Christianity through the centuries has, like many other human endeavors, become overgrown with needless complication and much self-doubt. Ask a thousand professing Christians to identify the absolute core of the faith, and you will get two thousand answers. While other religions don’t seem to share this degree of ambivalence and confusion, the reason it happens to Christianity is that the nature of our faith is one of freedom. But freedom without any requirements at all is like a ship without an anchor, and such ships quickly go off-course.
So what are the essentials of the faith, since there must be some or it isn’t a specifically Christian faith at all? For any faith to be identified by something more than personal preference, it must have unique properties to distinguish it from other faiths. The disagreements among professing Christians, like the number of denominations, is not proof that no such core principles exist. Something started this faith, regardless of what it has become.
That something, that unique property, is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Despite the popular assertion that Christianity borrowed its resurrection story from earlier myths1 (which is patently false and obvious when the alleged sources are examined rather than merely assumed), it is this resurrection which uniquely identifies the Christian faith. A claimed Christianity that does not affirm this belief is an impostor. But the question is what necessarily follows from this core belief.
Ideal Christianity must be derived from the Book that details the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Yet we must remember that Jesus Himself stated that his focus was on the people of Israel,2 though of course their rejection of him led to salvation made available to the whole world3. So while the general principles of what Jesus taught are universal, specifics about how the Christian faith is practiced must be based primarily upon what the first Christians called “the teachings of the apostles”.4 Since those apostles died, we rely upon the written record of them, commonly referred to as the New Testament letters or epistles.
The apostles of the inner circle of Twelve5 were eyewitnesses of Jesus both before and after his resurrection from the dead.6 Unlike the founders of other religions who claimed to have seen angels, the fact of Jesus’ resurrection is corroborated by witnesses both friendly and hostile.7 While the Romans cared very little about internal disputes in the religions of their conquered peoples, the religious leaders who connived to use Rome to carry out their plans did more to support the resurrection than to bury it.
Thus we see that the resurrection of Jesus is the core, the foundation, the essential fact of our faith. Merely following idealized variants of Jesus’ teachings does not constitute Christianity, or we’d also have to call other religions Christianity, since some of them also hold Jesus in high regard as a prophet and teacher or “ascended master”. And this is what leads to the blurring of lines where “all religions worship the same God”. Yet again, this is, by definition, not Christianity.
But there is more to salvation and Christian identification than mere assent to a historical fact.8 The people of Israel affirmed this fact when moved to conviction by Peter’s speech on Pentecost,9 but they needed a change of heart, which can only come through a desire to be reconciled to God10. The people of Israel already had a relationship with the one true God, but they had also to accept their Messiah;11 that was the Gospel to them. But to the rest of the world without any ties to the one true God, the Gospel must include the desire to be reconciled. Much like the fact that someone who accepts an engagement ring is accepting a token of much more than pooled resources, so also the one who accepts the gift of life from Jesus is accepting much more than a free ticket to heaven. So a salvation that does not include both conviction of the resurrection and desire to be reconciled to God, is not Christian faith.
Now we finally come to the point of what necessarily follows from such genuine faith, the ideal practice of the Christian life. And unlike the complex theological arguments that have raged for centuries, this life is actually quite simple. Paul taught many deep and complex things, but he reduced it all to this: “love fulfills the law, because love does no harm to others”.12 It should go without saying that our first and highest love should be for our Creator who died and rose again, but if we claim this love, we must show it by loving other people.13 Those who hate and attack in the name of Jesus are, by Biblical definition, liars. Yet it must be pointed out that self-defense is not attack, and that genuine Christians, being human, will sometimes retaliate when pushed too far. The point is that love should be the overriding and habitual character of the Christian, as well as repentance when the inevitable lapses occur.
So ideal Christianity is faith in the risen Jesus expressing itself through love.14 That’s it. Lists of rules are for Pharisees, those enemies of Jesus who embodied the saying about “missing the forest for the trees”. In contrast, the life of love and faith makes rules only for itself rather than for others. Those who strive to control others, even benevolently (“for their own good”), have not grasped the meaning of love. It is not up to us to dictate the behavior of others, though as argued here, certain core beliefs still apply if one claims to be Christian.
The ideal Christian community should be an association of people who voluntarily seek out the good of others, and whose motive for spreading the Gospel is not to smash opposition but to persuade, since no one can enter into a genuine relationship by force, fear, or intimidation. Dangling sinners over the flames of hell has sent more people there than to heaven. To be sure, there is an eternal afterlife which divides the righteous from the unrighteous. But this cannot be the motivation of the unsaved to be reconciled to God. Rather, it is our motivation to “offer the ring” so to speak.
Much could also be said about the historical and present paradigm of “doing church”: the building, the sanctuary, the pews, the pulpits, the orators (pastors), the entertainment (worship— after all, how many people would still attend services without any music they didn’t make themselves, or if there was no three-point alliterated outline called a “sermon”?), and of course the vast amounts of money spent on things and programs. Much more could be said about chains of command, of shackling groups of believers based upon their flesh or social standing, and of harmful teachings that violate everything Jesus came to accomplish.15
Ideally, we would simply start with Jesus and work our way out from there. We would “build each other up”16 and spread the Gospel the way a lover offers an engagement ring. We would treat fellow believers with dignity, even if they disagree with us on some finer point of theology, even if we believe their teaching is dangerous. Love does offer correction, but not at the point of a sword.
Let us restore a Christianity that is known for its love of God and people, based on and derived from its faith in the risen Jesus. No more buildings, budgets, bashing, belittling, or bossing. And this would be balanced by faithful loyalty to what makes us Christians in the first place, never being ashamed of Jesus, of absolute truth, or of each other . No more silence while our sisters and brothers are attacked, whether physically or spiritually. No more “fooling around” with other gods or mistaking love for tolerance of that which dishonors God. And no more “fair-weather friends” of God, who ditch him at the first unanswered prayer. Faithfulness and loyalty are not optional in any genuine relationship.
- list of resources on Bible origins and reliability
- Matthew 15:24
- 1 John 2:2
- Acts 2:42
- Matthew 10:2, Luke 6:13, John 6:67
- Acts 1:21–22; others also witnessed Jesus alive after his death: 1 Corinthians 15:6
- Testimony of the Evangelists, by ex-skeptic Simon Greenleaf
- James 2:19
- Acts 2:37
- 2 Corinthians 5:20
- 1 John 2:22
- Romans 13:10
- 1 John 4:20
- Galatians 5:6b
- Luke 4:18
- 2 Corinthians 13:10b, Hebrews 10:25