Throughout history, different people around the world have developed ideas about God, His nature, and His very existence. Some religions originated from common roots and diverged over time. And as these religions grew apart and crossed ideas with other traditions, even more new ideas emerged.
What has made Christianity unique throughout history is Jesus himself. Christianity stands on the fundamental teaching that Jesus, God incarnate, lived as a man, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead.
But is it possible to believe a different version of Jesus and perhaps accept his moral teachings without all of the messy cross and sin talk?
Can we still be Christians if we believe in God without believing in Jesus?
To be a Christian is to believe in Jesus. There is no Christianity apart from Jesus. Believing in God while rejecting a belief in the divinity, sacrifice, and/or resurrection of Jesus is a belief in something other than Christianity.
Belief in Jesus
To summarize what it means to believe in Jesus, let us consider the statements about Jesus from the two most widely accepted ancient Christian creeds.
From the Apostle’s Creed:
“I believe…in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. The third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.”
From the Nicene Creed:
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
The ancient witness of the church affirms the Biblical testimony of Jesus’ historical, bodily existence as well as his divinity. The overwhelming consensus of scholars from a variety of religious backgrounds is that the existence and personhood of Jesus are well established by ancient history. Theists (believers in a God) who reject belief in Jesus typically do so with respect to his divinity. Let’s take a closer look at some of these belief systems.
Two religions outside of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, trace their origins back to Abraham. Christianity grew out of and subsequently diverged from Judaism in the years following Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. As the church proclaimed Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Jews who did not follow Jesus continued to practice their religion according to their existing traditions.
Judaism today still anticipates a coming messiah. And apart from Messianic Jews (who are an ethnically Jewish subset of Christians), adherents to Judaism regard Jesus as either a false messiah at worst or a kind moral teacher at best.
Since its founding in the 7th century, Islam has regarded Jesus as a prophet. Though Islam teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin, performed miracles, and lived a sinless life, Islam rejects the teaching that Jesus was God incarnate. Islam bases its teachings on the writings of Mohammed, teaching that the Old and New Testaments had become corrupted and strayed from the truth.
Among the various religions throughout the world, there is no single unified understanding of who or what god is. In Hinduism, god is understood to be a universal spirit that encompasses all things and all people. Wicca allows for the belief in a supreme being (or beings), or an impersonal force. Buddhism downplays the concept of a god altogether, focusing instead on enlightened consciousness.
As varied as these religions are, they all approach Jesus through the lens that suits their particular practice. To the Wiccan, Jesus is a teacher and exemplar of love and compassion. To the Buddhist, he is an enlightened teacher. And to the Hindu, he is a guru or an avatar, no less the son of god than anybody else.
Offshoots of Christianity
Perhaps where belief in God without a belief in Jesus becomes most confusing is in regard to teachings that find their roots in Christianity. The two most widely practiced such religions are Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, both of which were founded in the 19th century in the United States.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the divinity of Jesus, instead teaching that he is the embodiment of the archangel Michael, a created being through whom God created the universe.
Jehovah’s Witnesses further reject the historicity of the core event of Christianity, Jesus’ bodily resurrection, teaching instead that the resurrection was a strictly spiritual event.
Mormonism teaches people can become gods, and that Jesus is a separate god from the Father, both of whom lived as men and progressed to godhood. Mormons believe that Jesus was the firstborn of the Father, and is regarded as the ‘elder brother’ of all men.
Mormons accept Jesus’ death on the cross, but reject the doctrine of atonement, instead teaching that each person must achieve salvation by their own merits.
In contrast to all other belief systems, the Bible teaches clearly that Jesus was, and is, God. This doctrine is most clearly presented in John’s gospel but is found throughout the New Testament. John’s gospel begins with the declaration that “the Word (Jesus) was with God, and the Word was God.” Later in the same gospel, Jesus declares, “I and the Father are One,” (John 10:30).
Paul’s writings testify to Jesus’ divinity. In Philippians 2:5-6, he writes that Jesus was God. And to the Colossians, he adds that “in Him (Jesus) the whole fullness of deity dwells,” (Colossians 2:9). And Peter opens his second epistle with a greeting to “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Our salvation, given by grace through faith, is imparted to those who have faith specifically in Jesus. As Romans 10:13 states, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” John writes that “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life,” (1 John 5:12).
And of course, Jesus own words, found in the most memorized and most recognized verse in the English speaking world say;
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him shall not perish
but have eternal life,” (John 3:16)
The world offers many different belief systems apart from Jesus, with many different notions of God. But there is no separating Christianity from Jesus himself. The very word “Christian” means “little Christ” or “Christ-like”. It is impossible to remove the Christ and still have the Christian. The two are inseparable.