What Christians Believe
The Apostles’ Creed
Prof. Peter M.D. Gray
Copyright (C) 2000,2010
Reader, Church of Scotland
This is an exploration of the basis of the Christian faith, as we enter the new millennium. It was first set down almost two thousand years ago as the Apostles Creed. We may not say it regularly in church, but you will find it in the hymn book. We will take it a phrase at a time and try to understand its meaning in modern English, so that we can be more sure of the roots of our faith.
The Creed starts majestically with a clear confident statement:
“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth”
No hesitation here!
In order to make this statement, we have to believe that we are created beings, made for a definite purpose by a supreme being we call God. The Jews were insistent that there is only one supreme being, who is referred to as “Almighty God our Lord and Father.” Thus, this is not a god who just lit the blue touch paper to start the Big Bang but then got bored and forgot us. On the contrary he is very much interested in us — he is interested as a parent would be — and hence referred to as “Our Father” as in the Lord’s Prayer, or as “the Father Almighty”.
It is very hard to grasp that a being powerful enough to create the known universe, some twenty billion years ago, would have the patience to wait for evolution of humans with speech and language, and then take an interest in us as individuals, but that is what Jesus Christ taught us! The famous scientist Blaise Pascal, inventor of an early calculating machine said that we could never prove this, or disprove it, but he was prepared to wager everything on it and to live his life in the belief that God loved him. His argument was that to live life upon the opposite belief meant that life was totally without purpose, and not worth living, if we could not contact our creator and find out the reason for our existence!
Strange to say, conventional wisdom makes it fashionable to ignore (or deny) the existence of God. People are so interested in playing with material things in God’s universe, in acquiring and consuming them, that they think that’s all there is to life! But we are spiritual beings, and deep down our hearts are restless until they find their rest in a sense of the presence of God.
The poet Wordsworth put it beautifully
“For I have felt a presence that disturbs me
With the joy of elevated thoughts
A sense sublime of something deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns
And the round ocean, and the living air”
Jesus Christ is central to the Christian Faith; indeed He gives the Faith its name. He would originally have been known by a Greek name something like “Jesus the Christ” or his Jewish name “Yeshua, the Anointed one”. The Jews had been waiting for many centuries for the arrival of the Anointed One or “Messiah” (meaning a specially dedicated or holy person) but they thought he would be a warrior priest. Like the previous King David. What they could not accept was what the Creed states, that Jesus was God in human form, a pre-existing being in total spiritual communion with God, yet capable of eating, sleeping, laughing and weeping as we do. This is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith, that the Creator of the universe could be known as a person, in the same way that we know and love and respect our own Father and Mother.
In John’s Gospel Chapter 11, Martha says this about him “I now believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who was to come into the world“. Now Martha knew Jesus as a real living person; he often stayed with her and her sister Mary just outside Jerusalem while visiting. He would have shared meals with them. They knew him to talk to. And yet she believes that he and the God of the Jews are one and the same. This too was the conviction of the disciples like John and Matthew, who lived and worked with him and experienced the wonder of his rising from the dead, which convinced them of who he really was. They later wrote their experiences and convictions in the Gospels.
The Creed says that Jesus is our Lord. This is not a fashionable word now, in a world where everyone wants to be free to “do their own thing”. Alas ideas of politeness, and respect are considered old-fashioned. In most centuries people knew that they had to obey the commands of their King (or head of state). Jesus ranks as such, however, as he told the Roman governor. “My Kingdom is not of this world”. Thus, we have to believe in another spiritual world interpenetrating this, where Jesus is known as he really is, as supreme being and all-powerful ruler and lord. Of this more anon. But meanwhile, the early Celtic Christians on the west coast who worshipped on Iona, would have had no difficulty in accepting this view of Jesus; and of the other world, tantalisingly close to ours, where he is acknowledged ruler. Here is one of their prayers:
I am bending my knee,
In the eye of the Father who created me
In the eye of the Son who purchased me,
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me,
In friendship and affection,
Through thine own Anointed One, O God,
Bestow upon us fullness in our need…
To do in the world of the Three
As angels and saints do in heaven
(Carmina Gadelica 1, p3)
who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.
