We are at the end of our series called “What Christians Believe” where we’ve been breaking down the Apostle’s Creed to explore what Christians believe, why they believe it, and why it matters.
What we believe really does matter! Many deeply held beliefs have the power to literally motivate us into action, service, and sacrifice. For many of us, our parents have played a really big role in shaping our fundamental beliefs. Many of our beliefs have also been shaped by our personal experiences, particularly the most painful ones, and also the most gratifying ones. Our deeply held beliefs can shape us for the good or the bad.
For instance, the beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan have done a great amount of harm. Whereas, the beliefs of the Salvation Army have done an overwhelming amount of good.
Belief is a decision of our own free will. I choose to believe certain things. You chose to believe certain things. In fact, my decision to follow Christ has had a huge impact on my life and especially on things like the person I chose to marry, the career I chose, the way I see right and wrong, how I parent my children, what I do with my time and money, and how I face adversity. Those beliefs have led me to say no to many things I may have said yes to otherwise, and to say yes to things I might otherwise have said no to.
So what we believe matters! Today, we come to the last two lines of the Apostle’s Creed:
I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
The Creed ends where Easter begins with the resurrection and the promise of life everlasting. Lent is coming soon and begins on Ash Wednesday, March 2nd this year. Ash Wednesday is when Christians confess their sin and recall their own mortality (humanness: we are born, we live, and we die). When the ashes are placed on your forehead, you’re told, “repent and believe the good news” or “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Both point to the emphasis on sin and death. The Lenten season then reaches its climax on Good Friday, when Christ died for our sins and then on Easter morning, when He rose victoriously over death. Which makes Jesus’ death and resurrection literally the antidotes to human sin and death.
In this last part of the series, we’re going to consider the promise of Christ’s return, the Last Judgement mentioned earlier in the Creed, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
Death is the one shared experience of all human beings. We will all bury people we love. We will all wrestle with our own death. And, like all people who have gone before us, we will wonder and hope that there is something beyond this life.
A question that all human beings ask at some point in our lives is, “What happens to us when we die?” The question doesn’t simply ask what happens to our bodies; it asks more importantly, whether any part of us continues to live after our bodies have died. Is there something more? Is there an afterlife? The Creed answers this question with a definitive YES!
Christians believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God gave a definitive answer to the questions of death and life beyond death.
WHAT JESUS’ RESURRECTION MEANS
So let’s talk about what Jesus’ resurrection means. Clearly Jesus was crucified. He was dead, He was buried. His friends grieved and mourned His death. But those same friends claimed that on Sunday morning, the third day after His death, Jesus literally stepped out of that tomb.
These men and women claimed that they had seen Him, eaten with Him, touched Him, and been taught by Him for 40 days…after His death! The same disciples, who had feared for their own lives and gone into hiding after Jesus’ death, boldly stepped into the streets to proclaim that He had actually risen from the dead.
In the years following, people such as Paul, who had initially rejected Christianity and had even persecuted Christians, claimed to have had encounters and profound experiences with the Risen Christ.
In the late 50’s, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that Jesus had “appeared to more than 500 hundred brothers and sisters at once and most of them are still alive to this day.” (1 Corinthians 15:6)
From this kind of confidence, Paul had NO doubt that we survive death when he boldly quoted Isaiah in 1 Corinthians saying, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
What happens to us when we die is exactly what Jesus meant when He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never die.” John 11:25-26
And later in John Jesus said, “Since I live, you also will live.” John 14:19
We believe in life beyond death because first off, Jesus said it, and then He proved it when He Himself rose from the dead. The disciples were witnesses to it, 500 people witnessed it, and even those who came later were witnesses to profound experiences with the Risen Christ.
Jesus’ death and resurrection was God’s way of responding to the question, “What happens to us when we die?”
Please hear me when I say Jesus’ death is very important, but it is His resurrection that really demonstrated His triumph over sin, death, and all evil. In one great act on Easter morning, Jesus freed all believers from death’s bondage.
On that first Easter, when the disciples were in hiding, before they had seen Him alive again, they didn’t expect His resurrection from the grave…even though Jesus had told them it would happen. They didn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense to them. And when the women came announcing that Jesus was alive, the disciples thought the women were out of their minds, it was so unbelievable that they had to go see the empty tomb for themselves.
