For me, being a Christian, one of the hardest questions to answer is also the most important question people can ask me: What does it mean to be a Christian? It’s like asking a hippopotamus what it’s like to be a hippo. I’m so used to the Christian faith and practice that it’s really hard work trying to imagine what it would be like if I didn’t know what I know, if I wasn’t committed to the worldview I’m committed to (the curse of knowledge at work, to be sure). And after 6 years of theological training, you’d think I’d have this figured out by now, but I’m still learning the depths of my faith, the Orthodox teachings from church history, and the way that impacts my daily life.
The Definition of Christianity
Christianity is a Religion
Christianity is a religion, a set of answers to life’s biggest questions. It’s popular these days to say that Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship. Well that’s cute, and it’s a good attempt at communicating why Christianity is different from basically every other religion, but it creates a false binary between religions and relationships.
The dictionary defines religion as “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.” Relationships themselves can be religions if you worship them. Worship is what lies at the center of religions—that “very important” bit of the definition. And every religion has a logical outflow of that worship (i.e., someone to worship, a reason they are worth worshipping that transcends our own little selves, etc.). So a religion is a set of theological answers to life’s philosophical problems which gives you a reason or cause to live for.
Christianity is a Narrative
Golf can be a religion. You can eat, drink, and sleep golf, in which case golf is your answer to the meaning of your life. But golf isn’t an ultimate religion because it’s not big enough. It gives no answer to why tsunamis occur or why oceans exist at all (or, what a family is—ahem, Tiger Woods). To answer the question of Why, a religion needs a trajectory, a storyline that gives meaning to everything in existence. Christianity presents a fluid, coherent storyline for all of reality, which functions as a roadmap to answer the questions of Why (as in, Why does evil exist? Why are humans so broken?), beginning with the creation by a personal God who has intentions for Why He created what He did.
The popular religion today is science, which is just another way of saying we worship ourselves. We have made ourselves a religion by dedicating ourselves to our own senses in the scientific method. And we place all our hope in a future generation to figure out what we can’t. Physicists always believed that we’d find a particle at the base of everything that explains life—the so-called “God particle.” But recently, with the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle, scientists have admitted that we humans have reached the end of our journey, the end of our observational limits—that, tragically, we will never know the answer to the haunting question, Why is there something rather than nothing? The religion of science has hit its wall, because it gives no Ultimate answers. Its storyline is emaciated, beginning with a chance “big bang” and ending with either, on the positive side, a vague hope for eternal human flourishing through the continual progress of medicine or, on the negative side, the extinction of humanity by a superior race, namely, robots (or maybe aliens). The storyline that began with chance is ending with absurdity.
Christianity is a Drama
But Christianity says there is this huge overarching story that ties everything together, that extends throughout the totality of time. That God created everything, including time itself, and runs everything, like Christof on The Truman Show—except God, in His infinite wisdom, has a purpose for everything that happens, a purpose leading toward an eternal redemption and rest. The storyline of Christian dogma isn’t just a flimsy narrative that tries to make sense of the data, it is a robust drama—the most epic story of all stories.
This religion is not just a dry set of doctrinal laws, it is alive with meaning and importance. The worth of everything isn’t defined by itself but by the creator-God. Babies aren’t important because they are cute and lovable, but because they are a gift from God for our good and His glory. We don’t choose to have kids because it’s advantageous to us, but because He told us to, because it honors Him and His mission for the world. And for that matter, we ourselves aren’t lovable on our own, but because He loves us. And that makes us lovely.
The Christian Scriptures
At the heart of all these beliefs is the Christian Scriptures. Like every religion, we have a religious text that we believe was given to us by God Himself. Instead of leaving us alone to figure things out, we believe God Himself condescended and revealed Himself and His mind to us on paper for us to read and understand. The Bible is a book written by over 40 different authors over a period of 1500 years, and yet when you study it, you see that there absolutely must be a single author behind it all. It is unified in every way, presenting a coherent storyline and integrated set of theological Truths.
The Bible begins at the beginning of time and ends at the end, but it is so much more than a history book: it is a theological commentary on history. It deals with teleology—the ultimate purpose of things. It tells what happened and then explains Why it happened. It is human—it uses literary themes to communicate—and it is divine—it communicates the story of God in history. God uses the human authors and their methods of literary communication to show us, the readers, what we should think about Reality, from beginning to end, transcending our own little lives. So we Christians read the whole thing at face value. We believe it’s all literally 100 percent true—that everything happened the way it says it did, for the reasons presented, and every word choice is intentional to communicate in perfect clarity and precision.
So we believe the Bible is an accurate map of True Reality, and we construct the way we think, act, and see according to it. We read its stories and let God’s built-in commentary tell us how to interpret them, and then we use that knowledge to tell us how to think about Reality for ourselves.
