The World's Largest Religion
During the first century, a Jewish man living in northern Israel began to preach about God’s love and forgiveness, believing that it was a power that could change people’s lives.
The men closest to Jesus tell the story of the events that occurred during his short lifetime and in the years after his death. The gospels and letters of the New Testament, along with the Old Testament writings of ancient Judaism, encompass the Holy Bible of Christianity, a source of guidance for the two billion Christians around the world.
The Beliefs of Christianity
At the start of his ministry in 30 CE, Jesus explained to the mostly Jewish community that he wasn’t opposing the monotheistic God of the Jewish faith, but rather he was fulfilling the prophesies of the Old Testament; that a Messiah whose ancestry could be traced back thousands of years would be sent as a messenger of God to be the savior of humanity. From these beliefs, the religion of Christianity has it’s beginnings.
Jesus said he was the Son of God, and that his teachings and healing miracles could be experienced by any person who believed that love and forgiveness could transcend sickness and other human limitations. Jesus compared God to a loving father or to a shepherd carefully protecting his flocks of sheep.
Jesus stirred up controversy as he began to preach about a loving and forgiving God, an idea that contrasted sharply with the demanding and often punishing God of the ancient prophets, as well as the polytheistic religion of the Romans.
The gospels of the New Testament relate that Jesus taught using down-to-earth language and parables that had practical implications in the day-to-day lives of his followers. His most well known homily was the Sermon on the Mount. Thousands gathered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee as Jesus explained that the blessings of God are rewarded to the merciful, the peacemakers, and to the spiritually humble.
Most importantly, Jesus believed that humans can communicate with God through prayer, and he recited the “Lord’s Prayer” to demonstrate man’s relationship with God and the hope of being united in an afterlife.
Is the World's Largest Religion the most Divided?
In the years after Jesus’ death, his disciples traveled great distances to establish new churches. But it was a dangerous time to be a Christian. It was a turbulent era when religious beliefs were closely connected to political and military power. As the men preached about the life and death of Jesus, many of them were arrested themselves and died torturous deaths at the hands of Roman soldiers. Within three centuries, however, Christianity was the official religion of Rome.
With the fall of the Roman Empire in 470 CE, the Roman Catholic Church empowered the military to conquer lands farther north and west in the name of Christianity, making the Pope the most powerful leader in the world.
In 1054 CE, disagreements over just how much authority the Pope should have caused the Eastern Orthodox Church to separate from the Church of Rome. They formed instead a hierarchy of Bishops communicating in Greek rather than Latin and they established many of their own traditions. Modern day Eastern Orthodox Christianity is practiced in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Greece.
During the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church continued to branch off into separate denominations, the largest being the Protestant churches that are found in nearly every country of the world. The Protestant Reformation spurred by Martin Luther in 1517 resulted in a large number of autonomous Christian churches that began to encourage believers to place emphasis on the teachings of the Bible rather than being influenced by a hierarchy of powerful church leaders.
Besides the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches, there are numerous other denominations and independent Churches of Christ and Universalist Churches with similar Christian philosophies.
The Story of Jesus
The story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is one of the most familiar in the world.
When Mary was about to give birth to Jesus, she and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem to take part in a census. When they sought shelter at the inn they were turned away, and Jesus was born in a nearby manger. Three wise men arrived to honor the newborn because they’d received a premonition that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and would one day be king.
Jesus was raised in Nazareth and trained by Joseph to be a carpenter. As a boy, Jesus often questioned the Rabbis about the laws and traditions of their Jewish faith. Eventually, he began to talk about his own beliefs, that the true relationship between God and man wasn’t about adherence to strict laws but was instead centered on love, humility, and forgiveness, ideas that sometimes contradicted the laws of the Torah.
These new ideas took hold and became the start of the ministry of Jesus. Crowds gathered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to listen to him preach. As he walked through towns and villages in the modern-day region of northern Israel, he inspired twelve disciples to follow him and witness his healing miracles.
As Jesus’ influence grew, the Roman authorities ruling Galilee began to consider him a threat, and eventually, Jesus’ closest followers feared for their own safety. In about the year 33 CE, Jesus and his apostles gathered for the Passover meal and he told them that he would soon be put to death and that one of them would betray him.
After the Last Supper, Jesus was walking and praying alone when Judas Iscariot identified him to Roman soldiers. Jesus was arrested, beaten, and brought before Pontius Pilate who reluctantly condemned him to die.
As Jesus was dying a painful death on the cross, he expressed forgiveness for his torturers and for the crowds who had turned against him. His body was placed in a tomb carved into a nearby hillside, with a large stone placed at its entrance. On the third day, Mary Magdalene asked that the stone be removed, and within it she found only the shroud Jesus had been buried in. According to Christian tradition, Jesus himself appeared to the Apostles numerous times after his death, and forty days later his soul ascended to heaven.