In this session we explore the narrative of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. While reading the passage we asked: what ideas and thoughts about the belief in Jesus can you find in the imagery of this story? And what might the doctrine of the ascension be about?
Acts of the Apostles 1:1-11
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
This event is bound up with that of Pentecost (Acts 2) where the Church was founded with the receipt by the Apostles of the Holy Spirit. Jesus implies that that could not happen while he was still physically present with them, and hence his departure. Why would God prefer this?
“Since Jesus is not here as a single, fully human, fully enfleshed being this implies that our Christian faith is not compelled by God. God does not force us to believe by means of a physical presence that would, as it were quiet all our doubts. Our freely given faith is, in some sense, superior to the faith of all those who, like [Doubting] Thomas, seemed to have little choice in the matter”. – David Cunningham, Reading Is Believing: The Christian Faith Through Literature and Film
The Ascension is also bound up with the doctrine of the Second Coming of Christ as the men at the at the end -presumably angels like in some empty tomb accounts- confirm that he will return- but as an earlier verse suggests it is not for us to know when.
That Christ will return in the same way as he left needn’t mean that he’ll return by descending from a cloud (in any case, such the meteorological references are typically indicative of apocalyptic rather than literal language) but that the return will have some of the same qualities, such as being sudden. Given this, perhaps Pentecost was the prophesised event seeing as theologians understand the Church as the body of Christ? But Scripture -and theology especially- understand the presence of God at Pentecost as being that of a distinct third personage of the Divine other than Christ and the Father, the Holy Spirit.
Of course there must be a descriptive element to the story or otherwise Christ’s disappearance would be unexplained. But as the theologian William Lane Craig has pointed out, Christians need not be worried about explaining the Ascension as some anomalous occurrence stuck on the end of the Gospel story, but can accept it simply as the eventual terminus to the series of Christ’s Resurrection appearances, none of which had much permanence. The risen Christ does not go off to some unknown place in the sky (although to the Apostles that would have been a convenient way to make it appear), he simply stopped being anywhere in our spatio-temporal realm.
Many of the Fathers of the Church reflected on the notion that in Christ not only does God become man but also a man become God. In the Ascension Jesus as a human form disappears but his spirit retains its humanity and hence humanity is taken into the Holy Trinity. Our brokenness and alienation from God all now have a place within the very heart of God- separation is overcome.
Likewise with Pentecost we are raised up with Jesus as a Church in which practical care, love and a building-up of each other takes place through the receipt of the Spirit in Baptism. In short we join in the cycle of God: through the liturgical year the church performs the eternal cycle of Incarnation-Death-Resurrection-Pentecost.