Christianity as it has existed for most of the last two thousand years is in its death throes. For many centuries, Christianity ruled Western minds, and thus Western society. The Christian Church was the final authority on the truth or falsity, the right or wrong, of any question or course of action. Those who dared to challenge the authority of the Church generally did not fare well.
Today, not only has the Christian Church fallen from its former position of the final spiritual, social, and scientific authority in the Western world, the institution of the church is itself in rapid decline. Traditional churches are bleeding members, and closing their doors in droves. Many magnificent old church buildings are being converted to secular use, or have become museums and tourist attractions.
The death of traditional Christianity in Europe is especially stark. Recent studies show that only 25% of 18-24 year olds in Britain believe in God. Church attendance throughout much of Europe is at an all-time low. In the United States, Christianity is still much more mainstream than in Europe. But even in the U.S., traditional churches are closing their doors; both the Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant churches are declining in membership.
While there is a resurgence on the Evangelical side, that, too, is showing signs of losing steam. Even when traditional Christian theology is set to rock music, people eventually realize that it’s the same old wine in those hip new wineskins. Though new converts do flock to the tech-savvy, modern Evangelical churches, the turnover is high. These churches depend on constant high-intensity proselytizing to produce a continual stream of new converts in order to replace the people who are continually flowing out of their revolving doors. Modern marketing techniques can carry you only so far when you’re selling an outdated theology.
You see, there’s more going on here than the repackaging of Christianity that is commonly covered in the media.
For the last two or three centuries, Christianity itself has been dying. At least, the church that has been called “Christian” all these centuries has been dying.
But that church was never really Christian in the first place.
Christianity makes a decisive break from ancient Judaism
When Jesus Christ was living on earth, he honored many of the beliefs and practices of the Jewish religion from which he came. However, he also made a decisive break from Judaism both in teaching and in practice. Due to that decisive break, the resulting religious movement was not another branch of Judaism, but an entirely new religion: Christianity.
Let’s look at just one or two of the many ways in which Jesus Christ made a decisive break with the Judaism of his birth.
The ancient Judaism in which Jesus grew up was very different from the Judaism of today. It was a religion focused heavily on ritual observances—especially the ritual observance of animal sacrifice as commanded in the book of Leviticus.
These sacrifices were originally performed at the portable tabernacle that the Israelites carried with them on their journeys following their exodus from Egypt. After they settled in Palestine, during the reign of King Solomon, a permanent Temple replaced the tabernacle. It was at this Temple in Jerusalem, and there alone, that the people’s sacrifices were to be offered.
Further, these sacrifices were made, not by ordinary people, but by an anointed priesthood that descended from Aaron and his fellow members of the tribe of Levi.
This meant that in ancient Judaism, not only was animal sacrifice one of the primary acts of worship, but the people had their relationship with God not directly, but through a human intermediary: the priest.
Though Jesus did not dishonor these practices when engaged in by sincere hearts (see, for example, Luke 5:13–14), for his own followers he replaced all of the ritual observances of the Jewish law with just two observances: baptism and the holy supper.
And for his own followers, Jesus replaced the priesthood with disciples (Latin for “learners”) and apostles (Greek for “those sent out”) who were commissioned, not based on anointing nor on hereditary lineage, but based on their willingness to hear the Gospel (an old English word meaning “good news”) and teach it to others.
Christianity was not to be a religion of external ritual observances. It was to be a religion of learning spiritual truth, and teaching it to others.
And in Christianity, though there would still be teachers, there would be no separate, anointed priesthood. There would be no human intermediaries between the people and God. All Christians would have a direct relationship with God in the person of Jesus Christ, who was and still is “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
Christianity quickly reverts back to the previous Jewish model
As long as the disciples and apostles were still alive who had known Jesus personally and had learned directly from him, this new religion continued as Jesus initially instituted it:
- The disciples who had become apostles taught the people new spiritual truth just as they had received it from Jesus.
