Important Preface: The ultimate objective of this article is to stimulate increasing expressions of compassion by everyone – all types of Christians and others, religious or not. Deeper understanding of the development of Christian faith can serve this end, particularly among Christians (or “Jesus followers”), wherever within the sphere of specific theologies a person stands. In my view, it can be detrimental to either deny the humanly creative process of story-telling (sometimes non-factual) and persuasion, or to deny that God also had a hand in this creative process.
Does it matter to you, or to Christianity’s compassion focus, whether Jesus was raised and then physically ascended into heaven?
Frankly, it doesn’t to me, in and of itself. However, what does seem to matter as to how Christian faith affects various believers is how literally, as history and as prophetic prediction, many Christians take stories in the New Testament, particularly the Gospels and Acts. (Where it may apply, my use of “Gospels” here will include Acts.)
I say “prediction” in reference to an “end times” view of God’s Kingdom and what many consider inevitable “prophetic events” at “the end of the age” (including God’s judgment, leading into or during “the age to come” and an eventual “eternal state”).
“Thy Kingdom Come” (but when, how?)
Jesus clearly spoke a lot about the Kingdom of God, and its coming or presence (as he was speaking, there in contemporary society). A key question is whether he was casting it mainly as “to come” or mainly as “here and now”, to whatever extent people were living its principles. Without getting into details, suffice it to acknowledge there are statements with both meanings in various Gospel accounts… not so much randomly as related to a given author’s message. (It’s important that everyone, from critics to Bible readers and sermon-hearers take each Gospel book unto itself as a literary creation, with a distinct emphasis, though certain sources were shared and stories often overlap across Gospels.)
In my previous post on the Ascension, we looked at the Acts story of Jesus’ bodily ascension into heaven. Noted: it is an integral part of the larger story of the significance of Jesus, evidenced by his resurrection. That significance is not just his influence as a wise and effective teacher, but also as central in what, over many decades, became a more-and-more detailed Christian orthodoxy. Its key focus: that Jesus was more than someone expected to “restore the Kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). Much beyond that, a divine being, the Savior of the World! (Eventually, in the view of most Christians, Savior of individuals, national Israel [cf. Paul in Romans], and the entire world and planet earth, though true “universalism” was always a minority view.)
Something pretty interesting:
The claim of Jesus being visibly and bodily taken up to heaven appears not to have been part of the original stories circulated about his crucifixion and resurrection. (The strong evidence of this is complicated so I’ll only touch some on it as we go.)
Why was it not originally storied?
In essence, because most of our existing stories about Jesus were developed in several successive steps of elaboration. It’s not that there were no details to potentially pass along from things he said or did, but that those were not promptly recorded and the much-discussed “oral traditions” seem to also not have “recorded” (or memorized) much detail we can consider historically reliable.
As our earliest source (closest to Jesus’ life itself, though still a good two decades later), Paul’s letters reflect better than do the Gospels the original form of stories about Jesus. It has often been noted how Paul shows little interest in what Jesus actually did and taught or what happened to him in terms of trial, crucifixion, burial, or even resurrection. And nothing specific about when or how he arrived at the “right hand of God” (e.g., Rom. 8:34). Paul nowhere describes an “ascension” of Jesus, from physical to heavenly (or spiritual) realm.
“Marking Up” the Ascension?
Now, three of our four NT Gospels also do not mention an ascension. Mark, by common assent the earliest Gospel by roughly a decade, shows definite signs of being updated well into its circulation period. Via the amended version which became standard for a long time, Mark could be counted as having an ascension account. (I do not so count it.) What most Bibles of recent centuries contained (though many no longer do, or do with notation or in notation) is a longer, significantly different ending than that of the apparent original. In the longer ending (Mark 16:9-20) there is indeed mention, in the next-to-last verse, of Jesus being “taken up into heaven” right after visiting and commissioning the Apostles (similarly as in “The Great Commission” at the end of Matthew).
But if “original Mark”, in its likely ending of the first Gospel, did not include resurrection appearances or any form of ascension, might we not strongly suspect that such beliefs or stories had not emerged? (This was after Paul’s work, but recall that a strong case exists that he spoke of Jesus’ resurrection without implying resuscitation of his body; and did not seem to leave room for the idea of sessions of teaching given to the disciples/Apostles over a 40 day period, in bodily form.) Or if ascension stories were being told, they were not universally circulated or believed, it would surely appear.
And what of Matthew sharing no ascension story? He certainly was not reticent to appeal to miracles for faith-building, including the opening of graves and the emergence of their occupants, seen “by many” walking around Jerusalem (Matt. 27:51-53). If Jesus had been witnessed rising into the clouds by “the eleven disciples” (see Matt. 28:16-20, disciples’ commissioning passage), wouldn’t Matthew have wanted to mention that?
