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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Ascension (2)

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ASCENSION.—The Ascension is the name applied to that event in which the Risen Christ finally parted from His disciples and passed into the heavens. The traditional view is based on the passage Acts 1:1-12, supported by Mark 16:19, Luke 24:49-51 (which narrate the event), John 6:62; John 20:17 (which look forward to it), Ephesians 4:8-10, 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:22, Hebrews 4:14 (which imply it). To the foregoing list many would add references of Christ to His departure (from the context not identifiable with His death), Matthew 9:15; Matthew 26:11; Matthew 26:29; Matthew 26:64, John 7:33; John 7:14-16; and allusions in Acts, Epistles, Revelation, to Christ being ‘seated at the right hand of God’ (Acts 2:33; Acts 3:21; Acts 5:31; Acts 7:56; Acts 13:36-37, Philippians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 12:2, Revelation 1:13; Revelation 5:6 etc.). The details are drawn from Acts 1 : the scene, the Mt. of Olives; the time, forty days after the Resurrection; the occasion, a conversation concerning the Kingdom; the act of parting in being taken up; the vanishing in a cloud; the vision of two men in white apparel and their announcement of His coming again: all indicating a bodily disappearance by an upward movement into the sky.

The bodily Ascension is vindicated as possible, as necessary, and as adequately evidenced.

1. Possibility.—The wonderfulness of the event is not denied, but its acceptance is urged by a varied appeal. Sometimes the reference is to the Divine power operating in the fulfilment of the Divine purpose of salvation. The Ascension is then regarded as part and parcel of the redemptive scheme, and not more wonderful than the other redemptive facts, e.g. Incarnation, Resurrection, etc. Or the reference is to our ignorance of the physical universe and its constitution. ‘Miraculous Christianity’ does not ‘imply an anti-scientific view of the world’ (cf. Goldwin Smith, Guesses at the Riddle of Existence, p. 165). There is a vast uncomprehended region in nature not yet within the sweep of human faculties, which Science has not fathomed and to whose existence she has become recently profoundly sensitive. The world, as science interprets its phenomena, is not the complete world which may hold potentialities permissive of such an event as the Ascension. Or, again, the reference may be to our ignorance of the nature of the ascending body. Grant the cogency of the scientific objection to a body having gravity and normal dimensions rising in upward flight to a distance, is it certain that such was the body of Christ? There are hints which furnish the opposite suggestion. The only sure statement that may be affirmed with regard to it is that it was the same, yet not the same, as the pre-Resurrection body: it was a body which issued from the sepulchre with identity complete, yet physically changed, existing under new conditions of which we have only the faintest apprehension. Physically, the Ascension meant a complete change of conditions, the passing into a mode of existence having no longer direct physical relations with our ordinary experience, whither we cannot follow by the exercise of our sensitive intelligence, and which in our lack of material for comparison we cannot even imaginatively picture. The conjecture, further, is hazarded that if the process of spiritualizing the body was at the time of the Ascension so complete as to render it invisible to ordinary sense, the process of preparing the spiritual perception of the disciples was by that time also complete, so that what was hidden from others was manifested to them. Recent research also into psychical activities, both conscious and sub-conscious, has brought the question into renewed prominence especially among scientific men, and that in no spirit of hostility to the traditional view.

2. Necessity.—The necessity of the Ascension is obvious. It was at once the natural consequence of all that preceded and the only sufficient cause of the marvellous experiences that followed. The risen state and the forty days demanded its occurrence. Apart from any explicit teaching on the subject during those days, the situation of itself must have provoked reflection and pointed to an exit from earthly scenes not by way of mortal dissolution but rather of glorification. The interval is clearly transitory. The relationship between Jesus and the disciples evinces a certain reserve on His side, a certain surprise and perplexity on theirs. It partakes in all the mystery that hangs over the world of spirits in general, as well as in that pertaining specially to the borderland of that world, the region where thought and matter meet. His appearances are only occasional. His movements are mysterious. His life is not of the bodily order. Whether the theory of progressive spiritualizing be tenable or not,—the conception is very obscure,—the facts of physical transformation and spiritual enhancement are indubitable. The disciples are convinced by the empty tomb and the apparitional body that He had not seen corruption in the grave, yet do not always recognize Him as He appears. He is no longer of them. Their mind must have been challenged again and again to inquire, What next? It was neither fitting that He should die again, nor that He should remain on the earth in His then state: death He had already sounded and survived, while for His departure He had aforetime prepared them. Further, His Person claimed it. His self-consciousness during the earthly ministry, and the teaching it prompted; the definite impression of these on the minds of the disciples leading to the expectation of further developments of His Being; as well as the most distinct intimations of the preparatory character of His present activity, the specialty of His saving mission, the uniqueness of His relation to the Father and heaven,—all combined in an impressive witness to the assurance that not this world but the heavenly life was His proper and rightful sphere, and that until He had attained to it He was not in possession of His own, the glory He had with the Father before the world was, which was as yet for the most part hid, revealing itself only in hints, and which He was bound to reassume, accentuated, so to speak, with all that virtue He had won in His human nature for bestowal on men. In His human life He had been the subject of development in time,—a development, it is true, not from evil or imperfection to the good and perfect, but from strength to strength, involving living growth, a process presumably capable of reaching its end. Underlying that process lay His Divine Being, in its inherent power incapable of growth, no attainment but original endowment. The return to the Father in the Ascension-act marked the perfection of the human process in harmonious realization within the Divine powers of His Person.

