There are so many religions, let alone Christian denominations, how can anyone know what to believe? And even if Jesus is the truth, which denomination can honestly claim to be the “closest” to the truth? Who are the real Christians?
For starters, it is important to understand that Judeo-Christianity predates all modern religions, beginning in the 20th century BC when Abram heeded God’s call to migrate to Canaan. His monotheistic faith not only set the stage for the Bible to be written, but also for the coming of the Messiah (the Redeemer of mankind). Judaism proper—adherence to the Law of Moses—came about in the 15th century BC when the Israelites escaped Egypt and their earthly leader Moses received God’s instructions (the first five books of the Bible, called the Torah or Pentateuch).
All other modern religions came later: Hinduism circa 1000–500 BC, Zoroastrianism circa 600 BC, Buddhism in the 5th century BC, Taoism in the 4th century BC, and Islam in the 6th or 7th century AD. Judeo-Christianity preceded all of these by at least 500 years.
But Christianity didn’t become a “thing” until 32 or 33 AD, right? Actually, not really and that’s why I’m using the term Judeo-Christianity. The central theme of all the ancient Hebrew texts is the belief in a coming Messiahwho would redeem God’s people. This Anointed One/Christ/Messiah would fulfill the Law, Psalms, and Prophets, save the lost, and establish an everlasting Kingdom. The very first prophecy given in the Bible is about Him (Gen. 3:15) and the Old Testament (called the Tanakh in Judaism) is replete with descriptions about Him and what He would do and accomplish (e.g. Deut. 18:14–22; Job 19:25; Ps. 2; Ps. 22; Is. 9:1–7; 53; Zech. 12:10–14; 14:3–4). The Old Testament is about Christ and His people the Israelites. It’s proto-Christianity in the truest sense.
The source of monotheism and religion itself is Judeo-Christianity. Common religious concepts like God, worship, ritual, faith, forgiveness, grace, and redemption all stem from the Bible and the revelations contained therein. All other religions are sad and twisted imitations.
In secular circles it is common to speak collectively of books like the Bible, Koran, and Bhagavad Gita as “holy texts” or “holy books,” but the term is comparing apples and oranges. It muddies the waters. By very definition the terms equate all truth claims and neglect objectivity. Each of these books contain numerous mutually exclusive tenets and statements presented as facts. Not all are true and not all are holy. For example, the Bible repeatedly claims that Yahweh is the only God (Deut. 4:35, 39; 6:4; 32:39; 2 Sam. 7:22; 1 Kgs. 8:60; 2 Kgs. 5:15; 19:15; 1 Chr. 17:20; Neh. 9:6; Ps. 18:31; 86:10; Is. 43:10; 44:6, 8; 45:21; 46:9; Mk. 12:29–34; Jn. 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:4–6; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Jas. 2:19) and that Jesus is the only source of salvation (e.g. Ps. 2:1–12; Jn. 3:18, 36; 8:24; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Tim. 2:5; 1 Jn. 5:11–13). Allah, Brahma, Zeus, and Ba’al can’t be gods and neither can Islam, Hinduism, or the Buddha be sources of salvation if the Bible, is, in fact, true.
A foundational belief of the Judeo-Christian faith presented in the Bible is that reality itself is rooted in the self-existent God (Yahweh/Yehovah, whose Name means “I Am that I Am” or “The One who is, who was, and who is to come”) and only God’s revelations to men can be regarded as objective truth. From the very beginning of the Bible we discover that the book presents the Deity as self-existent, existing before time, transcendent, and personally involved in His creation—both before and after His creative activity. Therefore the Bible and the Noahic-Abrahamic traditions that preceded it proclaim monotheism to be objective truth. This necessarily rules out pantheism, panentheism, polytheism, animism, and deism—the bulk of all other religions.
Is the Bible’s claim about the Deity correct? Yes, and demonstrably so as this collection of articles and discourses clearly shows. The cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments, in addition to numerous other arguments, are indisputable rationale for the existence of a transcendent, self-existent Being. This scholarly and philosophical foundation is unique to monotheism among all other religions and belief systems. God is the simplest, most logical, and most rational explanation for all that we see around us and even Stephen Hawking admits as much as I explained several years ago.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
You were shown these things so that you would know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides Him.
