Our world is rapidly approaching a population 7 Billion inhabitants.[1] Of those 7 billion, 2.2 billion claim to be Christians.[2] That makes Christianity the largest religion in the world.

Given its humble beginnings, this raises at least three questions in my mind:

  1. How did a small, penniless, powerless, seemingly insignificant movement become the world’s largest religion?
  2. How did a failed and arguably false messiah (from a strict Jewish perspective) become the most influential human being to ever live?
  3. How has a movement filled with apparent paradoxes and contradictions had such a profound effect on our world?

During Jesus’s earthly ministry, his core of followers numbered 12 men, none of whom appear to have been men of wealth, power, or influence. On the Day of Pentecost, Luke tells us that the followers of Jesus numbered 120 (Acts 1:15). They were scared, confused, and all huddled in an upper room waiting for their next move. From this small, penniless, insignificant beginning Christianity became the world’s largest religion. How do we explain such an unlikely event?

Jesus was a peasant. An itinerant preacher with no political regime, no economic program, no military apparatus, and no means of developing these required resources. At the end of his public life he was crucified as a wretched criminal. He was hung on a tree. By all accounts his claim to be Israel’s messiah had failed. From a Jewish perspective he was more than a failed messiah, he was a false messiah—under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Those closest to Christ claim that he was more than a mere human being—he is God-in-the-flesh (See John 1:1-18). He bridges the gap between humanity and divinity; he merges the spiritual with the material worlds. This paradox—a metaphysical impossibility for many—forms the paradoxical foundation of Christianity. It has been and remains a major stumbling block to belief for much of the world’s population.

No world religion places more of an emphasis on unity than does Christianity. And yet, this movement has been plagued by division and faction from its inception. Today there are some 35,000 sects within Christianity, many of them exclusive and sectarian. Some of them at war with others—killing one another in the name of the Prince of Peace. This contradiction and others like it (e.g., Christianity’s claim to be a religion dedicated to holiness and purity) make Christianity a very unlikely movement to become the world’s largest religion.

And so how do we explain the reality? Christianity, in spite of its unlikely prospects for doing much more than fizzling out in an obscure province of the Roman Empire, is the world’s largest religion. How did that happen? What explains such an improbable event?

The key to Christianity’s success has little to do with what Jesus said or did during his lifetime. The key to understanding Christianity’s massive influence lies in what happened after Jesus’s death.

  • You can question the plausibility of his so-called regime for all eternity.
  • You can doubt the effectiveness of his so-called movement all you want.
  • You can criticize the contradictions in the lives of his followers in every generation.

But one thing you cannot do. You cannot refute an empty tomb! And not simply a resuscitated human being but a resurrected Lord—not merely a new way of looking at this material world but an entirely New Creation inaugurated right smack dab in the middle of the old one.

This is the key experience that changed the world then and it is the same resurrection experience that can change our world today.

[1] There are various sources for world population and each one provides different numbers. My source is the U.S. Census Bureau as interpreted and reported at http://galen.metapath.org/popclk.html, [accessed January 5, 2012]. The Census Bureau’s page is http://www.census.gov/population/popclockworld.html.

[2] Again, various sources are available, each giving slightly varying numbers. Here are a couple of sources that I found: adherents.com; wikipedia.org.