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The Meaning of the Ascension for Christian Scholars

By April 16, 2007 No Comments
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by Stephen T. Davis


What exactly is the Ascension of Jesus? It is a purported event, narrated only in Luke-Acts (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:1-11) but referred to or implied in very many other places in the New Testament.1 The essential claim is that the risen Jesus parted from the disciples on earth by being bodily taken up into heaven. As it says in Luke, “he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven” (Luke 24:51). And in Acts Luke writes, “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).2

The Ascension had great theological importance for the early church, especially as a marker. First, it marked the end of the forty-day period during which the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples (Acts 1:3).3Second, it marked the point just after which the Holy Spirit would be poured out in power on the church (John 7:39, Acts 2:33-34). And third, it marked the beginning of Jesus’ session at the right hand of God (Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:20-23, Colossians 3:1) and thus his location until his return to earth at the parousia (Acts 1:11).

The first point is important for understanding the resurrection of Jesus. According to Luke (Acts 1:3), the resurrection appearances of Jesus lasted for forty days. That is, after that brief period, there would be no more full-blown, bodily resurrection appearances of Jesus. The church has traditionally taken this forty-day limit to mean that all later encounters with Jesus would have to be classified as something other than full-fl edged resurrection appearances, perhaps as visions or dreams. This included, apparently, even Jesus’ appearance to the apostle Paul. Paul himself may have recognized this point–note that after listing the other appearances, he refers to himself in I Corinthians 15:8 as “one untimely born.”

Why is this point crucial? Because apart from the idea that the Ascension marked the end of actual appearances of Jesus, the Christian Church, throughout its history, would undoubtedly have had to contend with innumerable reports of appearances of the Risen One, replete with purported new revelations from him. So the Ascension of Jesus meant not just the end of the resurrection appearances of the Lord but also the end of the church’s reception of his authoritative teachings.

At this point, let me give you a brief outline of where I hope to go in this article. Having now introduced the topic, I next want to consider three objections that have been raised against belief in a real Ascension of Jesus. Having answered them, I will go on to ask what the Ascension of Jesus means or ought to mean to Christians today. I will argue that it has four crucial implications. Finally, I will ask what the Ascension of Jesus means or ought to mean for the work of Christian scholars.


In the past two hundred years or so, certain theologians seem to have been embarrassed by the New Testament tradition of the Ascension of Jesus. Some dismissed it as a vestige of a pre-critical worldview. They implied that contemporary people just cannot believe that Jesus bodily fl ew upward until he was out of sight.4

There seem to be three main difficulties. Let me discuss each in turn.

(1) Can embodied persons inhabit heaven? I suspect that some scholars were or are uncomfortable with the idea of an embodied person being received into heaven. But this objection is easily dealt with; it must simply be asked where those scholars got the idea that no embodied person can be in heaven. Paul does say, of course, that “fl esh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Corinthians 15:50). But that statement clearly means that our old weak and corrupt earthly bodies, existing as they do under the power of sin, cannot enter heaven. Our bodies must be changed, transformed, glorified into new resurrection bodies–as was Jesus’ body in his resurrection–and in them we will inherit the kingdom of God. John Calvin, along with many other theologians, was clear on this point: after the Ascension, Christ was present in heaven in his bodily condition. Calvin said, “His body was raised up above to the heavens.” 5

(2) The Ascension is pure fiction. Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar argue that at the earliest stages of the Christian movement, “resurrection and Ascension/ exaltation [were regarded] as a single event.” This entails that Jesus was taken up immediately into heaven after his resurrection and that the appearances were appearances from heaven. But–so the Seminar argues–when the appearances later began to be depicted as bodily, “it became necessary to put an end to the appearances. A bodily Jesus could not continue to roam the earth–he would have been visible to many people and would have had to die a second time.” So the whole tradition of the Ascension is a fiction invented by Luke to solve this problem.6

But two crucial factors explode the argument of the Jesus Seminar. First, it is not true that Jesus’ resurrection was first seen as non-bodily and only later, in response to apologetic needs of the church, as bodily. Despite the opinion of many revisionist biblical scholars and theologians, no one has ever located an early document, Christian writer, or Christian community, that held that Jesus was raised by God but not bodily raised by God.7 The modern notion of “spiritual resurrection,” where Jesus’ person is raised but not his body (whatever that means), is popular among twentieth-century revisionist theologians. 8 But it is, in my opinion, a twentiethcentury invention that is projected back into the New Testament.9