But how do we know the Bible itself is true? The correct answer is because the Bible is God-breathed. In its original manuscripts it is inerrant and infallible. The true God spoke true words audibly, and sometimes into the minds, of fallible human beings. See 2 Timothy 3:16–17 and 2 Peter 1:20–21. But that answer will [understandably] not satisfy the skeptic. The question that should instead be asked is, “is there evidence for the Bible’s authenticity?” The answer is an emphatic “YES!” Here are four key points that vouch for the Bible’s authenticity (unique among all religious texts):
1. Every claim in the Bible that can be demonstrably tested has been verified. In other words, if we presently possess some scientific know-how, archaeological discovery, or corroborating text that can directly test a specific claim from the Bible, the claim has been verified. As a matter of fact, this truth has been a great source of humiliation for secular historians over the past several decades as discovery after discovery has proven the Bible true even after historians had said “it just couldn’t be.” Whether it be the fallen walls of Jericho, the reign of King Hezekiah, or even the existence of a Jewish temple, every bit of physical evidence that has turned up to answer the Bible’s claims has proven the Bible true. You can read about the reliability of Scripture here and the age of the earth here (by the way: I’ll be addressing the age of the earth in the near future). Also, here is just a small sampling of recent archaeological discoveries that have verified the Bible.
2. We have more ancient manuscripts of the Bible than any other ancient text. See here, here, and here. Furthermore, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946/47 blew a huge hole through the theory of that generation’s biblical textual critics. They had taught that the Old Testament was composed much later than Jews and Christians believed and had undergone a significant evolution in content. Not only did the Dead Sea Scrolls disprove that claim, showing that the Old Testament we have today is equivalent to the one used by Christ and His disciples, but they also provided rock-solid evidence that certain prophecies about Jesus Christ were written before He was born.
3. The Bible contains some sort of self-verifying mathematical and thematic codes underlying the text. This is a more recent discovery and is absolutely mind-boggling. You can read about this here, here, and here.
4. Prophecy is unique to the Bible and is its watermark of authenticity. That is not to say that other religious texts don’t contain “prophecy,” but that unique to the Bible are very specific prophecies that can be demonstrably proven to have been written before the events occurred. Isaiah 53 is a prime example. Other examples can be found here and here.
Contrary to the postmodern claim that all religious beliefs are based on blind faith, it can be demonstrably proven that 1. God exists and 2. Biblical Christianity is the only legitimate religious truth, as shown from a few examples in the previous section. It can also be shown, based on the strong preponderance of evidence, that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead (see here and here). That leaves us with the question of what “flavor” of Christianity is the right one. After all, there are hundreds of denominations, so how can anyone really know which one follows the Bible? Who are the real Christians?
To answer these final questions we must lay a proper foundation.
First, if we can agree that God is real and the Bible is true, we then need to decide how one should interpret the Bible. If the Bible is divinely inspired truth and men are fallible, there is only one proper way to understand it and that is by using exegesis—”drawing out” the meaning of the text—as opposed to eisegesis, which is “reading into” the text. In other words, we want to understand and believe what the Bible is saying and not add our own interpretations to it. For this reason, allegorical systems of interpretation must be dismissed out of hand. We must speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it is silent. This necessarily leads us to a prima facie or historical-grammatical method of Scripture reading. We must accept what was plainly written for its literal meaning, bearing in mind context and idioms. Symbols and allegory are defined by the text itself. You can read more about how to read Scripture here under the section “When to Unite: A Theology of Everything.”
Based on this foundation alone, we can conclude that 1. God created the universe in six days (Gen. 1:1–2:3; Ex. 20:11), 2. Mankind was present from the beginning of creation (Mk. 10:6), 3. Jesus died as a substitutionary sacrifice for sins (Is. 53:4–6, 11; 1 Cor. 15:3; Col. 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:24), 4. Jesus rose bodily from the dead (Mt. 28:6; Mk. 16:6; Jn. 20:26–29; 1 Cor: 15:12–22), 5. There will be a future bodily resurrection of believers (Jn. 11:21–27; 1 Cor. 15:12–58; 1 Thess. 4:16–17; Rev. 20:4), 6. Believers alive at that time will be transfigured and raptured into the sky (1 Thess. 4:17; 1 Cor. 15:51–52), 7. Jesus will return physically to the earth (Zech. 14:3–4; Acts 1:10–11), and 8. There will be a future 1,000-year period in which Christ reigns over the nations of the earth from Jerusalem (Is. 2:1–4; Mic. 4:1–8; Rev. 20:1–7). Through simple deduction we can then conclude that key pieces of the soteriological and eschatological doctrines of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and liberal Protestant churches are false.
