History is divided between B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, “In the year of our Lord”). The event that creates that split is the birth of Jesus, a baby who the prophets of old foretold would deliver God’s people Israel.
Jesus, called Rabbi and Teacher, taught through Northern Israel about the Kingdom of God, salvation, and the meaning of discipleship, performing signs and wonders and healing any who came to Him. His birth, life, death, and resurrection form the basis for the faith of Christianity.
An oft-quoted verse from the Christian Bible best summarizes the defining belief of Christianity: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Though Christians tussle over eschatology (study of the end times), communion, and other theological matters, the belief that God sent Jesus as the Messiah, deliverer of Israel and, by the Jewish community’s rejection of Him, the Gentiles, binds them all.
Christians believe in a single, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God who created the universe according to the account of Genesis 1. Most Christians also believe that God exists as a Trinity of three persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The exception is Unitarians, who reject this doctrine.
Christians acknowledge that the actions of the first humans, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden brought sin into the world and destroyed God’s original plan for the world. Prophecies through the Old Testament ultimately pointed to the coming of a Messiah who would redeem the covenant between God and man, and Christians believe that this Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth.
The Bible is regarded as an inspired book, infallible and God-breathed.
The holy book of Christianity, the Christian Bible, has two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The same books that compose the Old Testament form the Written Torah of Judaism. While both Christians and Jews believe in the Old Testament books, Jews generally do not acknowledge the New Testament.
Combined, the Old Testament and New Testament have a minimum of 66 books. I say “a minimum of 66 books” because Christians disagree on what books actually form the Bible. For example, a Catholic Bible contains 14 books in the Old Testament, called the Apocrypha, that the Protestant Bible does not have.
The first four books of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – make up the Gospel, which narrates the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
For centuries after the last of Jesus’ disciples died, only one Christianity existed, what is known today as Catholicism. In the year 1054, in the event known as the East-West Schism, the Christian churches in the East, centered around Constantinople, broke from those in the West, centered around Rome. The Eastern church developed the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity.
In the 16th century some followers broke from the Catholic church because of papal corruption and a difference in beliefs about salvation, thus beginning the Protestant branch.
Within Protestantism, Christianity breaks into even more denominations, such as Baptist, Lutheran, Evangelical, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Methodist. These separations stem from theological differences over the importance of certain aspects of Christianity, interpretations about the end times, organization of worship, and other matters.
The house of worship in Christianity is known as a church, from the Greek meaning “the called-out ones.” Technically, a church is anywhere that believers gather to ponder God and His Word and support one another in the faith, though the actual appearance varies among the three main branches, and even more among the various denominations.
Generally, rich decoration, vaulted ceilings, and imposing architecture characterize Catholic churches, called cathedrals, to fill the viewer with awe. Eastern Orthodox churches model after the Byzantine style of architecture from the days of the East-West Schism of 1054. By contrast, the Protestant tradition does not have an “official” architectural style.
As with church appearance, each denomination also has its own church organization. For example, in Catholicism the church has six levels of leadership – the pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, and deacons – while a Protestant church might only have pastors, elders, and deacons.
Across the board, praise to God through music, readings in Scripture, and sermons form the base of worship. In addition, some denominations participate in corporate recitation of certain prayers, sacraments like baptism and the Holy Eucharist, and confession. Most importantly, Christians are encouraged to offer themselves as “living sacrifice[s], holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). They should lives their lives as an act of worship.
The main Christian holidays revolve around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In addition to those listed below, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians also celebrate feast days for the saints.
- The Advent season prepares the observer for the Nativity of Jesus. It includes the four Sundays and weeks that precede Christmas day. In Latin, advent means “coming.”
- Christmas, December 25, celebrates the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
- Some Christians observe Lent, a solemn 40-day observance, Sundays excluded from this count, that lasts until the day before Easter, called Holy Saturday. Through fasting and abstinence, Christians prepare their hearts for the Easter season. The time interval changes each year just as Easter does.
- Good Friday, two days before Easter Sunday, commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross.
- Easter, the Sunday after Good Friday, celebrates Jesus’ resurrection, as He foretold, and His ultimate defeat of sin and death.
- Ascension Thursday is an observance forty days after Easter. It also goes by the names Holy Thursday or Ascension Day. Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus appears to His disciples at the Mount of Olives to leave them with a mission – the spreading of the Gospel – and to ascend to heaven once again.
- Seven Sundays after Easter, the Holy Spirit, a messenger Jesus sent to guide His followers, descended upon His disciples. Pentecost commemorates that day, recorded in Acts 2:1-31.
Worldwide, Christianity has over 2.4 billion adherents, or 1/3 of the world’s population, making it the largest religion in the world. A majority live in the Americas (36.8% in 2010), with most South Americans conforming to Roman Catholicism, though a century ago Europe boasted the largest Christian population. The degeneration of Christianity in Europe is one of the greatest religious declines in history.
As they fulfill the Great Commission that Jesus left His followers after His resurrection and before his ascension into heaven – to “make disciples of all nations” – Christians wait for the Second Coming of Jesus at the Last Judgment. The Book of Revelation, a vision from Jesus’ disciple John, relates what Christians should expect at that time.
Other posts in “World Religions”
Disclaimer: I am not a religious scholar or theologian, but only a young woman trying to better understand the beliefs of those around me. I do not claim infallibility in my analysis of religion, and apologize for any errors.