The Ascension (I)

When you study the Bible it is not just the central and more obvious statements that are important. So often it is the asides. These show us what the writers really thought and believed when, if you like, they were off their guard. Take the section from Peter's first epistle where he speaks of Christ going and preaching to "the spirits in prison". He then mentions Noah's ark and the Flood, which leads him on to say:

"this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also - not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand - with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him" (1 Pet 3.21).

Much of this is almost as obscure as the question of the "descent" to the "spirits in prison". For example, how are we to think of baptism? Christians have been divided over this question and it still continues to exercise them. But those controversial issues mustn't make us ignore the little verse tucked in at the end. We can easily overlook it.

Here is Peter talking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and says that this means he "has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand - with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him". This is just an aside, but it is of supreme significance. For if you had asked someone in the Apostolic age, "Where did Jesus go?", this is probably the answer you would have been given: "He has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God."

This is significant because it shows us how Peter viewed Jesus at the time he was writing. This was the Jesus of his present experience. It shows us what the New Testament Christians believed about Jesus even when they faced terrible problems including persecution. And what it shows is this: from all the different things that could be said about the risen Jesus, one thing stood out above the rest and of this they were sure - Jesus was exalted; he was and is over all; or as Paul put it, "he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy" (Col 1.18).

Peter's words, however, are not a studied theological statement. It is an almost unconscious remark. He can't help saying this. For this is the Jesus he knows now. He is not just the risen Christ but the ascended Christ. As an eyewitness to the Ascension, as Luke reports, he had seen something that convinced him, if he didn't know already, that Jesus was "at God's right hand - with angels, authorities, and powers in submission to him."

Peter had further experienced this on the day of Pentecost. That was when the ascended Christ released the Holy Spirit in a remarkable way for the Church. As Jesus had earlier promised, the disciples would be "clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24.49). Because this had happened Peter and the other Apostles were able to defy the hostile Jewish authorities and proclaim "in Jesus the resurrection of the dead" (Acts 4.2).

We may find this hard to understand. Peter didn't. He knew something first hand of the victory of Christ and the fact that he was King. He believed that something was now true in the universe of space and time and beyond. That is why he could give a message of hope to his readers. Maybe they were, or some were, in terrible suffering. Some were, when he was writing, being persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ. But this would only be for a short time, because, as a straightforward matter of fact, Christ was the victor and reigning and in control.

He'd personally experienced that in a dramatic way on one occasion, according to Acts, when he was freed from prison (Acts 12.3-11). True, at the very same time Herod had "James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword" (Acts 12.2). There is a mystery in suffering. It is seldom easy to understand. But what Peter would say is this: the last word is not with suffering but with Christ.

This is the message of the book of Revelation, where Jesus is portrayed not only as the "Lamb" who was sacrificed, but also the "Lamb at the throne". So the cry "of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand" is this: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise" (Rev 5.11-12).


"Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven"

It is amazing how hazy people can be over the ascension of Jesus Christ. Once I was talking to a younger person, who was very well educated. "Yes," he said, "I believe in the Ascension; but I don't believe in the resurrection of Jesus!"

Taken at its face value the New Testament seems to be relatively clear. The main evidence is in Luke and Acts.

Easter in Jerusalem had gone - that was the period of the Passover and the few days of unleavened bread. Many of the disciples who were predominantly from Galilee in the North must have returned home. The distance was short. Some weeks later it was time to visit Jerusalem again for the Festival of Pentecost, or the "feast of weeks". So back they went; and in Jerusalem they had a final encounter with the risen Jesus. He gave them a charge: this time they were to stay in Jerusalem and to wait for the coming of the promised Holy Spirit.

And then in Acts 1.9 we read this: "After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight."

Many people today find that impossible to believe. Yes, they can theoretically cope, just about, with the idea of "miracle"; and then when they have looked at the evidence, they have to admit that something happened that first Easter. But the Ascension - that is too much to be asked to believe.

John Robinson was a Bishop of Woolwich in the nineteen sixties and wrote the book Honest to God. In it he popularized the radical theology that, arguably, has lead to the loss of nerve and vitality in the Church in England. But what for us is interesting is that he begins the book with some remarks on the Ascension:

"Even such an educated man of the world as St Luke can express the conviction of Christ's ascension - the conviction that he is not merely alive but reigns in the might and right of God - in the crudest terms of being 'lifted up' into heaven, there to sit down at the right hand of the Most High."

