The Nature of the Ascension Event

This post summarizes Chapter Six of Space, Time and Resurrection by T. F. Torrance. The post was written by Torrance scholar Tom Noble for a meeting of the Torrance Reading Group. For addtional chapter summaries, click on the chapter number: 1234, 5.

"Ascension of Christ" by Matejko
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Was Jesus' Ascension an actual, historical event, or was it a non-material, "spiritual" experience? Torrance argues that it was an objective, material event in space and time. But what is the nature of that event?

What follows is Tom Noble's summary of Torrance's thought, with questions and comments in italics. A primary point is that the Ascension, which has the same "baffling character" as the Resurrection, must be understood in correlation with the Incarnation (anabasis/katabasis).

How is the event of the Ascension related to space and time?

Lutheran reformers asserted that the divine Logos did not remain in heaven when he became incarnate on earth. This idea emerged from a receptacle view of space—whatever is ‘in’ something must be fully ‘contained’ within it (124, and see the appendix below).

  • Cp. ‘kenotic’ theories of Christ’s self-emptying in the incarnation—the emptying of the Son of God into a containing vessel. 
  • Cp. medieval doctrine of the real presence: how can the body of Christ be simultaneously in a multitude of hosts? Basically the same problem. Medieval answer: transubstantiation

Q: Is this the same problem? Does the doctrine of transubstantiation solve the problem? 

Lutheran answer: distinguish immanent and relative divine properties—the latter were relinquished in the Incarnation. But this implied the extension of the human receptacle to contain the divine – hence Christ’s human nature was ubiquitous. Finitum capax infiniti meant the extension of the human receptacle to contain the divine—hence the doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body. (125) Luther’s other answer: a mathematical point. Cp. demythologization.

Q. How is demythologization related to this?

Original Lutheran position—a real and genuine incarnation. But if the Word was resolved into Jesus without remainder (so to speak), then solutions such as kenoticism or demythologization have to be found. True, we cannot think that part of the Logos was excluded in the incarnation, but the problem is with the receptacle view of space and time. We need to say, ‘fully God and fully human,’ and therefore must substitute a relational view of space and time differentially related to God and to humankind (126).

Cp. existence. God ‘exists’ in a unique and transcendent way, but man’s existence is in space and time. With the incarnation, we have to think these together. (127)

The question arises in an acute form with the ascension from man’s place to God’s ‘place’.  A duality [N.B. not a dualism!]: the Ascension was ‘from’ Peter, James and John who were in space and time [to God who wasn’t]. But in his resurrection, Jesus had healed and redeemed our creaturely existence so that in him, ‘space and time were recreated or renewed.’  Space and time were not dissolved but confirmed. [Torrance here implies a distinction between ‘fallen’ space-time and ‘redeemed space-time.] So the Ascension must be seen in relation to space and time, while at the same time it was an ascension beyond our notions of space and time.  Calvin: an ascension beyond the heaven of heavens—God transcends these categories—to the ‘right hand of God’ means ‘where God is’. But God is everywhere (127-8).

To think of this more positively, turn back to the incarnation. Jesus Christ is the place in this physical world where God and humanity meet (cp. the temple). Now we have to think of Jesus Christ as ascended to God ‘in heaven’—the reverse of the incarnation – so that he ascends above all space and time without diminishing his physical existence. ‘Heaven’ is the place where Christ is in God: ‘In the incarnation we have the meeting of God and man in man’s place, but in the Ascension we have the meeting of God and man in God’s place’—these are not spatially related. (128-9)

Two points here to think together: 

(1) In the Ascension, Jesus ascended from man’s place to God’s place, yet he is in himself the one ‘place’ where God and man fully meet. We find this difficult because of our abstract notions of time and space. But we must think of time as time for something, and space as room for something. Space concretely considered is room for something. This is to think of time and space relationally—not abstract notions, not receptacles which [pre]exist bodies or forces, but functions of events. Modern physics—space-time is a four-dimensional continuum. We think of place and time in terms of that for which they exist.  God is beyond [created] space-time, but we speak of the ‘place’ and ‘time’ of God in terms of his own eternal life and eternal purpose in divine love: ‘Time for God himself can only be defined by the uncreated and creative life of God, and ‘place’ for God can only be defined by the communion of Persons—perichoresis (130-1). [Cp. the appended note below on Space, Time and Incarnation]

Statements regarding the Ascension are closed at man’s end and infinitely open at God’s end— Byzantine art. Statements about God or Christ must not be such as to enclose them within finite limits. Calvin: we must speak of the Ascension on the one hand in its relation to time and space as we know it on earth, but on the other hand, as transcending all that—as ascension to fill all things with himself. Two things here: (a) the Ascension is the revelation of the gap between the time of the new man and time of the old man; (b) the Ascension is the exaltation of the new man (131-3).

