John Stackhouse puts what Christians believe into a 5-minute nutshell.
Every religion in the world tries to answer a very few questions. What’s the nature of the world? What’s the best you can hope for in the world? What keeps me from enjoying that? And what can help me get it?
Christianity says the world is fundamentally two things: God, and what God has made, the cosmos. And what’s best, when the world is functioning properly, is that the world flourishes, every individual and every group and every ecosystem is everything it can be, and everything is in a harmonious relationship with its Creator. This is what the Hebrew word shalom means, and this is the object of the Christian faith as well as perhaps others, is this wonderful universal global flourishing.
The problem is that we, as human beings, tend – as we’ve always tended, it seems – to think we know better than God as to what goodness looks like, what flourishing looks like, what success looks like. And we confuse each other about that as well. And over the centuries, we have confused each other and ourselves pretty badly, so that we now don’t know which end is up. And our very appetites are deranged, so that we even have a taste for evil, we even kind of prefer to do naughty things, and we make jokes about it as if it’s cool when in fact it’s a kind of dementia.
What Christianity offers, then, is both a correction, and salvation. It teaches us, yes, it’s good to want the best out of life, but you’re barking up the wrong tree, you’re eating from the wrong table, you’re not going where life is. Here’s where life is, and life is fundamentally in right relationship to God and then right relationship to everything else. And Jesus has come to us as God to both show us how to live, and then also to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.
And what’s that? Well, it’s to do two things: it’s to clear up this dementia, this derangement, by doing rehabilitative work within us. And God gives us his own Holy Spirit to change our inner lives and to help us think and love the way we should.
And then Jesus also pays for us a kind of penalty. And the odd thing – kind of the weird and horrific thing – is that all around the world there is this intuition that if you do bad things, if you do wicked things, you damage the universe and you need to make it right. And all over the world the intuition is, if you break a taboo, if you make bad karma, you need to suffer, and if you suffer that pays the penalty, right. By doing without happiness, by doing without well-being, by suffering, that evens things out.
Now it’s hard for me to explain that, but that just seems to be the world’s intuition. And Christianity agrees with that, and says that somebody has to suffer to make up for all the bad things we’ve done to damage the universe. This is why God can’t just forgive us, the way I can just forgive you for stepping on my toe. The problem is not only between us, in my relationship, but you really stepped on my toe, and now it’s broken. And no matter how cool we are with each other, the toe still needs to be fixed, or the debt needs to be paid, or the hole needs to be filled. And this is what Jesus is doing on the cross, Jesus is suffering to pay this debt, to right the damaged world. So it’s mysterious stuff, but it does correspond with a kind of global intuition.
So he pays for this problem we have, he shows us how to live, and he gives us the Holy Spirit to rehabilitate us. Then, in concert with God, with my fellow creatures, we look forward to the rehabilitation of the planet. A lot of people think that we’re supposed to go up to heaven, a lot of Christians think this, but that’s really a Greek and Hindu idea, an Indian idea, that the spiritual is what’s good and the material is what’s bad. Jews and Christians agree that the physical world’s good too, so we’re looking forward to going forward to a renewed earth in a renewed civilisation among people who finally think and feel and long for what they should. And that vision of a world that finally works right, peopled by human beings who finally work the way we’re supposed to, is to me the compelling vision of what Christianity offers.