And you may say, why was it so unbelievable when they saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? I’m not really sure, other than that total fear had taken over them. Their whole world had just changed in less than 24 hours. If He was gone, who would raise Him from the grave? Now the disciples are likely to die the same death Jesus did. I really wonder if they could have thought He was talking in a parable form when He said He would die and come back.
Later that day, Jesus appeared right in front them saying, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:21). In this simple statement, it’s almost as if Jesus was expressing what His resurrection means. By conquering death, Jesus squashes all fear and uncertainties, and offers this peace that can only He can offer.
THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY
I want to take a moment to talk about this line “the resurrection of the body” in the Apostle’s Creed. I must admit, it seems a bit perplexed. We can believe in and understand the resurrection of the soul, that after death we live on. But the resurrection of the body is more challenging to understand.
Does it mean that the body we have now will be resurrected? How is that even possible given that our bodies decompose, starting within minutes of death?
A camera was placed inside what is thought to be the Apostle Paul’s tomb in Rome, and it showed that after 2,000 years only small bone fragments remained. From dust you were made, to dust you shall return.
In Genesis, we read that God formed human beings out of the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7).
After their sin in the garden, Adam and Eve are told by God, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 NRSV).
And what about people who died at sea? Or people who were burned or cremated? Is it really this body that will be resurrected? I sure hope not. I’ve enjoyed this body, but it’s been prone to sickness, I have neck issues, I get migraines, I’ve struggled to keep my weight down, my skin is wrinkling. And it’s all only going to get worse.
And if somehow this body is resurrected, at what age is it resurrected? Will I see my grandparents as I knew them, in their late 80’s, or will they look the way they did in their 20’s or 30’s – in which case, will I recognize them?
When we read about Jesus’ resurrection, we learn that His body had changed. Mary Magdalene, the first to see Him, didn’t recognize Him and thought He was the gardener.
The two disciples walking to Emmaus thought He was a stranger. When His followers gathered around Him just before He ascended to heaven, some of them doubted, not recognizing who it was.
Jesus had the ability to eat. There were scars from His crucifixion on His hands and side which proved it was Him. He had flesh they could touch. Yet He also walked through walls. If any of that describes the new kind of body we are going to have, it might be kind of cool.
Paul offered an answer in a letter to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians: 15:42-44, 54
42 It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.
54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory.
God does not require what was rotting in the ground to give you a new body. The resurrection of the body, in other words is not like a bad zombie movie. The bodies of most Christians throughout history have been completely absorbed back into the earth.
But God knows our DNA and can use it to create whatever kind of “heavenly body” He wants. He does not need our mortal body to raise us from the dead.
Paul also said in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10:
For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. 2 We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. 3 For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. 4 While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. 5 God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit.
6 So we are always confident, even though we know that as long as we live in these bodies we are not at home with the Lord. 7 For we live by believing and not by seeing. 8 Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are here in this body or away from this body, our goal is to please him. 10 For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.
THE RETURN OF CHRIST
Which takes me to the next point. A line earlier in the Creed says: “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” Meaning first off, Jesus is going to be coming back, and then He’s going to judge us.
I’ll first talk about the judging. While eternal life is a free gift given on the basis of God’s grace, each of us will still be judged by Christ. He has been given authority to judge all the earth. Although His judgement is already working in our lives, there is a future final judgment when Christ returns and everyone’s life will be reviewed and evaluated.
This will not be just for the unbelievers. Christians too will face a judgment. Our eternal destiny is secure, but Jesus will look at how we’ve handled gifts, opportunities, and the responsibilities He has entrusted to us.
In Matthew 16:27 Jesus’ words were, “For the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father and will judge all people according to their deeds.”
Christians from the first apostles and on have anticipated that Christ will one day return. We find this affirmed all throughout the New Testament. How and when the Lord will return is unclear. It appears that the earliest Christians believed He would return within their lifetime.
But by the end of the New Testament period, Peter reaffirmed Christ’s return and addressed the fact that He hadn’t returned yet when he wrote:
2 Peter 3:8-10
8 But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day. 9 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. 10 But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment.
