Christianity For Dummies book cover

Christianity For Dummies

By: Richard Wagner Published: 03-05-2004

Get to know the beliefs and practices inspired by Jesus Christ

Discover what it means to be a Christian and follow the gospel

Curious about Christianity? This friendly guide helps you understand the basic teachings of the Christian faith, exploring the common ground that all Christians share, the differences among the major branches, the key events in Christian history, the key theological issues, and the many ways Christians live out their faith in today's world.

The Dummies Way

  • Explanations in plain English
  • "Get in, get out" information
  • Icons and other navigational aids
  • Tear-out cheat sheet
  • Top ten lists
  • A dash of humor and fun

Discover how to:
  • Express the core essentials of Christianity
  • Appreciate the life and teachings of Jesus
  • Understand why the Bible is central to the faith
  • Respect the unique roles of the Trinity
  • Explore controversial issues among the branches

Articles From Christianity For Dummies

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19 results
19 results
What and When Is Easter?

Article / Updated 03-31-2022

Bar none, Easter is the single most important holy day of the Christian Church. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the central event in Christianity. To Christians, the resurrection backs up Jesus’ claim that he had the authority to die for the sins of the world and the power to come back to life again. It also gives hope to Christians that they too will experience a resurrected life in heaven. The exact day of the year that Easter falls on is very confusing, and the logic seems pretty old-fashioned in this digital age; it’s based on the lunar calendar and tied to the start of the solar spring. But the Western Church (Catholic and Protestant) continues to observe it based on the rules of long ago — that it falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21 (the vernal equinox). It can’t come before March 22 or after April 25. In contrast, Orthodox Churches wanted to tie Easter to Jewish Passover, given the relationship between Passover and the day of Christ’s resurrection. Because the Jewish calendar determines the date that Jews celebrate Passover, Easter for Orthodox Churches can vary by as much as five weeks from the Western Church. No one knows for certain where the term Easter came from, but one theory is that it’s derived from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, who was connected with fertility and spring. If so, Christians named their high holy day Easter aiming to replace the pagan celebration of spring with their own holiday — like they did with Christmas. Easter is also often known as Pasch, which comes from the Hebrew word Pesach, meaning “Passover.” Some Protestants prefer to call it simply Resurrection Day to remove the commercialized baggage that they see associated with Easter. In addition, the Easter bunny has pagan origins and has no real connection with the Christian celebration, although some churches use eggs as a metaphor for the new life Christians receive because of the Resurrection.

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What Is Ash Wednesday?

Article / Updated 03-29-2022

The Christian season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts for 40 days. Catholics and members of some Protestant denominations are asked to do modest mortifications and acts of penance during Lent for the purification of the body and soul. Lent is a time of confession, fasting, abstinence, prayer, Bible and spiritual reading, and spiritual and corporal works of mercy. It culminates at Easter when Christ rose triumphant from the dead. The tradition of Ash Wednesday in the Catholic Church is a poignant reminder that our bodies will die someday and turn to dust. A priest places ashes on parishioners' foreheads to remind them of their mortality and the need for repentance. The words spoken as the ashes are imposed on the forehead are from Genesis 3:19: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." So ashes on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, are religious reminders, just like holy water and palms on Palm Sunday. Catholics are also expected to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday.

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What Is Palm Sunday?

Article / Updated 03-29-2022

Christians observe Palm Sunday on the Sunday before Easter, celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The reason they call it Palm Sunday stems from the fact that when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, a large crowd of people in the city spread out palm branches on the ground before him as a sign of his kingship. Throughout Jesus’ three-year ministry, he downplayed his role as Messiah and sometimes even told people whom he healed not to say anything about the miracle to others. Palm Sunday is the one exception in which his followers loudly proclaimed his glory to all. Today, Christians often celebrate Palm Sunday in a joyous, triumphant manner during worship services, emphasizing the glory of Jesus Christ. Some churches spread palm branches at the front of the sanctuary as a way to commemorate the event. Some even take the time (often during church school) to walk a real-live donkey around town while waving palm fronds as their own "announcement" to the community about the coming of Jesus Christ.

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What Is Maundy Thursday?

