The formation of the Christian faith has been built on creeds, the summation of certain beliefs. Some Christians claim to have “no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible,” but this of course is a creedal statement. It is a creed against other creeds! All Christians are able to sum up their beliefs in some way or another. Every Christian has a creed and the foundational, the most ancient creed is the Apostles’ Creed. (I talk about this creed with some detail here.) The Apostles’ Creed has a mysterious beginning and there isn’t a universally-agreed-upon version of the Apostles’ Creed used by the entire church. The church did not formally agree on an exact creed until 325 AD at the First Council of Nicaea. The result was the first version of the Nicene Creed.
In 381 AD, church leaders met again and revised the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople. The creed we know today as the Nicene Creed is the 381 version. This creed is the most unifying and ecumenical of all the Christian creeds. The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and most Protestant Churches hold up the Nicene Creed as an orthodox statement of Christian belief.
These two creeds do not disagree with each other. The Nicene Creed adds theological reflection and clarification to the Apostles’ Creed. So we could call the Nicene Creed a fully developed version of the Apostles’ Creed. For example where the Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord…” the Nicene Creed says:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.
The Nicene Creed sought to give a fuller explanation of who Jesus was in relation to God the Father among other things, including explaining what “the life everlasting” means.
The Apostles’ Creed ends with: I believe….in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Nicene Creeds ends with: We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
So the “life everlasting” mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed is not going to heaven when we die. Popular opinion has been that “life everlasting” or “eternal life” (from the ever-famous John 3:16 verse says “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”) is another way of talking about an eternity spent with God in heaven. While this popular vision of heaven appeals to our desire for hope after death, “the life everlasting” we confess in the creed is NOT living forever in a disembodied heaven, but living in the life of the world to come.
Our hope is not leaving the earth and going to heaven. Rather our hope is the “world” we know as heaven is coming to earth. Certainly those who die in faith are “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 ESV), but this business of being away from the body is such a strange and awkward place in which to be. God has made us humans as whole beings comprised of a strange mixture of the dust of the earth and the breath of God. We were created to be both body and soul, both material and immaterial. We shouldn’t be too comfortable with this separation of body and soul, because we were created to be whole creatures, body and soul. To be a soul without a body is to be “naked” (2 Corinthians 5:3 ESV). Isn’t that a common nightmare? The one where you find yourself (in your dream) back in high school and you look down and you nearly naked, wearing nothing but your underwear?
While we delight to be with God after death, we are incomplete without our bodies. So we do not look forward to going to heaven forever while our bodies waste away and decay. Rather we are looking forward to the world that is to come, a world were the God of heaven dwells with humanity on a newly created earth. In this new world, we do not live a “spirit-beings.” No, we live as fully human beings, body and soul, after our physical bodies experience resurrection.
This is what I believe.
This is what the Church believes.
This is what the Church has always believed.
Here are some further reflections on the ending of the Nicene Creed from Luke Timothy Johnson:
What we “look forward to” then, is the full revelation of God’s power as creator and ruler of the world. God seeks to share the fullness of life through creation and re-creation. We do not hope simply for some kind of survival after death, as the logical consequence of heaving an “immortal soul,” or (even sadder) the perpetual repetition of moral life through reincarnation. Survival is not salvation. Persistence in mortality is not glorification….This final proposition of the creed serves as a rule of faith for the way we conduct our lives as Christians. We live as those aware that God’s work in the world is not yet finished, that the transformation of humanity itself and of creation is not yet complete, and that each of us and all of us still face judgment and resurrection.
We are talking about this very subject at Word of Life Church. Our current sermon series is entitled Hope, Heaven, and Resurrection. Check it out in our Podcast & Audio Archives or if you are in the St. Joe area, check us out on a Sunday morning at 9 or 11 AM.