I believe . . . in Jesus Christ . . . who was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven . . . .
I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
The words of the creed sum up the faith with crystal clarity: Christ who was crucified rose from the dead, assuring eternal life for all who believe.
But what does "life everlasting" mean to a son watching the last labored breathing of a beloved parent, to a mother who has lost a child, to someone facing imminent death? How do contemporary Christians understand the resurrection that they celebrate on Easter?
"I think in the black community, the concept is so ingrained in our thinking that it would be inconceivable to experience the death of a loved one without some concept of the resurrection," said the Rev. John H. Ricard, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Southeast Washington.
The Roman Catholic priest, who says he officiates at "about 50 funerals a year," said that "there is some sense that no matter what may have happened in a person's life, that this life isn't all . . . . There's a general sense in the black culture that the Christian culture is a part of the culture." The concept of life after death "may have been a carryover from African religions, which Christianity has reinforced," he added.
Even among traditionally skeptical and questioning students, "there is a conviction that there is a life after death . . . that their loved ones haven't just disappeared into a hole," reported Elizabeth Platz, Lutheran chaplain at the University of Maryland.
"In the Christian faith, our God is a God of love," said the Rev. Henry Gregory, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church. He will not allow that life which has developed and flowered on earth to totally disintegrate with the failing of our physical bodies."
In an informal survey of clergy on contemporary Christians' views of their own immortality, only one failed to affirm strong belief in it. In Unitarian-Universalist churches, explained the Rev. Beverly Bumbaugh, "there is little or no emphasis on trying to peer into the unknown."
Unitarians, she explained, tend to think of immortality "by looking at ongoing life, physically in our children, and psychologically in the influence a person leaves behind."
Bumbaugh, who with her husband is copastor of Mount Vernon Unitarian Church, explained that "it is the nature of Unitarian-Universalism that people believe what they must and develop their own religious tenets . . . . We do not intend to inculcate any particular type of dogmatic teaching." She said, though, that "many Unitarian-Universalists no longer consider their church in the mainstream of Christian thought."
"I've reached the land of corn and wine
And all its riches freely mine . . . .
I look away across the sea
Where mansions are prepared forme . . . . "
The lush imagery of "Beulah Land" and other gospel hymns and literature, with their pearly gates, shining thrones and golden crowns, is not part of thoughts about life after death today, most clergy agreed. "Yes, I believe in a literal heaven," said the Rev. Samuel N. Smith of the First Nazarene Church, "but I would not contend that it has gates of pearl or streets of gold."
Several ministers cited the warning of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr against too much concern with "the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell."
What is important, said Smith, is the conviction that after death there is "continued existence in the presence of the Redeemer. I'm very suspicious of people who have concrete images of heaven, because I don't believe it's biblical. The Bible is very sparse" in describing life after death.
A "reverent agnosticism" was the attitude the Rev. Arthur McKay of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church advocated toward speculation over the precise logistics of immortality. "You are asking questions that nobody can answer, between now and the coming of Christ."
But McKay and most of the other religious leaders believe, and counsel grieving parishioners, that some form of individuality persists after death. "We don't pass on into some blob of an oversoul," he said, "and we will be able in some way to recognize people, just as the apostles recognized Jesus on the road to Emmaus."
Lutheran chaplain Platz reported that, among the students she sees, belief in a recognizable afterlife is very important. "They are very graphic about it," she said, "the idea of actually seeing a loved one and recognizing them" in the afterlife. "The young woman who has lost her child takes great comfort in the fact that the child 'will be with grandfather.' The young person who has lost a mate in a car accident--that person wants to know that they will recognize one another" after death, she said.
But the "resurrection of the body" concept leads to anxiety and problems, she acknowledged. If the loved one was disfigured or maimed at death, she said, "They will ask, 'What does that mean?' They tend to think of the mate or child as they were the last time they saw them."
"You may not know the loved one by the color of their eyes or their hair, but I believe that you will recognize them," said the Rev. Niel Jones of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church.
The resurrection of the body "is not any literal thing," he said. "It's a mystery, a divine process . . . . It's like dropping a seed into the ground and what comes up is a plant." Likewise, we are transformed in death, he said, "if you believe in God, and know Christ did come forth from the grave."
The Rev. William A. Wendt, the activist Episcopal priest who has developed a specialized ministry on death and dying, is less convinced about reunion in heaven. "A lot of folks would like to think we are reunited with our loved ones, and that's a comfort to them," he said.
But he began to have doubts, he said, when his own mother died a few years ago. He realized, he said, that "she'll be so busy looking in heaven for her mother, and she'll be so busy looking for her mother . . . . The only thing I am assured of is her continuing love. That love has been established and that relationship will never die. I still feel the presence of my mother now. Even after her death I feel it growing closer."
That sense of presence is part of the creed's promise of "life everlasting," he said, in commenting on a widow who remarked that she felt her late husband "looking down over the cloud at me" when she did something he would have disapproved of.
"It is the presence, it is not the earthly body which returns," Wendt continued. "The Bible tells us that the body becomes dust. We learn that at Ash Wednesday--'Dust thou art to dust returneth.' The last words of Lent are: 'Into thy hands I commit my spirit,' " he noted, speaking of Jesus' last prayer on the cross.
"The resurrection is the affirmation of a power which is stronger than death, more powerful than death," said the Rev. William Moreman of First Congregational United Church of Christ. "It is the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God."
"A mystery" was the most common response of clergy asked for concrete descriptions of how Christians understand the promise of eternal life. But the theological differences and attempts at explanation fall away in the face of death itself, said Columbia Baptist's Jones.
"It's amazing how real it is when you're talking to somebody at a bedside. It's like talking to a child about an ice cream cone."
For Wendt, his "whole theology" is summed up in an epitaph he found in an old graveyard. The legend, carved on the gravestone of a long-gone priest, said only: "It's All Right."