Chapter 12: The Ascension-not a journey into space
“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.”
(1 Cor. 15:50)
“… the Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body until the life and the bounty of the Holy Spirit surrounded it.”
(`Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 104)
Ascension of Elijah
The crude image of the physical body of Jesus rising up from earth forty days after the Resurrection is not a very inspiring image for Christians living in the 21th century, the space age.
There is nothing unique in the Bible about the story of Jesus’ ascension as several minor prophets, for example Enoch and Elijah, were also taken bodily into heaven.
“By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him …” (Hebrews 11:5)
Elijah lived hundreds of years before Jesus. He performed many miracles that are recorded in the Bible. Just like Moses, Elijah stood in front of a great river (Jordan) and divided the waters so that he could walk through it. (2 Kings 2:8) Also, according to the Bible, Elijah did not die but he went bodily to heaven.
“… suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven …” (2 Kings 2:11)
We can conclude that this is a story to illustrate the important Jewish belief that that Elijah would return. Ascension is related to return. Without Ascension there could not be a second coming.
The Romans and the early Christians were familiar with the concept of an ascent into heaven. Several of the Roman emperors were consider to be divine and often after their death a new cult was established.
For example following the death of Augustus in 14 AD, the senator Numerius Atticus declared under oath to have witnessed the bodily ascension of the emperor [i]. . The Augustus cult was established and a temple was erected for the worship of Augustus.
Ascension and the Gospels
In the very early church there is no tradition of an Ascension of Jesus. The event of the Ascension is not a part of the original text of the Gospels with the exception of Luke who describes the exaltation (resurrection) of Jesus and ascension of Jesus as separate events.
Gospel of Mark
There is no mention of the Ascension in the Gospel of Mark. Early transcripts (see Christianity Renewed, Vol. 1) make no difference between the Resurrection and the Ascension. At the end of his Gospel the message is given by an angel: “He has risen”
Gospel of Matthew
The Ascension is not mentioned. The story ends with the promise of Jesus: “I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
Gospel of Luke
In some versions of Luke’s Gospel the following text is found: “While He blessed them, He parted from them.” Some later versions add: “and was carried up in heaven.”
Gospel of John
No Ascension is mentioned.
Book of Acts
The event of the Ascension is only mentioned in the Book of Acts, which was written also by Luke.
“Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.”
Many Bible scholars have studied this short sentence because it leaves many questions unanswered. The Bible does not tell us who witnessed the Ascension. No surprise is expressed in the Bible for such a spectacular event. There are many indications that the story has a spiritual meaning. This spiritual meaning, which is given by angels, is that Christ will return.
“And while they looked steadfastly towards heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, ‘Ye men of Galilee, this same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10–11)
Is the forty days calendar days?
No. Only the later written Acts of the Apostles mentions “forty days” between Easter and Ascension (Acts 1:3), obviously recalling the sacred biblical number of forty (Moses forty days in the wilderness, Elijah’s and Jesus’ forty days of fasting).
Luke’s gospel would play an important role in the establishment around 300 AD of the Feast of the Ascension which commemorates Jesus' ascension into heaven 40 days after his resurrection.
It was many centuries before the Ascension became a part of Christian church dogma. Only around ad 400 was the feast of the Ascension established by the church-fathers.
To gain a better understanding of the Ascension, it is important to know the spiritual meaning of heaven, and the spiritual meaning of the body of Christ.
Spiritual meaning of Heaven
In the story of the Ascension Jesus rose up into the clouds. Two thousand years later we are inclined to ask questions that are more scientific.
As the earth is part of a universe of trillions of stars and planets, and the body of Jesus kept rising, where in the universe is the body of Jesus now? Since such reasoning is absurd in the light of present knowledge it becomes clear that Heaven is not another star, billions of light years away, but that we are dealing with a spiritual reality.
Jesus tells us in the Bible that He came down from heaven.
“For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” (John 6:38)
Yet Jesus was born from the womb of Mary. The Jews at that time asked: “And they said, is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42).
When it is said that Jesus is come from heaven, this has not an outward but an inner significance; it is a spiritual, not a material reality.
“The meaning is that though, apparently, Christ was born from the womb of Mary, in reality He came from heaven …. therefore, His disappearance under the earth for three days has an inner signification and is not an outward fact. Likewise His ascension to heaven is a spiritual and not a material ascension.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Some Answered Questions, p. 103–104)
The body of Christ symbolizes the Christian church
The church is often called the body of Christ in the Bible. For example, when Paul addresses the first Christians, he said:
“Now you are the body of Christ, and members in particular.”
(1 Cor. 12:27)
Paul even said that the believers are made of the flesh and bones of Christ. “For we are members of His body, and His flesh, and of His bones.” (Eph. 5:30)
These statements show how, in the early church, the body of Jesus was often used as a symbol for the church.
