Christianity The religion centered on belief in Jesus as the Son of GOD. Although it has representatives throughout the globe, Christianity is especially prominent in Europe, the Americas, and Australia.


Jesus (c. 4 B.C.E./c. 30 C.E.) was a Jew who lived primarily in Galilee (today northern Israel). It is said that he wandered the countryside, teaching and working MIRACLES. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea (today southern Israel), had him crucified on charges of sedition against the Roman government, but his followers soon became convinced that he had been raised from the dead. Some of these followers travelled as MISSIONARIES, mostly throughout the Roman Empire. They taught that Jesus was the promised MESSIAH or CHRIST and that he provided people with forgiveness for their SINS and eternal life.

Until the fourth century Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire, because Christians refused to “venerate” or give a kind of worship to the emperor. But Emperor Constantine (c. 280–337) lifted the legal restrictions against Christianity, and Emperor Theodosius (347–395) made all other religions illegal. At this time Christians systematized their teachings. The most important teachings said that Jesus was both fully God and fully human (see INCARNATION) and that God was a trinity: Father (or Creator), Son, and Holy Spirit.

At the same time they came to final agreement on which books should be included in the NEW TESTAMENT, that is, the specifically Christian part of the Bible. The Roman Empire had two parts, an eastern, Greek-speaking part and a western, Latin-speaking one. Starting in the fifth century, the political ties that had held these two together snapped, and Christians in the two regions gradually grew apart.

In 1054 the Great Schism severed relations between the Roman Catholic Church in the west (see ROMAN CATHOLICISM) and the Eastern Orthodox churches (see EASTERN ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY). The official causes included differences in church teaching and the relative positions of the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople (see PAPACY, THE). During the 16th century the western church split.

This event, known as the REFORMATION, led to the creation of many Protestant churches (see PROTESTANTISM). The Protestants insisted that only the Bible, not the papacy or the traditions of the church, had authority in religious matters. They also used the common language in worship services instead of Latin.

The 17th to the early 20th centuries were the great age of European colonialism. Christian missionaries accompanied European conquerors and converted people all over the globe. Catholic missionaries had been active among the indigenous peoples of the Americas from as early as the 16th century.

The 19th century was the era of large and influential Protestant missionary societies. During the 20th century there were several important movements within Christianity. The ecumenical movement—named from the Greek word oikoumene, roughly meaning “the whole world”— tried to overcome the differences that divided Christianity into many separate churches and to unite Christians around the globe. A very different movement, fundamentalism (see FUNDAMENTALISM, CHRISTIAN), arose in response to challenges posed by historical and scientific investigation; it insisted that every word of the Bible was literally true.

Still other movements addressed issues of equality and justice: Liberal Protestant churches began to admit women to leadership roles previously closed to them, while in poorer parts of the world some Christians worked for political and economic liberation.


Christians have generally emphasized the role of belief in bringing about SALVATION. As a result, Christian churches have insisted on a uniformity of belief more than many religions have. Christians often recite statements of belief known as CREEDS in public worship. Most but not all Christians endorse the beliefs established by the seven ancient ecumenical councils (325–787). (Councils are meetings of bishops, the heads of churches in various areas.) These beliefs include the belief that God is a trinity, Father (or Creator), Son, and Holy Spirit; that Jesus is the son of God and thus unites two natures, divine and human, in one person; that Jesus was conceived apart from human sexual activity (see VIRGIN BIRTH); that forgiveness of sins is available through Jesus’ death and RESURRECTION; and that at the end of time the dead will be raised and judged (see JUDGMENT OF THE DEAD). Christians differ on which books make up the Old Testament, but virtually all Christians agree on the 27 books that make up the New Testament. Christians have never been able to reach unanimity on all beliefs. One very significant difference concerns the process by which sins are forgiven. To what extent is salvation a gift from God, and to what extent do human beings need to perform certain actions in order to be saved? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that salvation requires both God’s gift of GRACE and human actions. The most extreme Protestant view, “double predestination,” suggests that God has determined whether a person will be saved or damned even before that person is born. Another point on which Christians differ concerns the significance of the bread and the wine in the Ritual known as the EUCHARIST. Catholic and Orthodox Christians teach that the bread and wine actually become Jesus’ body and blood. Most Protestants teach that they are only symbols of Jesus’s body and blood.


In recognition of Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday, most Christian churches have set aside Sunday as a day for communal worship. Orthodox and Catholic worship centers on the celebration of the eucharist in the Divine LITURGY or the Mass. Readings from the Bible, PRAYERS, and usually a homily (a short address or sermon) are also parts of the celebration. Specially ordained priests must perform the ritual of the eucharist itself, but in recent years steps have been taken to increase the participation of laypeople in other ways. Protestant churches have tended to celebrate the eucharist less frequently, in some churches as infrequently as once or twice a year. Protestant worship has emphasized PREACHING the word of God. Worship consists of a sermon, generally by a specially appointed minister, along with readings from the Bible, prayers, and songs or hymns. Most Christians follow a cycle of annual festivals linked to the life of Jesus: Advent prepares for the coming of Jesus; CHRISTMAS celebrates his birth; Epiphany celebrates his manifestation as God incarnate; LENT, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is a time for preparation and repentance; Palm Sunday recalls Jesus’ entry into JERUSALEM just before his death, Maundy Thursday his last meal with his followers, and Good Friday his crucifixion; EASTER celebrates Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. One becomes a Christian through Baptism (sprinkling with or immersion in water). Catholic and Orthodox Christians generally practice baptism as a birth ritual. Some Protestants practice it as a ritual of maturation, like BAR/BAT MITZVAH in JUDAISM. In addition to baptism and the Eucharist, the Catholic and Orthodox churches recognize fi ve other SACRAMENTS through which Christians receive God’s grace: confirmation or chrismation, penance, marriage, holy orders, and anointing with oil for healing or as “extreme unction” for the dying. They also give special veneration to MARY, Jesus’ mother, and SAINTS, exemplary Christians from the past. The Orthodox churches also emphasize the use of sacred pictures known as icons (see IMAGES, ICONS, IDOLS IN RELIGION).


