According to Pew Research there are over 2.4 billion Christians in the world—divided among more than 40,000 self-described denominations. Of course, there are nearly 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, 800 million Protestants (many versions) and almost 300 million Eastern Orthodox. What do these people believe? The word “Christ” is derived from the Greek Christos, which in English means Messiah, so the Christians are messianists. The core Christian beliefs are based on one person, Jesus Christ. A remarkable number of people believe that Jesus is the first name, and Christ the last name of a single person—an historical person who lived in Galilee and Judaea in the first century of the Common Era (C.E.).
Most Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, the Son of God. Also, most Christians believe that Jesus “died for our sins.” I personally have never understood precisely what that means. Supposedly it is based on an idea attributed to Augustine of Hippo, that all of mankind was stained with the “original sin” of Adam, the first man created by God, who, with his mate, Eve, violated the injunctions of God and ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and was therefore exiled from the Garden of Eden.
Interestingly, Martin Luther, the monk who threw the Christian world into uproar with his schismatic ideas that became what we term “Protestantism,” also subscribed to this notion. And he taught that fallen mankind could only receive redemption by faith in Jesus Christ. Some recent thinkers believe that Luther’s prescriptions should be interpreted not as faith in Christ, but belief in the faith of Christ.
One part of the legacy of Augustine and Luther is ant-Semitism. Augustine didn’t authorize the slaughter of Jews; he thought they should be kept around to show what happens to people who reject their savior, i.e. Jesus. Luther was welcoming to the Jews when he believed they would convert to his version of Christianity, but when they refused his overtures, he was outraged and prescribed punishments for them that might well have formed the basis for Hitler’s Nuremberg laws.
I have simplified my explanation for the sake of brevity and time, but what are the truths behind Christianity that hold the affection and devotion of so many people? Let me stipulate that notwithstanding the depredations of so many allegedly “Christian” nations, these nations, particularly in their European and North American forms are responsible for great achievements in art, music, literature, politics, science and human rights. The question is, where do Christians go from here? This is a difficult question because Christianity is founded on a myth, not facts. Jesus of Nazareth was not divine and never claimed to be. He was indeed a great and good man, but he was just a man. He had the spark of the divine which is in all of us—made in God’s image, not physically, but spiritually.
The greatest growth of Christianity in recent decades has been in Africa and South America, among peoples, no lest intellectually endowed than Europeans and Americans, but at an earlier phase of development. The Europeans are becoming less and less “Christian” as the decades pass, as are the Americans, though still approximately 78% still state they are Christians. What they mean by this is not known, although undoubtedly tens of millions are still sincere in their faith.
However, as the years become decades and the decades centuries, people everywhere (if we haven’t blown ourselves up) as they became more knowledgeable scientifically and sophisticated in their awareness of history, will be less likely to believe that Jesus was divine. That does not mean they will abandon the Judeo-Christian ethics – the morality of millennia, but they will no longer connect their standards to the idea of a Galilean who “died for their sins” thousands of years earlier. The truth is that Jesus (Joshua or Yeshua) was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died a Jew. His death was heroic and sacrificial, but it was to save the Jews of his time from rebelling against oppression and being slaughtered by the Romans. As it was, he only delayed their tragedy. The Jews rose against the Romans in 66 and were defeated and Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed in 70 C.E. Some escaped to the diaspora, a few survived at Masada until 72 or 73 C.E. The Jews rose again in 135 under the man known as Bar Kochba, who was himself declared by Rabbi Akiba to be the Messiah. But he was not, and the Jews were slaughtered again. They would not have their own country again until 1948; they would not stand before the Western wall of the Temple until 1967.
Nevertheless, Jesus was a Jewish hero, though not God, and he should be honored as a hero by the Jews, but his struggles and his sacrifice have not been understood or recognized by Jews—at least not yet. This does not abrogate the rights of others who consider him to be their hero to respect and honor him, especially for his ethics. Christians must recognize, however, that the ethics of Jesus of Nazareth were and are Jewish ethics. Those that claim he opposed the Judaism of his time, that he introduced new moral standards, are mistaken, but his stature as a world figure of honor and spiritual grandeur must not be dismissed.
How will Christians maintain their integrity and their ethics as more and more people understand that Jesus was not God? Therein lies the paradox.