Many religions claim high growth rates that are not merely due to population increases. If a religion acquires a large number of followers, does that growth count in favor of its truth claims? Christianity experienced rapid growth in its early period but so have many religions, including Islam and Mormonism. Is Christianity unique, and if so, how?
Fast-Growing Religions and Their Causes
Historically, Islam and Mormonism (Latter-day Saints) have undergone rapid growth in their early stages and have persisted throughout the years. Islam began in the seventh century and claims about 1.9 billion adherents (second to Christianity) while Mormonism began in the nineteenth century and claims over 16 million members. So one may wonder if this growth also supports their distinctive religious claims.
Islam has experienced enormous growth through the centuries but I think the causes of its specific emergence are diverse. It is true that Muhammad claimed to have received verbal divine messages (which would ultimately become the Qur’an), but his success in forming the religion of Islam also had to do with military and political factors combined with a distant connection to biblical revelation (back to Abraham through Ishmael instead of Isaac). In other words, it doesn’t seem that the religion of Islam emerged by the direct effect of Muhammad’s divine encounters alone. Nor does Islam’s rise point to a death and resurrection of the prophet.
The LDS church has experienced significant growth over almost two centuries. But again the cause seems more nuanced than that of Christianity. Founder Joseph Smith is said to have received a vision in 1823 where an angel, Moroni, spoke of golden plates that Smith would recover and which would become the Book of Mormon. Through Smith, God would restore the Christian church that had strayed from its primitive roots. However, it can be argued that apart from specific LDS truth claims, Mormonism’s worldwide growth is significantly dependent upon its claim to be Christianity’s authentic form. However, Mormonism’s prophet also died and remained dead.
Biblical Connections and Growth
Interestingly enough, both Islam and Mormonism claim to be the rightful fulfillment of biblical revelation by claiming the Jewish-Christian Scriptures (Bible) have been corrupted and compromised and are thus rescued by later revelation (either through the Qur’an [Islam] or the Book of Mormon [LDS]). Thus I think a big part of the attraction of Islam and Mormonism is their claimed connection to the Bible as well as their bold claim to be the Bible’s true revelatory heir. Yet orthodox Christianity views these two religions as serious departures (heretical sects) from biblical and Christian truth.
A Resurrection Movement
Christianity exploded on the scene in the ancient world. Within 300 years it dominated the entire Roman Empire and, over the course of two millennia, dominated all of Western civilization. Today it stands as the largest religion in the world with approximately 2.3 billion adherents.1 Though also deeply connected to the Hebrew Bible, in a very short time span, Christianity developed a distinct cultural and theological identity apart from that of traditional Judaism. According to the New Testament, the unique religion of Christianity came into being directly because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The apostles claimed having eyewitness experiences with Jesus. A merely crucified (dead) Messiah would be viewed by Jews as a false prophet and as cursed by God. According to the Scriptures, the apostles turned the world upside down with the truth of the resurrection, and the historic church emerged. This is why many have called the historic Christian church the community of the resurrection. Thus, the resurrection appears to be the central cause of Christianity’s sudden emergence.
New Testament scholar N. T. Wright observes that:
“Christianity began as a resurrection movement….There is no evidence for a form of early Christianity in which the resurrection was not a central belief…. It was the central driving force, informing the whole movement.”2
Growth vs Truth
While the historic emergence of Islam and Mormonism require an explanation, in comparison with Christianity I think the issue is not so much the growth as it is the initial causal explanation for the emergence of the religion. Sociocultural factors along with claims to biblical connections may have contributed greatly to the rise of Islam and Mormonism regardless of their specific truth claims (actions of Muhammad and Smith).
If the resurrection didn’t cause the emergence of Christianity, what did? There seems to be no other adequate natural explanation. Thus the heart of historic Christianity is found in the remarkable happenings of the first Easter Sunday.3
Reflections: Your Turn
Do you see any difference between how these religions began? Given that all three claim connections to the Hebrew Bible maybe it is best to evaluate the claims and lives of the particular religious leaders who promoted these faiths (Jesus [or the apostles], Muhammad, Joseph Smith) in light of the Old Testament. Which figure best reflects biblical truth and which figure is backed up by the evidence surrounding their specific historical claim? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.
One way to learn more about the specific religions of Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism is to read the New Testament, the Qur’an, and the Book of Mormon.