This clause has caused considerable debate, and differences of interpretation. The Roman Catholic church gives special status to Mary, as the Mother of God’s only Son, but the Presbyterian church, reacting to what it saw as undue worship of Mary, gives her the same status as the Apostles and Saints. No one doubts that Jesus was born as the result of a normal nine-month pregnancy, and that Mary was his mother. In fact, she had other sons, including James (“The brother of the Lord”) who was a leader in the early church. Now James’s father was Joseph and he was certainly the head of the household in which Jesus grew up. It is known that he was a carpenter, and we have all seen pictures of Jesus learning the trade in his father’s workshop.
However, if we take the creed literally, then Joseph was Jesus’ stepfather, while God himself, through the miraculous action of the Holy Spirit, was the true Father! To the early Christians this seemed necessary, in order to validate Jesus’ status as son of God. This is consistent with the story of his birth in Matthew’s Gospel, where Joseph is made aware, by the angel, that Mary is already pregnant, before their marriage. The pregnancy is a miraculous divine action, so she retains the status of a virgin, or pure young woman.
There are people who find this story of the Virgin Birth rather hard to take. They are unhappy about the miraculous aspect. However, now that we know about cloning of one animal direct from the cells of another, the miracle seems not so impossible. But the creed is not concerned with these genetic speculations. Its main point is that, in the conception of Jesus, God himself took the initiative. Whatever the details of implementation, this child was very special and his birth, at the particular time in history when the world was largely at peace, and people had been prepared for His coming, was no accident! The danger of abandoning the notion of his miraculous birth is that we drift into thinking of Jesus as a gifted child, born to ordinary parents, who was very loving and had big ideas. Such a person could not, by themselves, have freed us from our sins and restored our relationship to our creator. We do better to stick with what the creed says.
suffered under Pontious Pilate, was crucified…..
After an uplifting opening about the promise of the coming of Christ, the Creed comes right down to earth with this next phrase.
Mankind had been waiting many thousands of years for the coming of its saviour. The Jewish people had been looking forward to the coming of the mysterious Anointed One, the Messiah. But when he came, they didn’t recognise him! Worse still, they ganged up on him. In a terrible night of vindictive fury they persuaded the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate to torture and kill him in shameful fashion. We are still living with the hangover, the aftermath of that event. It was as if all the evil latent in humanity bubbled up to the surface and turned ferociously on the maker of the universe. Almost as if Jesus was attracting the evil to himself, like drawing the poison out of the wound.
Now that we can look back on it, we can see that Jesus was no stranger to suffering through his life. Professor McEwan asks us to imagine what it would be like for a good clean-living young man from a good home being forced to live with coarse depraved companions. Imagine the disgust, the pain of rejection, especially when these are the people you are trying to love. No one should doubt the reality of Christ’s suffering: several times in the Gospels it says “Jesus wept” when he saw the pain of others.
Something we find very hard to understand is that Jesus did not come to take away our suffering in this life, instead he came to share it! He could not just magic it away. The maker of the universe has the power to completely destroy our world, or to create a new world for those who want to be with him, but he cannot selectively eradicate the evil thoughts and motives that infect our human condition without eradicating us too! (Matthew 13, v29)
Of course, Jesus did not suffer all the time he was on earth. There were good times with his Apostles, when healing people, especially children, and when preaching to attentive crowds on beautiful flower-clad hillsides. It is like this for us too. Joy and suffering are part of being human.
William Blake captured this in his poem
Joy and woe are woven fine
A clothing for a soul divine
Under every grief and pine
runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.
…Crucified, dead and buried, he descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
As far as the Roman government was concerned, Jesus was just another agitator, who met with Caesar’s justice. There would be no more trouble from him! Even the Apostles were in hiding from that same fierce justice, and grieving for their lost leader, in whom they had vested so much hope. The Creed emphasises that Jesus was physically dead. After the torture of the crucifixion, the Romans put a spear through his heart. There was no mistake.
