Most Christians, when asked what makes their religion unique among all the others, would probably reply, “Jesus.” Or, perhaps, with the classic cliché, “It’s not religion, it’s relationship.” (Spend any time around Christianity, and it’s clear that it’s both.) The problem with both of these replies is that there are many conceptions of Jesus. Islam views Him one way, Hinduism another; both are quite capable of integrating Jesus into their frameworks. Christianity itself is infamous for its confusion of sects and church styles, thanks to its ethics on the preservation of life, or in other words, its ethics on not killing others for disagreeing about really important matters.
If we dig a little deeper, most Middle Eastern and Eastern religions — and as a mythography and history buff, I’d also argue this for pre-Christian European paganism — involve a concept of honour and cleanness that seems utterly opposed to that of Christianity. The idea of God lowering Himself to die for sinners is repugnant, when sinners should serve and sacrifice to god(s). The idea of a god taking on uncleanness is perhaps even more repugnant. If one maintains one’s prayers and good works, then uncleanness becomes a matter applicable only to the poor or otherwise downcast. Upstanding society doesn’t need to trouble Jesus and dishonour Him so, does it? In fact, the Christian Scripture quite agrees with this:
“For one will hardly die for a righteous person; though perhaps for the good person someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”Romans 5:7-8
That Christianity asks upstanding society to view itself as unclean compared to the glories of God is in some way understandable, though it might need some tweaking to fit one’s pre-existing beliefs. Shouldn’t we revere God above our earthly state? Of course, if God is God. Humility and willingness to apologize and defer to what’s higher and more powerful than us are good values. But, again, that’s not unique to any one religion. Even non-religious people act that way because it’s practical.
When it comes to liberty, Christianity has some respectable qualities. It’s because of its emphasis on God-given rights, and the liberties that flow from the way God created us, that Christianity is forcibly suppressed in control states such as the former USSR, China, Saudi Arabia, and various other political or religious dictatorships. However, when that liberty becomes so individualistic as to be harmful to others or the fabric of society, and Christianity apparently does nothing — not being a statist religion — one may wonder whether it has any real-world value. It seems to forgive without considering the consequences, or moralize without requiring actual good. That pesky inclination to live and let live seems to interfere greatly here.
There is one way to describe Christianity that resolves all these issues from the root up: The Christian treatment of the body and soul. Unlike every other religion I’ve ever studied or encountered, the Christian Scripture doesn’t treat body and soul as two separate entities coexisting in the same space. Although it speaks of what comes after death, the Christian Scripture is astoundingly vague. No reincarnation, no clear promises of what paradise offers in reward for good works and good morals.
Many Christians actually differ from their own holy books on this. The pop-spirituality phrase, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body” makes perennial rounds. (How convenient that it fits in the space allotted by Twitter.) However, this is not the Christian teaching on body and soul, as if one were more alive than the other, or one higher and the other merely earthen.
Christianity, instead, speaks of body and soul not as two entities coexisting temporarily, or a meat machine driven by a magical mind, but as inseparable parts of an individual. Christianity says “body and soul” the same way that it says “arm and leg.” Parts of the whole. And, just as the body can’t be drained of its blood and still be whole and alive, neither can the soul be deprived of the body’s necessary functions and continue on whole within that body. Our existence beyond death doesn’t mean we shuck off physicality like it’s clothing and keep going. It means we have been taken apart by death, brutally dismembered by the fatal sting of sin and uncleanness.
Where does the idea of body/soul duality, rather than individuality, come from in Christianity? Is it borrowed from Eastern religions? Is it some older pagan artifact that Christianity adopted? Actually, the idea is dealt with from the oldest books of the Scriptures to the newest. This idea of separate states of body and soul has a clear and specific definition: Death.
Beginning in Genesis 2:16-17, the story about the tree, the fruit, and the really questionable reptile, death is associated with separating and breaking down. In the day that Adam chooses to separate himself from God’s design, the warning says, “You shall surely die.” From the moment Adam eats the fruit, knowing full well he’s separating himself from God, things begin to break down. Ultimately, Adam himself falls apart — as predicted in Gen. 3 — and returns to the dust when soul and body are separated.
Why do Christians think this is what happened, and how literally do they take it? Well, the Bible reasons in multiple directions and asks the reader to check and see whether it corresponds with reality. The Hindu is familiar with the wisdom of observing the natural realm; the Muslim with the wisdom of careful reasoning. The Christian is commanded to submit both to the interpretive guidance of the Bible while critiquing for herself whether all is in alignment. The Apostle John relates that Jesus said, “If I told you earthly things, and you don’t believe me, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:11-13) Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the certainty of things hoped for, a proof of things not seen.” The fact that people believe things is proof of something. But in order to provide any useful certainty or proof, there first has to be something certain and provable to believe. There’s no point believing in gravity if nothing holds your feet to the ground.