Christian churches are organized according to two models, the episcopal model and the congregational model. On the episcopal model, authority resides with a bishop (Greek, episkopos) or archbishop. Bishops are persons in charge of an entire area, and they oversee the activities of a variety of subordinates, such as priests. The Roman Catholic Church concentrates ultimate authority in a single human being, the pope. The Orthodox churches are organized along national lines—Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and so on. Each national church is headed by a patriarch or metropolitan. The congregational model is found among many Protestants. On this model, authority resides with the local congregation, which selects a person to be its minister. Usually congregations are joined together into larger regional or national groups. However, fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants in the United States have founded a large number of independent “Bible churches.”

Christianity in the World Today

At the beginning of the 21st century, Christianity was the world’s largest religion. Some 2 billion people, about a third of the world’s population, were at least nominally Christian or of Christian cultural background. However, the role and impact of the religion varied greatly from one place to another. Moreover, the Christian “center of gravity,” that is, where its greatest number and dynamism are concentrated, was rapidly shifting from Europe and North America to what is called the Third World or Southern Hemisphere, the countries of Latin America, Africa, and southern Asia. Traditionally, Christianity has been considered chiefl y the religion of the white races of Europe and their immigrant descendents in the Americas. Since its origin within the Roman Empire, most signifi cant Christian history appeared to take place in Europe or the Mediterranean basin. This is where the papacy ruled, dominant theologies were developed, theological wars were fought, the Protestant Reformation took place, and the major DENOMINATIONS were formed. Even Christianity in the Americas, including the United States (see UNITED STATES, RELIGION IN), although it soon displayed some distinctive features, has often been seen as little more than the transplanting of what was essentially a European faith. Now, in Europe, although the great cathedrals still stand and traditional Christian festivals are observed, the religion seems to have lost considerable vigor. In a few places religious identity remains important and divisive, for example, whether one is Roman Catholic or Protestant in Ireland or is Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Muslim (see ISLAM) in Bosnia-Herzegovina and surrounding areas. But in most parts of Europe not more than a small percentage of the population attends church regularly. In the United States, church attendance by the professedly Christian 85 percent of the population is markedly higher than in Europe; the situation in Canada is between those of Europe and the United States (see CANADA, RELIGION IN). But the 225 million Christians in the United States in 2000 represented only a little over 10 percent of world Christianity, and that percentage will decline as the 21st century advances. Worldwide, according to projections, by 2025 half the world’s Christians will live in Africa and Latin America; by 2050, only about onefifth of the world’s then 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic “whites,” and some four-fifths of Christians will be Hispanic, African, or Asian. This is partly because of anticipated rapid population growth in those parts of the world and partly because Christianity is attracting converts there as it loses adherents in regions that were once its heartlands. More signifi cant are the changes this demographic (population) shift is making in the character of Christianity. In worldwide traditions such as ANGLICANISM, tensions between European/North American and Asian/African/Latin American wings of the denomination have already reached a critical point, as the former tend to be far more liberal than the latter on such issues as homosexuality and ordaining women. Moreover, increasingly Christians in the Southern Hemisphere regions of rapid growth is moving away from traditional “mainline” denominations. PENTECOSTALISM, with its vibrancy, its strict moral standards, and its provisions for spiritual expression on the part of virtually everyone in its congregations, has flourished. It is now estimated that as many as one-fourth of active Christians in the world are Pentecostal. Many other new forms of Christianity (see CHRISTIANITY, INDEPENDENT) have appeared in Latin America, Africa (as many as 8,000 on that continent), and Asia, accommodating Christian expression to surrounding cultures in ways traditional European and North American denominations perhaps never could. Many contain elements of Spiritualism, Pentecostalism, or SANTERÍA as well as such indigenous features as ANCESTOR VENERATION and traditional music and dance. The face of Christianity in the 21st century and after will definitely look different from that of the past.


Christianity is the largest single religion in the world today, practiced by roughly a third of the world’s population. For centuries Christianity has made major contributions to European culture. During the 20th century, strong, independent Christian churches also developed among those who were not of European ancestry.


  • David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, eds., World Christian Encyclopedia, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001);
  • Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995);
  • Robert S. Ellwood, and James B. Wiggins, Christianity: A Cultural Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988);
  • Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002);
  • Daniel L. Migloire, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 2004);
  • Ninian Smart, The Phenomenon of Christianity (London: Collins, 1979);
  • Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, Rev. Ed. (New York: Scribner, 1984)


The Encyclopedia of World Religions – Revised Edition – written by DWJ BOOKS LLC.
General Editor: Robert S. Ellwood – Associate Editor: Gregory D. Alles – Copyright © 2007, 1998 by DWJ BOOKS LLC