On the Ascension

This post, which appeared originally in 2013, is excerpted from an article by Gerrit Dawson in the March/April 2001 issue of "Theology Matters," addressing Jesus' ascension and continuing incarnation -- a timely topic with Ascension Day drawing near. 

In a time when the church is fiercely debating the uniqueness of Jesus...the ascension is an absolutely crucial part of the gospel story to recover. Through the ascension we discover that the incarnation continues. Jesus remains united to our human nature. Thus, he cannot be spiritualized into a principle of life, or collapsed into one manifestation of a God who is known many ways. Moreover, the presence of our brother Jesus in heaven dramatically affects how we see our lives and place in the world today.

Jesus Ascending to Heaven by Copley (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Story
The second article of the Apostles’ Creed is actually a narrative. In a highly condensed form, the Creed moves from the incarnation through the sojourn of Jesus Christ among us on earth to the anticipation of his return in judgment at the consummation of all things. Of the twelve verbs which follow the opening affirmation, nine are past tense, one is present and two are future. We affirm that we believe “… in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was:
  • Conceived by the Holy Ghost 
  • Born of the Virgin Mary 
  • Suffered under Pontius Pilate 
  • Was Crucified 
  • Dead (died) 
  • And Buried 
  • He Descended into hell 
  • The third day he rose again from the dead. 
  • He ascended into heaven 
  • And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty 
  • From thence he shall come 
  • To judge the quick and the dead."
We can see how important the last past tense verb is to the entire story. Dramatically, the narrative would be stuck in the past without the ascension. “The third day he rose again from the dead” and….what? If there had been no ascension, what would have happened to Jesus? Imagine if you were staging this drama. If Jesus’ new life does not continue, then he could have died again. In that case, however, death, not life, would have had the last word. The resurrection requires an ascension to be completed. There is no triumph over death if it is only of a temporary, Lazarus-like quality. Moreover, if Jesus lives but never left us, the age of the Spirit and the Church would not have begun. We would still be looking for him in the flesh, and that, obviously, is not the case.

But what kind of ascension occurred? Though we seldom think of it at all, we may have a vague notion that while Jesus rose up into the clouds before his disciples’ eyes, as recorded in Acts 1, when he got beyond their sight he slipped from the body, dissolving, as it were, into the spiritual realm. We may believe that he went up, but suspect that as soon as the audio-visual demonstration of his departure was completed, he dropped the body of flesh and went back to being the eternal Son of God. This spiritualizing is a more appealing idea than some sort of space travel to a distant heaven that is nonetheless part of the known universe.

Yet, enormous theological problems are raised by dephysicalizing Christ’s ascension. For instance, if it is the case that the Lord slipped out of the body, who, then, is sitting at the right hand of God? Is it Jesus, whose voice the disciples heard, whose touch they felt, with whom they sailed on the Sea of Galilee and shared the cup in the Upper Room? Or is it the eternal Son of God who once knew what it was like to be a man but is no longer bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh? And what effect would a bodiless Christ have on the future work affirmed in the Creed, his coming again and his judgment of the living and dead?

To put it bluntly, if Jesus did not go up as a man, he cannot come again as a man. The Judge would not be our Brother, not the one tempted in all ways as we are, not the man with the nail-scarred hands and the “rich wounds yet visible above.” He might be God in that case, but he would not be human. And we would be lost.

A Continuing Incarnation
Our redemption depends on the reality that the eternal Son of God came to us as a man. If he did not come all the way down, then we are not all the way saved. But the incarnation is the news that Jesus became what we are, fully entering our lost and forsaken condition, taking up into himself our very humanity. God crossed the gap between us and himself. He forded both the breach in our communion created by sin, and the fissure gaping with our mortal frailty and decaying form. He came to get us. He came to live on our behalf the life of faithful response to the Father required of us but beyond our capacity. Such obedience led Jesus, in our name and in our flesh, even to endure the cross, the full consequence and penalty for human sin. Even in the moment of utter dereliction, he yet committed his spirit to the Father whose love he trusted though he could not feel it. Thus, Jesus our faithful Savior is the new Adam, the re-start of the entire human race. His obedience in life and in death founded our salvation.

