Christianity 101

Antonio Ciseri's depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people Ecce homo! (Behold the man!). Painted 1871.

Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people: Ecce homo! (Behold the man!). Painted 1871.

Christianity, in its broadest sense, is the world’s largest religion with over two billion followers.  However, because of the many denominations and varying beliefs and traditions, the term can be confusing and often means different things to different people.

So, especially for those who are newly exploring the faith, it’s important to answer the question:  “At its core, what is Christianity all about?”

Christianity is based on the person and teachings of Jesus Christ.  It arose out of Judaism in the first century.  While it has some beliefs that are similar to other faiths, Christianity has a fundamentally different view of mankind and its relationship to God.  As such, it is unique among the world’s religions.

Christianity’s Core Teachings

Christianity teaches that there is one God, who is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, loving, good, just, and holy.  This one and only God created everything—time, space, matter, and ultimately life—from nothing.

Mankind is made in God’s image, meaning that we have intellect, feel emotions, have free will, and have a spiritual existence that survives physical death.  Having been made in His image, people are intended to be in a personal relationship with God.

However, since God gave each person free will, each of us can choose whether or not to participate in that relationship.  God forces Himself on no one.  If God wanted, he could have created people without free will, but what’s the point in that?  A universe populated by people who freely choose to love God and have a relationship with Him is far more satisfying for God—and for people—than a universe populated by automatons that have no choice in the matter.

The privilege of free will carries a personal responsibility for one’s choices with it.  Unfortunately, all of humankind (each of us as individuals and in total) often freely chooses to do things that are wrong and contrary to God’s will.  This is what is meant by the term “sin.”  When we commit sins, we—by our own choice—separate ourselves from God, harming our relationship with Him.

Despite our sin, God loves each of us individually and has provided us with a means of redemption and forgiveness, a way to draw closer to Him and have a restored relationship with Him.  This forgiveness and restoration is available through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was the human incarnation of God Himself.

It is the final point that is such a radical departure from other religions.  To understand what it really means we have to examine it from several angles.

Why Is Sin A Problem?

First, if God is loving and merciful, then why does sin bother Him so much?  Why can’t He just forgive it?  Basically, while God is all-powerful, this does not mean He can “do anything.”  He cannot, for example, act in a manner inconsistent with His nature.  Since being holy and good are parts of God’s nature, He cannot accept sin.  Being just is also a part of God’s nature, so sin cannot simply be overlooked.  As an illustration, no one would think a good and just judge would release a guilty defendant with no consequences.  When this judge is replaced by the creator of the universe, and the guilty party is His creation that willingly does wrong, the seriousness of the situation becomes clear.

Jesus Answers For Our Sins

Fortunately, love is also an intrinsic part of God’s nature.  He can’t just leave people to face sin’s consequences without a defense.  So God personally came to earth in the form of Jesus to provide a way of restoring our relationship with Himself.  Jesus’ claim to be God incarnate is a radical departure from other religions.  It is blasphemous and either exceedingly arrogant or simply insane…unless it is true.

The subject of Jesus’ divinity is a very deep topic that will be covered more completely in upcoming articles.  Suffice it to say here, the Old Testament predicted the coming of a God/man, Jesus claimed to be God, He provided evidence to support this claim, and He was believed to be God by His disciples.  Contrary to what some have proposed, Jesus was not “deemed” divine by the Council of Nicea, nor is the belief in Jesus as God incarnate some type of polytheism.

God entered human history in the person of Jesus to accomplish several tasks.  First, He came to teach the truth about God and reveal His will.  Second, He provided an example of how to live a godly life.  Finally, and most importantly, Jesus came to offer Himself as a payment for mankind’s sins.

How Does Jesus Reconcile Us to God?

Many people believe, and most other religions teach, that one gets into Heaven by “being good” as illustrated with the analogy of a bank account.  Every time someone does something good or bad a deposit or withdrawal is made.  At death, those people with positive account balances get into Heaven.

But the Christian believes, and the Bible clearly teaches, that God’s economy doesn’t work this way.  To continue the bank account analogy, doing good does not make a deposit.  That is merely doing what God expects.  However, doing bad is like making a withdrawal.  In essence, every sin puts one further into “debt.”  There are only two options for paying this debt:  Either trying to pay it oneself or having someone pay it on your behalf.

Many other religions teach that you can “repay the debt” yourself by doing good works, following certain rules, performing certain rituals, and all manner of other things.  Basically, they say that the power of redemption is within yourself, and then give you a “to do” list that you must complete to earn redemption, salvation, and so on.

Christianity says that you cannot earn it.  Instead, Christianity teaches that this redemption is a gift, offered through Jesus, that we can accept.  Instead of a “to do” list, Christianity offers a “done” list:  A debt paid by Jesus.

For each of us, paying the debt ourselves is impossible.  Since God is eternal, the debt owed Him exists in eternity.  Therefore, the “repayment” must also be eternal.  This results in an eternal separation from God since He cannot co-exist with sin.

God cannot simply overlook the sin and forgive it.  As mentioned, to do so is against His holy and just nature.  However, God can allow someone else to pay it on one’s behalf.  This someone must be sinless, otherwise they would have their own debt to pay.  This person must also be capable of paying an eternal debt.  The only person capable of satisfying both requirements is someone that combines the human and God natures.  They must be God incarnate.  This person was Jesus, who freely gave his life for all of us.

This is the essential core of Christianity.  God loved mankind enough to offer us a means of redemption.  He did so by coming to earth in human form, living a sinless life, and then willingly offering Himself as a sacrifice in payment for mankind’s sin.  But like any gift, it must be accepted.  Forgiveness is available for all people but only effective for those that recognize Christ’s sacrifice and ask Him to save them individually.

This act of asking Christ for forgiveness results in the sometimes misunderstood concept of being “born again.”  It is not some mystical or magical moment or experience.  It is simply the moment when Jesus forgives our individual sin debt and “credits” His righteousness to us, resulting in the “positive balance” we need to enter Heaven.  In short, God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection, on our behalf, is what Christianity is all about.

Image Attribution:  Ecce Homo!, Antonio Ciseri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEccehomo1.jpg

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