Written for a Non-Sectarian Periodical (1996)
Christianity was founded by Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher/holy man that taught as he traveled from place to place. About 2000 years ago he spoke and performed miracles in what is now Israel. His mission, as the commonly accepted accounts were written, was to the Jewish people only, although some gentiles (non-Jews) believed in him. Christians believe Jesus is God become Man. While some groups claim to be Christian while denying this "dogma", the things Jesus said would be wrong for anyone but God to say. C. S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity" covers this issue well. There are many opinions as to what this means, but the most accepted is the doctrine of "The Trinity," which is not explicitly stated in the Scriptures, but has been taught by the Catholic Church since its beginnings in the First Century. The primary written authority for Christians is the Bible, which is a compendium of writings in the form of myths, legends, poetry, religious and civil law, mystical writing, persecution (survival of) writing, history, advice and letters of authority. There is some dissent regarding seven of the more than seventy books in it. It sounds like a lot of reading, but many people read it all the way through (at nine years of age, I read it through for the first time). There are various other writings widely considered important and to some degree binding, such as the Patristics ("Writings of the Fathers") and the Didache ("did-ah-kay", a liturgical book), the precursor to the modern books used in the Catholic Mass, or principal religious service. Catholics believe that the primary authority for Christians is the teaching of the Apostles and their successors, the bishops. Acts 2:42 reflects the Catholic view. A Catholic would say that the Scriptures come from this "deposit of faith," called "Tradition." So from a Catholic point of view, the Bible's authority rests on that of the Church, not the other way around.
From the beginning of Christianity, there has been considerable dissent, so not all Christians agree on all points. Jesus himself was at odds with the Jewish religious authorities of his time, and one of his own followers even betrayed him, turning him over to these same authorities, who in turn passed him to the occupying Romans for the death sentence. Almost all Christians believe Jesus Christ (Christ means "annointed" or "chosen for a purpose") was crucified (nailed to a wooden structure), died and was laid in a tomb or cave. He rose from the dead (most believe he somehow freed many that had died before him from death as well) and appeared to his closest friends first, and then to a few hundred people that had followed him during his three years of preaching/teaching in Palestine. Almost all Christians (literally, Christian means "little Christ") believe that he then left this world in body while remaining present in a mystical way. Common to all is the belief that those close to God in their earthly lives will be resurrected into the same kind of life Jesus enjoys after earthly death. These blessed dead will enjoy the company of God according to their desires, without end. Some Christian sects are quite specific about what this is like and who "goes there." Others agree with St. Paul (a very widely accepted biblical writer) that no one can know what it is like to experience the "beatific vision." Some Christian groups believe only those who have literally been immersed in water (baptized), have made a profession of faith in Jesus and died without rejecting this profession can go to the blessed state of Heaven, though others, such as the Catholic Church, believe it is possible to know God without being a Christian (although baptism should be done) and that God will judge in ways we don't understand. Most Protestant churches preach that salvation cannot be lost ("once saved always saved"), but others acknowledge that people can turn their backs on God even after baptism (this is the Catholic view).
Christianity grew under almost constant persecution in most places around Palestine for around 20 years from the resurrection of Jesus. Thanks in part to the Roman roads and the common language of Koine (Greek), Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire. Early on, revelations experienced by certain Christian leaders indicated that non-Jews could become Christians without first becoming Jews. This and the understanding that Jesus had to be God incarnate (God enfleshed) forced a break with the Jewish religion. Though the Jewish church had been somewhat influenced by the Greeks, Christianity embraced many Greek ideas, especially Stoic philosophy, as means of expressing Christian beliefs. Christianity therefore came to contain elements of both Eastern and what is now regarded as Western thought. It was a mystery religion combining mysticism and philosophy that encouraged rigorous logical debate. This, in turn, encouraged an incredible diversity, with solitary hermits seeking constant prayer and visions in the deserts and intellectuals participating in public debates with any willing parties. Persecution in various degrees lasted until 312, with nearly every bishop of Rome (pope) martyred during this time, through three hundred years. During the persecutions, becoming Christian was tantamount to a death sentence, but it continued to grow.
Once Christianity was legalized by Constantine and made the state religion in Rome, various heresies (severe departures from generally believed ideas) began to appear. Many of these became tools in political power struggles in the dying, divided Roman empire. Some denied that Jesus was ever really here, that humanity was too "dirty" for God to become a real human. Others claimed to be successors to Jesus and attracted powerful allies. Some of these heresies reappeared through to modern times, bringing us to divisions in Christianity, which must be addressed.