Likewise, our salvation depends on his continuing union with us. If the Son of God came to us where we are, but then left us, if he went away and did not take us with him, we would still be lost. In fact, we could then begin a whole new series of books entitled Left Behind, but these would not have a hopeful ending! For any view of the ascension as the slipping away from the humanity is a sentence of condemnation. If the one who sits at the right hand of God is not still fully human as well as fully God, then we will never enter within the veil. If he dropped the hypostatic union with humanity, then he dropped us, and we are left forsaken on this side of the great divide.

...To summarize, the Son of God did not come down in order to stay. Nor did he come to us in order to slum for thirty-three years before shedding our skin and returning to the splendor of heaven. The Lord Jesus Christ descended to us in order to gather us up and bring us with him to his Father in heaven. He went back still wearing our flesh, “the self-same body,” declares Knox in the Scot’s Confession, in which he had been born, lived, died and rose. In fact, the taking up of our humanity in himself is a reality which T. F. Torrance says “is a final reality enduring endlessly into eternity.”2 In no way, then, did the ascension signal simply a return to business as usual between God and humanity. Rather, the ascension of Christ is a vital hinge on which turns the work of the Mediator, the incarnate Son, our Redeemer in all his offices.

....Now let us consider four important corollaries of the ascension, reflecting particularly on the writings of the church fathers....

1) The Ascension and the Public Truth of Jesus
....The ascension, in all its glaring physicality, brings the Christian claims about Christ right into the open market of real events in space and time.

....While the patristic writers may not have shared our notions of cosmology, they generally refrained from speculations that extended beyond the simple, profound claims of the Biblical story. Thus, their conceptions of the universe never undermine the essential theological truth borne by spatial descriptions of “ascending” and “descending.” T. F. Torrance notes that the incarnation represents a coming of God from the place where God is to the place where humanity is.6 By place, however, Torrance means us to think relationally rather than spatially. He cautions us against a “receptacle” view of space as necessarily containing, or circumscribing, all of Christ. Rather, in a relational sense, God in Christ crosses the divide to enter our existence, our way of being. Then, through this union, Jesus returns, still bearing his humanity, to the place of relation described as the Father’s right hand, the “place” of honor, glory, power and dominion.

....This is by no means a new discussion. Near 400 AD, Augustine (d. 430) commented on the nature of this ascended resurrection body and the limits on human inquiry about it:

But by a spiritual body is meant one which has been made subject to spirit in such wise that it is adapted to a heavenly habitation, all frailty and every earthly blemish having been changed and converted into heavenly purity and stability....But the question as to where and in what manner the Lord’s body is in heaven, is one which it would be altogether over curious and superfluous to prosecute. Only we must believe that it is in heaven. For it pertains not to our frailty to investigate the secret things of heaven, but it does pertain to our faith to hold elevated and honorable sentiments on the subject of the dignity of the Lord’s body. 5

Yet, because a body necessarily occupies space, the spatial distinction is not merely metaphor, but a reality. There is a place where the human Jesus is.

....The ascension in the flesh, then, demands that we continue to consider the uniqueness of Jesus. He alone has gone where no human has because he is the Son of God incarnate. This same ascended Lord will return to judge the world and establish the new heavens and the new earth. It is with Jesus that the human race has to do. He is the revelation of God to us. All other knowledge of God is relativized by that appearance. God did it this way. God shows himself to be this way. We are not arrogant to insist on the uniqueness of our ascended Christ. The height of arrogance would be to suggest that this most glorious and eternally costly union of flesh with God is no more than one option for belief among many.

2) The Ascension and the Divinity of Christ
The ascension plays a key role in our understanding of the meaning of the incarnation and mighty acts of Christ Jesus. As we have seen, this story described in terms of spatial movement is a profoundly necessary stage in the enacting of our redemption. The ascension completes one act of Christ’s work and begins another. Now with the departure of Jesus from their midst, his followers immediately began work on Christology. In response to the queries of those who saw the power of the Holy Spirit among them, they had to consider, “Who is this Jesus who has been with us? Who is he that came down to be where we are and has now poured out the Spirit?” These have been the vital questions in all of the attacks on the Church through the centuries, and especially in the years leading up to and surrounding the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

....Two texts from John have historically played an important role in the link between the doctrine of the ascension and the person of Jesus Christ. Most often, the patristic writers used New Testament manuscripts closely followed by the KJV:

John 3: 13: And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.

John 6: 62: What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?

