Within Christianity, numerous distinct groups have developed, with diverse beliefs that vary widely by culture and place. Since the Reformation, Christianity is usually represented as being divided into four main branches:
- Catholicism: The Roman Catholic Church, the largest single body — which includes several Eastern Catholic communities — as well as certain smaller communities (e.g., the Old-Catholics), with more than 1 billion baptized members.
- Restorationism: Restored churches claim seperate lineage to the original church as set out by Jesus Christ. The most notable example of this is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also called Mormons) with over 12 million members.
- Eastern Christianity: Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, with a combined membership of more than 240 million baptized members.
- Protestantism: Numerous denominations and groups such as Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed, Evangelical, Charismatic, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Anabaptists, and Pentecostals. The oldest of these groups separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.
- The later groups typically formed as separations from the older ones. Some Protestants identify themselves simply as Christian, or born-again Christian. Others, particularly among Anglicans and in Neo-Lutheranism, identify themselves as being "both Catholic and Protestant". Worldwide total is just under 500 million.
Other denominations and churches which self-identify as Christian but which distance themselves from the above classifications together claim around 275 million members. These include African indigenous churches with up to 110 million members (estimates vary widely), Jehovah's Witnesses with approximately 6.6 million members, and other groups5. The early leaders of most of these groups were originally Protestant adherents.
These broad divisions do not themselves encompass unanimity. On the contrary, some branches encompass vast disagreements, while in other cases the divisions overlook strong sympathies between and among the groups. Nevertheless, this tends to be the standard overview of distinctions, especially as viewed in the Western world.
Enormous diversity of belief exists among Christians. Nevertheless, certain doctrines have come to characterize the mainstream of Christian theology.
The Trinity - This is the belief that God is a single eternal being who exists as three distinct, eternal, and indivisible persons: Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost).
The Messiah - Most Christians see Jesus Christ as the Messiah who was promised in the Old Testament Bible prophecy.
Jesus Christ as God - This is the belief that Jesus is both fully God (divine) and fully human: two natures in one person, as described in the Chalcedonian Creed. As a human, Jesus is believed to have possessed the qualities of mortality; he suffered the pains and temptations of mortal man. Significantly, he had the ability to die. Being divine, he possessed the ability to take up his own life again.
Crucifixion and Resurrection - This is the belief that Jesus died on the Cross, rose from the dead, and ascended into Heaven after appearing to his disciples, most notably to the Apostles.
Salvation through Jesus Christ - This is the belief that salvation from sin and death (also known as spiritual and physical death) is available through Jesus Christ. Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians have arrived at several explanations as to exactly how this salvation occurs. (See soteriology.)
Most Christians interpret salvation to mean being able to enter heaven (and escape hell) after death, though some theologians have lamented this tendency. The question of "who is saved" varies by religion, but generally is defined by whether or not one has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior and has followed his commandments.
The Second Coming - This is the belief in the "General Resurrection", in which all people who have ever lived will rise from the dead at the end of time, to be judged by Christ on his return.
Christian views of the afterlife generally involve heaven and (somewhat less frequently) hell, with Catholicism adding an intermediate realm of purgatory. Except for purgatory (whose denizens will ultimately enter heaven, after "purification"), these realms are usually assumed to be eternal. There is, however, some debate on this point, for example among the Orthodox.
It is generally unclear how the afterlife fits together with the doctrine of the General Resurrection — i.e. whether eternal life begins immediately after death, or at the end of time; and whether this afterlife will involve the resurrection of one's physical body (perhaps in a glorified spiritual form). Most Christians hold that one's consciousness, the soul, survives the death of the physical body, although the Jehovah's Witnesses, among others, reject this, saying that those who practiced good things will be resurrected to life and those who practiced vile things to a resurrection of judgement.
From Wikipedia (used with permission of the GNU license)