His followers didn’t have time to inter his body properly, because the Jewish Sabbath was about to start on the (Friday evening). Instead they packed the body with bags of spices and put it in a rock tomb with a sliding door — their equivalent of our morgue. When they came back on the third day (Sunday morning) they found the door was open and the body was gone! If as some have suggested, it was taken by tomb robbers, then his followers would have been even more miserable. Instead they encountered his presence again, walking, talking and eating with them for short periods and then mysteriously vanishing. It started with Mary Magdalene on the Sunday morning, continuing with a group of followers on many occasions. St. Paul describes it in one of his early letters, written about thirty years later, when so many eye witnesses were still alive. A surprising number of Christians are happy to believe in the ghostly presence of the risen Christ, but not in the resurrection of his body from the grave. However, if his body did not rise, then the authorities had only to produce it to discredit the story and kill off the new religion. Stories that the disciples stole the body themselves are unbelievable. Were these people going to let themselves and others be martyred, in order to preserve a lie?
The resurrection of the body was God’s explicit visible sign to the rest of humanity of the internal spiritual transformation taking place amongst Christ’s followers. The evidence for the Resurrection is that they acquired the strength to become missionaries and to found and
spread the church that we know today. Another convincing fact is that they kept up Jewish religious practices but changed the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. Something amazing must have happened on the Sunday to make conservative Jews do that! After all they could have stayed with a regular Friday evening celebration in memory of Christ’s crucifixion.
In the Gospels, the risen Christ does not say what happened when he died. The Creed says that he descended into hell; this is Sheol in the Old Testament, a grey shadowy place for the souls of the dead. The Christian belief is that Jesus entered fully into death and went there too.
We can take comfort that there is nowhere we cannot be reachedby the love of Christ. (Romans 8 v35)
After the dramatic event of Christ rising from the dead, the story moves to its culmination in the next phrase of the Creed.
He ascended into heaven,
Some people have tried to interpret the Resurrection in terms of Christ being an amazingly strong man, with self-healing powers, who managed to survive the crucifixion, but ultimately had to die and who was buried in secret location. The gospels deny this. The Christ whom people saw after the Resurrection had a new body, outwardly human, yet he could walk through walls. That is why he says “touch me not,…”. This was not a body which would die and need to be buried. As St. Paul says, he had broken the chains of death itself,
“O death where is thy sting; O grave where is thy victory?”.
However, even with this new body, He was still confined to face to face meetings in one location. So, he told his disciples that, after six weeks, he would go back to where he came from, to be with God the Father, the creator of the universe. In doing so, he established that he was who he said he was, not just a gifted man, but God in person.
Some people have speculated that he was deluded while on earth, that God had lost contact with him, and that the crucifixion was the point where he discovered this. The answer to that heresy lies in His Resurrection and His final Ascension to reunion with God. Nothing could separate him from the Father! It was the power of God alone that raised him from the dead!
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty
The Creed uses the old language of going up into heaven, as if God were in the sky somewhere, hence the term ascending, as if going up an escalator. In a more modern idiom, we might talk about “making the jump to light speed”, as in Star Wars, or entering a black hole tunnel through space time to another universe. We do not need to know the details. Another old-fashioned phrase, not to be taken literally, is “sitteth on the right hand of God”! In modern idiom, we should say he was back in his place at the top table, as God’s right-hand man! What this means is that he has full divine power, also he can now be in touch with us all, through his Spirit!
This series is based mainly on “Why we are Christians” (1970) by James McEwen, former professor of church history in Aberdeen. He says of the Ascension: “When Christ resumed His power as God, He resumed it with this difference that He wears still the human nature that was his on earth. Therefore, when we pray, we pray not just to one who was once a Man, but one who still wears our human nature, and therefore fully sympathises and understands”.
As it says in 1 John Ch. 2 v 1
” should anyone commit a sin, we have one to plead our cause with the Father, Jesus Christ.”