Some think the Bible is just a set of random moral tales, but it only appears random to the unfamiliar. The Bible presents a single narrative from beginning to end—Genesis to Revelation. We believe that God created everything in actual time and space with a purpose. He wasn’t bored in eternity past. The reason He decided to, you know, set the Universe into motion, is in order to reveal Himself to an entire created order, and given the constraints of our small intelligence, He decided to do it through a story, a sequential unveiling of events—like a novel. So God created everything so that in everything that happened, He could show, progressively, who He is and always will be. And that communicates His glory.
The Christian Story
The Christian story is what we believe really happened, and it progresses theologically so that there is a way to summarize everything with theological short hand. Briefly put (I’ve given a fuller summary before), the Scripture states that the world began by direct creation of God (Gen 1–2), that God created the first two people (Adam and Eve) and put them in a perfect world (the garden of Eden). But that they lost paradise (as John Milton put it) and fell into the darkness East of Eden, into evil and the curse of God (Gen 3). At that point, sin and death enters the world, and creation is Fallen. But God, in His grace, doesn’t abandon His creation. In the midst of cursing mankind, He promises redemption (Gen 3:15). He promises a child (a “seed” of Eve) who will crush the head of the serpent, who will redeem Adam and Eve and restore the paradise they lost. But that child is a long time coming. It takes over four thousand years of Old Testament history for that child to come, for God’s redemption to take place. And even then, His redemption comes in the form of a lowly Jew, crucified among thieves (see: The Gospels). But this Jew lived a life that fulfilled all of God’s promises to His people, and even in death He was victorious, raising Himself from the dead three days later. In this victory, we see the future. And in His life, we see True Life. We are not destined to eternal death or insignificance. Each one of us, if we trust God and devote ourselves to His mission in history, has the opportunity of eternal life, of the life after death that Jesus enables.
The Christian Life
Therefore, to find the meaning of our lives, we have to find ourselves in that big story. That’s something Christians do a lot: we look at the end, the final end of history, and we look at the beginning, and we connect those dots and find ourselves there in the middle. We listen to God, our Creator, tell us how to think, and if what we are saying is different, we defer to Him and His wisdom. We lay down our lives and our wisdom in absolute trust of Him and His wisdom.
Most people think the Christian life is about acting like Jesus, since, after all, He is the center of our faith. And we are because we believe that Jesus is the direct representation of God’s nature. God is a spirit, but He has communicated Himself fully in the flesh-and-blood person of Jesus. But Christianity is so much more than a religion of moral replicas. Often Christianity is perverted by our short-sightedness to just be a list of dos and donts. But that cheapens the dramatic narrative of reality that God is spinning in real time and space.
The daily life of a Christian is defined by sanctification. We believe God has chosen us to redeem from the brokenness of the world, and that He has tasked us with the opportunity of becoming like Him (Matt 5:48). So we no longer live for our own selves and for the appetites and passions of our own bodies and minds, but for Him and His desires. Since He has communicated His desires to us in His Word, we know Him and what He wants. And in its interpretation of history, we find how it looks to please and displease Him.
Answering the Question of Why
At the end of it all, the most pressing question that Christianity answers is Why. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because God created it. Why did God create it? In order to create a stage on which He could enact the dramatic narrative of redemption. Why did He need this narrative populated by us, the characters in this divine drama? In order to reveal Himself. So at the end of it all, the reason we have for why things exist is that God, in His infinite wisdom and love, chose to reveal Himself in time and space. He chose to communicate theology in what happens, not just in abstract philosophical bullet points.
One question remains. If all of history is the means of Redemption, of righting the wrongs of Eden, why didn’t God just destroy the first family and start over again? Because God, instead of destroying, chose to redeem, and in so doing reveals His character and glory. God’s goal isn’t just perfection; it’s redemption. Like a painting, God created the world, and Satan, in sin, ruined His painting by slashing it with black ink. But God, in His omnipotent sovereign ability, chose to slowly paint back over the same canvas, chose to redeem this same world and reverse the effects of sin. But He did so at such a cost that He Himself submitted Himself to death, even the death on a Roman cross, so that Redemption could be complete and immovable.
And now, Christians get to look forward to a life after death that is unshakable. Paradise will be regained, but it will be even better than before, because there will be no potential for failure. Unlike Adam and Eve, we will possess the perfection of Jesus Christ forever, and we will never again Fall from our perfect standing with God. This is the new heavens and new earth, an entire new world order that is coming after time is rolled up like a scroll (Rev 21–22).
It’s hard to say what it means to be a Christian in so few words, but this is the basics. The Christian Gospel is that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world, and raised from the grave, in the death of death, so that now all may have life who believe in His work as Redeemer and Savior. But not all will be saved from eternal destruction. God in Jesus has done it all, but we must repent and trust in Him. At its core Christianity is a religion of faith, of uniting yourself with Jesus in His death and resurrection, dying to self to live in Him, so that the benefits of His righteousness may be attributed to us in our great need.
After long study, I firmly believe that only Christianity is big enough to make sense of all of life. That only the God of Christianity is immanent yet transcendent, just yet merciful. That only the Christian narrative as presented in the Bible is inerrant and true to Reality. If you agree, praise the Lord! If you don’t, email me. My info is in the footer.