- Christians observed the simple, spiritually significant rituals of:
- Baptism as an introduction to Christ and the Christian community
- The Holy Supper as the community’s shared remembrance and celebration of Jesus Christ
- All Christians had a direct relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, once the original group of apostles died off, along with everyone else who had known Jesus personally, Christianity began to change. There was no one with any real inspiration or authority to guide the church. Even with the newly written books of the New Testament to guide them, leaders in the church began to argue with one another about exactly what the teachings of the church were.
Within a few short centuries, human creeds and human doctrinal interpretations such as the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed began to replace the teachings of Jesus Christ himself as a litmus test of who was and was not a Christian.
And almost as soon as Christians organized themselves into an institution, they re-instituted the priesthood that Jesus had replaced. By the time Christianity became established as the reigning religion of the Western world, starting in the early years of the fourth century after Christ’s birth, it had already reverted back to the ancient Jewish practice of anointed priests serving as intermediaries between the people and God.
And so, what passed as the Christian Church for so many centuries was “Christian in name only, and not in reality or in essence,” as Emanuel Swedenborg wrote in True Christianity #668. The Church as an institution had abandoned the teachings of Jesus in favor of human creeds, and had substituted a human priesthood for the direct relationship with Jesus Christ that is the essence of true Christianity.
Only within the last few hundred years has anything resembling what Jesus actually taught and instituted begun to gradually re-emerge in the world.
A false “Christianity” is dying
The irony is that the “Christianity” that people are now abandoning in droves is not the Christianity that Jesus Christ began.
Most people today—especially young people—are not interested in an institutional, ritualistic, priest- and minister-centered church. They are not interested in the big, fancy old-fashioned church buildings whose architecture—the chancels, the altars, the pews—is designed for a form of worship that bears more resemblance to pre-Christian Judaism than it does to anything we read about in the Gospels. Young people today are not interested in archaic rituals in which a human being stands between them and God.
In short, people today are abandoning the false Christianity that a group of combative and unenlightened human beings created in the centuries after Christ lived and died. This false Christianity was not based on Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6; John 14:27). Instead, it was forced upon Europe by the emperor Constantine at the point of a sword.
The Nicene Creed, whose composition Constantine oversaw, and which he then violently imposed on everyone under his rule, began to establish in the Christian Church a fundamental doctrinal error that destroyed the teachings of Christ. This was the human-invented teaching that there are three Persons in God—a teaching found nowhere in the Bible.
Based on the Nicene Creed and other human-created creeds that followed, nearly all of Christianity to this day believes in “God in Three Persons.” And from that original error, the entire belief system of Christianity was corrupted into something entirely different from what Jesus Christ taught and exemplified in his life.
This old, institutional “Christianity,” with doctrines created by human beings, is the Christianity that is dying as millions of former members vote with their feet.
True Christianity is just beginning!
And you know what? The death of that old Christianity is a good thing.
Because it is clearing the way for the rebirth of Christianity as it was originally intended by Jesus Christ himself.
As long as the old Christian institutions persist, and continue to claim that the old creeds written by human beings are the true measure of Christian belief, the people will be confused.
That old, harsh, and institutionalized “Christianity” must die before a new and genuine Christianity can begin. That is why the death of Christianity as it has existed for most of the last two thousand years is an event to be celebrated!
What will this new Christianity look like?
We humans are still figuring that out. But whatever it is, it will skip over all human creeds, and go directly to the Bible itself as its source of spiritual understanding and inspiration.
That’s precisely what the scientist, philosopher, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) did over two hundred years ago. He offered to the world a renewed form of Christianity, based solidly on the Bible understood as a spiritual book that is the divinely inspired Word of God.
Of course, it is not necessary to accept Swedenborg’s teachings in order to be a true Christian. Swedenborg himself said that all people who read the Bible with a sincere love for God and a sincere desire to love and serve their fellow human beings can find all the truth and inspiration they need in its pages.
And yet, the world is moving more and more toward precisely the vision of spiritual life in general, and of Christianity and the Bible in particular, that Swedenborg outlined in volume after volume of his theological writings.
What do you think Christianity will look like in the coming decades and centuries?
Where do you get your spiritual insight and inspiration?