Second, we can compare the doctrines and practices of modern churches to the truths and customs espoused by the Bible’s apostolic witness and New Testament authors. We can also compare to Early Church history (1st and 2nd century AD). Here is what we learn about the Early Church:
- They valued and prioritized holy living
- There is scant evidence for any sort of ritualism or formal liturgy aside from partaking communion
- The trimmings and trappings of modern high church liturgy was almost completely absent
- They proclaimed the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ and His physical resurrection from the dead
- There was a significant debate over whether or not salvation came through faith alone or if keeping the Law was also necessary, but faith alone won out (e.g. Acts 15:1–35; Gal. 2:11–3:14) and the Early Church Fathers attest to this (although the doctrine of Sola Fide was not systematized until later)
- They were not separated into classes of clergy and laity, holding instead to the “priesthood of all believers,” although church leadership was strong in many areas; and it should be emphatically pointed out that in the New Testament the term “priest” (hiereus) was used of 1. Christ and 2. all members of the Church, not just specific individuals
- They met together physically and frequently for interpersonal edification—encouragement, Bible study, communion, and worship—not impersonal ritual
- They immersed/bathed new converts in water as a testimony to the Gospel (note that baptism is a transliteration, not a translation; see here), but by the time the Didache was written, some Christians poured water in lieu of immersion if there was not enough water to immerse
- The Christian community lived sacrificially, under heavy societal and religious persecution
- In the earliest years Christians largely avoided political issues, focusing instead on their own religious message (evangelism), but also stood firm against societal sins
- Their religious outlook was entirely evangelical in the sense that sharing the Gospel message of reconciliation with God through faith in Christ was seen as the primary message of the Church (as attested to by the Book of Acts and the Epistles)
In summary, the Early Church looked almost nothing like modern liturgical/high church Christianity. It looked a lot more like evangelical house church movements in Africa and Asia, albeit with a stronger leadership style and a bit more iconography.
You have to understand that satan was very quickly overwhelmed by the several thousand Christ followers let loose after Pentecost. This was like no other challenge he had ever faced. Because they were Holy Spirit-indwelt the Christian sect literally had omnipotence living inside them. They were casting out demons right and left, healing the sick, and breaking out of thick iron bars to preach the Gospel without exerting any effort. In the past, satan only had to deal with one or two stalwart warriors at a time—Moses, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, Christ. Now he was dealing with thousands of “mini-Christs” who were running spiritual offense against the entire spiritual power structure he had carefully erected in the world’s only superpower—Rome.
So he did what he does best—fight from within his enemy’s own ranks. His minions infiltrated the many local churches that were scattered throughout Italia, Greece, Asia Minor, and Judea. Many churches were flooded with faux-followers who had different levels of religiosity, but no genuine faith in Christ as the Son of God and God in the flesh. Gnosticism, Arianism, and self-righteous legalism spread like a cancer in susceptible churches, but there were still faithful churches that stood strong, holding onto the Gospel and the truth of God’s Word.
The faithful churches were able to hold overall sway for several hundred years and kept these errant doctrines at bay—or at least prevented them from overtaking the whole movement. It was during these first few hundred years that the Church fleshed out some of the biblical truths we now take for granted like the Trinity, Incarnation, and the canon of Scripture.
Yet by the 4th century Christianity had moved from spiritual domination to political domination and now had the reins of power in Rome. It had been several hundred years since the disciples were first set loose on the world with their message of good news and the soon [re]appearing of Christ and it looked like Christians wouldn’t need Jesus to come back after all. Theologians thought they were doing pretty well down on earth without Him and they began to question the literal truth of prophecy.
In the midst of this doubt and reinvention, Augustine wrote The City of God, which promoted the idea that prophecies of Christ’s second coming and “end things” were somehow different than the rest of Scripture. They weren’t literal truths to be read and accepted as-is, but allegorical, symbolical truths that were open to private interpretation. Biblical eisegesis, Christian allegorism, and Roman Catholic eschatology were born out of this 5th century shift.
For perhaps the first time, major doctrinal errors were accepted by Christendom at large, rather than just the schismatic churches that satan had already infiltrated.