…From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
Following the story of Jesus’ life, death, rising again and triumphant ascension, the Creed takes on a more sombre note. It states that the situation as we know it, with life as an odd mixture of good and evil, will not continue indefinitely. It is an unstable situation. God cannot permit the indefinite continuation of evil, which is a direct rebellion against his will and his divine authority. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Christ will come again, to assert God’s authority. This time he will not come as a helpless infant, but as a judge. This is known as the Second Coming, and Jesus talks of it in the Gospels
Christians of former ages had a very strong belief in it. If you go into Greek churches of the first millennium, or into Christian churches over 500 years old, you will regularly see wall paintings of the Last Judgement, where Christ sits in majesty, as angels bring people before him for judgement. Those who love Him and throw themselves on his mercy are shown ascending into heaven on left of the picture, while those who prefer to commit crimes and who hate their fellow men and women are shown descending into Hell. Their selfish sinfulness, bitterness and violence gets its own reward, as they are handed over to sadistic demons. No modern advertising campaign could have a more powerful poster!
Strange to say, we are not affected by it in the way that our forefathers were. Possibly we see so much evil and violence on TV that our senses are numbed to the horror of it. Nevertheless, the Creed repeats what is stated in the gospels, that we are accountable for our actions (Deuteronomy 30. 15 – 27) and we shall all be judged. It doesn’t matter whether you are alive or dead at the time of the second coming, no one will be left out!
It is clear that the first Christians and Apostles thought that the Second Coming would be in the lifetime of many of them. Jesus told several parables that emphasised how sudden it would be. However, He also said (Matthew 24. 36) that the time had not been revealed to him. Certain statements in the Book of Revelations made people think it would come in the year 1,000 but it did not. Similar thoughts have surrounded the year 2,000! However scientists have now begun to see how conditions on Earth might make it suddenly become uninhabitable for humans, if a large asteroid crashed into us. We can all see the craters on the moon, and there is good evidence that dinosaurs were wiped out in this way some sixty million years ago. However a similar event could be millions of years away. (2 Peter 3:8)
Some people believe that, with the new millennium and the end of the Cold War, humanity will somehow reform itself and improve itself, so that violence and evil will become a thing of the past. The Bible gives no support for this view; yes, good is spreading, but so is evil. Just look at the spreading use of the Internet for pornography! The parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13, 27) explains that evil is like a deep-rooted weed that is so mixed in with the wheat crop that it cannot be destroyed without destroying the crop as well. Only when the crop is ready to be harvested, at the end of the world, can it be done once and for all.
Jesus said, (Matt. 28. v20) ‘And be assured, I am with you always, to the end of time.’
Following the statement of belief in the life, death, rising and coming again of Jesus Christ, the Creed finishes with a statement of various articles of faith that effect our life in the here and now, and in the future.
This statement starts with: ..I believe in the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost in medieval English).
The Holy Spirit is a mysterious figure. At the start of the gospel stories, when Jesus is himself publicly baptised by John the Baptist, we are told that the Spirit of God descended on him, like a dove. Shortly afterwards when he preaches for the first time in a Jewish synagogue, He tells the people that Isaiah’s prophecy has come true: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news…”(Luke 4. 18), Thus the Spirit is involved in the anointing of Jesus, at his baptism by John, and now he is declared to be the Messiah—the anointed one. After this, John points to Jesus as having the real power: “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”. Finally, at the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus tells his disciples “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1. 8). Also, his parting words at the end of Matthew’s gospel are: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”.
These references tell us quite a lot about the Holy Spirit, even though the Creed is very brief. The last reference tells us that the spirit is the power of God himself, whom the Old Testament prophets experienced as God the Father whom the gospel writers and apostles experienced as God the Son, Jesus Christ. The main thing to grasp is that, even though we can no longer see Jesus alive, as a man, yet we can experience him here and now through God the Holy Spirit! Thus, the spirit keeps us in touch with Jesus. He behaves almost as the mysterious wireless waves that allow very large numbers of people to ring up at the same time and hear the same recorded message through their cell phones. Thus, the Spirit makes Jesus omni-present; he can be in all places at once, he is not confined to one place as a man. Jesus promised this to his disciples as the miracle they would experience at Pentecost, shortly after his Ascension. It was almost as if the crowd at Pentecost, received simultaneous cell-phone messages, each in their own language. At the same time, they felt the awesome power of God, described as a “rushing mighty wind“!