By the year 1054, there were essentially three Christian Churches: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Coptic (Egypt). The Eastern Church has about 100 million members, the Coptic has far fewer, and the Roman Church has about 800 million or so. These Churches still have the most in common with each other, even to the point of recognizing each other's episcopal (bishop) authority. With the rise of nationalism in Europe, more and more rulers began to challenge the substantial power Roman popes exercised over them. Some rulers even went to war against the Pope and seized Church property. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century broke the power of the Roman Church eventually and gave it to the rulers of the emerging European nations. The newer denominations of Christianity began to focus on specific areas of belief, such as Baptism and Communion (a reenactment of Jesus' last meal with his followers). The earlier Churches honored both the Bible and the traditional teachings passed on through documents, letters, councils and practices. The new Protestant Churches abandoned tradition as an authority and began to look exclusively to the Bible only as the "Word of God." It is fundamental to Protestant thought that there can be no earthly authority to interpret the meaning of the Christian Scriptures. During this time seven books of the Bible (Maccabees 1 & 2, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch) were removed for the Protestant versions. Within a few hundred years' time, Protestantism had fragmented into more than 2000 denominations/sects. Protestant Churches abandoned the idea of priests as a continuation from the time of Jesus and instead focused on the universal priesthood of all Christians. Some Churches consider themselves Christian but have relatively recent origins outside the previous descriptions. An example of this is the Church of England, which has been very close to the Roman Church in practice and broke away from the Roman Church for more clearly national reasons. Their priesthood is very similar to that of the Catholic Church, although their priesthood is not recognized (see Anglican Orders).
From a Protestant point of view, the only explicit source of Christian doctrine is the Bible, although the practice in their own church is often continued without question. Since these Christians believe that any Christian can interpret Scripture (with the Holy Spirit), it is no surprise that there are endless arguments over nearly every word. In the Roman Catholic Church, the magisterium (teaching body) is the ultimate authority for the interpretation of the Bible, as well as tradition. This hierarchical structure tends to give both form and limits to dissent, with the result that there is a staggering amount of written material from its (almost) 2000 year history. So, while it ought to be obvious that every Christian should know the Bible well, Roman Catholics (or those interested in its teachings) have the additional resources of thousands of other books with varying amounts of authority, although none as high as the Bible. The definitive book of Roman Catholic teaching is the "Catechism of the Catholic Church, " with the "Code of Canon Law" a recommended addition. These books reference hundreds of Christian writings from the last 2000 years. As has been said, there can be no book of authoritative teaching (save for the Bible) for Protestants, by definition. The closest thing might be "Mere Christianity," by C.S. Lewis, but some Christians will take exception to this.
To specifically answer some of the questions suggested...
What does Christianity offer to its followers? A way to eternal union with God, starting now. Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and it will make you free." True following of Jesus means living as he would have lived in your circumstances, changing them if he would have. Union with God in this life generally means a life free of superstition, but also without the terror of having to plan everything years in advance. It has elements of both acceptance of the current state of things, the things we can't change, and the belief that when one must act, it is done with the help of God. This is related to the Trinity, or three-personed God. Christians see God in three personal ways: the Father (Creator, Judge, Ancient One), the Son (Jesus, the Redeemer, the Model, the Healer, the Friend and our Brother), and the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Love between Christians, the Enabler, the Force). This is one God in three persons; a mystery. It is strongly present in the Bible. Really following Jesus always causes radical change inside the person, as would be expected if the Creator of the Universe is in intimate contact with them. Many great Christians followed other religions/philosophies first and then came to Christianity. Many people find the strength in Christianity to defeat or at least control their addictions and passions. Christianity is not about destroying desires, but does teach self-control. Friendship with the Prime Mover and the enlightenment that must follow eventually are major benefits.
Why be Christian? If it isn't the truth, not much reason. Since Christianity, unlike the Eastern religions, makes many bold proclamations about what is true (as does Islam and Judaism), religions such as Buddhism and Christianity cannot both be right since they are opposed on some major issues, such as whether God is personal, and whether reincarnation is true. The fact that Eastern religions do not deny others is not relevant. Logically, two truly opposing statements cannot both be true, God cannot both exist and not exist. If a person thinks two literal opposites can both be true they won't like Christianity. That is not to say that Christianity is not full of paradoxes, but it never states two opposite "states" or "truths" as literally correct, such as "God exists" and "God does not exist."