The Bahá’í Writings tell us that after the Crucifixion, the apostles of Jesus were very confused; “they were like a lifeless body”. Only after the power of the Holy Spirit enabled them to realize the true station of Jesus, that Jesus was raised up[iii] or exalted by God, did the apostles start to teach.
Once the spiritual eyes of the early followers were opened to the understanding that the prophecies of the Old Testament were indeed fulfilled in Jesus, it was then that the “sect of the Nazarene” started to grow within the Jewish community and soon the church came alive. This is the meaning of the rising of the body of Christ.
The Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body; and when after three days the disciples became assured and steadfast, and began to serve the Cause of Christ, and resolved to spread the divine teachings, putting His councils into practice, and arising to serve Him, the Reality of Christ became resplendent and His bounty appeared; His religion found life; His teachings and His admonitions become evident and visible. In other words, the Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body until the life and the bounty of the Holy Spirit surrounded it.”
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Some Answered Questions, p. 104)
The Christian dilemma
After a detailed study of the Greek text, most Christian scholars (see endnote 20) came to the conclusion that there is no historical foundation for a belief that Jesus physically rose up to heaven.
When the well-known Christian scholar Hans Kuhn was asked, “How do we have to imagine the Resurrection?” he answered: “Not at all. ‘Rising up’ and ‘Resurrection’ are metaphorical, pictorial terms, as used for awakening and rising from sleep. (Professor Hans Küng, Eternal life p.10).
Hans Küng is a priest and was one of the brightest and rising stars in the church. He was professor of fundamental theology and played a major role as a theological consultant in the writing of the documents for the second Vatican council. He sincerely tried to renew Christianity from within the church but was disappointed with the official response from the church.[iv]
His research concluded that the raising up of Jesus by God, the Resurrection from death, exaltation, the sitting at the right hand of God, and the Ascension are all one and the same in the New Testament.
The Bahá’í Faith doesn’t decrease the importance of the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. For Christians and Bahá’ís alike Easter is a belief that the crucified Jesus is the One who was raised up, risen, exalted by God, and would return to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth.
When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was asked to explain is the meaning of Christ’s Ascension He replied:
“The resurrections of the Divine Manifestations are not of the body. All Their states, Their conditions, Their acts, the things They have established, Their teachings, Their expressions, Their parables and Their instructions have a spiritual and divine signification, and have no connection with material things … apparently, Christ was born from the womb of Mary, in reality He came from heaven, from the centre of the Sun of Reality, from the Divine World and the Spiritual Kingdom. And as it has become evident that Christ came from the spiritual heaven of the Divine Kingdom, therefore, His disappearance under the earth for three days has an inner signification and is not an outward fact. In the same way, His resurrection from the interior of the earth is also symbolical; it is a spiritual and divine fact, and not material; and likewise His ascension to heaven is a spiritual and not a material ascension.
“Beside these explanations, it has been established and proved by science that the visible heaven is a limitless area, void and empty, where innumerable stars and planets revolve….as, for example, this subject of the ascension of Christ with an elemental body to the visible heaven is contrary to the science of mathematics. But when the truth of this subject becomes clear, and the symbol is explained, science in no way contradicts it; but, on the contrary, science and the intelligence affirm it.”
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Some Answered Questions, p. 103–5)
[i]) Roman historian Suetonius in his biography of Augustus called Vita Divi Augusti p.100. Ascension was often connection with great figures of antiquity such as Hercules, Empedocles, Romulus, Alexander the Great, Apolonius of Tyana and many others.
[ii]) As we explained earlier, the term “risen” meant for Jews, that Jesus, the Messiah was returned to God. All other souls, good or bad, suffered in the underworld of the ‘Sheol’ until the day of Judgement when they would receive their body back. (See Chapter 4, Spiritual meaning of heaven and hell.)
[iii]) Paul even says that all of us were ‘dead in sins’ but we were ‘all made alive again in Christ’. “And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly palaces in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6) This means that in a spiritual sense the resurrection and ascension happen to everybody who believes and follows the Messenger of God.
[iv]) “Professor Hans Küng, in his writings, has departed from the integral truth of Catholic faith, and therefore he can no longer be considered a Catholic theologian nor function as such in a teaching role." Declaration on Hans Küng promulgated by Pope John Paul II, 18 December, 1979.
Christianity Renewed was written by Marc and Helen Vloeberghs when Marc was a senior lecturer at the University of Technology, Lae, Papua New Guinea.
The books were written as a result of an ongoing dialogue with his students who were Christians sincerely seeking answers.
It was Dr. Peter Khan, at the opening of the Temple in India, who encouraged the authors to make a world edition.
Due to the success of the books which were reprinted more than fifteen times, Marc and Helen were invited to give workshops in many countries, China, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Philippines, South Africa, Zambia, Israel, England, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Fiji, Tuvalu and Tonga.
From these workshops the books were revised to reflect a worldwide perspective and are now distributed by the BPT of India under the pen-name Maxwell Alexander (the names of their two sons to whom they are dedicated).
More information is available on their website: