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Christian beliefs

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Overview: Historical Christian religious beliefs

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See also our essay on historical Christian creeds.

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Historical beliefs

The Christian Church has held many of the following historical beliefs for centuries. Conservative Christians generally follow these beliefs today. Liberal Christians often deviate from them. Not all of these beliefs are equal in importance. A subset of these beliefs, often called key or cardinal doctrines are considered essential.

Most of the many thousands of denominations, para-church groups, and other Christian organizations publish a statement of beliefs. One web site has collected many dozens of these statements. 1

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Historical Christian beliefs:

There are literally tens of thousands of individual Christian denominations, sects, and independent churches who hold a wide diversity of beliefs concerning deity, humanity and the rest of the universe. The following discussion does not necessarily match all groups.

bulletCreation: God created the universe and the first couple, Adam and Eve. Liberal Christians tend to interpret the beginnings of the Book of Genesis as mythical truth rather than a precise description of real events.

bullet The fall/rise of humanity: Adam and Eve were seduced by Satan into disobeying God's instructions and eating forbidden fruit. That act brought sin into the world, which has been inherited by all of humanity. Again, liberals generally regard this story as mythical and disagree with the concept of "original sin". Some believe that the story in Genesis actually records the rise of humanity, not its fall.

bullet Ancient Hebrews: The ancient Hebrews were God's chosen people, to whom he gave a complete set of laws to govern their behavior until the arrival of Jesus. Christians have various conflicting beliefs about the status of God's covenants with the Jewish people today. Some feel that Jews and Christians have separate paths to salvation. Others believe in supercessionism: that when Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, they lost their special status; God's promises were then transferred to the Christian church who became the new chosen people.

bullet Salvation: Almost all Christians agree that everyone has eternal life. However, Christianity had traditionally taught that the destiny of most people is to go to Hell for endless torture because of their sins, without any hope of mercy or an end to their suffering. Only that very small minority who have achieved salvation at death will live forever in heaven. Whether one has been saved is thus a topic of great importance - more important to a conservative Christian than any other factor in life.

bulletSalvation of Christians: The Christian Church has taught that salvation involves the forgiveness by God of a person's sins. The person repents for her/his sins, trusts Jesus as Lord and Savior, and becomes reconciled with God. God makes the person into a "new creation." These traditional beliefs are held by most conservative Christians today.

More liberal Christians place little emphasis on salvation; they often reject the concept of Hell as a physical location and interpret it metaphorically -- perhaps as a state of mind, or as a place where one is separated from God, or even as a state experienced on Earth. The idea of a loving God sending people to be eternally tortured is abhorrent to many liberals.

Denominations differ over criteria by which a person is saved: some believe that faith alone is sufficient; others believe that good works are sufficient; some believe that both are necessary. All belief systems can be supported with biblical quotations.

bulletSalvation of non-Christians: No consensus exists over the fate after death of three groups of people:

bulletPeople in non-Christian countries who have never heard the Christian message and therefore have never been able to either accept or reject it.

bulletAdults who have heard the Gospel message but have rejected it for whatever reason.

bulletInfants, small children and developmentally delayed individuals who cannot understand the Gospel or make a rational decision to accept or reject it.

bullet The Bible: Conservative Christians generally believe that the original writings of the Bible, were inerrant (without error). God inspired its authors two write text that was free of error. Liberals tend to view the Bible as a collection of writings describing a gradual evolution of religious thought. They see material in the Bible that reflects the pre-scientific knowledge of its authors: the Earth as the center of the universe, a solid firmament in the sky that separates heaven from the earth, mental illness caused by demonic possession, a talking snake and donkey, etc. They see laws derived from the tribal culture of the Bible's authors which are considered profoundly immoral today. They see other text that was incorporated from nearby Pagan cultures.

bullet Jesus' Birth: The Christian Church has traditionally taught that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin at the time of Jesus' conception. Roman Catholics believe that she remained a virgin all her life and that she married but did not have any additional children. Most liberals regard this as a myth, based upon an ancient mistranslation of the Book of Isaiah, and on the life stories of many god-men saviors from Pagan religions.

bulletAtonement: This is the concept that, through Jesus' life -- and particularly his death -- the relationship between God and Man (which had been damaged by Adam and Eve's sin) can now be restored through the process of salvation. Different denominations have explained how the atonement works in different ways.

bulletResurrection: This is the teaching that after Jesus' death and burial, he arose again on the third day.

bulletAscension: Luke's gospel describes how Jesus bodily ascended from Bethany, into the clouds towards heaven on a Monday circa 30 CE, three days after his execution. Acts, which was also written by Luke, describes Jesus ascension, but places it on the Mount of Olives about 42 days after his execution. This is a curious discrepancy, since both books were written by the same author.

bullet Second coming: Many Christians have expected Christ's imminent return to earth ever since the mid 1st century CE. About one in four American adults expects him to return during their own lifetime. A substantial number expected the second coming during the year 2000. More details.

bullet Incarnation: Christians believe that God appeared on earth in human form as the god-man Jesus who is 100% God and 100% human.

bullet Justification: An act of God in which any person who accepts that they have sinned and who believes in the atonement of Christ is forgiven of their sins and brought into a close relationship with God.

bullet Rapture: This involves the resurrection of all saved Christians who have died in the past. Both they and currently living, saved Christians will rise towards Jesus Christ in the sky. This is a relatively new belief within Christianity and is almost solely believed by conservative Protestants. It is rejected as myth by liberal Christians.

bulletRegeneration of the spirit: The belief that a new believer undergoes a spiritual rebirth.

bulletInspiration: The belief that the authors of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit so that their writings were free of error.

bullet Deity: God is a single deity who exists as a Trinity of three separate persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

bulletSatan is regarded by conservatives as a created being, who was once an angel but is now an all-evil tormentor of humanity. Liberals generally regard Satan as a symbol of evil with no existence as a living entity.

bulletHeaven and Hell: Conservative Christians believe that these are locations which are places of reward and punishment. Liberal beliefs are varied.

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Related essays on this web site:

bulletHoly days: A list of seasonal days of celebration and remembrance.

bulletDivisions among Protestant denominations: There are at least two groups of Protestant faith groups.

bulletDifferences between Roman Catholicism and conservative Protestantism: There are major gaps; and they are growing.

bulletHow Christians interpret the BibleTheir beliefs differ because of how they view the Bible.

bulletThe Bible: inerrant or errant?

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Reference

  1. "Official creeds and statement of faith from original sources," at: http://www.bible.ca/ They list the statements and creeds of dozens of faith groups.

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Copyright © 1996 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-OCT-23
Latest update: 2011-NOV-21
Author: B.A. Robinson
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