The Spirit seems to operate in very different modes. People who belong to Pentecostal churches, or charismatic movements, emphasise the power of the Spirit. They like to take part in spiritual healing services, where people are literally knocked unconscious. They believe the Spirit expresses himself in large gatherings where excitement and strong emotions sweep through those present. However, St. Paul warns against assuming that this is the only evidence that the spirit is at work. In Corinthians 1 .13. He singles out love and fellowship as being the really important gifts of the Spirit.
In Galatians 5. 22. He says, “the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. This is not a love dominated by extremes of emotion, but nor is it sombre and tight-lipped. Where a church shows these signs of Christian fellowship we would say — the Spirit is active in that congregation!
The early church had many arguments about the roles of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, almost as if they were rival board members! We must not fall into the trap of believing that God himself suffers from internal bickering. In a revealing passage (John 16. 13) Jesus says that the Spirit “will take from what is mine and make it known to you”. Thus, the Spirit does not have an agenda or mission of his own. Instead, in some mysterious way, the Holy Spirit can take root in us (John 14. 17) like a friendly bacterium taking up residence in our body. If allowed, he will act as a channel through which the Spirit of Christ can act on us and transform us, producing in us the fruits of His Spirit!
Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me;
break me, melt me, mould me, fill me;
Spirit of the Living God Fall afresh on me.
(Songs of God’s People 98).
I believe in the Holy Catholic Church,
This next part of the creed expresses a belief in our unity as a body of believers, both in this world and in the world to come. It is cast in very old-style language, and is easily misunderstood:
Many Presbyterians see the word “Catholic” and, like their forefathers, would run a mile! However, the use of the word as a term of sectarian abuse only goes back as far the sixteenth century, when Protestants stopped obeying the orders of the Pope. The Creed goes back right to the first century, and the Greek word that is used means something more like “Universal” or “Worldwide”, spanning all the different cultures of Christian peoples. It asserts that beneath all the denominational differences that have been created, we are all part of the same supernatural organisation. This organisation does not have its headquarters in 121, George St., Edinburgh, or Rome, or Geneva; its head office is in heaven and its branch offices are in the hearts of men and women!
Here on earth we are far too obsessed with church government, with ecclesiastical politics and with church as a building! We confuse the means (which these are) with the purpose for which they exist, which is to support the spiritual health of the Christian Community, the people of God. The church is Holy because God is in it. It is Catholic because it is worldwide! The community cannot easily continue without a place to meet in and strengthen each other, through mutual fellowship and the worship of Almighty God. The church building, we meet in is important for this reason because, like any family, we need a home. However, it is not “the church” — WE are the Church!
We do occasionally get a sense of being a united body of believers, particularly when collecting for Christian Aid, which involves all the main denominations. However, far too many church members tend to think of their religion as something private between themselves and God. They fail to realise that our relationship to our fellow Christians is a vitally important part of our religion. Christ gave us the commandment to “love our neighbour as ourselves”, second only to loving God Himself. We are told we will be judged on how much we care for those less fortunate, the sick and the hungry and the poor. Christ prays for his followers that “they may be one as we are one” (John 17. 11). We are not to be saved in isolation, but as members of a loving sharing community!
… The Communion of Saints
This leads naturally to the next phrase: The Communion of Saints. If we believe in the miracle of the Resurrection, and life continuing after death, then we must be raised together with other members of our Christian community. If love outlasts death, then we must be raised with people whom we love. If then we on Earth can have communion (spiritual contact) with Christ who is in heaven, might we not be able to have communion with others of our extended community, who are raised in Christ? The Creed uses the old word “saints” to refer to such persons. They need not have been great saints like St. Peter or St. Paul. This is a concept that can give great comfort, but we must not allow it to degrade into Spiritualism through a medium. Prof. McEwen comments “provided we remember that communion with the departed is to be sought through Christ, and that the strength and reality of this communion depends entirely on the strength and reality of our communion with Christ, we shall not go far astray. And in time of bereavement we may find in this communion of saints a source of profound comfort.
“Let saints on earth in concert sing
with those whose work is done,
for all the servants of our King
in earth and heaven are one”.
(Hymn 543 — Charles Wesley)
Finally, the Creed lists the great promised benefits of the Christian Faith.