Second, it is true that explicit New Testament affirmations of the Ascension are found mainly in books like Luke, Acts, John, and Hebrews, which are not as early as the undisputed Pauline epistles and Mark. But the idea that Ascension is a late tradition is refuted by the fact that the notion of a descending and ascending Christ and its allied concepts like glorification and the session, if not narrated, are definitely affirmed in early New Testament writings, even some of the Christological hymns (cf. Ephesians 4:8, Philippians 2:9-11). Note also Romans 8:34: “It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God who indeed intercedes for us.”

(3) The New Testament tradition of the Ascension is naive and pre-critical. The third criticism amounts to several closely related points. For example, some scholars hold that the Ascension naïvely implies that heaven (the place where the ascending Jesus was going) has a certain location in our space-time universe and that one gets there by escaping from the earth. In addition, some scholars hold that the tradition of the Ascension proves that the New Testament writers naïvely accepted an outmoded three-story cosmos, with the earth in the middle, heaven above, and hell below. Finally, some scholars appear to hold that the picture of Jesus going up, up, and up, as if he were wearing some sort of portable James Bond-like jet pack, and finally achieving escape velocity from the earth, is, well, silly and embarrassing.

In reply, let us first admit that many people probably do find it hard to believe that Jesus ascended into heaven in the way Luke-Acts records. Especially for people who are naturalists, that does present a difficulty. Let’s define naturalist as someone who holds:

(1) The only reality is the physical universe;
(2) Everything that occurs can in principle be explained by methods similar to those used in the natural sciences; and accordingly
(3) There are no non-natural events.

A naturalist, then, is somebody who denies supernaturalism. Let’s say that a supernaturalist is someone who holds:

(1) Something else besides the physical universe exists, viz., God (who created it);
(2) Some events cannot be explained naturalistically; and
(3) Non-natural events (e.g., miracles brought about by God) sometimes occur.

Let us grant that given naturalism, the Ascension of Jesus–at least as described in the New Testament–is hard to accept.

But if one is a supernaturalist, and especially a Christian supernaturalist, one will accept the claim that God miraculously raised Jesus from the dead, as well as the claim that the Bible is reliable. For such a person, the idea that God raised Jesus into the sky does not seem so difficult to believe. This is especially true since the event is so widely attested to in the New Testament and appears not only to fit with the basic Christian scheme of salvation but to be–as I will argue later–crucial to it.

What about the primitive three-story universe that some scholars detect in the New Testament and in the Ascension story? Rudolf Bultmann, for example, in an influential passage, argues as follows:

What meaning, for instance, can we attach to such phrases in the creed as ‘descended into hell’ or ‘ascended into heaven’? We no longer believe in the three-storied universe which the creeds take for granted. The only honest way of reciting the creeds is to strip the mythological framework from the truth they enshrine–that is, assuming that they contain any truth at all, which is just the question that theology has to ask. No one who is old enough to think for himself supposes that God lives in a local heaven. There is no longer any heaven in the traditional sense of the word. The same applies to hell in the sense of a mythical underworld beneath our feet. And if this is so, the story of Christ’s descent into hell and of his Ascension into heaven is done with. 10

But I am much inclined to think that Luke and the other New Testament writers who spoke of hell below and heaven above were speaking metaphorically. The same is largely true for us today. People still loosely talk of heaven “above” and hell “below” without being committed to any sort of outmoded cosmology. Luke himself strongly implies that something other than a literal “going up to heaven” is involved here, for clouds are mentioned in his Ascension account (“a cloud took him out of their sight” [Acts 1:9]), and clouds are biblical symbols of the presence of God (Exodus 19:9, Daniel 7:13, Mark 9:7). So I think what Luke was literally saying was that Jesus was passing from the presence of the disciples into the presence of God. Many Christians identify the cloud that Luke mentions with the Shekinah, the Old Testament sign of the glory of God (Exodus 19:16, 40:34-38). We see this sign of the presence of God at the tabernacle (Numbers 9:15), at Solomon’s temple (II Chronicles 5:13), and at the transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9:7). See also Matthew 26:64, where Jesus tells the high priest, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (cf. Revelation 1:7).

Thus Thomas Torrance says, “It should not need to be said that the use of spatial language here [in Old Testament talk about God’s presence in the Holy of Holies], as well as with the Ascension, does not imply some alleged mythical ‘threestoried’ picture of the world; even in the Old Testament it is clearly recognized that ‘the heaven of heavens cannot contain God’ (I Kings 8:27, II Chronicles 2:6, 6:18; and Acts 7:48f.).”11And Thomas Oden wisely says, “It is doubtful that the language of descent and ascent in the New Testament ever really intended such a fl at, unmetaphorical, literally three-story picture, even in the first century.”12 My own view is that the New Testament story of the Ascension is independent of any particular cosmology.

Although I accept Luke’s account of the Ascension as trustworthy, I see the event primarily as a symbolic act performed for the sake of the disciples. By means of it, God showed the earliest Christians that Jesus was henceforth to be apart from them in space and time. God present with them was now to be the Holy Spirit. Obviously, God could have removed Jesus from the earth in any number of ways, but the Ascension was a way that made clear to the disciples–and to Christians who came later–what needed to be made clear. I do not believe that in the Ascension Jesus went up, kept going until he achieved escape velocity from the earth, and then kept moving until he got to heaven, as if heaven were located somewhere in space. The Ascension of Jesus was primarily a change of state rather than a change of location. Jesus changed in the Ascension from being present in the realm of space and time to being present in the realm of eternity, in the transcendent heavenly realm. I will merely add that philosophers and scientists alike, quite apart from theological considerations, have discussed models that involve passing from one space-time manifold to another, and such a concept seems to be coherent.13


Well, then, what does the Ascension of Jesus mean for Christians? What does it mean for Christians today? I will make four main points.

(1) The Ascension means that Christ is glorified and exalted. The Christian tradition that Jesus was raised by God, ascended to heaven, and presently sits at the right hand of God means (in part) that Christ’s redeeming work is ended and that he is vindicated as God’s Son (John 6:62, 17:4-11, Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 1:3, 9:11-12). As Paul knew, the very idea that the Messiah and Savior would die by the shameful method of crucifixion was unacceptable to both Jews and Greeks (I Corinthians 1:18-23). The resurrection, ascension, and session of Christ show that he is indeed our savior and the Son of God. Indeed, a real resurrection (as opposed to a resuscitation) virtually demands a real ascension; otherwise, the resurrected Jesus would still be here on earth. This would of course raise the question of where he is. In hiding, perhaps, in Paraguay? The session of Jesus shows that he, like the Father, is to be worshipped (Revelation 22:1-3). He now intercedes for us and acts as our high priest (Hebrews 4:14-16). The world is full of religious teachers, gurus, prophets, and founders of religions. In Southern California, where I live and work, they seem to proliferate geometrically. All of them claim to be able to speak authoritatively on religious matters. How do we know whom to believe? The Ascension was a graphic way for God to declare that Jesus is the one whom we should follow. It was a dramatic way for God to repeat what the voice from heaven had said at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

(2) The Ascension means the presence of the Holy Spirit. The disciples must have been puzzled and frightened when Jesus told them, “It is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7). They must have wondered how they could possibly carry on without Jesus in their presence. But when Jesus left, the “other counselor” or “Advocate” (John 16:7-15) whom he had promised soon arrived. The arrival of the Holy Spirit in power (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8) upon the church at Pentecost meant that the work of Jesus would continue and even thrive. It meant that Jesus could now be experienced and encountered spiritually at any time or place, and not just in those places and times where his body happened to be located. The body of Christ is now in heaven–although it is metaphorically still present to us as the church and in the Eucharist. But the Holy Spirit is at work in the world–inspiring, convicting, indwelling, guiding, challenging.

(3) The Ascension means that we will be exalted. The Christian idea is that in his Ascension, Christ not only went to heaven but preceded us there. He prepared the way for us, created a new pathway for us into the kingdom of God (John 14:2). The point is not that we will ascend into heaven just as he did but that we too will find ourselves, in transformed human fl esh, in the presence of God. Human nature will be exalted so that it is fit for the kingdom of God.