Article / Updated 03-29-2022

Within the midst of the Easter season, Maundy Thursday — the Thursday before Easter — is one Christian holy day that many Christians and even many churches often overlook, yet it symbolizes a critically important truth of the Christian faith: Jesus as a suffering servant and the call for his followers to do the same. It also draws a connection between the Passover sacrifice, a Jewish tradition, and Jesus Christ’s sacrificial role on the cross. The night before Jesus was crucified, he had a Passover supper with his disciples. (Passover is a Jewish holy day that celebrates God’s deliverance of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.) After supper, Jesus knew that this would be his final opportunity to instruct his disciples before the crucifixion, so he talked at length about his purposes, what his followers should do in response, and the promise of the Holy Spirit to come. He then washed his disciples’ feet in an incredible demonstration of humility and servanthood. Finally, he gave bread and wine to his disciples and asked them to partake of it in remembrance of him. The act of partaking bread and wine is called Communion (or the Last Supper) today. The word Maundy (pronounced MAWN-dee) comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means “command.” The command that this holy day refers to is the one that Jesus gave to his disciples during the Last Supper: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just like I have loved you; that you also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:34–35 Along this line, many churches perform foot-washing services on Maundy Thursday as a way to remember Jesus’ command. During the Middle Ages, the holy day was sometimes called Shere Thursday; shere means “pure.” In England during this time, bearded men found another reason for that name when they sheared their beards on Maundy Thursday as a symbol of the cleansing of body and soul before Easter.

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What Is Good Friday?

Article / Updated 03-29-2022

Good Friday — the Friday before Easter — marks the day on which Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross for the sins of the world. The term Good Friday might be a bit confusing if you associate good with happy. Good Friday isn’t a happy day, but its name is a reminder that humans can only be considered good because of what happened on that day. Jesus took the sins of humanity upon himself, taking the punishment for that sin as well. Thus, humans could be considered sinless or "good" in God's eyes. Some believe that its name was originally God’s Friday, which, over the years, became its present name. In Germany, Christians call it Quiet Friday (from noon on Friday until Easter morning, church bells remain silent). Christians in other parts of Europe call it Great Friday or Holy Friday. Good Friday is a day of mourning and sorrow over the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ and a reminder that the sins of all people made it necessary for him to die in the first place. It’s also a day of gratitude for the supreme sacrifice that he made. Protestant churches sometimes hold services between noon and 3:00 p.m. to commemorate Jesus’ hours on the cross. Catholics often remove everything from the altar and kiss the crucifix as an expression of worship. Some churches even hold a Service of Darkness in which candles are extinguished until people are left sitting in total darkness, as a reminder of the darkness that covered the earth after Jesus died, as written in Luke 23:44–46: It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.

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What Is Lent and How Is It Observed?

Article / Updated 03-29-2022

On the Christian calendar, Lent is the 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter. When it was first observed in the fourth century, its focus was on self-examination and self-denial in preparation for Easter, and Christians used fasting (abstaining from eating food) in the early years as a visible demonstration of this process. Over the centuries, Catholics have relaxed some of the strict fasting rules. Today, only Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays during Lent are considered fasting days. On these days, Catholics over the age of 14 are to refrain from eating meat. (Historically, this practice was meant to help unify people who could afford meat with poor people who couldn’t.) In addition, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, those between the ages of 18 and 59 are to eat only one full meal and two smaller meals and aren’t to eat between meals. Orthodox Christians are far more rigorous in their observance of fasting during Lent, believing that regular fasting is a crucially important discipline for one’s spiritual growth. Meat, dairy products, and eggs (which historically were considered more luxury foods than ordinary breads) aren’t allowed, with some additional restrictions on certain days. They can only eat fish (which was historically considered less of a luxury than red meat) on the feasts of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday. In addition to refraining from eating, Lent is often a time when Christians give up something pleasurable (furthering the focus on self-denial), be it chocolate, meat or — perish the thought! — coffee. Some Protestant denominations (such as Anglican and Episcopalian) observe Lent, but many Protestant churches attach less significance to the Lenten season than to the individual holy days leading up to Easter.

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Christianity For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 02-16-2022

Understanding Christianity starts with looking at the basics that connect Christians. Then you can compare the beliefs across the Christian church, the keys to worship, and read the Nicean creed, which is commonly used in Christian liturgy.

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What Is Pentecost?

Article / Updated 09-09-2021

Pentecost is a Christian holy day that celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit 50 days after Easter. Some Christian denominations consider it the birthday of the Christian church and celebrate it as such. Originally, Pentecost was a Jewish holiday held 50 days after Passover. One of three major feasts during the Jewish year, it celebrated thanksgiving for harvested crops. However, Pentecost for Christians means something far different. Before Jesus was crucified, he told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come after him: And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. John 14:16–18 And 50 days after Jesus was resurrected (10 days after he ascended into heaven), that promise was fulfilled when Peter and the early Church were in Jerusalem for Pentecost: When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Acts 2:1–4 Although many North American Christians hardly notice Pentecost today, traditional European churches consider it a major feast day. Pentecost, also called Whitsuntide in parts of Europe, is just behind Easter in overall importance. For example, in Germany today, on only three occasions does the observance of a national holiday span two days: Christmas (December 25 and 26), Easter (Sunday and Monday), and Pentecost (Sunday and Monday).

