see also, Judeo-Christian).
The name "Christian" (Greek Χριστιανός Strong's G5546), meaning "belonging to Christ" or "partisan of Christ", was first applied to the disciples in Antioch, as recorded in Acts 11:26. The earliest recorded use of the term "Christianity" (Greek Χριστιανισμός) is by Ignatius of Antioch.
In spite of important differences of interpretation and opinion, Christians in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions share a common faith. Although Christianity has always had a significant diversity of belief on controversial issues, most Christians share a common set of doctrines that they hold as essential to their faith. This common Christian heritage of beliefs has been given such titles as "the Good News of Jesus Christ," "the Way" and "mere Christianity," among others.
Jesus the Christ
As indicated by the name "Christianity," the focus of a Christian's life is a firm belief in Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah or Christ. The title "Messiah" comes from the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ (māšiáħ) meaning anointed one. The Greek translation - Christos - is the source of the English word Christ.
Christians believe that, as the Messiah, Jesus was anointed as ruler and savior of humanity, and hold that Jesus' coming was the fulfillment of messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. The Christian concept of the Messiah differs significantly from the contemporary Jewish concept. The core Christian belief is that, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, sinful humans can be reconciled to God and thereby are offered salvation and the promise of eternal life. [Ref. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Romans 10:13 KJB]
While there have been theological disputes over the nature of Jesus, Christians generally believe that Jesus is God incarnate and "true God and true man" (or both fully divine and fully human). Jesus, having become fully human in all respects, suffered the pains and temptations of a mortal man, yet he did not sin. As fully God, he defeated death and rose to life again. According to the Bible, "God raised him from the dead," he ascended to heaven, to the "right hand of God," and he will return again to fulfil the rest of Messianic prophecy such as the Resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment and establishment of the physical Kingdom of God.
According to the Gospels, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born from the Virgin Mary. Little of Jesus' childhood is recorded there in comparison to his adulthood, especially the week before his death. The Biblical accounts of Jesus' ministry include: his baptism, miracles, preaching, teaching, and deeds.
The Death and Resurrection of Jesus
Christians consider the resurrection of Jesus to be the cornerstone of their faith and the most important event in human history.
According to the Gospels, Jesus and his followers went to Jerusalem the week of the Passover where they were eagerly greeted by a crowd. In Jerusalem, Jesus drove money changers from the Temple, and predicted its destruction - heightening conflict with the Jewish authorities who were plotting his death.
After sharing his last meal with his disciples, Jesus went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane where he was betrayed by his disciple Judas Iscariot and arrested by the temple guard on orders from the Sanhedrin and the high priest Caiaphas. Jesus was convicted by the Sanhedrin of blasphemy and transferred to the Roman governor Pilate. Pilate was pressured into crucifying Jesus by the nearly rioting crowds. Although the crowds were incited by the religious authorities, Jesus was sentenced to death for "inciting rebellion." Jesus died by late afternoon and was entombed.
Christians believe that God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day, that Jesus appeared to his apostles and other disciples, commissioned his disciples to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son (Jesus) and of the Holy Spirit." and then ascended to heaven. Christians also believe that God the Father sent the Holy Spirit (or Paraclete) to the disciples. Many modern writers such as members of the Jesus Seminar and other Biblical scholars such as Michael Ramsey (a former Archbishop of Canterbury) have argued that the historical Jesus never claimed to be divine. John Hick observes that it is generally agreed among scholars today that Jesus did not claim to be God. Many also reject the historicity of the empty tomb (and thus a bodily resurrection) and many other events narrated in the gospels. They assert that Gospel accounts describing these things are probably literary fabrications. However, many other scholars and historians have maintained that the Gospel accounts of Jesus are, in fact, historically reliable. For example, the late scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon, referring to the New Testament canon, asserted that:
"The interval then between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Sciptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established."
The purpose of Jesus' death and resurrection is described in various doctrines of atonement. Some see Jesus as a Sacrifice (substitutionary atonement) made to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29} in a manner similar to Old Testament sacrifices. Others see Jesus' dying and suffering on the cross as a sign and demonstration from God the Father that His Son was willing to endure the shame and suffering of the cross because of his agape (parental, self-sacrificing) love for humanity. In other Scriptures which record Jesus' death and resurrection, The Gospel According to St. John compares the crucifixion of Jesus to the lifting up of the Nehushtan (brass serpent) saying that "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:14-16)
Christians believe salvation is a gift by means of the unmerited grace of God, a gift from a loving heavenly Father who sent His only begotten Son Jesus to be their savior. Christians believe that, through faith in Jesus, one can be saved from sin and eternal death. The crucifixion of Jesus is explained as an atoning sacrifice, which, in the words of the Gospel of John, "takes away the sins of the world." One's reception of salvation is related to justification.
The operation and effects of grace are understood differently by different traditions. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy teach the necessity of the free will to cooperate with grace. Reformed theology places distinctive emphasis on grace by teaching that individuals are completely incapable of self-redemption, but the grace of God overcomes even the unwilling heart.
Christians of Reformed theology also conceive salvation to be one work of the triune God in which "the three divine persons act together as one, and manifest their own proper characteristics" with the agency of the Holy Spirit as an essential element."
Trinitarian Christians trace the orthodox formula of the Trinity - The Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost - back to the resurrected Jesus himself who spoke these words, and which words were subsequently recorded in Matthew 28:16-20, and are commonly referred to as the Great Commission.