But despite the false teachings that were now beginning to take hold of Christendom, there were still a great number of faithful churches and the evangelical message was still spreading. The Gospel reached far and wide—Ireland, northern Europe, Russia, and further east into Asia. The Church was still preaching the Gospel and, as a matter of fact, the 5th century Council of Orange codified evangelical teachings like Sola Fide and Sola Gratia (though these were not systematically fleshed out until later). In essence, the Catholic Church, which was the universal form of Christianity at the time, was still the institution in which true believers dwelt, but like several of the churches to which Jesus sent messages in the Book of Revelation, there were “good” Christians (believed in the Gospel, faithful to Christ) and “bad” Christians (didn’t understand or rejected the Gospel, unfaithful to Christ). This mixed and murky church stage persisted from the 5th to the 10th centuries.
However, as the new millennium began, Christendom split into western (Roman Catholic) and eastern (Orthodox Catholic) halves over mutual excommunications. In the subsequent 500 year period, Papal power became much more political and centralized and Roman Catholic doctrine as we know it today began to develop more rapidly. True believers, the called out ones, became sidelined and persecuted within the institutional church itself. Many, such as the Waldensians, were even martyred. As the halfway point of the second millennium AD approached, it became clear that the Roman Catholic Church was no longer Christianity in the biblical and apostolic sense. Instead, it was a deviant religion that broke the commandments, changed dates and times, persecuted evangelicals, and rejected the simplicity of the Gospel.
It’s an important fact of history that the Protestant Reformers did not set out to cause a schism with Rome (as their writings clearly attest), but instead to restore the institutional church to biblical Christianity—the faith of the Apostles. They originally wanted to restore, not protest, and Luther’s 95 Theses was less a statement of condemnation of Rome and more a call for public debate regarding how the Catholic Church had shifted away from God’s Word.
But Rome’s condemnation was swift and the real spiritual schism was caused by the sixth session of the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s when Rome formally declared the Reformers to be heretics. The Pope and his allies made the conscious decision to reject biblical Christianity once and for all. Sola Fide and Sola Gratia, doctrines explicitly supported by the New Testament, the early Church Fathers, and even Augustine and the Council of Orange, were now anathema. The Roman Church essentially turned on itself.
Following the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church became increasingly anti-evangelical. Despite Rome’s charge that the evangelical faith was invented in the 16th century, it was actually Rome that changed. Only in the last 500 years, as a response to the Reformation, did the Roman Catholic Church actually codify all of these patently unbiblical doctrines:
- Declarations of anathema against Sola Fide and Sola Gratia, and, to some extent, Solus Christus, and Sola Scriptura (mid-1500s)
- The Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854)
- Assumption of Mary (1950)
- Mary, Queen of Heaven (1891/1954)
- Mary, Mediatrix of all Graces / Mediatrix of Peace (1854/1883/1921/1954)
- The “deposit of faith” held by the Church leadership alone (1950)
- Macro-evolutionary theory (Darwinism) not inherently incompatible with Scripture (1950/1996)
No doubt the seeds of many of these false teachings were planted early on, with some, particularly a couple of the Marian dogmas, tracing back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, but they were matters of individual belief, not official Church doctrine, until just the last several hundred years. And when reading Scripture prima facie, several other ancient dogmas held by the Roman Catholic Church are false on their face such as the perpetual virginity of Mary (c.f. Mt. 1:25; 12:46–47; 13:55; 27:56; Mk. 6:3; 16:1; Gal. 1:19).
In short, the Reformation was a movement of imperfect men within the Catholic Church who [often] had a genuine faith in Christ and the Gospel and wanted the Church to return to its roots. It was a call to remove the trash and leave the treasure. And it was preceded by a continuous, unbroken line of faithful believers, evangelicals, if you will, that stretched all the way back to the Apostles themselves. The evangelical faith was weakened in the Middle Ages, but even during that dark time there were still communities scattered around, today known as proto-Protestants.
That group of Holy Spirit-indwelt persons, new creations in Christ Jesus, freed from the chains of death, who have held fast to the Gospel of our LORD Jesus Christ, are called out of the world, now spiritually, soon physically, to be a mystical body, a spiritual temple, holy and pleasing to the LORD. They trust in Christ alone for salvation, casting any hindrance to that belief aside, and can be found in almost every denomination on earth (some more than others). With the exception of the Laodicean church, all of the churches Jesus sent letters to in Asia Minor had true believers, but some had fewer than others. I take it on faith that today is little different than then.