Christian Beliefs and Teachings are perhaps best understood in terms of the relationship between humanity and God. Christian Theology sets out to explain our origins as part of God’s creation; our estrangement from God and inability to fulfill our true purpose; and the path laid out by Jesus Christ that leads to our reconnecting with God and enjoying the gift of creation the way it was first intended.
The Christian God
The Christian God is often popularly depicted as an old bearded white man in the sky. The reality of Christian teachings about the nature of God are much more complex.
The Nicene Creed is pointed to by many Christians as the best expression of the God that they believe in. It was agreed upon by the leaders of the early Church in the year 325 AD and expanded upon in later councils, primarily in 381 AD. It states:
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,…And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;…And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified,…”
This points to an image of God that is both Three and One. This is known as the Doctrine of the Trinity. It comes from an interpretation of the Bible that emphasizes the oneness of God; the God of Christianity is the same as the God of Abraham, Moses, David, and Solomon. But, the text in the New Testament seems to point in three separate directions when talking about this God; The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Making sense of this has been the work of many Christian Theologians through the ages. The words that are most commonly used to describe this are that God is One Essence and Three Persons. Essence relates to ontology; God is unique and singular in the type of existence that God has. Persons relates to the form that this being takes.
Many Theologians explain the Trinity in terms of relationship. We can distinguish between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in how they relate to each other; but, this does not mean that they can be separated from each other.
Alongside being Trinity, there are many other things that Christians claim is true about God. These attributes largely come from looking at what God is believed to have done, and thinking about what this reveals about who God is.
In the Biblical narrative God is seen to have created everything; which shows an incredible amount of power. God is also shown to know and care about the moral development of humanity to the extent that Jesus Christ is willing to sacrifice his life to ensure our salvation. This will be explored in more detail later. It is important to note here that these things point us towards three of the most commonly claimed attributes of God. That God is All Powerful (Omnipotent), All Knowing (Omniscient), and All Loving (Omnibenevolent.)
The Problem of Evil
It has been pointed out by many critics of Christian Theology that there appears to be an inconsistency here when we consider the existence of evil in Creation. If God is omniscient, and therefore knows about evil; omnibenevolent, and therefore must want to get rid of evil; and omnipotent, and therefore be able to get rid of evil; then why does evil exist?
There has been lots written about this problem. Christian Theologians have written many works that attempt to resolve this problem called Theodicies; literally justifications of God. The most famous resolutions to the problem of evil have been given by Augustine and Irenaeas. Any response to this problem involves looking at Christian beliefs and teachings in context. As a result. we will discuss various responses in detail as we continue to explore Christian Theology.
Christianity teaches that God created everything. The Biblical accounts of creation are, unsurprisingly, at the beginning in Genesis 1-3. However they are referred back to at the beginning of The Gospel of John. In this section we will look at some key features of the Christian account of Creation, and the implications of these features for the rest of Christian beliefs and teachings.
Christian theologians have looked at these passages and seen inspiration for a much more complicated view of creation than is normally conveyed. The references to the Spirit of God and the Word of God hint at the Trinitarian nature of the act of creation.
One thing that has been picked up on by many Christian Theologians is how in the narrative, after every act of Creation God looks upon his work and recognizes it as good. This is significant because it emphasizes the inherent Goodness of creation. Also, different Christian thinkers, most famously Augustine, maintain a view of Creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). This means that nothing exists that was not created by God. The only things in existence are God the Creator and Creation itself.
The last thing that is created in the narrative is humanity. The story presents humanity as the pinnacle of creation, it is the only thing that is made in God’s image. This has been taken to mean that humanity is the only thing that reflects divinity. This point is referred back to again and again in Christian ethics as it enshrines humanity’s dignity and freedom.
Humanity is also given a role in creation, as stewards. This has been interpreted by Christian Theologians through the ages to mean that we are responsible for looking after our environment, ensuring that God’s work is preserved and maintained forevermore.
However, it should come as little surprise that we have not done so well in this role. The narrative also contains what is known as The Fall. This is massively significant as it informs the introduction of Evil and other ideas like that of Original Sin.
After the introduction of evil into Creation, humanity and Creation is seen as tainted; Fallen. We see destruction and death as clear possibilities for the first time. This change, the move out of the innocent Paradise of Eden has been equated by different writers to different things: the point that Humanity became self-aware, the Agricultural Revolution. The significance of this to Christian theology is that we have brought upon ourselves a situation where the easiest and most likely course of action is a destructive one; and, without guidance or help, we are utterly incapable of undoing the damage that we have done and get back on the path that was intended for us.
Responses to the Problem of Evil
This account of creation presents us with all the ideas and arguments that are commonly used in responses to the Problem of Evil that we have stated above. We can see that Christian Theology maintains:
- Creation is inherently Good.
- Human have Free Will.
- Humans are responsible for looking after Creation.
It follows from these points that Humans are responsible for what has gone wrong with creation, indeed this is what the narrative tells us. This explains how Christians make sense of the existence of evil alongside an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God. There have been many arguments made over the possibility of God being able to make a version of Humanity that had free will and also always chooses to do the right thing.
