In our present version of the Creed, after a bold assertion of Christ’s full divinity comes a recitation of His mighty acts.
“For us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became Man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, whose Kingdom shall have no end.”
The passage breathes the same spirit as those Psalms of the Old Testament (such as Psalm 136) which recount the mighty exploits of Yahweh. This part of the Creed is not so much a bare summary of our Lord’s life history as it is a doxological celebration of His heroic deeds. It also encapsulates what some early Fathers called “the canon of truth received by means of baptism” (thus St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. I, chapter 9). When Gnostic heresies began to proliferate and promote rival views of Christ, the Church took care to provide a summary of its teaching to guide its faithful in their understanding of Christ and His salvation, for most of the assertions in this summary were denied by one Gnostic group or another. Let us look at these assertions one after the other.
“For us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became Man.” Some groups denied the reality of Christ’s incarnation, and said that Christ only seemed (Greek dokeo) to be human, but really He had no bodily existence. This group is known to history as the “docetists,” and they held Christ’s body was essentially a phantom one. Their ideas can be found in the apocryphal Acts of John (chapter 93) which has John testify, “Sometimes when I would lay hold of [Jesus] I met with a material and solid body, and at other times again when I felt him, the substance was immaterial and as if it did not exist at all.” In this portrayal of Jesus, He left no footprints on the ground when He walked. In the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, on the cross Jesus “held His peace, as though He felt no pain.”
In the face of such nonsense, the Church affirmed that Christ did indeed have a true bodily existence. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary of Nazareth virginally conceived and brought forth a son who in His earthly life shared in all aspects of our human condition except sin (compare Hebrews 2:17). He had a body like ours that hungered, and thirsted, and grew weary, and could feel pain. He had a mind and will like ours, which could be tempted (see Hebrews 2:18, 4:15). All of this was important, because as later theologians would affirm, “whatever is not assumed and taken by Christ is not healed.” Thus Christ took on our body to heal and save our bodies; He assumed a human will in order to save and sanctify our wills. A phantom Christ could save no one but other phantoms. Therefore, He assumed the totality of our human nature and our condition to redeem it and bring it back to God.
He “was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried.” As we saw above, the Docetists were particularly keen to deny that Christ truly suffered. Quoting again from the Docetist Acts of John (chapter 97): “While He was apparently being crucified down in Jerusalem, John saw Him and talked with Him in a cave high above the city, and Jesus said to him, ‘John, to the multitude down below in Jerusalem I am being crucified, and pierced with lances and reeds, and gall and vinegar are given to Me to drink. But I am speaking to you, and you are listening to what I say’.” From the same volume, chapter 101: there Christ assures us, “Nothing of the things they will say of Me have I suffered.” Since it was through His death on the cross that Christ trampled down death, this would effectively nullify our salvation and leave us in the grip of death and sin. The Church is therefore emphatic that Christ did actually suffer crucifixion for us and truly suffered. And He not only suffered, but also endured death—proven by the fact that He was buried. His death was not a myth (like pagan myths of dying gods, like Osiris)—this could be dated by historical events: it all happened when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.
“The third day He rose again according to the Scriptures.” As Christ’s death was real, so was His resurrection from the dead. Most people in our society would accept without question that Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate. It is mentioned by the Jewish writer Josephus in his work Antiquities of the Jews, (Book 18, Chapter 3), written in the latter part of the first century. There he writes, “Upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate condemned [Jesus] to a cross.” The passage was later edited and expanded by Christian scribes, but most accept this quote is part of the original unedited core. It therefore constitutes more or less objective historical confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus about sixty years after the event itself.
Except for a few fanatical people who manage to deny that Jesus ever existed at all, pretty much everyone in secular society accepts that Jesus died on a cross. (The Muslims are the exception; they deny that Jesus was crucified.) But it is otherwise with the assertion that He rose from the dead. Though Christ’s death is uncontroversial, His resurrection is not, and faith in His bodily resurrection constitutes the great divide today between believer and unbeliever.
Note that by “resurrection” the Church means His physical resurrection and bodily transformation, and not simply a “spiritual resurrection” which would leave His bones mouldering in a Palestinian grave somewhere. Such a “spiritual resurrection” is no resurrection at all, and scarcely more than the mere survival of death by the soul that many Jews believed all people experience anyway.