(2) By his ascension, Jesus Christ established man in man’s place in space and time. His withdrawal means that he insists on making contact with us not immediately in his risen humanity but first and foremost through his historical involvement with us in his incarnation and crucifixion. He sends us back to the historical Jesus as the covenanted place on earth and time. Jesus speaks as God and God speaks as Jesus. Thus the Ascension means that we cannot know God by transcending space and time – the opposite of all demythologization. All true and proper knowledge of God is mediated through the historical Jesus Christ. ‘We cannot and must not try to go behind the back of Jesus Christ to some kind of theologia gloriae reached by speculation. (133-4)

How are we to think these two aspects of the Ascension together?—only through the Spirit. Since God’s place is the place where God is, it is through the Spirit that we can think of Christ as historically absent and as actually present.

The material implications of the doctrine of the Ascension

Three points in the material implications of the doctrine:

(1) The Ascension means the exaltation of man into the life of God and on to the throne of God. The Son of Man is given to partake of divine nature (the goal of the incarnation). This does not mean the swallowing up of the human, but that human nature, remaining creaturely, is yet exalted to share in God’s life and glory. We ourselves are given a down-payment of that in the gift of the Spirit. Danger of vertigo here—mystics and pantheists who identity their own ultimate being with the divine Being (135-6).

(2) The Ascension means the establishment of the Church in history, within space and time on the historical foundation of the Apostles and Prophets. Part of this is the establishing of Holy Scripture on the apostolic tradition. Another is the development of the Church’s worship and prayer within space and time. Because of resurrection and ascension, the Church’s life and mission are essentially open structures—temporary forms which will fall away (136-7).

(3) The Ascension of Jesus Christ and his session at the right hand of the Father is the mystery of world history. Our history has been gathered up in Jesus Christ, but in his ascension—anchored within the veil by an anchor that will not drag. The theme of the Apocalypse is not a flight from history, but the invasion of history by the kingdom of God. The obverse of that is the millennium-time of the Kingdom of Christ stretching from resurrection to final advent. He who made the terrible Cross to be the supreme instrument for the salvation of mankind is by the same Cross able to make all history serve the ends of God in the new creation. Because of the Ascension, the whole of world history is to be considered in the light of the heavenly session of the Mediator. The great connecting link is prayer and intersession (137-9).

The Resurrection and the Ascension

Resurrection and Ascension have to be taken together as in Hebrews—victory over the powers of darkness, ascended humanity transfused with light yet not transmuted into pure spirit (whatever that may mean). The idea of spiritualization and transparency of resurrection body developed by Origenists—but must observe theological reserve.

Two points deserve reflection: 

(1) ‘Spiritual body’ does not mean the body being resolved into spirit, but to be more fully and truly a body. The empty tomb constitutes the essential empirical correlate in statements about the resurrection of Christ. 

(2) But a deep element of truth in the doctrine of the transparency of the new creation in Christ, its lack of all darkness. As we await the resurrection of the body, we ‘see through a glass darkly’, but it is the Holy Spirit who creates in us the capacity to discern spiritually the resurrected Christ in his actuality as the first-fruits, the First-born of every creature. As we eat the physical bread and wine consecrated in the Eucharist, these are pledges that we will be saved in our physical and creaturely being. (141-2) 

Appendix: on the receptical view of space

To supplement what is noted above, here is a summary of what Torrance says concerning the 'receptacle' view of space in Chapter Two of his companion book,"Space, Time and Incarnation." 

