Where did Christianity come from? How did it begin? What is it?
Christianity is the greatest intellectual system the mind of man has ever touched.Francis Schaeffer
Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
Christianity is one of the strongest and perhaps most misunderstood movements in the world. Perceptions of the religion and its adherents range from Nietzsche’s, which borders on the militant, to Schaeffer’s, which celebrates Christianity as the climax of humanity.
Indeed, as the last two thousand years of history attest, Christianity has been—at the very least—a polarizing movement.
In the Beginning
Many people place the beginning of Christianity some two thousand years ago with the life of Jesus. In actuality, Christianity began as a reform movement within Judaism, which had been established nearly two thousand years earlier. To understand Christianity, we must go back to the roots of Judaism.
We find aspects of the history of the Israelites recorded in the Bible, which is ultimately a collection of writings conveying the story of God’s relationship with humanity. “In the beginning,” the Scriptures state, “God created the heavens and the earth.”1
However, sometime after creating humanity, things began to go awry. People chose to defy God’s command, and sin entered the world.
As a direct result of this disobedience, humans have since been struggling with broken relationships with God, themselves, others, and creation.2 Even worse, through that act, death was introduced to the world.
In order to restore everlasting relationship with his creation, God chose one righteous person—Abraham—and initiated a plan of redemption. Through Abraham’s family, a people became a nation that was destined to be a light, a blessing, and a model to the entire world: Israel.3
Though there were moments when they forgot who they were and neglected God’s commands, in time the Israelites succeeded in being God’s faithful people—despite threats and attacks leveled against them from surrounding nations. In the Christian understanding, the Israelites’ presence in the world and their message of the one true God prepared the peoples of the earth for the next phase of God’s plan.
Hope for Resolution
Through his prophets, God foretold a final resolution to the broken relationship between God and humans: God himself would enter the world in the form of a human being. He would experience what we experience. He would suffer the pain that we suffer, endure the temptations we endure, feel the emotions we feel.
But more than that, he would be beaten, broken, and crushed.4 In his death he would take on all the sins of man, until “by his wounds we [would be] healed” and set free from the bondage of sin.5 And in the end, he would restore his scattered and dispirited people, ushering in an era of unending peace.
The Promised One?
Enter Jesus. A Jewish carpenter who lived two thousand years ago, Jesus is called the Son of God.6 Christians believe Jesus to be fully man and fully God, equally human and divine.
Early in his life, Jesus distinguished himself as an unusually precocious child, demonstrating tremendous spiritual wisdom and maturity.7 When Jesus sensed the moment was right, he left behind his home and embarked on a new path. He began to preach, teach, perform miracles, and gather around him a band of rag-tag disciples. Eventually, they recognized him as the hoped-for messiah.
What his followers did not realize was that God’s plan was going to take an unusual turn. He was going to restore the nation of Israel, as they hoped, but he would do it in a most unexpected way—not through shows of power and the oppression of enemies but through selfless love and compassion.
According to Christians, Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified, died, and rose from the dead. He conquered sin and death in order to restore humanity’s broken relationship with God, the Father. Jesus did what we cannot: he lived a perfect, sinless life and paid the price for our transgressions.
Christians believe that Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity saved us from the permanent consequence of our sins—eternal separation and isolation from God. Through Jesus, we can attain eternal life in relationship with God. Indeed, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life,”8 and that whoever “believes in [him] will live, even though they die.”9
One day, Jesus promised, he will return to reign over his faithful followers in a peaceful kingdom where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”10 In the interim, he has sent the Holy Spirit to live and dwell with his followers, leading them in the way of truth.11
Today, Christianity is practiced in three primary forms: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. Within each of these three branches, there are numerous subsets and Christian denominations. However, each group concurs on the general story and purposes described above; they divide mainly in the details of how principles should be applied practically.
Over the years, Christianity has seen its fair share of glorious, proud moments and all too many humiliating, shameful ones. But this is less an indictment on God, Jesus, or Christianity than it is on his followers.
Mahatma Gandhi allegedly once said, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” He voiced the inconsistency found between the Son of God and those who claim to follow in his footsteps.
And yet, should that surprise anyone? The Bible tells story after story of those who failed to live as God called them to live. This is not true just for Christians but for all people. This is why we need a messiah, a redeemer, a savior.
Chuck Colson once said, “Christianity is an explanation of all of reality.” Simply put, we all know the world is broken. The whole world, including me and you, needs fixing. And no matter how many different fix-it methods we try—whether self-help or sex, missionary work or money—none of them can fill the void that all of us feel.
Christianity, from creation up through God’s restoring work in Jesus, is both the explanation of and solution to that emptiness. Ultimately, Christianity is the story of God’s powerful, redemptive love for his people.