Measured by the numbers of people who call themselves Christians, Christianity is by far the most successful religious tradition. By some accounts, almost a third of the world's population is Christian. However, if measured by its track record for whether members/ believers have been faithful to their tradition and have treated others well, the Christian tradition has suffered serious problems. Christianity is no different from other faith traditions in having a history defined by both good and evil. However, because Christians have held great political and military power, the extremes seem to have been exaggerated. All too often, power has corrupted, either in the form of religious imperialism or in some other form, such as using religion to dominate others. As one critic put it, the Church (meaning the worldwide community of Christians) has always been an argument against becoming a Christian.
So, why has Christianity had such tremendous appeal and success? The answer points to one of the many ironies in the Christian tradition. This most dominant and powerful religion has as its central focus the life of a poor carpenter who preached in direct opposition to acquiring worldly rather than spiritual power. To understand Christianity, then, is to understand the life of Jesus and the experience of those who have felt they have known and been transformed by Jesus.
Historians have made much of the fact that by modern standards, what we know for sure about Jesus is not much. In fact, a century ago, some questioned whether Jesus ever existed. However, today, that view has been replaced with one stating we can be sure enough about a few essentials, and that these essentials are sufficient to tell the story.
The story is about a Jew in a politically oppressed backwater who was virtually unknown until, around the age of 30, he carried out a brief public ministry that ended in his being executed. He left no written record and no visible organization. His followers were common people without influence, political or otherwise. By this account, the life of Jesus was hardly a life to found a great religious tradition on.
However, what is missing in this account is Jesus, the man himself and his profound impact on all who came in contact with him. Jesus was a charismatic figure, meaning that he was more than just attractive. He seemed to have a special power. It was natural for the people of that time to think in terms of two worlds, the tangible world present to our senses and the invisible, spirit world. Jesus was charismatic inasmuch as he seemed filled with the power that comes from being connected to the spirit world.
Throughout history, there have been many charismatic religious leaders who now are largely forgotten. Jesus was different. First, he was radically good, and in ways that made others want to be good as well. His concern was always with individuals, all individuals. He not only preached an egalitarian ethic of universal love, he lived it. Tax collectors, prostitutes, the rich, and the poor were all treated with the same loving concern, with perhaps only one exception. For those who took pride in their own righteousness and who preached a kind of righteousness that excluded compassion and love, Jesus expressed contempt. His loving nature was not, therefore, indiscriminate.
Jesus' impact on others had, then, much to do with his ethics and his character. However, ethics and character do not by themselves explain Jesus. History has shown us many good men and women who stood for truth, but none have come close to having the impact that Jesus has had. There is, then, more to the story of Jesus than his having charisma and character.