The [Apostles’] Creed is a summary of the Big Story. And like the biblical drama of redemption, the story the Creed proclaims is not just about things that happened a long time ago. Part of the story still lies in front of us, in an event in the future. And this event is so crucial to the story told that Scripture characteristically refers to it as our “hope.”
Hope is such an essential aspect of human existence that it would not be too much to say that what we hope for as our ultimate destiny is really an extension of and perhaps the clearest indicator of what we most value. Hope is not simply what we expect to happen, but what we long for, what we pray the future will be. How we see the future, the ultimate future, is the key to grasping everything else about us right now. Tell me your hope and I will know your heart, how you understand yourself, and how you relate to everything else. When we get a glimpse into where God is taking his people and the world, we begin to win an appreciation of what God considers worthy and valuable, what he loves. So when we talk about the Christian hope, we are talking about what God cares about, what he considers worthy of his concern and of the redemptive work of Christ. God's promise of the future is the Christian hope.
Amazingly, the Creed declares that the historic church’s hope is “the resurrection of the body.” I say “amazingly” because the Creed does not, as many might expect, identify heaven as the believer’s hope. When Christians talk about the point and goal of salvation, what they hope for, it is almost always going to heaven. Indeed, if we were to judge by two millennia of Christian art and hymnody, popular literature and piety, we would have to conclude that the Christian faith is fundamentally about the belief that the point of salvation is going to heaven. Yet the Creed does not say that. It declares the Christian hope as the resurrection of the body. To see what is at stake here, let's review a bit of the story behind the Creed. The world in which the Apostles’ Creed was born was deeply influenced by Platonic dualism, which, by the late third century, had been informing the worldview assumptions of the Greco-Roman world for half a millennium. Quasi-Christian sects such as Gnosticism and Marcionism, and religious philosophies such as Manichaeism and Neo-Platonism, were well known. There were some different beliefs and commitments among these groups, but if you scratched any of them they bled Platonic dualism.
Plato taught that reality is made up of two kinds of substances, two kinds of stuff—material stuff and spiritual stuff—which are always in opposition because they come from two different sources. The spiritual comes from God, the material from some lesser being. The spiritual, being from God, is good. Matter, being of more questionable origin, is less good, perhaps even evil. Human beings are caught right in the middle of this conflict between spirit and matter, between God and what is opposed to God. The tension is built right into our very beings, for we are made of the admixture of the two. The body is material, the soul spiritual. The soul, our true or highest self, is imprisoned in the lowly body, a corrupting bag of flesh. Platonists found something of a pun in the similarity of the word “body” to the word “grave” in Greek: soma, sema. The body (soma) is made for the grave (sema). The body is a tomb. Under such a philosophical regime, redemption is nothing less than the liberation of the soul from the body, the movement from the material realm of earth to the spiritual realm of heaven. That, in a nutshell, is the Platonic story. And under its influence, Christians of the post-New Testament era came to think of the created world as at best irrelevant to the life of the soul—the really real self—and at worst as that from which we must be saved.
The Creed tells a quite different story, one that was intentionally subversive of all dualistic conceptions of human beings and the world. “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” No spiritual stuff versus material stuff there, just God and stuff made by God, God and God’s stuff. There is no stuff that isn’t God’s. It’s all his stuff. And all the stuff is good…
The gospel is good news for the world. It is, after all a gospel, glad tidings, and it is good for all things. Paul punctuates this in Colossians 1:15-20. The redemptive work of Christ is for “all things,” “things on earth,” and “things in heaven.” As Anthony Hoekema notes, the promise of the resurrection in Romans 8 means that “God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the effects of man’s fall.” [The Bible and the Future, p. 275.]
We read this same gospel promise in the Old Testament.
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth. (Ps. 96:11-13)
Resurrection is not just for human beings, it is for creation as well. It will not do for us to make the gospel small, just for human souls. To do that is to say more about what we value than to act as fair brokers of the biblical story. Virtually every biblical term for redemption that we apply to human beings Scripture also applies to the creation. In his commentary on Romans 8, Calvin was not in the least reticent to use the language of resurrection for the entire created order. On verses 19-20 he said: “I understand the passage to have this meaning… No part of the universe is untouched by the longing with which everything in this world aspires to the hope of resurrection.”
The story told by the Creed and the drama of redemption preached by Paul are quite the same. The Messiah will come from heaven to earth, to rescue his people not by snatching them away from the earth but by transforming them and the world by way of resurrection. One way to summarize the entire story is this: God made it, Adam broke it, Jesus fixes it. What is “it?” All things. God’s stuff. The Creed tells that story in its declaration of the resurrection of the body. Paul tells that very same story in Romans 8.
Resurrection is the baseline for our thinking about the future. What came bursting into the first-century world was not a philosophy of world-escape—there were already plenty of those—but the proclamation that Jesus Christ has bodily risen from the grave, that his people will be raised so that they will be like him, and that the Creator promises to rid his world of all that harms and frustrates his works. Whatever we believe about life and death, if it is to be biblical belief, it must be begin with and make sense in terms of the resurrection of the body.
From a sermon preached on Romans 8:18-25 in June 2009 by the Rev Dr Michael Williams, theology professor at Covenant Seminary (St Louis, MO), “I believe… The Resurrection of the Body,” the transcript of which appeared in Presbyterion (#36/1; Spring 2010) p. 1-8.