These debates are interesting, but perhaps are beside the point that Christianity is trying to make about the world. Humanity is guilty of a great deal of evil and is unable to regain its innocence. The cause of this was the temptation of Power. As a result the only path forward is to take responsibility, remain humble, and try to rebuild that which we have destroyed: our relationship with God.
Redemption and Salvation
We learn from the Christian creation narratives that humanity, through its own actions, has become estranged from God. We also know that this estrangement has a destructive effect on the very nature of creation. In essence, we have introduced death, destruction, and evil into creation through our actions, and we are suffering and damaging creation as a result.
This situation is the state that we find ourselves in. It is a state that we need to be saved from. This is the importance of the Doctrine of Salvation and why it is so closely tied to Atonement. Atonement literally means At-One-Ment and refers to humanity’s reunion with God and the restoration of our true nature.
An important teaching of Christianity, linked to the Doctrine of Original Sin, is that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves. This is where an understanding of Grace is significant in Christianity.
Grace and the Law
In the Old Testament, the Law is given for people to abide by in order to stay in the Abrahamic covenant with God. In Christianity this covenant is expanded beyond the Jewish people to include all of humanity. The Law that was given, while a useful basis for society, is not enough for bringing us back into a proper relationship with God.
Grace, as a concept, emphasizes this. Christianity has been very wary of the idea that if we simply do good things and follow the Law, then we will be reunited with God. There is a move away from the kind of transactional relationship and a greater appreciation that no matter how good we think we are, we still do not deserve to be redeemed and saved.
This is where the person of Jesus Christ; his life, teachings, crucifixion, death, resurrection and ascension; become so central to Christian beliefs and teachings.
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish man, born into a carpenter’s family in the then colonized state of Judea. He is believed by Christians to be God, one person of the Trinity. This is a remarkable claim when we consider the strict distinction in Christian, and Abrahamic, Theology between what is considered Divine and what is not. Everything is clearly either Creator, and therefore Divine, or Created, and therefore not.
Jesus Christ is referred to as the Incarnate Word of God. Incarnate literally translates as ‘made flesh’. In other words what we see in Jesus is the same God that created the world, but in human form. In Jesus, God took a human body and was able to experience everything that humans do.
This is important for Christian Theology because, although humanity is unable to save itself, humanity alone must work to undo the damage that it has done to creation. The significance of Jesus Christ is that we are given that opportunity. Jesus is fully divine, and therefore able to enact salvation. Jesus is also fully human, and therefore able to offer salvation to the rest of humanity. In Jesus Christ God redeems humanity by taking on all of our weaknesses and showing us the path back to the loving relationship that we were created to be a part of.
These beliefs about Jesus Christ come from those who knew him during his life. His teachings, which emphasized forgiveness, love, and justice, highlight the path out of the cycle of violence and destruction that humanity has found itself on. These teachings, and the miraculous actions that were attributed to him, earned Jesus a following of many people during his life.
This following was seen as a threat to the authorities and Jesus was betrayed by one of his followers, Judas, for money. He was subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and crucified.
Jesus’ followers then started to report that Jesus came back to life two days after he was tortured and executed. He then gave some final instructions to his followers who remained, and is said to have ascended into heaven; humanity reunited with divinity. This is of fundamental importance to the narrative of Christian Theology. After experiencing all the evils that humanity has brought into creation; including betrayal, torture, and death; Jesus came back.
This is symbolic of God’s desire to redeem us being so great that all of the evils that we commit are forgivable. In Jesus, God demonstrates his love for creation. Despite everything that humanity has done, we are still offered a way out of the destruction and violence that we introduced into creation.
If Jesus Christ is said to offer the way back to a relationship with God. Then those who wish to follow, Christians, look to Jesus’ example to learn what the future might hold for the rest of creation. Eschatology is a Greek word that translates as the study of the last things. In this final section we will look at different theories as to how the Christian narrative ends.
The example of Jesus is one which shows humanity reunited with God. It also demonstrates for Christians that death is not the end of everything. Many Christians take this literally, in the sense that there will be a life after death where we will be bodily resurrected, like Jesus. However it is interpreted, this has at least one very important implication, which involves justice.
An issue that all theological traditions wrestle with is the seeming injustice that surrounds us: Why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa? Christianity wrestles with exactly this question in the form of final judgement; heaven and hell.
Heaven, for Christians, represents being reunited with God. Hell, therefore, is the ultimate estrangement from God. Christian theologians debate over who and how many people will end up in either place. Alongside heaven and hell, Catholics offer an understanding of purgatory; this is the argument that most people; who fall in between sainthood and pure evil, will go to purgatory before heaven for a time that reflects the depth of their estrangement from God.
Some argue that all of humanity will eventually end up in heaven, as this fits with God’s intention for creation, this is called universalism. Others are willing to state that our freedom means that if we choose to estrange ourselves from God eternally then saying we will end up in hell forever is merely the consequence; despite what God wants for us.
The most important question is how do we know who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. On this point, despite the different opinions, Christians agree that it is ultimately a decision made by God. Anyone who claims to know what is awaiting a particular person in their Final Judgment, is claiming to know the mind of God. This is something that most Christian Theologians would not take lightly.