World Religions – Christianity

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Topping the world religions with 2.4 Billion adherents, it is time to look at the Christian faith. Except for Hinduism which has a wide range of beliefs, no other religion we have studied has variations in its beliefs like Christianity. I will present these variations without categorizing them by denomination or group – for the most part.

Holy Scripture:

The belief in the tenants of Christianity come from two primary sources: 1) The Jewish Bible referred to as the Old Testament and 2) the New Testament. The designation Old and New Testament come from the definition of Testament meaning “the written record of a compact: covenant, scripture” and “a tangible proof or tribute: evidence, witness”. [link]

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The Old Testament is believed to be the revelation of God to the Jewish people, and the New Testament is believed to be the revelation of God through Jesus to The Church, which can include all ethnic groups. Christians believe that the writers of these books were inspired by God and that the writings contain information to help mankind understand God, His nature, and beneficial ways of life.

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The name Christian is derived from Christ and the Greek Christos meaning anointed. Anointing with olive oil was a symbol of declaring the rightful position of someone. David was anointed with oil by the prophet Samuel to declare David as God’s choice for the next king of Israel after Saul. Places and objects were anointed to declare they were set aside for service to God, such as in the temple.

In Hebrew, the word we transliterate to messiah also means anointed. The Jews awaited the coming of the Messiah to save them from all righteousness and establish a safe kingdom to live in. The anticipation of the messiah was and still is a deeply held belief of a faithful Jew. The Messiah is expected to be a King from the family line of King David.

In the gospel of John, we read about Andrew who began to follow Jesus. Andrew went to his brother Simon-Peter. “He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ).” [John 1:41 ESV] 

Origin:

Christianity officially began on the day of Pentecost, late May AD 30 or 33. (The year of Jesus’s crucifixion is questioned.) Pentecost is the Jewish celebration of the early weeks of harvest in Palestine. It came about 50 days after the celebration of Passover. On this day, the record in the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 2, describes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto the disciples, marking the beginning of the Church.

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” [Act 2:1-4 ESV]

Nature of God:

Christians believe God is a self existent being. He had no creator or predecessor. He represents Himself in Scripture as male but may be gender-less or androgynous in human terms. He is all powerful. He sees all of human history from beginning to the future end. He is all knowing as he transcends our space-time environment.

He is a relational God, wanting to interact with His people. He is by nature holy and righteous. Holy means spiritually whole, sound or perfect; perfect in righteousness and divine love, infinitely good, worthy of complete devotion and trust. [link] Righteous means acting rightly or justly : conforming to the standard of the divine or the moral law : free from guilt or sin. [link]

Being holy also means that God will not abide with that which is unholy. “It is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one.’” [Rom 3:10 ESV  quoted from Psalm 14 and Psalm 53] (See The After Life and Eternity: below.)

The nature of God differs between various Christian groups. Some see God as the Jews and Muslims do, a single life force. Others interpret the Bible, especially the New Testament, to say God exists as two persons, The Father and The Son, whose roles display differences but who exist in perfect unity of purpose.

The preponderance of Christian groups believe in a three-fold Godhead, or trinity. Rather than the Holy Spirit being only the manifestation of the power of God, the Holy Spirit is seen as a person of equal authority and will as The Father and The Son. It is considered impossible to fully understand and explain a singular Godhead of three persons, but many attempt to offer explanations.

Regarding the trinity, J. Hampton Keathley III says, “Each Person is self-conscious and self-directing, yet never acting independently or in opposition.  When we say that God is a Unity we mean that, though God is in himself a threefold centre of life, his life is not split into three.  He is one in essence, in personality and in will.” [emphasis added; link]

To reinforce the point: Christians believe God is a single, unique entity. There is no other entity like Him. He has no equal. He has no counterpart. Regardless of any view on the nature of God’s person-hood, Christians believe in a singular, self-existent, eternal, all knowing, all powerful God.

Of the seven primary Christian denominations: Anglican/Episcopal, Assembly of God, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic, they all believe in a singular, Almighty God existing in three persons.

I recognize that humans want to explain what they believe. (Or to explain something before they believe it.) It is human nature to want to explain the amazing. But if God indeed transcends what we can understand about the nature of our universe, then how can we adequately explain His nature except to take what we read in the Bible, the writings Christians believe to be His message to humanity.

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An example of the difficulty some have with understanding the nature of God is the apparent dichotomy between love and justice. God is all loving vs. God is just and punishes the unrighteous. The following verses taken from the book of Psalms illustrate how both love and justice are applied to the same God. There are many more examples available.

Psa 52:8 ESV  But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.
Psa 57:3 ESV  He will send from heaven and save me; he will put to shame him who tramples on me. Selah God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!