The New Testament record is clear: the women disciples of Jesus visiting His tomb on the Sunday morning after His crucifixion found the tomb empty, as did the apostles when they visited it a few hours later. Three of the four Gospels record appearances and visits of Christ to His disciples, including how Christ proved the physical reality of His resurrection by letting the disciples handle Him, and by eating a piece of broiled fish for them (Luke 24:38-43).
Mentioning these appearances and visits formed a part of the original apostolic proclamation (see Acts 2:32, 5:32, 10:40-41, 13:30-31). Paul even wrote that Christ was seen by more than 500 people at one time, most of whom were still alive and could corroborate having seen Him alive (1 Cor. 15:6). Moreover, the apostles proclaimed Christ’s resurrection to the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, not far from Christ’s tomb. The Sanhedrin responded with threats, bullying, imprisonment, flogging—everything they could think of to get the apostles to shut up and to end their movement. If Jesus’ corpse still lay in the tomb, why then did the Sanhedrin not simply produce it when they wanted to silence the apostles? That would’ve ended the Christian movement then and there. Why did they not do so?—because they couldn’t. The body was not there. Christ had risen from the dead, leaving behind only the grave-clothes.
Christ “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.” Here some people feel a difficulty. The story of Christ’s Ascension is related briefly in Acts 1:9: “When [Jesus] had said this, as [the apostles] were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.” Some people reading this assume that the verse teaches that heaven is a place located spatially above the surface of the earth, straight up, and presupposes what some have called a “three-decker universe”—earth, heaven somewhere directly above the clouds, and hell directly under the earth’s surface. This is an unscientific and obviously untrue view of reality, one held today by no one. Does belief in the Ascension commit us to such an obviously fantastic view of the universe?
Well, no actually. The account in Acts 1:9 faithfully records the apostles’ experience. What it says nothing about is what this experience tells us about the intersection of heaven and earth, of how someone with bodily existence (such as the risen Christ) could transcend the limitations of the time-and-space universe to experience a higher plane of existence in the glory of God. As C.S. Lewis once wrote about people’s difficulty with the Ascension (in his essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”):
“The union of God with God and of Man with God-man [i.e. at the Ascension] can have nothing to do with space. Who told you this? What you really mean is that we can’t see how it could possibly have anything to do with it. That is a quite different proposition. When I know as I am known I shall be able to tell which parts of the story were purely symbolical and which, if any, were not; shall see how the transcendent reality either excludes and repels locality, or unimaginably it assimilates and loads it with significance. Had we not better wait?”
His final conclusion about the intersection of time and eternity at the Ascension?—“‘We know not—oh we know not.’ But then we must take our ignorance seriously.”
I am all for taking our ignorance seriously, and of therefore accepting the account of what the apostles experienced as reliable. They saw Christ ascending beyond their range of sight—and that is all. The events of Pentecost, when He poured out the Holy Spirit upon His church with miracles of tongues, and prophecy, and healing, suggest that He indeed lives and sits at the right hand of God—that is, that from a position of glory, He exercises divine authority to rule the world and to guide His Church.
The final phrase of the Christological section of the Creed reads, “He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, whose Kingdom shall have no end.” Even more than the Ascension of Christ, the second and glorious Coming defies our imagination. It is described by Christ in the apocalyptic language with which the Jewish disciples were familiar:
“The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, and He will send out His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His chosen from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Mt. 24:29-31).
St. Peter describes the same event in less classically apocalyptic terms: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10).
On that day, all will stand before God and know the total truth about themselves and their past actions. All will be judged, and receive the rewards and praise or the punishment and censure they have deserved. In this age we walk about in darkness, not knowing the motivations of others, or even fully knowing our own. After the Lord returns, the brightness of His Presence will flood the world, and in that brightness all that we have said, thought, and done will stand revealed. It will be a time of cosmic separation: the unrighteous “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Mt. 25:46).
Given the immensity of the world’s ending, it is well for us to acknowledge once again that “we know not” about the fine details and to take our ignorance seriously. What we can know is that eventually the world will end—suddenly, unexpectedly, catastrophically, and that this wretched and darkened age will give place to the joyful brightness of the Kingdom of God—“a new heaven and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
As Christians, we look forward not to a happy secular utopia, nor to a post-apocalyptic and disturbing dystopia. Rather, we look forward to a world in which God is King. History is not open-ended, but is being guided towards this particular goal. “In that day, the Lord will become King over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be the only one, and His Name the only one” (Zech. 14:9). Amen. And of that Kingdom, there will be no end.
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