Christianity is the world’s biggest religion in terms of followers. The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates that at least 33% of the world’s population are Christian. That means that there are over two billion Christians in the world today. In the 2001 United Kingdom census over 74% of respondents identified themselves as Christian and the religion is still the most popular faith in Western Europe, North and South America, parts of Africa and Australasia.
Christianity has its roots in Judaism and is considered an ‘Abrahamic’ faith. It was founded by followers of Jesus Christ around 2,000 years ago in Judaea, which is in modern day Israel. Although Christians include the Jewish Torah in the Bible’s Old Testament and also include Jewish prophets, such as Abraham, Noah and Moses, as Christian ones, Christians also believe that Jesus is the Son of God, which Jewish people do not accept.
Christians believe that there is one God and that He is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present. God created the world in six days and on the seventh rested. He created human beings and has given them ‘free-will’, which means people can choose whether to obey God or not. Of course, all Christians know that they should follow God, especially if they want His grace in order to get into Heaven.
Christians believe in the same creation story as Jewish people. The Christian version is found in first book of the Bible, which is called Genesis. Many Christians believe this story is completely true whereas others believe it is a symbolic story. In the first part of Genesis God creates the world in six days and has a rest on the seventh. On the first day God created light and called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’. On the second day He created the sky to separate the waters above from the waters below. On the third day He created the oceans and land, as well as the trees and plants upon the land. On the fourth day God created the sun, the moon and the seasons. On the fifth day God created the ‘sea beasts’ and birds. On the sixth day He created the wild and tame land animals of the earth. On this day God also created the first human. He made ‘man’ in His own ‘likeness’.
Christians believe that a person is not just made from his or her mind and body but that everyone has an immortal soul. This soul cannot be seen but makes people different from animals. Christians believe that when God made humans he put something of himself into each of us and because it is a little bit of God it is divine and won’t die.
A famous Christian called St Paul believed that the soul and the body are often in conflict. He believed that the soul wants to do what is good and be with God but the body is more interested in things like food and pleasure.St Paul also taught that our bodies will die but our soul will live on after death.
Most Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God. However, many also believe that Jesus is actually God (see ‘Trinity’ below). Jesus was born Bethlehem, which was part of ancient Judea. Although the exact date of his birth is unknown, our calendars represent his birth by dividing time B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini – or the year of our Lord). Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph. Although Joseph is Jesus’ father, many Christians believe that Mary was a virgin and that Jesus’ birth was a ‘virgin birth’ or ‘immaculate conception’. The story of Jesus birth is often called the nativity. Jesus grew up in a town called Nazareth and for his first thirty years, He lived a traditional Jewish life, working as a carpenter.
In His thirties, Jesus was baptised by a religious teacher called on John the Baptist. He also spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by the Devil to turn His back on His father, God. After this Jesus began to teach. He taught lots of moral stories through parables such as the Good Samaritan (see below). He gained a following of disciples and people came to hear Him speak and preach. One of His most famous teachings was called the Sermon on the Mount, often called the Beatitudes (see below). In this sermon, Jesus taught that people must love one another.
During this time Jesus also performed miracles, such as ‘walking on water’, ‘turning water into wine’ and ‘calming the storm’. His most important miracles were healing the sick and raising the dead. These miracles teach the importance of healing and helping others. Jesus did not do miracles to show off, but to prove that faith in God will be rewarded in the miraculous power of God.
Despite His good work, Jesus upset the ruling religious leaders. They were not happy with Him claiming to be the Son of God, even if Jesus often refereed to Himself as the Son of Man. They were also upset with Jesus’ criticism of the corruption and wealth of the religious leaders and His annoyance with money lending in the temple. Because of this, Jesus became a very rebellious person and this worried the Roman authorities, especially as Judea was occupied by the Roman army. Therefore, Jesus was arrested as a potential trouble maker. He was betrayed by His disciple Judas.
The Romans crucified Jesus on a cross. This was a nasty way to die. It was very painful and very slow. However, whilst on the cross, Jesus asked God to forgive those that had put Him there. Jesus died on Good Friday, which is remembered by Christians today.
On the Sunday after Good Friday, Christians’ believe Jesus rose from the dead. This is called the ‘Resurrection’ and is one of the most important beliefs in Christianity. It is celebrated by the festival of Easter. By coming back from the dead, Jesus had shown that He was willing to die for the sins of others. He did not use His powers to stop His crucifixion, but instead forgave those that had killed Him. After the resurrection Jesus spent 40 days teaching before acceding to Heaven to be with God.
The Good Samaritan
This is an important teaching given by Jesus to demonstrate why racism and prejudice are wrong. It is a parable as it is a moral story. It is about a man who was attacked, beaten and robbed whilst travelling along a road. First a priest and then a respected Levite come across the man and ignored him. They left him to suffer. However, a Samaritan came along and helped the man. He took him to an inn and paid for his stay. The Samaritans were a group of people who were often treated badly and not trusted by others. The moral of the story is that this view of the Smaritans was wrong. Thus, the wider moral of the story is not just that you should help others in need, but also that youy should not judge others.
