Does Christianity Have a Future?

I have just returned from a lecture event in Houston with Joan Chittister and Dom Crossan. The theme was the same as the title of this blog. None of us tried to predict the future of Christianity, even as we all spoke about our hopes for its shape in the future.

The question, “Does Christianity Have a Future?” is interesting to think about. And the answer is greatly affected by the time span, short or long. Will Christianity still be around a hundred years from now? Yes. Five hundred years from now? Probably. A thousand years from now? Maybe. Five thousand years from now? The further into the future we imagine, the less likely it seems that Christianity will be part of that present.

For many Christians, the notion that there will come a time when Christianity will no longer exist except as past history is a thought that has not been thought.

Christians who think that the second coming of Jesus and the end of this world are near are not at all worried by how long Christianity will last. It doesn’t need to last much longer. Moreover, to those and many other Christians, the thought seems alien. Most of us learned as we were growing up that the Bible and Jesus were the ultimate revelation of God – and thus that Christianity was the exclusive and only revelation, or at least the best. How then could there come a time when it would be no more?

But the realization that there will come a time when Christianity is not (assuming that humans and our descendants are still here a thousand and five thousand years from now) has pedagogical value. It leads to reflecting about what Christianity is, and what its foundational document, the Bible is.

Are the Bible and Christianity the final revelation of God and thus destined to last until time is no more? Or are they humanly-constructed historical products – the fruit of our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel, early Christianity, and subsequent theological interpretations of what it means to be Christian? Are the Bible and Christianity THE revelation of God, and thus exclusive and absolute? Or one of many revelations in many and perhaps all cultures, great and small, with all of them articulated in the language of their time and place? Is it not obvious that all religions are historical products? They had a beginning and they will have an ending. Just as most ancient religions are no more, so it will be some time with Christianity, whether five hundred or a few thousand years from now.

Though this notion has not been thought by very many Christians, it is not bad news. Rather, it leads to a strong appreciation of what the Bible and Christianity are. They are, to use language from Paul, “treasure in earthen vessels” or in some recent translations “treasure in clay jars.” Of course, Paul was not referring to the Bible (whose canonization had not yet happened) or Christianity (which did not yet exist). Rather, he referred to the messengers of the gospel, including himself. All that we say and proclaim is in earthen vessels, clay jars. The treasure comes to us through human words and human beings.

The treasure is sometimes missed. Often and still today, the Bible and Christianity have been sources of judgment and rejection, brutality and violence, suffering and manipulation.

But at its best, which has happened and continues to happen, Christianity is a tradition of wisdom, beauty, and goodness. The triad is central to ancient Greek philosophy and to the enduring religions of the world. Wisdom about what is real and how then we should live. Beauty in its language, music, art, worship, and architecture. Goodness in lives filled with compassion and passion for a transformed world.

And it is a sacrament. Just as the human products of bread and wine become sacraments, so Christianity as an earthen vessel is a massive sacrament that mediates the reality to which it points, a means of grace and a means of transformation. It is our approximation, in our time and place, of what life with God – and for Christians, life with God as revealed decisively in Jesus – is about.

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  • Gene Stecher

    I think that we’re asking the wrong question. After all, how many versions of Christianity are claimed across the earth (Of course, one could also ask how many Jesus’ are claimed)? But, perhaps the question should be, “Does following Jesus have a future?” That’s the same as asking: Does loving one’s enemy have a future? Does giving to beggars have a future? Does making friends with your adversary on the way to court have a future? Does giving good things to your children have a future? Does closing the gap between the poor and the rich have a future? Does putting service to others ahead of personal purity have a future? Does trust in the goodness of the source of our being have a future? I would say that following in the spirit of Jesus has an everlasting future.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “Or one of many revelations in many and perhaps all cultures, great and
    small, with all of them articulated in the language of their time and
    place?”

    I don’t really agree with this “all roads lead to Rome” (any pun not intended) sentiment and this is one apologetic argument that often (in typical apologetic fashion) gets incredibly exaggerated, but I think its fundamental point remains.

    Christianity, for all of the incredible flaws, brutality, warfare, conquests etc. of its history, does represent IMO a fundamental shift forward in overall human ethics than most other world religions. Having the revered God head be someone who suffered on a cross, with such an emphasis on forgiveness and mercy, is not given such paramount focus in many, and I’d say most, other religious traditions. In addition, one can make a clear argument that the early Christian emphasis on individual sanctity and freedom of the individual to choose their own religious path (pre-Constantine, that is) laid down the logs, metaphorically speaking, for the embers of the Enlightenment which arose over 1000 years later. Let’s not forget the greatest Enlightenment thinkers were basically liberal Christians! To deny that their religious convictions didn’t impact their philosophical discourses (which get taken for granted today and assumed by religious and atheists alike to be purely secular) is putting one’s head in the sand.

    So if one views the history of Christianity and the trails of the Enlightenment to be thoroughly intertwined, as I do, then the question gets more complicated. Christian ethics have come to dominate much of the world. The arms of official ‘Christendom’ ie churches’ . . .that’s the more intriguing question. And if the latter dies, does the former also diminish?

    • Josh Magda

      I think all roads lead to Rome, if by roads you mean religions paved with compassion, which is nearly all of them. But that doesn’t mean all travelers on the various roads experience the same scenery along the way. There is nothing truly significant in Christianity for me that is not found in the other traditions, including forgiveness and mercy and a suffering God. But the traditions do differ widely in what aspects of the universal revelation (which I have no problem calling Christ) they emphasize. A Christian might experience life very differently than a Hindu in significant ways, and that is altogether expected and desired. As the Dean of the National Cathedral said once, maybe instead of everyone climbing one mountain we’re climbing many mountains, and in the mystery of God there are more mountains than we can imagine. 

      • Andrew Dowling

        “But the traditions do differ widely in what aspects of the universal
        revelation (which I have no problem calling Christ) they emphasize.”

        I agree with this, and I may have been speaking in overly brad terms. Certainly the ultimate revelation (which I also consider Jesus/Christ) is not restricted solely to Christianity, and particularly some sects of other religions are actually more ‘Christian’ than groups that call themselves Christian (looking at you Calvinists). But I still think, as a whole, Christianity emphasizes more sides of the coin of that revelation than others. This could become a much larger debate, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first declarations of human rights/individual liberty arose in countries with Christian backgrounds/traditions.

        • Josh Magda

          “But I still think, as a whole, Christianity emphasizes more sides of the coin of that revelation than others”
          Then we have a fundamental disagreement here. Which is fine. In all honesty, coming back to the theme of the thread, I neither want there to be nor think there is a future for a Christianity that believes itself to be superior to other religions.

    • Gene Stecher

      “The arms of official ‘Christendom’ ie churches’ . . .that’s the more
      intriguing question. And if the latter dies, does the former also
      diminish?”

      Churches exist to hold out the hope of afterlife (the spiritual body metaphor) – one legacy of what we call Christianity, and the hope of justice (the second coming metaphor) – a second legacy of what we call Christianity. Community is needed to sustain such hopes, but I don’t suppose that community must take the form of present day churches to hold those hopes or to sustain them at a high level. Whatever form the community takes, however, would have to be grounded in the notion that Reality is generous. And that returns us to the future of Jesus.