Heath Twichell is the author of a book called Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1992) that tells the story of the 1,500 mile gravel road that was built during World War II from Canada to Alaska by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Heath wrote the book as a tribute to his father, an Army officer who was an important leader of the project. Soon after Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, Americans realized that the United States could be invaded through Alaska and that Japanese submarines might torpedo supply ships that were sent to Alaska. So a land highway was needed. The technical difficulties were immense. There were almost no helpful maps and there were high mountains, roaring rivers, trackless swamps, and sub-zero temperatures. But in less than two years the road was completed.

The difficulties involved in Jesus paving a road for us to the presence of God were even more immense. But that is what he accomplished. Sitting at the right hand of the Father, he is our advocate (I John 2:1), high priest (Hebrews 7:23-25), and intercessor (Romans 8:34). But he is also our forerunner (Hebrews 6:20). He says to us: “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom” (Matthew 25:34).

(4) The Ascension means that we are Jesus’ witnesses. There are, I suppose innumerable ways in which God could have spread the message of his Son. God could have sent angels to preach it. God could have written the message in the sky in letters of fire. God could have caused the stones to cry out. Instead, God chose us. We are his chosen instruments. As Jesus said to the disciples just before the Ascension, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Interestingly, the movement of the church in the Book of Acts follows precisely that scenario. In chapters 1 through 7 the Christian message is preached In Jerusalem; in chapters 8 through 11:18, it is preached in Judea and Samaria, and from 11:19 until the end of the book it is preached in the wider world.

The earliest Christians were not rabbis or theologians or trained scholars. As Peter said to the crowd in Acts 2:32, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” Like somebody in court who testifies to what he has seen, the disciples were witnesses to Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection (Acts 3:15, 5:32, 10:39, 13:31, 22:15). I believe many Christians today are afraid of evangelism because they think they do not know enough. You hear excuses like “I don’t know the Bible that well,” or “I don’t have a theology degree” or “What if they ask me about predestination?” But these are lame excuses because God does not call all Christians to be scholars or pastors–what God calls us to be is witnesses. It does not take a lifetime of study of the Bible or a theology degree to tell people–like a witness in court–what you have seen Jesus do for you. That is what being a witness means.

What these four points clearly show, I believe, is that the Ascension of Jesus is a crucial and irreplaceable aspect of the Christian message.


Finally, let me turn to this question: What does the Ascension of Christ mean for the work of Christian scholars? Let me make three points.

(1) We serve the one who has ascended. I think it is very easy for academics and scholars to serve other gods besides Jesus Christ. We constantly look for the approval and respect of our colleagues at the institution where we serve and of our fellows in the guild of which we are members. We hope for a job at a better university, we hope for promotion, a higher salary, more lab space, a named chair. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of that. Christian scholars should strive to excel. But we cannot forget that we belong to Christ, and our overriding commitment is to him.

The problem is that the secular university espouses many values that are inconsistent with Christian values; we Christians in academia have to keep reminding ourselves where our real allegiance lies. Let me speak about one such value that is common and even dominant in today’s secular university. I will call itautonomy, the idea that people have the right to complete control of themselves, and that nobody else has a right to interfere. I believe that the widespread acceptance of autonomy is the main reason why religious commitment is so distasteful to so many people in our universities today. One of my books is on the various arguments for the existence of God in the history of philosophy. Once, after congratulating me on the appearance of the book, one of my colleagues off-handedly but frankly said to me, “I don’t want any of those proofs to be valid, because I want to run my own life; I don’t want there to be a God who tells me what to do.”

In fact, I think there is a certain argument against the existence of God that nobody verbalizes but I think many people live by. I call it the “Lifestyle Argument Against the Existence of God.” It is a simple argument, a two-step proof. It goes like this:

(1) I am not living and do not want to live the kind of life that God would want me to live if God existed;
(2) Therefore, God does not exist.

Of course this argument is absurdly fallacious as a piece of logic, but that does not prevent people from being influenced by it. Many people in our colleges and universities live by this argument. In fact, I believe that the most vociferous anti-Christians in academia today are people who are making lifestyle choices that they know Christianity would frown on.

So we scholars and academics must always keep in mind to whom we belong and whom we serve. We belong not to ourselves but to Christ, the one who redeemed us at the cost of his own life and ascended to be with God. As Paul says, “You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (I Corinthians 6:20). To paraphrase slightly the sublime words of the Heidelberg Catechism: My one comfort in life and in death is that “I belong, in body and in soul, in life and in death, not to myself but to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.”