Psa 2:1-12 ESV Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,  “…You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

God’s Name:

We saw that Muslims hold the name of God to be Allah, The One. Christians refer to God as Almighty God, The Creator, Lord, etc. However, in Exodus, when Moses meets God at the burning bush, we read the following interaction.

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. [Exodus 3:13-15 ESV]

Two related Hebrew words are used for God’s name. When God says, “I AM WHO I AM”, the verb translated I AM is הָיָה , pronounced ha-yah’ (short English ‘a’ sound). This word occurs 3,576 times in the WLC Hebrew text and is used in verses such as Genesis 1:3, “And God said, Let there be light”. “Let there be”, or “Cause to be” is the basic use of הָיָה. This is not like Popeye saying, “I am what I am”, as Popeye speaks of his limited abilities, “and that’s all that I am”. God is rather saying, “I exist because I exist.” There is no reason given, He just exists and always has existed.

From these verses comes God’s proper name translated LORD in verse 15. This word consists of four Hebrew characters and is held sacred by Jews. I will render it YHVH (as written in English). The letters are, Yud, Hey, Vav, Hey. It is transliterated in some Bible translations as Jehovah.

Jesus:

Jesus is central to Christianity. He is seen as the fulfillment of the Jewish expectation of a Messiah. Jesus described himself as the Son of God and the Son of Man. The Son of God because he claimed to come from God the Father in heaven. The Son of Man because he would substitute His life for all of humanity. A fundamental doctrine is that God Himself, in the person of The Son, was born of the Virgin Mary to become a human. Birth by a virgin was a miraculous sign that Jesus was God incarnate.

According to The Bible, the conception was accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Meaning, as best as we can understand from what was written, the Holy Spirit either created a sperm cell or created the necessary DNA inside the ovum to fertilize it. It was a real, physical conception using the human ovum, leading to a human embryo. Hence, Jesus is seen as God living in a human body, fully God and fully man.

This also implies that Jesus was not just a biological entity. The God essence, what we may in human terms call the soul, took residence in a biological, human body. The Bible also states that all humans share this dual trait of biological and spiritual.

Genesis 2:7 ESV  “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”

But having the breath of life is not unique to humans. “‘And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so.” [Genesis 1:30 ESV, emphasis mine, both verses]

Genesis 1:27 ESV  “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. ” It is this concept that humans exist as image bearers of God that sets humans apart from the animal kingdom. From this it is believed that humans are biological and spiritual beings. The biological is temporary and dies while the spiritual, the soul, is eternal.

Creation:

Christians believe that God created all we see in nature and in space. How God accomplished the creation is open to debate among Christians. The literal reading of Genesis chapter one says God spoke everything into existence out of nothing in six literal days. Some Christians try to harmonize creation with scientific evidence and theories and say God created all matter through the Big Bang, setting nature into motion. Too many other theories exist to delve into here.

Essence of Being:

Humans exist as an eternal soul that can reside in a physical human body. There is much debate about the makeup of a human, just as there is debate about the nature of God. Many Christians believe we are physical body, immaterial spirit, and eternal soul. The soul is what constitutes ones mind, emotion and will. There are counterparts in the physical brain that think, feel, and make choices. When the physical body dies, the spirit and conscious soul continue to exist in the spirit realm. (Some argue the spirit realm is another set of dimensions, separate from our space-time dimensions.)

Purpose of Life:

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty [purpose] of man.” [Ecclesiastes 12:13]

In other words, “Fear God”: acknowledge that Almighty God has dominion over the entire universe and over our existence and “keep His commandments”: Christians believe that God’s commandments were given to protect us and to guide us into right living (righteousness). Out of these two statements, comes Worship, obedience, love of God, and love for one another. Selflessness and humility, and all the other things we consider beneficial in society then follow.

In this respect, Christianity has the same purpose for life as other religions we have studied.

Character and Conduct:

Scripture is clear throughout that God wants humans to care for one another and never to take advantage for selfish gain. God’s commandments are largely an instructional means to that end.

Other Beings:

The Bible, both Old and New Testaments are filled with references to other beings created by God. They are commonly referred to as Angels and Demons. The term angel comes from the Greek and refers to a messenger. The term demon comes from Latin and refers to an attendant. The angels are portrayed as obeying God while the demons are portrayed as opposing God.

Angels are NOT described as the little cheribs we see in knickknacks. Only a few types are described as having wings. Some are described as having four faces, multiple sets of wings, and a multitude of eyes. (Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4)

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Many of the Biblical stories about angels tell of them bringing God’s message to individuals on earth. If you are familiar with the Bible’s Christmas story, you will recognize the following:

Luke 1:26-35 ESV “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’  And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.'”

n general terms, we can see the heavenly creations of God in a similar light as the creation of humans. (I use the term heavenly to refer to God’s realm as opposed to earthly which is the human realm.) They have roles and responsibilities. They worship God and obey Him as directed. The text infers that obedience comes from free will, just as it does with humans.