The Sermon on the Mount
This is an important teaching given by Jesus. It was given on a mountainside to many people. Jesus outlines some important values and attitudes that Christians’ must have towards the less fortunate. According to the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, Jesus said:
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth,
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Like Jewish people, Christians believe in the Ten Commandments. However, these commandments were not originally taught by Jesus, but were given by God to the prophet Moses. This happens in the Bible’s Old Testament. Jesus appears in the New Testament. Although Jesus taught the 10 Commandments, He also said that there are two other commandments that Christians must always follow. These are to love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself (see the Golden Rule below). The original Ten Commandments are:
Heaven, Hell and Purgatory
Like Jewish people and Muslims, Christians believe in Heaven and Hell. Many Christians believe that Heaven is a paradise where good people will live with God for eternity. Of course, those that are bad will go to Hell. Many Christians associate Hell with the Devil, sin and punishment. Some believe punishment in Hell will be eternal too. However, other Christians suggest that Hell is being without God. The Bible often describes Hell as a fiery place or of a place of darkness that is ‘below’. Many Roman Catholics believe in purgatory. This is a process of purification that allows people to seek forgiveness before entering Heaven. If people have sinned, but still believe in God and are good in their hearts, then purgatory will allow them to prepare for Heaven. Although Christian interpretations of Heaven and Hell may differ, all Christians believe in an eternal soul.
Love and the Golden Rule
Love is very important in Christianity. In the Gospel of John, in the Bible, it states ‘God is love’. However, Christian love is not romantic love, but unconditional love. This is often referred to with the Ancient Greek word ‘agape’. Jesus taught that Christian’s should ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’. From this idea comes another key teaching given by Jesus, ‘Do unto others as you would do to yourself’. This means you should treat others as you treat yourself. It is called the ‘Golden Rule. Jesus also said that people should love their enemies.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Forgiveness is also important. Not only did Jesus forgive on the cross, but many Christians say the Lord’s Prayer in church. This prayer asks God to forgive them for their trespasses (or wrong doings) as they forgive others. Christians believe that you must be willing to forgive others if you want to be forgiven yourself. In some churches, such as the Roman Catholic Church, they have a sacrament called confession. At confession a Catholic will confess or admit their sins and wrong doings to a priest. The priest will forgive them on behalf of God.
Many Christians have acted in loving and forgiving ways in order to reconcile people who have fallen out or do not get on with each other. Reconciliation means to make up, forgive and live together as friends. Two examples of reconciliation in action can be seen in the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. in America and Desmond Tutu in South Africa. In racially segregated (divided) American states, King said white and black people should love and live together as ‘God’s children’. Tutu also believed that white racists in apartheid South Africa must be forgiven if black and white people in that country are to live together in peace and harmony. Tutu set up a Peace and Reconciliation Commission where people who once hated and hurt each other came together to discuss what they have done and ask for forgiveness.
The Sanctity of Life
For Christians all life is sacred. This is means life is very special. Life is God given and only God gives and takes life. For Christians human life is especially important as in Genesis, in the Bible, it says that ‘man’ is made in God’s image. Therefore, Christians believe that if you take life you are destroying God’s creation. Many Christian teachings teach against murder and taking life. For example, the 10 Commandments state ‘Thou shall not kill’. Therefore, many Christians are against actions such as abortion, euthanasia and IVF (see the ‘Ethical Issues’ tab).
Many Christians believe in the ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit/Ghost’. This is known as the Trinity. The Trinity means that God is actually three things. He is the Father in Heaven, He was Jesus on Earth and He is also the Holy Spirit, which is everywhere. Although Jesus is often called the ‘Son of God’, the Trinity suggests He was actually God on Earth, as it would be easier to understand God in human form.
Baptism and Confirmation
Many Christians get baptised. Baptism is a blessing given by a priest, vicar or minister and means that a person has become a Christian and joined the ‘church’. Baptism involves blessed water being poured on one’s head so that a person is anointed by the Holy Spirit (see above). In some churches the whole body is immersed or dunked in water. For many Christians Baptism happens when they are young. Both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church give infant baptisms, often called ‘Christenings’. This happens when a child is very young, normally a baby. A ‘Christian name’ is also given at these ceremonies. Both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have ‘Confirmation’ ceremonies when the child is much older. This involves a series of lessons on being a Christian and then a blessing in church to reaffirm their belief in Christianity.
Other Christians, such as those in the Baptist Church, prefer adult baptisms, which are sometimes called ‘believers’ baptisms’. These happen when someone is old enough to understand what joining a religion means and what the responsibilities of being a Christian are.