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Considering Who Jesus Claimed to Be

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

People often think of the President of the United States as one of the most powerful people in the world. Perhaps that idea's due to the fact that he's got so many names, roles, and titles associated with his office. Although President is the official job title, the person holding it also has several other titles: commander-in-chief as head of the U.S. military; head of state as ceremonial leader of the nation; executive branchas the third distinct branch of the U.S. government; and leader of the free world, an informal title that the U.S. President has held since the end of World War II. So, while all these names express different roles, they all point back to the same person. Similarly, the Bible says that Jesus often described himself using a lot of different names or roles. At first glance, you may think he comes across as a scatterbrain or a member of the Title-of-the-Month club. But when you start to look at them side by side, you see that all the titles actually fit neatly together to provide what Christians believe is a clear, all-around picture of who he was (and is, as Christians believe he still lives). Consider the following references to Jesus: Messiah (or Christ): The Hebrew word Messiah (translated as Christ in Greek) means "anointed one," or the one God sent to earth to free people who believe and trust in him. The scriptures of the Hebrews talked much about a coming Messiah, so the Israelites were on the lookout for the "chosen one" for centuries. When Jesus began his ministry, he claimed that he was the Messiah that they were waiting for (check out John 4:25–26). Son of man: Son of man is a term that the Old Testament book of Daniel uses to refer to the coming Messiah (see Daniel 7:13). It emphasizes the humanity of Jesus (who Christians believe was the Messiah) and his role as the ultimate, perfectly sinless man. This is the title Jesus seemed to favor over others, as he refers to himself as the Son of man more than 80 times throughout the Gospels. His preference may have been due to the fact that it expressed who he was to people without being as theologically charged as the name Son of God was. Son of God: Son of man is a term that emphasizes the Jesus' humanity, but the term Son of God expresses the Christian belief regarding his divinity as a member of the Trinity. "Son" expresses a distinction from God the Father, but it doesn't imply that he's any less God than the Father. God himself: Although the name "Son of God" implies divinity, the Bible tells that Jesus went even further on occasion and described himself as equal with God — and even outright claimed to be God. Jesus said at one point, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). In other words, as the Son of God, Christians believe that Jesus isn't just a super-man or an angel, but that he's literally equal with God the Father. He said that he should receive the same honor that's due the Father (John 5:23). In a conversation with Jewish leaders, Jesus said, "Before Abraham came into being, I AM" (John 8:58). Basically, Jesus was saying that he is eternal, having existed (in heaven) before Abraham — who the Bible calls the "father of the Jews" and who had lived some 1,000 years before. What's more, "I AM" was a likely reference to God's holy name ("I AM WHO I AM" in Exodus 3:14). Only True Path to God: Jesus emphasized that the only way one has access to God the Father is through him. He said flat out, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Jesus also used other word pictures to illustrate his primary role in saving the world, including: • Bread of life: "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35). • Light of the world: "I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12). • Access door: "I am the door. If anyone enters in by me, he will be saved, and will go in and go out, and will find pasture" (John 10:9). Good Shepherd: In the agricultural society of first-century Palestine, shepherding was a common job. Shepherds watched over their flocks of sheep and protected them from wolves, thieves, or stormy weather, often on a 24/7 basis. The Bible says that Jesus used the analogy of a shepherd to describe his purpose, saying that he is the "good shepherd" (John 10:11), caring, protecting, and sacrificing for his sheep. The Old Testament Book of Ezekiel also shows the shepherd analogy when the Lord says, "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep" (34:15). King: Jesus accepted the title of king when Pilate asked him during his trial whether he was King of the Jews, meaning the Messiah that the Hebrew scriptures prophesied about. Jesus said, "You are right in saying that I am a king. For this reason I have been born, and for this reason I have come into the world, that I should testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice" (John 18:37). Although Christians believe all these terms appropriately describe Jesus, they also recognize truth in the old saying, "Actions speak louder than words." The Bible says that Jesus undertook certain actions (or promised that he'd perform them in the future) that Christians believe only God has the power to perform, such as forgiving sins (Mark 2:10), raising the dead (John 6:39–40), judging humans in the future (John 5:22), and giving life (John 5:26). Therefore, Christians believe these actions back up Christ's claims, which in turn strengthens their belief that Jesus was (and is) God.

