39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.
22 The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.
Last week we talked about the part of the Apostles’ Creed which covers the birth, death, and burial of Jesus Christ. Today we’ll be talking about his resurrection. I’m reminded of the story about the Sunday School teacher who asked her young students if they knew what the word “resurrection” means? One little boy raised his hand, and when called upon said, “I don’t know what it means, but I know that if it lasts for more than four hours, you’re supposed to call a doctor!”
The part of the Creed we’re talking about today, the final part in the section about Jesus, reads: “He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.” That’s five different clauses, so let’s jump right in and look at each one:
He Descended to the Dead
In the 20th century, this was probably the most controversial statement in the Apostles’ Creed. Some churches leave it out of the creed altogether. Older English translations render it as ” He descended into Hell” and that perhaps explains the difficulty. In the popular imagination, “Hell” has long been the place reserved for those who are damned, punished, and utterly cut off from God. But that notion of Hell took a long time to develop, and was not fully developed in the earliest days of Christianity.
The original Greek text of the Creed simply says that Jesus descended into κατώτατα, which means literally, “down below.” In both ancient Jewish and ancient Greek belief systems, “down there” was where all dead people went (good and bad) primarily because that’s where you put their bodies when you buried them. The idea of two separate afterlives–a bad place “down there” and a good place “up there”–is a rather late idea, and the Apostles’ Creed is at least in part responsible for that division. More on that later.
In our scripture passage from Luke, Jesus tells the thief on the cross next to him that “today you will be with me in paradise.” Today. In other words, two entire days before Jesus rises from the grave and ascends “up” into what we often call heaven. So clearly, for Jesus, “down there” can be a paradise, a good place. Or perhaps Jesus meant that any place is a paradise compared to suffering on a Roman cross.
What I think is important to remember about this phrase–and the idea that the earliest Christians were trying to get across–is that Jesus wasn’t willing to leave anyone behind, even those who died long before he walked the earth.
On the Third Day He Rose Again
In the 21st century, this is probably the most controversial statement in the Apostles’ Creed. Maybe not for the rapidly decreasing number of people who were raised in the church, people for whom faith and belief comes naturally–but for analytically, scientifically minded skeptics (like me), this is hard. People don’t come back to life once they are dead.
Yes, I know there are plenty of anecdotal stories, near-death experiences, testimony of people who “went into the light” and came back, people who were declared “brain dead” for a few minutes or even a few hours who were then resuccitated… But as far as I know, modern medical science has no documented, verified instances of anyone who has been declared legally dead for three days coming back to life.
But this claim, that Jesus, after three days, came back to life, would not have been so extraordinary in the ancient world. In fact, Jesus would have been in pretty good company along with Osiris and Baal in ancient Egyptian texts, Melqart, Adonis, Eshmun, and Dumuzi in ancient Ugaritic texts, and Asclepius, Achilles, Memnon, Alcmene, Castor, Heracles, and Melicertes, in Greek writings.
In fact, one of the earliest Christian writers from the 2nd century, Justin Martyr, acknowledges this when he writes to his Greek opponents that “when we say … Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Zeus.” So resurrection was a thing in the ancient world, and almost a requirement if you were claiming that your hero, your teacher, was in fact a divine being. The idea that a divine being might die and stay dead would have instantly disqualified your religion from even being taken seriously, from getting a “fair hearing” as it were.
So what do we do with this belief, with the resurrection, in the 21st century? I think there are three options.
Option One: For those who have enough faith to do so, you can take it literally. I suppose that if you believe in a God who created the universe and all matter from nothing, it’s not that much of a stretch to believe that sort of being has the ability to raise someone from the dead. In any case, and despite all my personal skepticism, I don’t think I know enough about God and the laws of the universe to completely rule out this possibility. Certainly, the majority of self-professed Christians in the past centuries have embraced this approach, although not all of them.
Option Two: You can reject the resurrection as pure fantasy and fabrication–there are compelling reasons, even from a close reading of the Bible itself, to do so. And if you believe (as many Christians will tell you) that a literal belief in the resurrection is absolutely essential, a non-negotiable in order to consider yourself a Christian, then I suppose your only option at that point is to reject Christianity as well. Many, throughout the centuries, have done exactly that. But I think that’s a shame, and unnecessary. Because there’s a third option.
