Monday, August 31, 2015

On the Uniqueness of Christianity

We have all heard the question, “Aren’t all religions basically the same?” Often, it is more of an assertion than a question, but the notion does raise the question of what is different about Christianity. There are a number of factors which distinguish Christianity from other religions and as I have been thinking about this I have found that the list of things that are distinct keeps getting longer.

First, I want to mention a few of the unique ideas of Christianity that I will not be focusing on, simply to identify other aspects that relate as well. These include the fact that the founder, Jesus, claimed to be God Himself, while the founders of other religions attempt to tell us about God. There is also the concept of the Trinity and the subsequent idea that one member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, actually resides within us, dwelling in our very being. Then the idea that this Holy Spirit gives each of us specific “gifts,” by which we can serve God and make a greater difference in this world. I could entirely focus on any one of those aspects of the Christian Faith, but the Trinity, the Holy Spirit and the identity of Jesus demand much more attention than I have time for now.

There are 5 unique aspects that I want to give attention to here:

1. At the Center of the Christian Faith is a Relationship with God.
In its essence, Christianity is a religion which is centered around a relationship with Jesus Christ. There is much more to the Christian Faith than this relationship, but Christianity is not an assessment of our ability to follow rules or understand theology. Of course there are Moral Laws and there are particular doctrines and theological principles which are important to understand. But at its core, Christianity is first and foremost a relationship with a person, the particular person being our Creator. Other religions are centered on a relationship with rules or principles.

However, I want to be careful about saying Christianity “is not a religion, it’s a relationship,” because this can be misleading due to the fact that distinct features of a religion, such as important doctrines and traditions, are present and have a significant place within Christianity. There is also a specific view of the world which follows from the reality of our need for Jesus and our understanding of the true God. So to say that Christianity is not a religion would be just as misleading as saying it is merely a religion.

I would prefer to say that the Christian Faith is a religion which involves a relationship with Jesus as its primary feature. Perhaps it would be sufficient to identify Christianity as “a different kind of religion,” and then explain why.

2. God Initiates the Relationship with us.
God Himself has taken the initiative to reach out to us by dying on the cross in order to offer forgiveness and relational reconciliation to us. Christianity is about God reaching out to us. Typical religion assumes that we can make ourselves worthy of God and can orchestrate ways to connect with God through our own efforts. Many think of religion as us sending an aroma, like incense, up from the earth to please God, but the Christian concept is more like rain coming down to earth to give us life. Christianity assumes we can only respond to how God has reached out to connect with us.

The common idea of religion can be described as man’s attempt to reconcile himself to a distant God, who we hope might notice us if we can impress him or are good enough. Christianity, on the other hand, is God reconciling humanity to Himself because He wants us to know Him. It is quite a difference. Based on this understanding, Christianity is definitely a different kind of religion because the Christian Faith is not about what we have done to be worthy of God, rather, it's all about what God has done for us.

3. Salvation is a Gift that we cannot Earn.
Another thing that religion often implies is, “If you obey God, then you can be deserving of His love.” Christianity says, “Because of God’s love for us, we seek to obey.” God offers salvation that is independent of human worthiness; it is God’s free gift to us all. As the Apostle Paul explains in Ephesians 2:8-9, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast." The essence of Grace is an undeserved gift, which is the key to understanding that in God’s eyes none of us is better than another, because we all need the same gift and none of us deserve it.

God has offered the world salvation through a relationship with Jesus Christ, by Grace. Our good works are irrelevant to receiving this gift, we cannot earn it or buy it, it is only given, which itself demonstrates the unconditional nature of His love for us. Every other religion teaches a version of salvation “by works,” i.e. doing the right things and not doing the wrong things.

Now of course obeying and following God is still important and a change in heart is significant, but the reason becomes quite different. Because God has entered into our life, we discover that we want to change our life and follow Him. This is perhaps where we most clearly see the concept of a changed heart, but not in order to impress God or become worthy of Him, it is because of His grace and love for us. This is what Paul alludes to in Ephesians 2 as the discussion continues with verse 10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

There is nothing we can do to make ourselves a “Child of God,” or to deserve it, but there is much that we will want to do because we are His child.

4. Christianity is Based on a Historical Event.
Perhaps you have noticed that religions tend to be based on claims that no one could ever assess. Every religion has a core claim upon which it rises or falls but, with the exception of Christianity, we have no means of evaluating the truth of that claim. It’s not just that we can’t investigate it now, but no one ever could. We find claims of visions or angels appearing to someone, which we are just supposed to accept as accurate and really from God. When it comes to the Christian Faith, it is quite different in that no one is asked to blindly accept an individual’s personal revelation or encounter. Rather, we are invited to assess the historical claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, a claim which many affirmed at the time.

