Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the basic tenets of Christianity


The largest religion in the world is Christianity, with 2.3 billion people, or 31.4% of the world’s population identifying as Christian. Today, the four largest branches of Christianity are the Catholic Church (1.3 billion), Protestantism (920 million), the Eastern Orthodox Church (260 million) and Oriental Orthodoxy (86 million).

Christianity began 2,000 years ago in Palestine, with Jesus of Nazareth, who believers consider to be the Son of God and savior of the world. Christianity understands its namesake to be a charismatic leader who taught his followers about caritas (charity), or the principle that one should treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Jesus, a Jew, rebelled against many of the Jewish laws and did things like heal the sick on the Sabbath—a day in which no work was to take place. Christians believe that Jesus died and was resurrected, and that Jesus’ death was necessary so that humankind can obtain salvation.

The sacred text for Christians is the Bible. While Jews, Christians, and Muslims share many of same historical religious stories, their versions of these narratives and subsequent beliefs often diverge. In their shared sacred stories, it is suggested that the son of God—a messiah—will return to save God’s followers. While Christians believe that he has already appeared in the person of Jesus Christ, Jews and Muslims disagree. While they recognize Christ as an important historical figure, their traditions don’t believe that he is the son of God, and these faiths see the prophecy of the messiah’s arrival as not yet fulfilled.

Within Christianity, different groups do not necessarily adhere to the same religious texts, though there are often important similarities among them. For instance, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an established Christian sect, use the Book of Mormon, which they believe details other parts of Christian doctrine and Jesus’ life that are not included in the Bible. Similarly, the Catholic Bible includes the Apocrypha, a collection of texts that, while part of the 1611 King James translation, is no longer included in Protestant versions of the Bible.

The 16th-century Reformation led to Protestants, or protest-ants, breaking off from the Catholic Church. Today 40% of Christians are Protestants, which include Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, and others.

Although monotheistic, Christians often describe their god through three manifestations that they call the Holy Trinity: the father (God), the son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a term Christians often use to describe religious experience, or how they feel the presence of the sacred in their lives. One foundation of Christian doctrine is the Ten Commandments, which decry acts considered sinful, including theft, murder, and adultery.

Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter are widely celebrated in the United States and around the world. They are marked by gift-giving, singing, praying, decorating one’s home, and preparing specific foods associated with the holidays. Many Christians and Jews strive to go to the holy sites of Israel, as a form of pilgrimage, which is similar to a Muslim’s journey to Mecca to participate in the Hajj. Although Christians do not typically fast, Lent (or the forty days leading up to Easter) is a time of reflection and contemplation for Christians, and many choose to give up something as part of their preparation for the sacred holiday.

Like participants in other world religions, Christians have been persecuted for their beliefs, but have also historically been involved with persecuting non-Christians, such as during the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades. Today politically volatile forms of Christian extremism, often combined with strains of nationalism and/or racism, is on the rise, with some terrorists explicitly claiming that their actions are rooted in Christian beliefs. Examples include the July, 2011 Norway attacks and the March, 2019 shootings at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Watch It

Learn more about the basic beliefs and practices of Christianity in the following video.

Try It

Try It

Review each of the types of religion from this module in the following interactive.

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