Torrance traces the historical development of the ‘receptacle’ or ‘container’ (hypodochē) notion of space from the Pythagoreans and Atomists through Plato and Aristotle. ‘Space is simply that in which (en hō) events occur…’ In Aristotle, the universe rotated around a point of absolute rest. The Stoics continued the distinction between space and ‘the void’, i.e. between ‘body’ which was finite and determinate and therefore capable of rational thought and infinite ‘nothingness’ which was irrational and beyond thought. The material, finite universe was held together by immanent reason (logos) = God = the soul of the cosmos. This stood closer to the biblical outlook, but bound the idea of God to a finite universe. 

In Nicene theology, the doctrine of creation out of nothing asserted the absolute priority of the transcendent God over space and time. Time is in creation, not creation in time. God cannot be thought to exist in a temporal or spatial relation to the universe. In Origen, we see the reversal of Aristotelian and Stoic concepts in connecting the transcendence of God and the rationality of nature. God ‘comprehends’ or ‘contains’ all things thus making them determinate and comprehensible. In the incarnation, he by whom all things are comprehended and contained assumed a body and made room for himself within our physical existence, yet without being contained, confined or circumscribed in place as in a vessel. Origen laid the basis for the Nicene conception of space developed by Athanasius.

For Athanasius, the essential key was found in the relation of the homoousion to the creation. The Lord Jesus Christ, who shares our creaturely existence and is of one substance with the Father, is the one by whom space and time came to be. He is the living and active Self-Word (Autologos) through whom all things visible and invisible were created out of nothing and who holds the entire universe together. He assumed his body from us yet did not cease to deploy himself actively throughout creation. Athanasius never operated with the [Platonist] separation (chōrismos) between the sensible world (kosmos aisthētos) and the intelligible world (kosmos noētos). The linking of incarnation and creation made that impossible. The relation between the incarnate Son and the Father cannot be thought out in terms of a receptacle (aggeion) notion of space, for the application of such a concept to the kenōsis can only lead to a false kenoticism which does not do justice to the ‘fullness’ or ‘perfection’ of either Father or Son. Rather their interrelation must be thought out in terms of ‘abiding’ and ‘dwelling’, that is perichōrēsis. When the Son who abides in the Father became incarnate, he became the ‘place’ (topos or locus) where God is to be found. Christ is ‘in’ us through sharing our bodily existence, but also ‘in’ the Father.

Q: What does perichōrēsis imply for the concept of space?

How are we to understand ‘in’? 

Athanasius employed the concept of paradeigmata, not ‘models’ but ‘pointers’—concepts which point beyond the creaturely, cognitive instruments given to us through divine revelation which enable us to get some mental hold on the reality revealed. The relation between the Father and the Incarnate Son bridges the separation (chōrismos) between God and man and supplies the epistemological basis for all theological concepts. The Son of God entered our human space (chōra) without leaving God’s ‘place’. The concept of space as an infinite receptacle falls away. Instead there emerges a concept of space in terms of the ontological and dynamic relations between God and the physical universe—an open-ended, differential concept, defined in accordance with the interaction between God and man, eternal and contingent happening. This means that the concept of space which we use in the Nicene Creed is one that is relatively closed on our side, but infinitely open on God’s side. This is characteristic of the concepts which we use in Christian theology. They are human and creaturely, but must be stretched and extended beyond the range of the phenomenal world. Yet they retain some genuine connection with our plain, straightforward language.

In Chapter Two of "Space, Time and Incarnation", Torrance traces the developments in the concept of space through medieval theology and Luther, specifically the container notion of space that came out of the Renaissance and was adopted by Newton. Newton spoke of space and time as an infinite receptacle identified with the infinite and eternity of God. He held quite literally that God contains and comprehends the universe in himself. This led to Newton’s Arianism since, if God himself is the Container of all things he can no more become incarnate that a box can become one of the several objects that it contains.  (39)  From this, Deism emerged. The other principal conception of space and time is the relational idea, given its supreme expression in the space-time of relativity theory by Einstein. He rejected the notion of absolute space and time in Kant and Newton. The relational view had been anticipated by Leibniz and Huygens and its early roots may be traced to Plato’s Timaeus. The Greek Fathers refused to admit the receptacle notion on the ground of the biblical teaching about God as the transcendent source of all being. In the light of creation out of nothing and the incarnation of the Creator Word, they developed a thoroughly relational conception of space and time. (58)