Light for our path
Why do we say in the Apostles’Creed that Jesus “rose again” from the dead? And are the descent into hell and the resurrection listed out of sequence?
James F. Pope
The confession of faith we know as the Apostles’Creed has that name not because the apostles wrote it, but because it summarizes the teachings of the apostles. A high point of their teaching, and our faith, is Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. So, your questions are important.
“ROSE AGAIN FROM THE DEAD”
In our language the word again can be used in different ways. It can mean “once more,” “another time.” If that is the meaning of the word at this point in the creed, then we are saying that we believe Jesus rose from the dead at some point before his resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. But the Scriptures say that Jesus experienced only one resurrection from the dead.
Again can also have the meaning of “in addition.” And so, after confessing that we believe that Jesus died, we declare that, in addition, Jesus rose from the dead. In other words, his death was not the end of his life. In addition to laying down his life for our sins, Jesus took up his life again just as he had said (John 10:18). The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is absolutely vital to our salvation (1 Corinthians 15:12-22), and the creed rightly emphasizes that glorious event.
Now, on to your next question about the sequence of events.
“HE DESCENDED INTO HELL, THE THIRD DAY HE ROSE AGAIN FROM THE DEAD.”
On the surface, it looks like Jesus descended into hell before he rose from the dead. That wrong impression disappears when we consider what the Bible says about Jesus’body coming to life and his descent into hell. “Christ was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” (1 Peter 3:18-20). That section of Scripture speaks of Jesus descending into hell after his body became “alive” in the tomb. With his resurrected body Jesus entered hell to proclaim (“preach”) his victory over Satan, the evil angels, and those people who rejected the only true God during their time of grace.
Then, on the third day, Jesus “rose again from the dead.” Theologians have distinguished between Jesus’body and soul being reunited in the tomb and his appearances to people on earth with his resurrected, glorified body. The phrase from the creed that states Jesus “rose again from the dead” has in mind those appearances to people on earth.
So, perhaps it might be useful if I paraphrased this part of the creed: We profess that Jesus’body came to life in the tomb. He descended into hell to proclaim his victory over his enemies. He appeared to his followers on earth.
No matter how a man-made confession of faith like the Apostles’Creed may be worded, it does state important facts and details that comprise our faith. When it comes to the momentous events of Holy Week and Easter Sunday, we happily join the confession of Paul, Silas, and Timothy: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
James Pope also answers questions online or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 102, Number 4
Issue: April 2015
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