The "Indwelling of the Holy Spirit" has been called the "common privilege of all believers." John 20:22 quotes Jesus as saying to His apostles, "Receive the Holy Spirit." They were to receive the Holy Spirit Himself in some way. Nearly all Christians speak of the "Indwelling of the Holy Spirit." The person who has "received the Holy Spirit" thereafter not only has a sinful nature and carnal desires. According to this theological position, there now is also a second, competing, moral presence, that of the Holy Spirit, forever indwelling within him/her. From that point on, the person is able to see daily situations from either of two perspectives, and as a result, can choose to respond in a moral, Christian manner. However, the Christian often ignores these ethical, moral, positive thoughts inspired by the presence (indwelling) of the Holy Spirit, and respond in some selfish or lustful way as their own original nature desires. (John 16:7-14; 1 Corinthians 2:10ff)
In Catholic, Orthodox, and some Anglican theology, this indwelling is received through the sacrament called Confirmation or, in the East, Chrismation. In most Protestant traditions, the "Indwelling of the Holy Spirit" takes place in the action of becoming a Christian.
The New Testament also teaches that the Holy Spirit inspired all Scripture, a belief shared by most Christians.
In antiquity, and again following the Reformation, several sects advocated views contrary to the Trinity. These views were rejected by many bishops such as Irenaeus and subsequently by the Ecumenical Councils. During the Reformation (though most Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants accepted the value of many of the Councils) some groups rejected these councils as spiritually tainted. Clemens Ziegler, Casper Schwenckfeld, and Melchior Hoffman, advanced the view that Christ was only divine and not human. Michael Servetus denied that the traditional doctrine of the Trinity was necessary to defend the divinity of Christ. He claimed that Jesus was God Himself in the flesh.
Modalists, such as Oneness Pentecostals, regard God as a single person, with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit considered modes or roles by which the unipersonal God expresses himself.
Latter-day Saints (commonly called Mormons) accept the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but deny that they are the same being. Rather, they believe them to be separate beings united perfectly in will and purpose. They believe that the Father, like the Son, has a glorified physical body. (see Godhead)
Present day groups who do not consider Jesus to be God include: Unitarians, descendants of Reformation era Socinians, Christadelphians, and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Muslims believe that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is incompatible with monotheism, and they reject the Christian teaching that Jesus is the Son of God, though they affirm the virgin birth and view him as a prophet preceding Muhammad. The Qur'an also uses the title "Messiah," though with a different meaning. Muslims also dispute the historical occurrence of the crucifixion of Jesus (believing that while a crucifixion occurred, it was not of Jesus).
There is a diversity of doctrines and practices among groups calling themselves Christian. These groups are sometimes classified under denominations, though for theological reasons many groups reject this classification system. Christianity may be broadly represented as being divided into four main groupings:
- Roman Catholicism: The Roman Catholic Church, or "Catholic Church," includes the 23 particular churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome. It is the largest single body, with more than 1 billion baptized members.
- Eastern Orthodoxy: Those churches in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the other Patriarchal Sees of the East. A 1992 agreement amongst American theologians resolved theological differences between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians -- although this has yet to be universally recognized.
Together with the "Church of the East", these can be considered a single large grouping.
- Protestantism: Groups such as the Lutherans, Anglicans, and Old Catholics who retain much of the Christian church's traditions and history, but reject the authority of the Pope.
And Reformed such as Presbyterians, Congregational/United Church of Christ, Evangelical, Charismatic, Baptists, Methodists, Nazarenes, Anabaptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Pentecostals. Groups which generally follow Reformed tradition and theology. Largely relying on the teachings of John Calvin; together with those of the other Reformers such as Knox, Zwingli, and Melancthon.
The oldest Protestant and Reformed groups separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century Protestant Reformation, followed in many cases by further divisions. Estimates of the total number of Protestants and Reformed are very uncertain, partly because of the difficulty in determining which denominations should be placed in these categories, but it seems to be unquestionable that Orthodox Christianity is the second major group of Christians (after Roman Catholicism) in number of followers.
Some Reformed Christians identify themselves simply as Christian, or born-again Christian; they typically distance themselves from the confessionalism of Protestant communities by calling themselves "non-denominational" - often founded by individual pastors, they have little affiliation with historic denominations. Furthermore, many members of the the Anglican Communion, a group of Anglican and Episcopal Churches that are descended from the Church of England, claim to be both Protestant and Catholic. Finally, various small communities, such as the Old Catholic and Independent Catholic Churches, are similar in name to the Roman Catholic Church, but are not in communion with the See of Rome (the Old Catholic church is in communion with the See of Canterbury). The term "Roman Catholic" was created to distinguish the Roman Catholics from other groups.
Restorationists are historically connected to Early 19th Century Camp Meetings in the Midwest and Upstate New York. American Millennialism and Adventism, which arose from Evangelical Protestantism, produced certain groups such as the Jehovah's Witness movement (p. 807), and, as a reaction specifically to William Miller, Seventh Day Adventists (p. 381). usually describe themselves as restoring the Church that they believe was lost at some point and not as "reforming" a Christian Church continuously existing from the time of Jesus. Restorationists include Churches of Christ with 2.6 million members, Disciples of Christ with 800,000 members, and Jehovah's Witnesses with 6.6 million members. Though Restorationists have some superficial similarities, their doctrine and practices vary significantly.