The central issue of the Christian faith is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through the centuries since this pivotal event in human history, many have tried to disprove it, and others have come to faith because of it. We all know there are many factions and denominations within the Christian faith, but Christ's death on the cross and His resurrection are universally accepted by all believers as the payment for sin and the salvation of sinners. Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant, and Pentecostal all recognize without Christ's atoning death, humankind is fallen, lost, and without hope.
As the church grew, believers struggled to keep the central issues of faith sound and true to the teachings of Scripture. In an effort to clarify Biblical truth, Christian leaders assembled and formed creeds which specifically stated what The Truth was, and what it wasn't. Many of the early creeds were testimonies of Jesus' appearances after the resurrection. Several passages in the New Testament are what Bible scholars believe to be early creeds recorded by Paul. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is the most definitive of them with Philippians 2:1-11 (particularly verses 5-11) being regarded as both a hymn and possibly a creed.
Within the first century of Christendom, unsound doctrines compelled leaders like Polycarp and Irenaeus to compose statements of faith for new believers. The Apostle's Creed was the first of these creeds. Although the apostles never said or composed it, the creed was believed to contain the Truth which they taught. The Nicene Creed followed in 325 AD, reaffirming and clarifying some of the tenets of its predecessor. But a sound grasp of the Truth was important to both Jesus (Jn, 1:14; 8:31-32, 46; 14:6; 16:12-13; 17:13-19) and Paul (Rom. 1:18, 25; 1 Cor. 13:4-7; 2 Cor. 13:8; Eph. 4: 15, 20-24; 1 Tim. 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; Tit. 2:1).
One phrase in the Apostles' Creed which has caused some confusion over the years (and is not found in the oldest copies of it) is the statement concerning Jesus bodily “descending into Hell”. Not only is this contrary to Christ's own statements (Lk. 23:43), but it also misinterprets the very passage that is supposed to support it: 1 Pet. 3:19-20. In this passage the Greek word used is Tartarus which means abyss, not Gehenna, which was the word for Hell. The first copy which contains this phrase appeared in 390 AD, a good 300 years after the apostles, and not again until 650 AD. Rufinus, a monk who studied the first copy, rightly believed that the phrase was a metaphor which was added to emphasize that Jesus truly died a physical death (Hell to him was that moment where Jesus experienced separation from His Heavenly Father when the Sin of the world was placed upon Him, not that He bodily went to Hell- Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). His analysis supports the Scriptures which repeatedly emphasize that Jesus physically died on the cross (Mt. 27:50; Mk. 15:37; Lk. 23:46; Jn. 19:30-34).
But why did Jesus have to die? When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, they brought sin into the world and broke the relationship God had with His creation (Gen. 3:22-24). From that point on, in order for there to be any relation at all between God and man, sin had to be atoned for, otherwise the result of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). However, animal sacrifice was never a permanent solution (Heb. 10:1-4). Jesus' death however, not only atones for our sin (1 Jn. 4:10), it restores us to God because Christ was both human and divine (Heb. 9:11-14). In His humanity He is associated with our sin (2 Cor. 5:21), but by His deity, He conquers sin (Rom. 6:8-10). Jesus had to die to pay the penalty for sin according to God's will (Rom. 8:1-4), but His resurrection affirms that God found His sacrifice acceptable and death will no longer be able to hold on to those who profess faith in Him (Acts 2:21-24). This is not only the greatest Truth in our creeds, but the joy of Resurrection Day as well! Oh grave where is your victory? Oh death where is your sting (Hos. 13:14; 1 Cor. 15:55)?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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