....The ascension illuminates the person and nature of Christ. Christ went up to heaven in our flesh. But Jesus said that the Son of man would be “ascending thither where He was before.” There was not flesh in heaven before the incarnate Son ascended. Yet his coming to the Father was not a new trip; it was a return. Only God could have been with God. So, when we look upon Jesus, we are seeing “God descended thence,” the fully human, fully divine one.

3) The Ascension and the Humanity of Christ
...Christ’s ascending in our flesh to heaven implies a permanent union between his divinity and his humanity in one person. The ascension informs us not only that Jesus is God, but also that he is fully human and remains so. The incarnation continues.... ...No one can ascend to heaven but the one who descended. No human being has come from heaven except the incarnate Son who has been and ever remains eternally with the Father and the Spirit. Thus, only he may ascend. So how do we ascend? By being united to him.

....By becoming what we are, he has united himself to us in the flesh. This union is so close as to be described in the Ephesian terms of the complete intimacy of marital oneness, though even that human image is but a shadow of the reality of Christ’s oneness with the Father and his oneness with us. He is the Bridegroom and the Head. The only way to God is be part of the whole Christ, who is one Christ, one person in two natures thus bringing together in himself God and man.

...The ascension inaugurates a double pledge of the future in Christ. The first we recognize from earlier on as the deposit in our flesh of the Holy Spirit, who was received from the Father by the ascended Son and then poured out on his disciples (Acts 2: 33). But Tertullian recognized that as Christ went up still wearing our flesh, he holds in himself the pledge of the resurrection bodies and eternal life in which we will partake. Ascending in the glorified skin and bones of our nature, Jesus guarantees what we will become, having secured the inheritance which is “incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (I Peter 1: 4-5 KJV). Not only does he send the Spirit as a pledge in our hearts, he bears in himself the guarantee of what we will become in union with Christ.

Our Lord desires that where he is, we will be also. So to secure our arrival, he bound us to himself by uniting our nature to himself in one person. In the ascension, we see Christ wearing our flesh, and doing so as a diadem of honor and glory upon his head. He “took from us a pledge when He went,” knowing we could never make the pledge on our own. Now it is bound forever to him in his person.

4) Spiritual Ascension
Our response to God’s grace is as linked to the ascension as the entire story of our redemption and union in Christ has been. The Fathers speak often of what we may call “spiritual ascension,” our role in ascending with Christ by willingly joining ourselves to him who has eternally joined himself to us. 

...The doctrine [of the ascension] actually establishes a theological mandate for the ministry of compassion. Because Christ retains human flesh, he raises the value of every human person. Since he has departed, he commands that we serve him here through serving the least of his brothers and sisters on earth. The continuing incarnation of Jesus in heaven demands that we neither withdraw from the world Jesus loves and has bound to himself, nor that we meld indistinguishably into it, particularly inasmuch as the world sets itself up in feigned independence from God. Rather, we remain engaged in a loving struggle for the world’s redemption.13 We live here on earth with the hope of heaven, and more, with the values, the fellowship, and even the eternal of Christ in heaven operating through us. The body of Christ lives here by the vital energies of our ascended Head who is there in heaven for us.

The ascension is an absolutely critical part of the Nicene Faith and vital to the Christian spiritual life. The One who came down also went up. Christianity is based on the history of Jesus Christ in the world of space and time. The ascension in the flesh starkly asserts a new reality: a man, in his body, went to the place where God is, to heaven. This is not mythology, but reality and on it (in concert with the crucifixion and resurrection) everything turns. A part of the life of Christ himself, the ascension is, as Jesus is, a rock against which we may stumble and thus crash into unbelief or soupy “metaphorical” Christianity, or it is a foundation stone for a vital, vibrant Christian life. Moreover, the ascension asserts the continuing incarnation of Christ which is the very basis for his union with us, the only way in which we can be saved from our sins, resurrected in body and taken to live with him in blessed communion eternally.

The ascension, then, offers the vision of our hope for the future. But still more, the ascension informs us in the present, for by it we see the relationship between the ascended Head and his Body, the firstfruits and his whole harvest. We live in him, now and forever. The ascension is a vital plank in the rule of faith, on which the weight of our sufferings and sojournings may securely rest.

For previous Surprising God posts on this topic, click hereherehere and here.