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The image above depicts noted atheist Christopher Hitchens. While he was acidly critical
of religion in general, I am fairly certain that these words cannot be attributed to him.
Perusing forums on religion and atheism, it’s fairly common to see atheists poke fun
at beliefs that many Christians don’t actually hold. For example, the meme at right,
“I don’t always think Christians are idiots, but when I do, it’s because
they claim to believe in zombies, talking snakes, unicorns, people with wings, and invisible
Ha ha. Very funny. The truth, though, is that there isn’t a single list that represents
the beliefs of all Christians. As I’ve discussed
elsewhere, each individual Christian has her own set of
beliefs, very often different from the Christian sitting next to her, both of which differ with
the official set of beliefs their church holds, which differs from almost every other Christian
church in the world.
“Christian” (noun) as “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus
Christ”, and the definition is
similar on a popular ministry page: “someone who is a follower of Christ”. One can
search long and hard and never find an agreed-upon list of specific beliefs that define a person
as a Christian. Christianity, much like Islam, is self-defined by each adherent. Oxford
another possibility — baptism: “a person who believes in the teachings of Jesus
Christ or has been baptized in a Christian church”.
Wikipedia says a Christian “is a
person who follows or adheres to Christianity”, and then
defines Christianity relatively
specifically, but clearly notes:
“...there are many important differences of interpretation and opinion of the Bible and
sacred tradition on which Christianity is based. Because of these irreconcilable differences in
theology and a lack of consensus on the core tenets of Christianity, Catholics, Protestants and
Orthodox often deny that members of certain other branches are Christians.”
When writing about my own journey out of Christianity, and my own
reasons for disbelieving the Bible, the beliefs I referred to were my
own, or those of the church(es) I attended, unless otherwise specified. Here, however, I
intend to make clear that there are relatively few core beliefs shared by a majority of
There will be minor exceptions to some of my statements below, and I won’t devote space
to noting all of them. Again, not all Christians agree on which doctrines are “core”
beliefs; and many Christians will disagree with me (and with each other) about which ones
necessarily define someone as “a real Christian”.
Following are the beliefs/doctrines that are common to nearly every Christian sect.
• God exists eternally — before, after, and outside the universe.
• God is all-knowing, present everywhere, and all-powerful.
• God created the universe — everything that exists.
• “Original Sin” is inherent in every human, guilt inherited from Adam.
• The natural result of sin is physical and spiritual death.
— Spiritual death is usually described as “eternal separation from
God” or “Hell”.
• Jesus of Nazareth was a physical incarnation of God, simultaneously referred to as
• Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, whose life is more or less accurately described in the
• Jesus was without sin, so his temporary death counts as restitution for all sin.
• Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven.
• Avoiding Hell requires belief in Jesus and his resurrection, and repentance from sins.
• At some future date, God will judge all of humanity, sending some to Heaven and others to Hell.
Note: there are a very few self-identified Christians today who do not believe that Jesus
was God, or at least that he wasn’t entirely God. There are a few Christians today
who do not believe in Hell. However, the overwhelming majority of Christian sects do believe
everything in the above list (even if they might explain each one slightly differently). On almost
everything else, there are disagreements. Below are some popular Christian beliefs which are
nevertheless not shared by every group.
God is a “trinity” — three aspects of the same deity.
Everything happens according to God’s plan.
God created the entire universe in less than a week.
God created ex nihilo all plant and animal life (no evolution).
God created one man (out of clay) for the purpose of ruling over all the world’s animals.
God created one woman (from the man’s rib) for the purpose of being the man’s companion.
God initially only wanted humans to have three rules:
Be fruitful and increase in number.
Subdue the Earth; rule over animals.
Don’t eat from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”.
The first man and woman broke the third rule, thus introducing original sin.
They were tricked into breaking the rule by a talking serpent.
God punishes all future humans for the acts of these two humans.
God drowned everyone on Earth (except Noah and his family) in a global flood.
Dinosaurs and humans coexisted; dinosaurs were among the animals on Noah’s Ark.
There was only one human language until God “confused” language — in the
Tower of Babel story.
God chose the Hebrew people to be his own, and ordered them to kill every previous
inhabitant of Canaan.
To the Hebrews, God issued more than 600 commandments (others say “ten”) as part
of an “everlasting covenant”, including animal sacrifices as atonement for sins.
God impregnated a young virgin woman, and she gave birth to God.
This human version of God became a man and preached for three years,
confirming that the everlasting covenant was still in force and always would be.
God was killed as a sacrifice for our sins — a final replacement for the animal
sacrifices of old, then rose from the dead and floated into the sky.
God confirmed that the old covenant had faults, and issued a new one that is “better”
and “superior” and “established on better promises”. The old one is now
“obsolete” and was “weak and useless”.
Most of the old rules don’t apply anymore (there is no agreement about which
ones, exactly). And now all humans fall under this law, not just the chosen people.
Hell is a literal, eternal place.
The Bible is literally true.
Of the two lists above, I have identified the former as universal beliefs common across
Christianity, and the latter as “popular” but not universal. The disagreements are
rife and have caused churches and denominations to split and splinter, repeatedly.
For example, on the final point — whether the Bible is literally true — there has
been constant disagreement, especially on much of the Old Testament. Everything in Genesis prior
to Abraham is seen as allegory, myth, or merely “lessons” by many denominations
— even by some fundamentalist theologians. There is a broad spectrum of opinion on this
issue. While some do take the stories completely literally, others believe there are kernels of
truth surrounded by exaggerations in order to teach a lesson, and others take the entire thing
as a “moral truth” but without any literal truth.
There is similar disagreement on the book of Job. My denomination taught it as literal truth;
but many do not accept it as such — to them, it’s just a worthwhile story that helps
adherents to understand God’s personality and power — like the parables that Jesus
When I was a believer, one reason I held to the stance that the entire Bible is true is that
there was no objective standard or easy meter for determining which parts were metaphor or
Still other Christians believe the entire Old Testament is faulty — riddled with
falsehoods, misunderstandings, exaggerations, etc. — and take only the New Testament as
literal truth. Others discard even parts of the New Testament — many of Paul’s writings,
for example — and only follow the Gospels. Still others go further and only hold to the
“red letter words” — quotations from Jesus.
There are strident and longstanding disagreements over which parts of the Bible are meant
for us today, and which parts were only for the immediate audience. For example, most
Christians understand that the Law of Moses was directed at the Hebrew people who had just
escaped Egypt, but disagree as to which parts are still good for us today. Even the things Jesus
said to his followers are taken by some Christians to be only for that audience, while
other Christians say it is all directed at every human across time. Paul’s dictates to
his churches suffer similar disagreements — I was part of these discussions during Bible
All of the above cases are arbitrary, of course. There is no objective standard for determining
which parts of the Bible to believe in, if you accept that only parts of it are literally true.
And each line that’s drawn between one part of the Bible and another causes doctrinal
problems. For example, the New Testament writers clearly believed the Old Testament was true
— Paul refers to Adam as if he was a real person when he lays out the doctrine of
“Original Sin”. If Adam wasn’t a real person, if Genesis’ earliest
chapters were merely allegories, then there is zero stated reason in the Bible for God
to become human and lose three days of his eternity for our sin. Even the folks who believe the
only untainted words in the Bible are Jesus’ words have issues — because Jesus
clearly believed the Old Testament scriptures were true — he quoted from them regularly
and referenced them obliquely at other times, and at least once baldly stated that he was
not here to supercede the old law.
Many Christians do not believe Hell is an eternal place, based on passages like
Matthew 10:28 — which indicates that a person will be destroyed (ended) in Hell,
rather than being punished for all eternity. Also, in Matt. 18:34-35, a parable by Jesus about
Hell indicates that punishment (“torture”, actually) is only until what is owed
has been repayed.
Further, there are huge disagreements on how to qualify for Heaven or which behaviors result in
going to Hell. (I am currently working on a separate page on this topic, since it is perhaps the
most important information in all of religion — what happens when we die.)
Many (most?) Christians today do not believe in “speaking in tongues” — my
church did, but we were considered to be on the fringe of Christianity. Many do not believe in
praying to saints or to Jesus’ long-dead mother Mary. Many do not believe in “faith
Christians disagree on which ten commandments should be listed as “The Ten
Commandments” (and the lists differ in the Bible too), or whether there even are
ten commandments more important than the other 600-odd commandments (the Bible is
very unclear on that topic).
There is no consensus on a thousand other topics, including dress codes, music preferences,
jewelry, smoking, dancing, what the Rapture actually is, whether the Rapture will occur before or
during or after the “Tribulation”, whether the so-called tribulation is literal or
figurative, the meaning of almost every single thing in Revelations, how many people will get
into Heaven, and so on.
I wrote this page for two reasons. First, I wanted a reference page to link to when referring
to basic or common Christian beliefs. Second, I think it’s helpful for both Christians and
atheists alike to recognize the broad spectrum of Christian belief.
It also should be recognized that different believers have different sources for their
doctrines. Some (like I did) attempt to honestly study the Bible and base beliefs on that alone,
though it is difficult to do so objectively through the cloud of childhood experiences and
teaching. Others depend solely on the teachings of their churches and never open the Bible for
themselves. Many use some kind of combination of these two. Still others don’t pay much
attention to either and have only a vague cultural conditioning for their beliefs — they
generally cannot articulate what exactly they believe or why though they will still self-identify
Each individual Christian should recognize that his or her particular beliefs are just that —
his or her own — and not necessarily representative of all of Christianity. Many don’t
recognize this. Many say daily: “A real Christian wouldn’t do that”, when
they mean that their own brand of Christianity goes at it differently.
For atheists, especially those who debate or argue with Christians, it’s helpful to know
that you might be accusing someone of a belief that they do not hold. When someone mentions
“God”, you cannot rightly begin a rant about “zombies, talking snakes, unicorns,
people with wings” (from the meme at top), or any other crazy beliefs you think Christians
hold — because many of them don’t believe those things. In the same way, it isn’t
safe to assume their political views either.
In other words, if you’re going to debate someone’s beliefs, make sure you first know
what those beliefs are.