The following is a capsule summary of Christianity from a talk I was invited to give to a group of psychiatric residents (doctors-in-training) here in the Twin Cities a few years ago.
The talk was on “the evangelical tradition,” and was intended to give these medical practitioners a sense of the beliefs of evangelicals, possible impediments to serving this constituency, and ideas of how to serve them better.These medical residents came from all kinds of religious backgrounds and several ethnic backgrounds and countries-of-origin. So I couldn’t assume they had any knowledge of the basics of Christianity.
I’ll post at least one more bit of this talk soon (see “Evangelicalism–a basic summary,” part I, part II, and part III, and “Evangelicals and psychiatric services“), but here’s the “Christianity-in-a-nutshell” intro, which came first in the talk, before any details about evangelicalism itself. I’m curious: What do you think? What did I miss? What did I get wrong? What would you have said differently?
First, the basics. What is the Christian faith that these evangelicals profess?
Christianity is rooted in Judaism, which teaches that the human race was created by a personal God. The Hebrew Scriptures, also accepted by Christians as authoritative, teach that from the beginning, despite the love of this God for humanity, humans have failed to return this love, preferring instead to “do their own thing.” This is symbolized in Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, by two stories.
In the first story, the first human beings created by God, Adam and Eve, willfully disobey the one rule God has set down for them in the idyllic Garden of Eden, by eating the fruit of a certain tree, because they wanted special knowledge. They then become ashamed of their own nakedness, and ashamed to meet God—note that both of these are fundamentally relational problems!—and they hide from God when he comes to meet them. And God casts them out of the Garden of Eden. In the second Genesis story, one of Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain, kills his brother Abel out of envy.
Yet God never gives up on the humans he had created. Over the years that follow, God makes a special covenant with the people of Israel, promising to protect them and make them grow and thrive if they will acknowledge his love and live according to that love by obeying the laws of Moses—especially the Ten Commandments. God also tells the people of Israel that he will save the whole world from their disobedient, loveless state, through Israel itself. In other words, they had been chosen, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of all humanity—to restore them to an unbroken love relationship to Himself, unhindered by pride, disobedience, or other forms of what is called “sin”—that is, bluntly speaking, our tendency to do our own thing, without regard for God or each other.
Much else happens in the history of Judaism, but now we must fast-forward many centuries to the time identified in the Western calendar as the first century A.D. In this time, a man is born who, according to the other set of books in the Christian Bible, the New Testament, came to fulfil God’s promise to save all people from their sin through Israel. This was a Jewish man named Jesus Christ, and according to the New Testament books—especially the four books called the Gospels, meaning Good News—Jesus was more than just a man. He was in fact God himself, in the flesh. He lived a life of purity and power, doing miraculous healings, commanding nature itself, and showing great compassion for sinful and suffering humanity. But he also threatened the Jewish political order, and powerful forces had him killed by the Roman method of crucifixion—being nailed to a cross and hung there until dead.
The culmination of this story is the “resurrection”—that is, the experience of Jesus’ group of 12 friends, the disciples, that Jesus did not stay dead, but rather was miraculously raised, and walked among them again, teaching them to believe in him, and that through him, they will be restored from their sin to a state of right relationship with God and others. Out of this experience of the resurrection, the 12 disciples and others went out into the world to bring the good news of Jesus’ ongoing, healing ministry.
Jesus was not now present in the flesh—after a brief period of ministry in his resurrection body, he was taken up into heaven, to return to his godhood. But he promised to leave with those who followed him another teacher and guide, his Holy Spirit. This is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: that God is present in three “persons”—who are more than just masks or identities put on by the one God, but in fact are three separate persons mystically united as one God: The Father, The Son (who was incarnated, or “made human,” on earth as Jesus Christ), and The Holy Spirit (who empowers and teaches all who believe in Christ).
Most Christians have taught that through the power of this Holy Spirit in their lives, and through the ministry on earth and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people who heard the good news of Jesus and accepted his authority as the son of God by undergoing baptism—a of ritual washing in water, in the name of Jesus—would find the power of sin and disobedience broken in their lives. These people would live a new sort of life, “saved” from sin and made able to wholly love God and others. In Greek, the term for this “good news” or “gospel” is “evangel”—which is the root word in the word “evangelicalism.”