Regardless of reasons for other omissions, the only definite first century mention of a visible ascension is that by Luke, both in his Gospel (ascent not expressly visible here, but implied as such) and in Acts. John’s Gospel is probably several (or more) years later than Luke’s, but both were composed in the last couple decades of the century, or thereabouts. At any rate, John’s emphasis on Jesus’ identity as the pre-existing “Word” which “became flesh” (i.e., God, 1:14) is unique and a striking contrast to the other Gospels. “John” has a significant amount of different content than the other three Gospels, making several different points. One result of the “deity of Christ” emphasis may be less reason to point out explicitly that Jesus even needed assumption into heaven…. He came from there and it was part of his creation (1:3), where he, with his Father, had “many mansions” to share with his followers. Or had the writing of John perhaps preceded Luke’s Gospel? Or its author not seen the book of Luke?
The kinds of stark differences we see between John and the other Gospels is one among many indications that even within the first century, Christian groups and Jewish-Christian ones (there was a distinction) had very different beliefs and practices. This was the case even as they shared the same basic story (not consistent in details) of the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It appears to have been this “passion” story of Jesus which was the core of earliest faith… a faith situated either within Judaism (particularly in Jerusalem) or alongside it (more so the case with Paul’s church plants and those he visited in the Diaspora, well outside Israel).
Ascension per Luke: Timing and Nature of the Kingdom
So this brings us to the importance of Luke’s question, attributed to the Apostles, as to whether the raised-but-not-yet-ascended Jesus was now “going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (1:6).
Why bring this up in this context, “next to” Jesus’ ascension?
Because all the expectations among Jews about a powerful coming messiah, going back several centuries, involved his kingship and rule of a kingdom of justice and peace. But that does not, in itself, explain why stories of ascension arose in the first place.
As with most things in ancient history and in any form of religion, it’s complicated! So please allow me some oversimplification. I’ve mentioned that Passion stories, along with “Eucharist” or “The Lord’s Supper”, seem the nub from which stories expanded and gradually added details. As the faith fanned out geographically and time passed for more and more curiosity by believers (or skeptics) to be expressed, there was pressure for more details. First, a brief aside regarding the mission of Luke, who we’ve been citing.
Luke had theological and church-building purposes in “updating” Paul. He made Paul’s history fit in as harmoniously as he could with the original “Jerusalem Church” (more a Jewish messianic sect, really). Thus, he didn’t mind historically dressing up, without explaining why, Paul’s germinal development of a largely “mystical” or cosmically oriented early Christianity. Luke appears to have shared this vital motivation with Paul: Make this outgrowth of Judaism persuasive to Jews while also welcoming to Gentiles, able to spread to all the known world, and enabling the Kingdom to arrive on earth. Paul expected its arrival in his own lifetime via the appearing (often spoken of as “return”) of Jesus from heaven. He did not live to witness Jerusalem’s destruction, the center of Kingdom hopes, as Luke did. Luke was writing some 30 or more years after Paul’s last writing, and well after the Jewish disaster of 70 CE (AD).
The pressure, mentioned already, to have further information about Jesus was being evidenced in Gospel writing already by around the time of Jerusalem’s and the Temple’s destruction. This culture-and-religion-changing, devastating event must have greatly multiplied the cry for more details about Jesus’ life. The elaborations of it continued for literally centuries, growing more and more fanciful. My sense from substantial reading is that most current New Tesatment scholars believe it began even earlier than the period in which our canonical (NT) Gospels were written. These were composed as codification of earlier stories – some already in writing, and were mainly for local or regional use (copying being tedious and expensive).
In such a milieu of malleable and expanding stories, it is not surprising that a concrete and “teaching” account of Jesus leaving earth, heading to heaven, would be created. And not surprising it would be Luke, who was intent on presenting the life of Jesus and the earliest Christian Church in as “historical” and credible way as he could. Of course, he worked under a different set of traditions and standards, with different types of sources, than do modern historians or biographers. I must remind myself of this lest I be overly critical of his work, misleading and yet helpful as it is.
My strong appeal is to all types of Christians as well as critics today: Learn something about how the Gospels/Acts were constructed over a number of decades and be realistic as well as idealistic! Accept that much is imaginative story-telling… either not meant to be lessons on “reality” broadly; or perhaps thought to be, at the time, but not purposely deceptive (at least in most cases).
In Acts, Luke did a lot of spinning, but he did succeed in an important mission: provide at least an outline of what happened during the first three decades of a new faith. It was a faith which soon grew much more and became known for the care and compassion of most of its members, building off the love-forgiveness-inclusion emphasis of Jesus and Paul (among others).
So… regardless whether your form of Christian faith trusts in a future bodily appearing of Jesus (as Luke describes him leaving) or only a spiritual presence supporting believers seeking his Kingdom here and now, the effect should be similar: Compassionate action for those championed by Jesus: oneself and one’s neighbors, be they well off or destitute, one’s kind or “the other”, locally or foreign born.
In what ways do the Gospel/Acts accounts of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus impact you? Do you find more comfort and inspiration, prompting compassion; or more frustration and confusion (with compassion from other sources of inspiration)? Please share!