Some basic comparisons with other religions, followed by basic tenets:
Goal: To know, love and serve God, now and eternally. This is fundamentally the same as all the monotheistic religions, with the exception of Deism. A large number of nominal Christians in the United States are actually Deists, as were the founding fathers of the country. Religions which believe God is without personality (more of a collective term for the Universe, or all the spirits) frequently espouse a unity with this "Ultimate Reality." These would include Taoism, Buddhism, and some Hindu sects. Christianity is quite strong on the point that one's personality is retained after death, rather than being incorporated into a Godhead, as in some Hindu sects. Religions such as Confucianism and Shinto emphasize ethical behavior based on reason, as does humanism. Christians, likewise, are expected to use their reason to solve ethical problems. Most Christians believe that errors in judgement are not sins, and that doing the wrong thing thinking (truly) that is is the right thing is a mitigating circumstance.
Attainment: Like most religions, Christianity places the largest value on love of others, frequently shown by charitable works. This is the origin of hospitals and orphanages. However, Christianity says that this is not enough to warrant eternal life, which is given as a gift from God. The charitable works are supposed to emanate from gratitude for the gift of salvation. Another way of putting this is that Christians are supposed to imitate Jesus, who lived a life of service, healing, feeding and teaching. He is one of the few religious founders that never was a warrior. Needless to say, this aspect of Christianity is often missed by the followers of Jesus...
Basic beliefs, based on a Creed defined at the First Council of Nicea, in 325. Here are the tenets of Christianity according to it:
We believe in one all-powerful God.
God made all things whether we see them or not.
We believe in Jesus, the only begotten Son of God. (Note: begotten indicates equality and not the creation of a lesser thing. Consistency of substance. This is not related to the birth of Jesus.)
For our sake Jesus became a man to save us.
Jesus suffered, died, was buried, and rose again on the third day.
Jesus ascended into Heaven.
Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead.
We believe in the Holy Spirit.
In addition, all Christians believe that God forgives sins without any price being required of the sinner. Catholics (which make up the majority of Christians) add the belief that those in Heaven are still part of the Church and pray to God on behalf of those on Earth. Some other points that the vast majority of Christians believe:
Jesus was born of a virgin, meaning without benefit of a human male.
At some point, humanity "went wrong" but was not always depraved. This condition can only be fully remedied by God on an individual basis.
Jesus will not return in a subtle way, but in awesome power. No one knows when this will be but God.
One life to a person. Humans are created, develop a direction, die, and then live their ultimate choice forever. The Catholic Church goes further and reasons that there must be a transition from this life to the next, which varies in degree according to the amount of union with God the individual had attained to in this life. This transition is referred to as "Purgatory." All Christian Churches believe that there is a resurrection of the body as well. It is generally accepted that this resurrection is the same in nature as the resurrection of Jesus, although a gift from God rather than a personal accomplishment.
The Bible is the Word of God. Most Christians have no idea what this really means. On a continuum, fundamentalists usually think everything should be taken literally, with few exceptions. Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics believe Scripture should be read in context, so that clearly poetic sections have metaphors, while other books within it are to be taken as binding as written, such as statements by Jesus about love of neighbor. A number of theologians believe that almost nothing of the Bible should be taken seriously, and that practically no words of Jesus there are reliable. This is a theological view and not the teaching of any Christian Church, with some arguable exceptions.
Faith (trust in God), Hope and Love are the most important things. The greatest of these is Love. This Love is not the kind seen in movies, but a pure love beyond price or the physical. These three are known as the theological virtues.
There is a personal force for evil in the world. This person was created by God and turned to evil of its own free will. It is by nature a created thing and therefore inferior to God, and must eventually fail.
As in Islam, the worst sin is Pride. Pride is comparative and competitive. This vice causes a person to want more than another, and all other sins can proceed from it. Sexual sins get all the press, but pride is the far greater problem for humanity.
The capital (or deadly) sins are: Pride, Greed, Envy, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth.
The cardinal (pivotal) virtues are: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance.
The gifts which accompany the Holy Spirit are: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, Fear of the Lord (this means an awesome respect rather than craven fear).
The fruits which accompany the Holy Spirit are: Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Generosity, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Modesty, Self-Control, and Chastity.
The above references to the beliefs of others are not infallible: the ultimate facts can best be found by open-minded inquiry with the groups mentioned, through personal contact and reading of their materials. Especially in matters pertaining to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, the author submits completely to the Magisterium, and recants any statement deemed misleading or incorrect by that authority.