In a similar vein C.J.Cadoux had written earlier about the body of Jesus rising "vertically off the surface of the earth" and disappearing into the sky:

"Such an occurrence is so hard to believe, that nothing save the most unimpeachable evidence could justify one in believing it ... It is much simpler and more satisfying to abandon altogether the idea of an ascension of Jesus' body and to regard the belief in such an ascension and Luke's description of it as resulting naturally from the need of explaining why the series of visions came to an end."

But, "Why," asks G.R.Beasley-Murray, another New Testament scholar, "discredit Luke's reliability at this point?"


Cosmology

We have the problem of the "three decker universe" or so we are told. Modern science has changed our understanding of the physical universe. Previously it was all right to talk of "heaven above". In those days people could cope with the Ascension. But we can't today.

Is that true? The New Testament writers needed "spatial" metaphors as much as we need them today. It is by no means certain that they were talking "primitive cosmology" when they talked about the ascension of Jesus or were implying a belief in a primitive world view.

There has been a Christian instinct never to put absolute confidence in any cosmological system or scientific theory about the nature of the physical universe. "Natural scientists and philosophers have attempted to explain 'nature'; but not one of their theories or systems has remained firm and unshaken; but each is overthrown by its successor." And this was not said at the time of the nineteenth century controversies over Science and Religion, nor even at the time of Galileo. It came from the pen of Basil of Cappodocia in the fourth century AD in his Hexaëmeron.

What is so noticeable about the New Testament is the absence of reference to the structure of the universe of space. In the Jewish intertestamental literature as indeed in Gnostic literature this often seems to be a preoccupation. In the non-biblical 2 Enoch, for example, we are given a veritable "hitch-hiker's guide to the galaxy", as Enoch goes not only through the "seven heavens" but on to the "tenth" to meet God and get his secrets; and these included the secrets of how the universe was made and formed.

But in the (biblical) Book of Revelation there is hardly any "cosmological geography". At the end of the seven letters to the churches we read this: "After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, 'Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.' At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it" (Rev 4.1-2). Heaven is "up"; but there is no "journey" there. "At once" he is there "in the Spirit". There is no flying through the various "heavens". The language of the "three decker" universe was certainly used in Revelation as elsewhere but it is figurative.

Paul spoke of being "caught up to the third heaven", the location of "Paradise", when he was describing a visionary experience (2 Cor 12.2-3). But this is not a journey to another place in a distant part of the universe; rather, in Paul, it reads like a translation to a different order of existence. By the time he is writing the "third heaven" is probably a synonym for "Paradise". That is where it was traditionally located. It was therefore a figure of speech. Indeed speculation on these cosmological questions was discouraged by Paul. People were not "to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies" - Jewish and Gnostic speculations based on the Old Testament creation story (1 Tim 1.4).

We mustn't assume that the New Testament writers were naïve in these matters - "as people of limited intelligence are fond of doing" (Tolstoy describing Vera Berg in War and Peace when she spoke of "our days" in a superior way). People have had queries and questions about the Ascension long before the rise of modern science.

Before the Reformation you can find scribal comments on early manuscripts about the problem of the Ascension. One scribe once suggested that if anyone was stupid enough to think of Christ as travelling through space, assuming a pre-Copernican view, it would take an enormous length of time for Christ even to reach the first heaven, let alone the seventh! There have been sensitive Christians aware of the issues throughout the centuries.


The meaning of the Ascension

What was the relationship between the Resurrection and the Ascension? We need to remind ourselves that the resurrection of Jesus was not a resuscitation to normal earthly life. It was the beginning of the new age, the first-fruits of that new kingdom. "The resurrection of Jesus was the emergence of eternal life in the midst of mortality." In this context some see the resurrection and "exaltation" of Jesus - his being raised to the right hand of God - as one.

Peter links the two in his Pentecost sermon: "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God" (Acts 2.32-33). Also in the early hymn that seems to lie behind Philippians 2 you have the death of Jesus followed by his exaltation, with no resurrection in between:

"being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2.8-11).

It is possible, therefore, that the early Christians saw the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus all as one. But if that is so, if they are intimately linked, is that a reason for dismissing Luke's account as really an intrusion?

Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says "No!": "The tradition in Luke concerning the Ascension as a distinct event cannot be dismissed. There is nothing incredible in an event whereby Jesus assured the disciples that the appearances were ended and that his sovereignty and his presence must henceforth be sought in new ways."

There is obviously something profound about the Ascension; it is a profound mystery. But whatever we might feel unable to say about it, it was certainly, as Luke shows us, a final event. It was the last of the appearances of Christ to his disciples. It was the signal that the end of Jesus' resurrection appearances had come. Only once after this did he appear again, and that was said to be highly irregular: "last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born" wrote Paul (1 Cor 15.8). Paul knew that this seeing the risen Christ was outside the main series of appearances.