Option Three (what I call the “humble” approach): You can simply say, I don’t know. Maybe it really happened, maybe it didn’t, but in either case there is something important, something truly meaningful in the idea of resurrection that captured the imagination of so many people throughout the ages–clearly in many different religious traditions, not just Christianity. Certainly (beyond the shadow of any doubt) the teachings, the influence, the spirit and presence of Jesus did not die, but lived on, and I am willing to affirm that in some substantial way I cannot understand, whether literally or figuratively, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, and his story did not end on a cross, or in a tomb, in Jerusalem in the 1st century.
He Ascended Into Heaven
The Greek word for “heaven” in the Apostles’ creed is οὐρανούς. In much the same way that the word κατώτατα means, “down below” the word οὐρανούς simply means “the skies” or whatever is above us. So in our scripture passage from Mark, we read that Jesus “was taken up into heaven” or up into the skies. In the ancient world, in many different religions and cultures, the skies were the place where the gods lived (and NOT the “good place” where people go when they die…that came later). So the earliest Christians took the ascension, the “going up” quite literally–Jesus was going “up there” to the place where God lived.
But a funny thing happened on November 1st, 1783. A Frenchman, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier went 3,000 feet up into the air in the first manned hot-air balloon, ascending above the clouds. And he didn’t find God or Jesus, or anyone else up there. In 1931, Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer used a hydrogen balloon to ascend 51,000 feet–the first to reach the stratosphere. And in 1961, Russian Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first person to leave the stratosphere behind and ascend into outer space.
At this point (probably long before this point, actually) there was no option left except for Christians to interpret those directionally specific words “he ascended up” figuratively…as a metaphor.
He Is Seated at the Right Hand of the Father
At a Middle-Eastern banquet, the person seated at the right hand of the King (or the host) is the guest of honor. The clear implication here is that, once again, Jesus has a special relationship with God. In both Greek and English, the verb “seated” is in the present tense–everything up to this point about Jesus has been in the past tense. This phrase was intended to answer the question, “If Jesus rose from the dead, why isn’t he here? Where is he now?” This is also, notably, the first time Jesus gets a break in the action. He’s been going down, going up, going up even further, but now he remains. He sits. He waits. For what?
He Will Come to Judge the Living and the Dead
For the time (now in the future tense) when he will come back *down* again to “judge” the living and the dead. This is at odds with John 3:17, in which Jesus himself says that “God did NOT send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The English words “condemn” and judge” are one and the same in Greek, κρίνω. And it’s also that same word in today’s scripture passage from John 5 (just two chapters later) where Jesus says that “The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son.”
What a mess. Does God judge? Does Jesus judge? Does neither one judge? Oh, and complicating things even further, Jesus is also the one who tells his followers (in Matthew 7) to “judge not, lest you be judged!”
I think there’s an easy enough solution. In addition to “condemn” and “judge” the word κρίνω can also mean “to separate.” This makes sense. If you separate the good from the bad, that’s a kind of judgement. And if you’re in the “bad” group, that’s a condemnation. But let’s read all of these passages more closely.
First, John 3:17. “God did not send the Son into the world to separate the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Separate the world from what? If you look at the preceding verse (for God so loved the world) it’s obvious that the separation is between God and the world (or the world’s people). God did NOT send the Son into the world to separate us from God.
Next, look at John 5:22-23: The Father separates no one but has given all power of separation to the Son.” So Jesus has the power to separate, but what? or Whom?
Here we bring in the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in Jesus, who will come to separate the living and the dead. Again, separate them from what? From each other? No. From their context. From their situation. This is a rescue! Just like the descent of Jesus to the dead, this is an attempt of the early Christians to say that Jesus isn’t leaving anyone behind–living or dead–all are taken, claimed, separated from the existence they have known up to this point.
Putting it all Together
I believe in Jesus…He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
When we piece together this part of the creed, what we see is a whole lot of motion…down, up, up some more, then back down again. Past tense, present tense, future tense. What we see is God in motion. Not a distant God who silently watches, cold, unmoved, unmoving, but a God who springs into action–in time and space–to find us, to walk with us, to claim us and to prepare the way for us.
You can take that literally. You can take it figuratively. There have been faithful Christians in every century who have taken either approach. But however you take these words, my hope and prayer is that above all else you take them seriously. These are the words that unite us as Christians with those who have gone before us, with those around the world who worship with us today, and those who will come long after we are gone. When we make them our own, we are connected with those people, and like the God we revere, we become people of action–people who reach down, reach up, reach out to our neighbors to help, to claim, to love, and to prepare the way. Thanks be to God!