All of Scripture speaks of a relational God who wants to interact with all of His creation. God told the first humans, Adam and Eve, to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” [Genesis 1:28 ESV] and “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” [Genesis 2:15 ESV] This shows relationship and purpose given to Adam and Eve.

To have dominion over is the Hebrew râdâh and does mean to exercise control over. But combined with shâmar, translated keep in Genesis 2:15, the overall sense is to be a steward over the creation. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon defines shâmar as “to keep, guard, keep watch and ward, protect, save life”.

Similarly, we see scriptures that show God interacting with his heavenly (angelic) creation. “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD (Jehovah), and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” [Job 1:6-7 ESV] The sons of God are heavenly beings.

Also, “Bless the Lord, you His angels, mighty in strength, who perform His word, obeying the voice of His word!” [Psalm 103:20] and “The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” [Luke 1:19] And, “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, ‘Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.’” [Act 5:19-20 ESV]

Many stories of demons and their negative influence on humans are seen in gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The demons are described as recognizing Jesus, calling him the Son of God, and obeying his commands to stop influencing the human being possessed.

Similarly, we see scriptures that show God interacting with his heavenly (angelic) creation. “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD (Jehovah), and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” [Job 1:6-7 ESV] The sons of God are heavenly beings.

Also, “Bless the Lord, you His angels, mighty in strength, who perform His word, obeying the voice of His word!” [Psalm 103:20] and “The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” [Luke 1:19] And, “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, ‘Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.’” [Act 5:19-20 ESV]

Many stories of demons and their negative influence on humans are seen in gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The demons are described as recognizing Jesus, calling him the Son of God, and obeying his commands to stop influencing the human being possessed.

The Bible describes heavenly beings as having physical form. While the heavenly realm is separate from the earthly realm, movement between them is possible. The angel messengers manifested themselves visibly to humans.

Sacred Writings:

All Christians hold to the writings found in the Old and New Testaments. However, some denominations choose to put more or less emphasis on portions of Scripture. For example, some teachers disagree with the writings of the Apostle Paul, especially on moral and social issues. Some minimize the importance of the minor epistles. Some dispute sections of the Bible as being contradictory or untrustworthy.

Some denominations have added modern revelation to the Bible. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, add the writings of founder Joseph Smith (1830) as revelation. Seventh Day Adventists hold the writings of Ellen G. White (1863) in high regard to properly interpret the Bible. Also, the Church of Christ (Scientist) used the philosophical writings of Mary Baker Eddy (1875) to interpret Scripture.

The mainstream Christian denominations mentioned previously reject these modern writings.

The After Life and Eternity:

The mainstream Christian denominations believe:

  • The essence of our being, the soul, is eternal.
  • Each human lives one life on earth ending in physical death.
  • The soul and spirit live on after physical death.
  • Each individual will be judged according to his/her obedience to the commands of God. God will review the lives of each human. The book of Revelation (20:12) speaks of books that will be referenced where the activities of each individual has been recorded. It also speaks of a singular book, The Book of Life within which are written the names of each individual that has established a trust relationship with Jesus. The standard against which the life activities of humans are judged is God’s own perfection.
  • Only individuals that have lived a 100% perfect life will be judged worthy to live with God. “Be holy, for I am holy.” [Leviticus 11:44]
  • Those whose names are found in The Book of Life will live for eternity with God on a newly created physical earth in perfectly re-created physical bodies.
  • Individuals who are judged unworthy will spend eternity separated from God in a place of suffering. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23) “But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. [Luke 13:27-28 ESV]
  • Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, lived a perfect, sinless human life, and offered himself as a substitutionary offering to fulfill the law and die for sinful [disobedient] mankind. “He himself [Jesus] bore our sins in his body on the tree [the cross], that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” [1Peter 2:24-25 ESV]
  • Jesus is the only way to eternal life. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” [John 14:6 ESV]
  • The gift of salvation is freely given by God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. [Ephesians 2:8-10]

The idea of salvation through Jesus is the central concept of Christianity. Christians believe we can be saved from eternal hell, described many places by Jesus as a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, by believing God Himself, through Jesus, provides a substitution sacrifice. Some have described this substitution as having a friend of yours offer himself to the judge for punishment after you were convicted of life imprisonment.

Salvation is concisely described by the apostle Paul in Romans 3:21-26 ESV  “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law [Old Testament commandments], although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation [something that appeases or conciliates a deity] by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance [a delay in enforcing] he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”