There are books from the Old Testament like Daniel and Ezekiel, and books of the New Testament like Matthew, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Revelation that point to the end times almost like a road map.
And many over the years have tried to determine and predict when Christ will return.
- The Seventh-day Adventists, for example, had their beginning by a man who believed Jesus was returning in 1843 or 1844.
- In 1970, a book came out by a man named Hal Lindsey who strongly suggested that Jesus would return by 1988. The book sold 30 million copies and in 1979 was made into a movie.
- Something like 50 different dates have been named by various Christian pastors since 1980 alone.
- In 2014 and 15, several authors sold millions of books hinting that end times were coming on September 27, 2015 due to a lunar eclipse, taking from Joel 2:31 “The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”
Of course, nothing happened. We don’t know the actual time when Jesus will return, and we’re not supposed to.
The point of the bible and the Creed’s affirmation that one day Christ will come to judge the quick and the dead, is to challenge Christians to be ready for the day when Christ does return, whether in a glorious second coming or at our own death.
The words also encourage believers who might be facing adversity and suffering. Hearing these words, believers can have faith that regardless of their circumstance, the day is coming when there will be no more sorrow, pain, or suffering and when Christ will make all things right.
I do believe that one day Christ will return, but I don’t spend time pondering when it will be. I just know I have a peace about it, knowing that ultimately evil, suffering, sin and death will be completely defeated on the day of Christ’s return.
THE LIFE EVERLASTING
One last question to ponder is, what is Heaven like? Paul said, “God has prepared things for those who love him that no eye has seen, or ear has heard, or that haven’t crossed the mind of any human being.” 1 Corinthians 2:9
3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
5 And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.”
Beyond these kind of images, we really don’t have a lot of details about heaven. And I think the authors like John who wrote Revelations and described pearly gates and streets of gold, did his best to describe what he saw in a vision. I really don’t think words can describe this remarkable place.
I don’t know what it’s going to look like. But I do know for most of us, the most comforting thing that can be said about Heaven is what was captured in a story about a man who lived alone and was nearing death.
This was in the days before cars, and the doctor arrived in his horse-drawn carriage to check on his patient. The doctor brought his dog along, leaving the dog outside on the front step as he entered the house. The doctor sat down beside the man, took his vital signs, and then told the man that the end was near. The man asked, “Doc, what is death like? What’s on the other side?” At that moment the doctor’s dog began to whimper and scratch at the front door. The doctor said, “Do you hear that? That’s my dog. He’s never been in your house. He doesn’t know what it’s like in here. What he knows is that his master is on the other side of that door, and if his master is in here, it must be ok. Our Master is on the other side of death’s door.”
What we believe about death affects both how we face our own death and how we grieve the loss of those we love. I had the honor to be with two of my grandparents when they died. A third, I sat with on her dying days. Each of them had something special about them, that I realize not everyone has. They had a confidence that death was not the end. They knew this scripture and fully believed it.
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
Christ’s resurrection and His promise that we will be raised, is God’s answer to the questions every human asks about death and the afterlife.
If you were to ask me if I believe that Jesus really rose from the dead, and has gone on to prepare a place for us, that death doesn’t have the final word, and that because He lives we will too – my answer would have to be: I not only believe it, but I’m counting on it.
The Creed helps us to remember God’s answers to the deepest longings and questions of our hearts. It reminds us of what is true. And it gives us hope. What we believe leads us to face death with courage and to take risks we might not otherwise take. It puts this earthly life and what we do with it in perspective.
So I invite you to believe – to trust in this set of truths that Christians have been professing for over 2,000 years. You don’t need to have it all figured out. You can have your questions. God knows that I have plenty of them. But you can still make the decision that you believe – you trust that God exists, that God came to us in Jesus, and that by the Holy Spirit, God is as close as the air you breathe.
If you are a Christian and already believe that, then I invite you to seek to follow Jesus more fully than ever and to invite the Holy Spirit to daily fill you and to work in and through you. Get involved in the church, grow in your faith, attend a small group, and join others in serving. This Christian journey is good. It’s life-giving and as we’ve seen, it is filled with hope.
Now I invite you to join me in this historic confession of the Christian faith, saying, and praying these words:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God
the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.