Because there’s an overabundance of historical, sociological, mathematical and scientific evidence to allow a fair-minded investigator to rationally accept what the Bible says about the observable universe, world history, and the life of Jesus, we then place faith in statements such as, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26) We accept that the soul doesn’t just cease. We accept that it doesn’t simply move on because of biblical passages like Hebrews 9:27-28:
And just as it is destined for people to die once, and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.
The Christian also accepts that death isn’t just the breakdown of our holistic selves, it’s also the inherited breakdown of our spiritual lives:
“And when you were dead in your wrongdoings and the uncircumcision of your flesh [a symbol of being an outsider], He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our wrongdoings, having canceled the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”Colossians 3:13-14
The Apostle Paul wrote much the same thing to the Roman church as the church at Colossae: “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the violation committed by Adam.” (Romans 5:14) He also taught it firmly to the church at Ephesus: “And you were dead in your offenses and sins, in which you previously walked according to the course of this world…” (Ephesians 2:1-2)
We immediately feel this doesn’t seem fair, but the Bible points us back to the Scriptural view of the holistic human. There’s a weird little Judaic aside in Hebrews 7:9-10, where the argument is made that Christ is of a higher and more enduring priesthood than the order of priests who served in ancient Israel, known as the Levites. It says, “And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, has paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his forefather when Melchizedek met him.”
This genetic, blood connection is never described as distinguishable from spiritual connection. In the Bible, the human race is one race. We really are all connected, but it’s in death, due to the reality of evil in the world, in humanity, and in ourselves, the reality of wanting to adhere to our own definitions of good and evil and God. This is one of those inarguable realities that we can and do use to question — over and over again, throughout our lives — if and how the Bible is certain and provable.
And so the Christian has no motive to oppress others — certainly not to attack or kill them for disagreement. The work of the Christian in society is life-saving work, not life-oppressing work. Christians will tell you that sin causes harm, and they will defend others. But beyond that, the mandate is to tell you the story of life.
There is a hope in this view of humanity that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Here we come back around to how the answer can be Jesus, freedom can be inherent, honour can be sin and shame, and the divinely beautiful God can die in shame to provide cleanness to sinners. This hope is summed up in a phrase that resonates throughout all the various books of the Bible: “The life is in the blood.” Our spiritual life is as much physical as mental and emotional.
Back to that letter to the church at Colossae: The apostle Paul wrote, “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:13-14)
This concept of domains is a bit like ogres and onions, with their layers. Definitely not like a parfait, though. We can picture being “in Adam” (that is, existing as a human) as a circle, and each person born as a circle within that circle, and their descendants as circles within circles. At some point, we trip over Abraham, offering tithes to Melchizedek, and further down within his family circle we see Levi, father of the family of priests in ancient Israel. We keep going, and within the circles that are within the family circle of King David, we see Mary and Joseph, each via their own different family circles.
Then, from Mary, we see Jesus and a really bizarre story about actually being conceived from God. A whole different family circle is introduced.
When the Christian says “body and soul,” we say it the way we say “arm and leg.” When we say “fully God and fully human,” we also say it the way we say “arm and leg.” Christianity does not view Jesus as an avatar within an incarnation. It doesn’t skate around the humiliation and shame of the cross by claiming Jesus’ god-soul went to heaven while some lowly substitute or empty shell hung on the cross. Christianity doesn’t see divine spirit in tension with human flesh, because God said, let Us make humanity in Our image; male and female He created them, in the image of God He created them. Jesus, son of God and son of man, gave His blood — because the life is in the blood — to cleanse our sins.
Funny thing about being God: You don’t fall apart when the whole universe does. And thus we have the resurrection.
Another separation has happened, and history witnesses it. Writers antagonistic to early Christianity nevertheless independently recorded its events. Down through 2,000 years of failing and falling as human beings, Christians who take the Bible seriously have still managed to die for, rather than to kill, those who hated them, leaving another record for our examination. Death no longer is master over me, Paul wrote. Or, as one sassy 20th century preacher said under threat of violence, “Really? You’re threatening me with eternal life?”
For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for the one who has died is freed from sin.Romans 6:5-11
Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all time; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. So you too, consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who remain, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore, comfort one another with these words.1 Thessalonian 4:16-18
What makes Christianity unique? Jesus. Also, relationship, not religion.