First comes ………the Forgiveness of sins,
This comes as a strange benefit to most people, since they do not realise that they need it. The very word “sin” has come to mean something delicious that is forbidden by an outworn moral code. Since as the media tell us, we now have the liberty to pursue happiness in any way we wish, we can ignore old moral codes and associated stigma of “sin”! Why then do we need forgiveness?!
The answer is that moral codes that are based on the teachings and sayings of Jesus Christ are not outdated! They enshrine eternal values, known to generations. To break them is to try and make our hearts and bodies work in ways that our Creator did not intend. The consequences are all around us, the poison of selfishness and greed which leaves us unfulfilled, the miserable aftermath of violence and breakdown of relationships resulting in the pain of being unloved and rejected, the continuous pain of mental depression, or diseases of the immune system.
The single most important relationship that we break through sinful actions is our relationship with God. This happens daily, mostly through our thoughtlessness, but if we do nothing about it we drift steadily further from God, and from the relationship of love and adoration that is meant to exist between us and our Lord. That is why Jesus taught his disciples to ask forgiveness daily in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6 v12) “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (note that the “debts” here are not monetary). All we are doing is what we would naturally do when meeting someone, following an incident when we have hurt or wronged them; we start by saying “sorry”! Then, we hope, the other person’s face lights up and we know we are friends again! Forgiveness of sins, as William Temple tells us, is not about avoiding punishment, it is primarily about restoration to intimacy —– restoring our broken relationship with our Creator!
Jesus knew that forgiveness was important, even in cases of apparently physical illness. When he cured the man lowered down on a stretcher he said first “Thy sins are forgiven thee” and then “Arise, take up thy bed, and walk!” (Luke 5 v17 – 25) Nowadays we might explain this man’s illness as psychosomatic, but it still needed Jesus’ reassurance to cure it!
The Jews realised that Jesus was using powers that only God was thought to possess. It is a fundamental belief of Christianity that Jesus does indeed have the power to forgive sins, that he came into the world for this purpose, (John 3 v17) and that this power derives from this voluntary acceptance of death through crucifixion, where he continued to show love to his tormentors (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”) (Luke 23 v 34).
The mechanism of how a perfect God can forgive sins, or even permit sins to be committed against Him, is a mystery that is too big for our earthly minds to grasp. Over the years, people have formed several very different pictures of it (see 2 Cor. 5 v17 – 21). These pictures all have something to tell us! As Prof. McEwen says, “we must beware of the intolerable spiritual arrogance of men who have insisted that their own particular interpretation of the Cross was the only right one”.
1) In the early church, people concentrated on the rising of Christ from the dead, a perfect being free from the taint and corruption of life on earth. They visualised themselves as dying to an old life, and they acted this out in a baptism ritual which involved total immersion of the body, as if drowning, and then rising again from the water, renewed and cleaned. Jesus had promised that, where he went, others could follow, and they wanted to act it out without actually being crucified!
They could do this because they were brought up with the idea of animal sacrifice, which seems most unpleasant to us. J.S. Whale explains that the believer brought a lamb or a dove to the temple, and when the lamb was slaughtered, “the believer identifies himself with the victim, symbolically yielding up to God the most precious thing he has, his very life”.
Thus, Jesus was seen as the very special Lamb of God, slaughtered once only for all of us, so that we could identify with Him and share His resurrection life, as He rises to heaven.
2) Following the Reformation, the picture shifted to that of a law court. Here God acts as judge and tries humanity for its sins, finds it guilty and pronounces sentence on all of us. At this point Jesus steps forward, as representative of Humanity to take the punishment in the form of crucifixion. This picture concentrates on the pain that Jesus endured, that we might understand just how much it costs a loving God to forgive us our sins – forgiveness may be free to us, but it was not free to Jesus! A modern analogy would be the case of a Jewish Rabbi who stepped forward onto the line for the gas chambers at Auschwitz substituting himself for a young very frightened person, Jesus himself says (John 15 v 13)
” A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends”.