(2) The Holy Spirit guides our work as well. The Holy Spirit was powerfully poured out upon the church at Pentecost, just after the Ascension. But scholars are sometimes tempted to think that the Holy Spirit is mainly for the work of ministers and missionaries. We think of our scholarly work as solitary and as due to our own efforts; we do the work and then we reap the benefit of a scholarly article or monograph. This is wrong. The Holy Spirit is our guide and power as well. He can inspire us in our work if we allow it and ask for it.

Once several years ago I was meeting in my office with one of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff workers at my campus. I confessed that I had always felt slightly guilty that I was not a better evangelist to students. He replied, “But you’ll never know how important it is to the Christian students on this campus that you are here–a professor who is willing to say openly that he is a Christian and defend it academically; they are empowered and uplifted by your presence here.”

(3) We too are his witnesses. Again, Christian scholars are tempted to think that the work of evangelism and Christian witness is the responsibility of ministers and missionaries. But that is not true. Every Christian is called to be a witness. Now it is true that being a Christian witness in academia today, especially secular academia, is difficult. Reaction to serious Christians in most places runs the gamut from total indifference to outright hostility. So many Christian professors become what we might call closet Christians. They pray, they go to church on Sunday, they believe, but their faith is a kind of secret. Their colleagues have no idea that they are Christians.

Now at secular schools I am not in favor of preaching in class or pushing Christian truth on people. And in many disciplines, religious issues rarely come up in teaching and scholarship. But I think all Christian academics should let the people with whom they interact–both students and colleagues–know where they stand. And we all occasionally find times when it is entirely appropriate to say a word on behalf of Jesus. We must never be afraid, intimidated, or dispirited. The Ascension of Jesus needs to be affirmed and proclaimed by Christians today. I believe that it really happened as described by Luke. And I believe that it is crucial to Christian faith and practice.


1 See, for example, John 3:13; 6:62; 8:14, 21; 13:3, 33, 36; 14:4-5, 28; 16:5, 10, 17, 28; 20:17; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; 4:8-10; I Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 4:14; I Peter 3:22.
2 All quotations of scripture in this essay are taken from the NRSV.
3 The notion of the forty day period is often criticized as a late invention by Luke. But note that even in I Corinthians 15:1-8, Paul makes it clear that Jesus’ resurrection appearances were limited to a definite period of time.
4 Paul Tillich, for example, says of the Ascension, “If taken literally, its spiritual symbolism would become absurd.” Similarly, he says of Christ’s session, “if taken literally, it is absurd and ridiculous.” Systematic Theology, Vol. II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1957), 162.
5The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 2.16.14.
6 Robert W. Funk, et al., The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1998), 493-494. The Seminar also argues that the two accounts of the Ascension (both written by Luke) do not agree on when it took place; in Luke 24:50-53–so they say–it occurs on Easter Sunday evening and in Acts 1:9 it occurs forty days later. But this is nonsense; in his Gospel, Luke is clearly compressing events; the English word “then” (often used in rendering 24:44, 45, 50) does not necessarily mean “immediately after,” nor does the Greek word tote (in verse 45) or the related Greek expressions in vs. 44 and 50.
7 I argued as much in my Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993). It has been much more thoroughly proven by N. T. Wright in his masterful, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).
8 See, for example, Hans Kung, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn (New York: Pocket Books, 1976), 351.
9 Of course there were many “survival of death” theories in the air in the first century, including Platonic body/soul dualism. But recent and contemporary theologians who push “spiritual resurrection,” although they never spell out precisely what they mean, are always clear that mind/body dualism is not what they mean.
10 Hans Werner Bartsch (ed.), Kerygma and Myth (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 4.
11 Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time, and Resurrection (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 110n; cf. also 126-128.
12 Thomas C. Oden, The Word of Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 508.
13 See for example Anthony Quinton, “Spaces and Times,” Philosophy 37 (April, 1962), 130-147, as well as other essays in the discussion that it generated, e.g., Keith Ward, “The Unity of Space and Time,”Philosophy 42 (January, 1967), 68-74; and Richard Swinburne, “Times,” Analysis 25, no 6 (1964-1965), 185-191.
Stephen T. Davis is the Russell K Pitzer Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. He is the author of numerous books and scores of scholarly articles.