But how did Paul know? How did he know that there was such a series? Because it was in the tradition he had received, which is much earlier than Luke's writing. But how did those early Christians, who passed on the tradition to Paul and were the source of it, know that the resurrection appearances formed a series? Because there must have been a recognizable end. They knew it was a series because the sequence had finished. It was no longer "open". But there must have been some special event that brought home to them that conviction. Luke says there was, and that event was the Ascension that occurred at Bethany on the slopes of the Mount of Olives (Luke 24.50; Acts 1.12). As John also refers to the Ascension (John 20.17), quite independently of Luke, it seems perverse not to take it seriously.

If we do, we will therefore want to say that at least it served to convince the disciples that the appearances had ended. If we are going to emphasize the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as one unity, these appearances to the disciples of Jesus in bodily form perhaps "were condescensions of the glorified Christ". But whatever they were, they had ended. Jesus Christ had returned to and remained at his Father's "right hand".


Details

In the Acts' account of the Ascension it is portrayed as a decisive and deliberate withdrawal from sight; and there was something gradual about the withdrawal. Perhaps here is the problem. It was not an immediate disappearance. It was not like the disappearance of Christ on the Emmaus Road. On that occasion we are told, "their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he disappeared from their sight" (Luke 24.31).

Modern people, if they believe at all, probably find this sort of "vanishing" more conceivable. They know the world of space and time; perhaps they can believe in the world of eternity and of the spirit at the same time. But the two are quite separate. So they find it easier to think of a sudden transition from time to eternity, with no connection and no merging of the two. It is easier to think of that than of time and eternity merging. Here is how C.S.Lewis explains it:

"Perhaps mere instantaneous vanishing would make us more comfortable, A sudden break between the perceptible and the imperceptible would worry us less than any kind of joint. But if the spectators say they saw first a short vertical movement and then a vague luminosity (that is what 'cloud' presumably means here as it certainly does in the account of the Transfiguration) and then nothing - have we any reason to object?"

The "cloud" was in the Bible a symbol often for the divine presence. In the days of Moses a "cloud" was above the tent of meeting. It was a visible sign to Israel that the glory of the Lord was there (Exodus 40.34). A "cloud" featured in the transfiguration of Jesus: "a cloud appeared and enveloped them" (Mark 9.7). And Jesus described his own return, his parousia, as a "coming in [or on the] clouds" (Mark 13.26; 14.62). That is why it is helpful to think of the transfiguration, ascension and parousia of Jesus as three successive manifestations to men and women of his divine glory.

Of course, there is a danger of pressing too far the details of an event like the Ascension. But according to Luke and Acts what happened was this: the disciples had an amazing and overwhelming experience of Christ as he decisively passed into a world beyond human conception and understanding; and those who spoke about it tried to tell the story in simple and intelligible words. They were forced to use what E.M.Blaiklock calls the "symbols of wealth, royalty and elevation."

We need not be too concerned with the alleged "three decker" theory of the universe that is said to make the account irrelevant if not fictitious. "Anyone appearing to leave the earth's surface," writes F.F.Bruce, "must appear to spectators to be ascending, and so, when the cloud enveloped the visible form of their Lord, his disciples stood 'looking steadfastly into heaven as he went.' Some of them, perhaps, remembering a previous experience, expected that the cloud would dissolve and Jesus be left with them, as on the Mount of Transfiguration."

We cannot press the details too far. But we can understand that the Ascension is speaking of a link between time and eternity. It all ties in with the empty tomb. If the tomb was empty on that first resurrection morning, as we have argued it was (see Coloured Supplement April 2003), Jesus had a resurrection body, a glorified body - a body "raised in glory" (1 Cor 15.43). It was not a crude resuscitation of a corpse. It was not the putting together of the pre-crucifixion body of Jesus. It was a transformed body. It was the body of the new age, the resurrection age. Yet it was not unrelated to the old body. It all adds up to this. Eternity is not unrelated to this world of space and time. We can't just separate time and eternity, or matter and spirit.

The incarnation spells this out. Then "the Word became flesh" (John 1.14). The Ascension tells the same story. Time and eternity are connected. This is also what Peter is concerned to say in his first epistle. He believed that the affairs of space and time can be and are affected by real ties with "heaven". The sufferings he and his friends were going through were not happening in a vacuum. They were not a piece of blind fate alone. They were certainly not out of control. For Jesus is exalted and over all.

[An extract from Where did Jesus go? by David Holloway (Marshalls, London, 1983) pp 136-145.]

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