3) Another analogy is of Christ forming a bridge between earth and heaven that we can cross over. The picture comes from an incident on the retreat of the French army from Moscow in the dreadful winter of 1812. They are crossing a river by a bridge made of logs lashed together. Suddenly a rope breaks and bridge threatens to come apart A big strong soldier jumps into the freezing water and holds the logs together with his outstretched arms. He freezes to death, but the army marches safely over. Looking back, they see him standing bravely, his arms stretched out like the crucified Christ! As the hymn “There is a Green Hill” puts it:
” There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. “
A similar thought comes in the hymn:
“Love so amazing so divine demands my soul, my life, my all”.
I believe in ….the Resurrection of the body,
The Creed ends by reaffirming the Christian belief in a life after death. Christians believe that Christ rose from the dead and entered (or re-entered) a new life in the presence of his Father, a world of love, free from the temptations and evil happenings of this life. He promised that where he went others would follow. To the repentant thief, crucified beside him, he says “Today, you will be with me in paradise”. To his disciples he says, “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, you may be also”. (John 14).
The interesting thing is the nature of this life. The ancient Greeks believed that on death, a person’s body was slowly destroyed, but that the spark of their being (the soul) flew back to heaven, and was “reabsorbed into God” thus losing its identity. The Creed denies this, hence the belief in the Resurrection of the body (meaning the individual) There is confusion here, because the word body has been mistranslated from the original Greek where it means something more like “individual humanity”. Also, St. Paul (1 Cor.15) makes clear that the risen body is not the same as the present earthly body. Think of a plant, he says; it is sown with the body of a seed, but raised as a beautiful flower, a very different body, but still individual.
This also denies the teachings of some extreme Puritan sects that the body is intrinsically evil, and we should be disgusted with it. Jesus did not teach this; he set out to heal people’s bodies! He said he came to restore to us, life in all its fullness (John 10 v10). St. Paul (1. Cor. 16v19) warns people not to abuse their bodies, but to treat them with respect, “as the temple (residence) of the Holy Spirit”. He even likens the working of a Christian community to many members working harmoniously together like parts of a body.
and the life Everlasting.
The final phrase, “the Life Everlasting“, echoes the promise of Jesus in (John 3 v 16)
“God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that everyone who has faith in him
may not die but have eternal life”.
This word ” Life Everlasting” should really be translated as “eternal life“. It means a life in another dimension outside of time, rather than without limit. However, this does not mean continuing in some kind of meditation with absence of desire or willpower, as Buddhists believe, nor does it mean some kind of suspended animation in a place of shades (Sheol) as the Jews believed. Instead, it should mean possibilities for further development. Winston Churchill said he hoped to spend the first thousand years as a painter, “trying out all the new colours “! William Barclay says that where St. John quotes Jesus saying, “in my Father’s house are many mansions“, the Greek word translated “mansions” can mean “staging places“.
C.S. Lewis certainly thinks this way in his story of an imagined visit to heaven (“The Great Divorce”). However, we must not just sit back and wait for it to come. Our job as Christians is to build a loving Christian community, serving and helping others that they may experience a foretaste of the world to come. As a famous old hymn says:
“Fight the good fight with all thy might,
Christ is thy strength and Christ thy right
Lay hold on life and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally”
This work owes its inspiration to Why we are Christians(1970) by Prof. James McEwen from where several quotations are made. Rev. Ainslie Walton (Univ. of Aberdeen) also proof read it and made helpful suggestions.
- W. Barclay (1955) “The Gospel of John”, McCorquodale Press.
- Carmichael (1900) “Carmina Gadelica”, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh.
- C.S. Lewis (1946) “The Great Divorce”, Geoffrey Bles, London.
- J.S. McEwen (1970) “Why we are Christians”, St. Andrews Press, Edinburgh.
- W. Temple (1931) “Christian Faith and Life”, SCM Press, London.
- J.S. Whale (1941) “Christian Doctrine”, Collins, Glasgow.
Peter Gray is an Emeritus Professor of Computing Science in the University of Aberdeen (since 2005). His main publications are in the area of Logic and Databases. He has a D.Phil in Elementary Particle Physics from the University of Oxford (1965). During this time, he became interested in lay participation, following a week spent at Lee Abbey. He was set apart as a Reader by the Church of Scotland in 1979. Since then he has acted as evening class tutor for 8 years on the Church’s TLS program for training Lay people in Leadership and Service.