Other religions involve one person revealing to the rest of us what they discovered about God as the result of what an angel told them, a vision or dream, or perhaps just their personal thoughts. Christianity arose as a result of the consistent testimony of 12 individuals regarding an event which they witnessed. They were telling everyone about this event, the Resurrection of Jesus, not a dream or a private encounter, or even how God helped them. This is why it is so important that there were 12 Apostles who testified as to what had happened, otherwise we would all wonder if one person was just delirious or dreaming.

A couple other significant things are worth pointing out here. First, it is noteworthy that the event was not something that happened to them, it was completely independent of them as they were simply witnesses of an empty tomb and a dead man alive again. Second, it is interesting that they were initially telling people who had seen Jesus die and others who had condemned Him to death, they weren’t speaking to people who had no knowledge of Jesus or what had previously taken place.

Geoff Ashley of the Village Church puts it well in his blog post, Condensing Culture and Christianity, One God, One Way; where he states: “Our hope is not therefore in an obscure revelation given to one man in a cave, a subjective experience of enlightenment, or a secret that is conveyed by drinking the Kool-Aid, but rather in an a risen person seen, heard and touched by hundreds of people over a period of about a month.  Our hope is founded upon an objective historical event.”

5. Therefore, Christianity is Falsifiable.
The Christian message should only be believed if the historical event it is based on is actually true. The Apostle Paul says as much when he addresses this in 1 Corinthians 15:16-17: “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” Paul identified the means of verifying or falsifying the entire Christian Faith. We see the same thing in Acts 17:31 when Paul is in Athens speaking at the Areopagus, in his most famous sermon which he concludes by declaring, “He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead.” There it is again, the resurrection is the proof of the Gospel. But at the same time, if anyone is not convinced that the resurrection actually happened, then it would be reasonable for them to not accept that Jesus had provided the means of a new relationship with God. So it is then necessary to look into the resurrection itself.

The key point here is that what has been identified is the “lynch pin,” so to speak, of Christianity. Our belief about the resurrection specifically will justify the conclusion we reach about Christianity. If Jesus rose from the dead, then everything else about Him makes sense and it is reasonable to accept Christianity; but if He did not, then He is simply a really smart dead man and we ought to be skeptical about the rest of the claims about Him. What is so unique is that a “lynch pin” exists which can actually be examined, that the Christian message about Jesus is actually open to historical inquiry.

Others have articulated this idea of falsifiability quite well, so rather than trying to do it over again, I will refer you to the rendering of the concept by Michael Patton in his Blog Post Christianity, the World’s most Falsifiable Religion: “If I decided to start a religion, ... I would not give details about the time, place, and people involved. More than that, I would not invite contemporaries to investigate these claims. For example, if I were to say today that in 1965 there was a man named Titus who was born in Guthrie, OK and traveled about Oklahoma City doing many miracles and gaining a significant following, this could easily be falsified. I would not say that Mary Fallin, the governor of Oklahoma, along with Tom Coburn, US Senator from Oklahoma, had Titus electrocuted. I would not detail that the electrocution was in Bricktown on January 13, 1968 at 9am. I wouldn’t claim that Titus rose from the dead and gained a significant following throughout Oklahoma City which has spread across America. Why wouldn’t I make these claims as the foundation of my new religion? Because they can be easily tested and falsified. This religion could not possibly get off the ground. If I were to make up a religion, all the events which support the religion (if any) would be private and beyond testing. This is why you don’t have religions based on historic events. They are all, with the exception of Christianity, based on private encounters which cannot be falsified or subjective ideas which are beyond inquiry.”

But this is exactly what happened following the life of Jesus, the Apostles and the Gospel accounts provided detailed facts, many of which the contemporaries would know were either accurate or false. Yet the church exploded in the very city where the Apostles claimed these things had taken place.

The final two unique elements clearly go together in that Christianity is falsifiable specifically because it is based on an objective historical event. Therefore, the claim of the Resurrection of Jesus is the key belief to investigate, because it obviously either happened or it didn’t. I do not advocate that anyone should believe it simply because the Bible claims it, we should all examine the available historical evidence in order to assess what really happened.

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christianity has no answer for our sin or suffering and there is no more significance to following Him than in following Gandhi. However, if Jesus actually rose from the dead, then God has gone to the extent of dying for us in order to restore our relationship with Him and it then makes sense that salvation truly is a gift which we don’t deserve.