In this post, I explore Christianity from a birds-eye view, removing much of the theological specifics to focus on the core message.
From reading my Introduction and Background Story, I hope most of you can agree that I have a rudimentary knowledge about religious principles, Christian theology and ideas, and the intellectual problems with all of the above. I spent many years learning about Christian Apologetics - intellectual defense of the faith - and then after I became an atheist, I spent many years learning about the problems in order to defend my atheism. Having lived "both sides" of the argument, I consider myself well-versed in handling the issues although I do not have any formal certification from either a secular or Christian school. As we delve into the subject, I think it will become clear to my readers why I find it hard to subscribe to any particular hard-edged doctrinal stance or join a particular denomination. However, to the core ideas of Christianity I do subscribe, and do firmly believe that Jesus was sent as a symbol, a representative, and the Savior of mankind. This series will explore how I reached this conclusion, and how I now view the Christian message.
The idea that mankind needs saving - from something - has been around for as long as we have written history. The many earliest "stories" seem to revolve around hunting and gathering and mixtures of gods-and-men. However, one story does stand out globally. The legends of a Great Flood seem to be so widely accepted among pre-western civilizations that one can safely propose that the belief that mankind is troubled and desperately in need of outside help was assumed by most people. The details of the stories vary widely, from the Noah account - which is written in a highly chiastic and poetic structure - and the Epic of Gilgamesh to more primitive accounts found in small tribes around the world. While it is understandable that oral transmission and time seem to have evolved the stories to be widely divergent in details, the thematic similarities are strong. It seems that there is a consistent message of some form of divine beings helping an individual and their family to escape a global catastrophe. The man and his family were "chosen" for some special traits they possessed and were the founders - or Fathers and Mothers - of all subsequent mankind.
The Jewish scriptures, written in Hebrew, explore a sequence of stories that fit this archetype. The stories of Genesis from the Fall of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and Sodom and Gomorrah all involve humans getting entangled with divine beings who - when humanity reaches certain thresholds of error (or evil) - need to be put in check. There is some sort of a constant battle in the heavens between these beings over their involvement with mankind. I hope that it is safe to say that Christians and non-believers can all agree that this is the thematic element of these stories regardless of the extent to which they can be taken literally.
Mankind, by getting involved with ill-intentioned supernatural beings, is led into error; and heaven must intervene to correct humanity's direction.
This is the foundational archetype of the Christian message. Typically this concept of "error" is referred to as sin, which is a word that was originally a non-religious word simply meaning to miss the mark - as in archery. The process by which a person turns from this error - and their involvement with any bad supernatural beings - is traditionally called repentance. The motivation which drives heaven to accept a person who repents is mercy and grace. And the entire process is called salvation.
The Christian message is that Jesus was a "son of God" (one of the highest supernatural beings) who inhabited a human body for a time, to be an example to us, a "light" to a dark world. Jesus was the only "begotten" son of God, a term used in those days to refer to a child that was adopted by a king and had a status that was higher than all of the king's natural-born sons. Essentially, Jesus was uniquely special in his position in the eyes of heaven, among all other spiritual beings. He submitted himself fully to the plan that heaven had for his human life, which led to a surprise ending of death on a Roman cross, which was considered a most humiliating and torturous form of death possible in those days. After roughly three days, the women and disciples who had followed him could not find his body, and began to see visions of him - inhabiting what appeared to be a body that was both spiritual and physical, and sometimes could take on different forms. The disciples and followers were clearly instructed to turn this message into one of hope for all the world, whereby we could know - by Jesus' example - that a life lived counterintuitively in both sacrifice and love for others was the sign and ticket to salvation and entering this new kingdom of heaven, which had come and was already now in the world. If a person believes this message, they are transported spiritually from a kingdom of darkness to a kingdom of life and light. They have gained eternal life and will one day hope to live again after they die, with Jesus' resurrection as an example of what was possible.