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Grappling with the Definition of Sin

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Sin is any deliberate action, attitude, or thought that goes against God. You may think of sin as an obvious act, such as murder, adultery, or theft. Although that's true, sin is also wrongdoing that's far subtler and even unnoticeable at times, such as pride, envy, or even worry. Sin includes both things you shouldn't have done, but did (sins of commission) and things you should've done, but didn't (sins of omission). The Bible is pretty outspoken on the yucky stuff that layers onto the hearts of all people. Check out these verses: "I was sinful at birth, filled with sin from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). "There is no one righteous, not even one . . . there is no one who does good, not even one" (Psalm 14:1–3). "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt" (Jeremiah 17:9). The Bible is positive when it comes to talking about God and his plans, but, it's continually the bearer of bad news when it comes to the hearts of humans. This bad news surfaces in two ways in people's lives. Categorizing two types of sin Though humans can commit thousands of particular sins, you can usually lump them all into one of two camps: sins of impulse and sins of the heart. Sins of impulse are often what come to mind when you think about sin. The typical scenario is: 1. I see something. 2. I want it. 3. So I take it. That impulsive desire to own, control, or destroy is what leads to adultery, murder, theft, addictions, or excessive anger or rage. Impulsive sins are usually brought on by emotion, and when you allow it, emotions can control you and take you on an irrational road trip. Impulsive sins are often considered the worst type of sins, but a second kind of sin, although subtler, is even deadlier — these are called sins of the heart (or spiritual sins). Spiritual sins are the sins that don't show up on the outside of a person (such as a blatant action, like theft), but harbor themselves deep inside the heart. Selfishness, jealousy, envy, bitterness, hypocrisy, and deceit are all sins that can be masked on the outside, but carve a hole into one's soul the longer they're allowed to live inside of a person. Christians often consider pride the most dangerous sin of them all. Ironically, today's society considers pride a positive trait ("take pride in yourself," "hometown pride," and so on). Although confidence in yourself and appreciation of your hometown aren't bad qualities, selfish pride is. It causes you to become consumed with your wants, your needs, your happiness, and your rights and to place them as more important than God and others. Pride also serves as a trigger for sins that seem initially like impulsive sins, such as lust, but are actually motivated by a spiritual condition. You can want something, not for animal-like reasons, but purely out of selfishness. Mine, mine, all mine. A common saying that helps reinforce that pride is at the root of all sin is that "I" is at the center of "sin." Jesus spent his entire ministry hovering between these two camps of sin (while remaining sinless himself). On one side were the impulsive sinners. The religious leaders labeled all prostitutes, dishonest tax collectors, drunkards, rabble-rousers, and so on as "sinners". On the other side were the spiritual sinners. This group was, ironically enough, composed primarily of the religious leaders of the day, called the Pharisees and the teachers of law. Although outwardly the Pharisees looked like they had their act together, Jesus referred to them as "whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but filled with dead man's bones" (Matthew 23:27). In other words, the Pharisees were concerned with looking holy rather than being holy. Their pride showed up in the legalistic attitude that they had as they scorned the people who were beneath them in the religious hierarchy. Not only did they not love others, but Jesus made it clear that they also didn't love God. Like the Pharisees, the Church has often been more outspoken against impulsive sins and much less aggressive in dealing effectively with the more invisible, spiritual sins. However, Jesus did quite the opposite; take a read through the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and you see that Jesus always saved his sharp and direct words for the spiritual sinners of his day. Weighing different sins Throughout history, humans have always had their own ranking of sins. Certain heinous sins are too awful to talk about, and discussing other seemingly more minor sins may get you only a brief look of consternation or even a shoulder shrug. Parts of the Church have followed suit in categorizing sin, as Catholics classify sin as being either mortal (major) or venial (minor). The Bible talks about the consequences of certain sins more than others, but it never gives any kind of ranking to them. Instead, the Bible focuses much of its attention on the fact that all sins, major or minor, stain the soul of a human and come under the same judgment of God. In God's eyes, a little white lie is as big of a stain before God as a mass murder. Anything not 100 percent sin-free is impure — 99.99 percent isn't good enough. According to James 2:10, even one itty-bitty sin over the course of a lifetime is too much. Are you skeptical that God treats all sin the same? Well, consider the life of King David, the greatest leader in all Israel. When he was at his peak of popularity and success, he became prideful and self-absorbed, which ultimately led him to commit adultery and murder his mistress's husband. From a human standpoint, this guy was disgraceful and committed unforgivable acts. Yet one of the great ironies of the Bible is that God didn't write off David. In fact, after David repented of his sin, God still called David "a man after God's own heart." Although the Bible makes it clear that all sin is an offense to God, individual sins impact people differently. The consequences that you must deal with if you're caught saying a little white lie are much different from the consequences of a mass murder.

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