Still further, the work of Christ remained incomplete without the Ascension. It has been objected against His teaching that it is incomplete as a system and incoherent in its details. There is ground for the complaint. His ministry bears traces throughout of its preparatory character. His teaching is at times parabolic, His acts often typical, His method as much an effort to create a new power of insight as to offer a new sum of truths. He holds out hopes of a more immediate personal, if spiritual, direction, under the force of which a richer fulness of His truth shall be gained. He anticipates future acts of His work which are not simply symbolic of His utterances, but necessary to their interpretation. A future is always with Him: separate from the present in its conditions and gifts and in the nature of His agency, so separate as justly to be entitled to the name of a new ‘dispensation.’ The Ascension marks the transition. It has no substantial independence. It closes the public ministry; it opens the continuation of that ministry in the new age of the Spirit. It announces that the great human facts necessary to redemption are finished, and that the results are henceforth to be increasingly realized. His saving energies are consummated in His incarnate and glorified Personality: the departure is necessitated that they may not remain a legacy of dead and inoperative information. For this reason the Ascension, as the passing into exaltation, stands at the beginning of the fresh spiritual experiences of the Apostolic age. It explains the extraordinary change in the mind of the Apostles. They felt an intense conviction. Because there had been no loss, their conception of Christ has been cleared, His exaltation seen, His perpetual action promised. Under the new light they proceed to organize the momentous work of the Church. On precisely the same basis they instruct their hearers and develop their doctrine. The centre of the missionary discourses is the Exalted Christ; intimate communion with Him exalted is normative to their thought. That truth fills up their entire consciousness and crushes out every other thought. It forms the firm foundation on which their whole life and mind are built up. They are witnesses to one great fact. The NT documents set forth much in the way of new truths and new ethics, but their distinctive testimony is to a new intense experience, which has altered the entire character of those who share it. That experience is everywhere traced in direct derivation from Christ glorified.

But the Christ glorified is the Jesus of history. The new experience is related to the acts of His life in a vital way. A distinction may be drawn between them, but only as two aspects of one reality, not as two terms, the one of which may be regarded as the mythic symbol of the other. Both terms must be safeguarded. Hence, if the Lord now glorified was once within the conditions of human experience, cognoscible to human faculties, and has passed from them, the question cannot be silenced, How did He pass? The essential point is His passage out of those earthly conditions of life within which He had hitherto been known. Must not such passing have been visible? The bodily Ascension is the answer.

3. Historicity.—The evidence for the Ascension is direct and indirect. (a) The direct witness is meagre. There is but one description that may serve as a basis of fact, viz. the narrative in Acts 1:1-12. The other passages (Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51) are under the highest critical suspicion as being not original to their texts. They suffer, moreover, under two further disadvantages: their vagueness, their summary character. They appear to give results, being less accounts of detail than confessions of faith. Their value is similar in character to that of the Epistles; they testify to the existence of a widespread crystallized tradition in the first century. Does the record in Acts 1:1-12 give more? It belongs to the less authentic of the sources of the author. If the author be St. Luke, he cannot be reckoned an eye-witness; but he may furnish the information of an eye-witness. The narrative bears every trace of careful statement and of non-reflective features. Even if indications of idealization of the past occur in this first part of the book elsewhere, there are none here; the phrasing is simple and matter of fact; there is no sentiment, nor sorrow: only a glad vision evoking worship, challenging thought, inspiring courage. The discrepancies between this account and that in Lk. are probably superficial. Bethany lay on the further or eastern slope of the Mt. of Olives, about a mile down from the summit. The road from Jerusalem passed along over the lower wooded ridges, on one of which in all likelihood, just above the village (ἕως πρός) over against it, the Ascension took place. There was another route leading nearer the summit, on which later tradition sought the site and erected a church. Neither Acts nor Lk. means to give an exact spot. The fragmentariness of the narrative has created difficulty. Several considerations are adduced in reply. For one thing, the Ascension is plainly regarded as belonging to the Resurrection appearances, viz. as the appearance in which Christ’s final vanishing took place, and notable simply on that ground. For another, it is pointed out that the NT writers take a view of history which does not correspond to modern requirements. They write not to prove truths denied, but to illustrate truths accepted. They do not seek to prove the occurrence of events or to escape ‘discrepancies’; they seek rather to emphasize the significance of events. And to the significance of the Ascension there is abundant reference. A suggestion, again, of great interest as justifying the sparse particulars given in the Gospels, is that a sort of convention forbade the introduction of the theme into a narrative of Christ’s life, the Resurrection being regarded as the culminating point of His earthly existence.

(b) The indirect evidence is remarkably strong. Both in the two Gospels which do not record the event and in the Epistles and discourses of Acts as well as in the visions of the Apocalypse it is implied. We thus have reference to the belief in sources for the greater part earlier than the Gospels. St. Matthew represents Christ as foretelling it (Matthew 26:64); St. John puts similar foreshadowings into His mouth (John 6:62; John 13:3; John 13:33; John 14:28; John 16:5; John 16:10; John 16:17; John 16:28); St. Paul and St. Peter habitually assume it as a fact (Acts 2:33; Acts 3:21; Acts 5:31; Acts 13:30-37, Ephesians 4:8-10, Philippians 1:23; Philippians 2:9; Philippians 3:20, Colossians 3:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16, 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:22); St. Stephen declares the same (Acts 7:55-56). The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is equally explicit (Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 4:14; Hebrews 6:19-20; Hebrews 7:26; Hebrews 9:24; Hebrews 10:12-13; Hebrews 12:2). In the Apocalypse many passages corroborate (Revelation 1:13; Revelation 5:6; Revelation 14:14; Revelation 19:11-16; Revelation 22:1). The conviction of His Ascension fills the mind of the Apostolic age. It is nowhere insisted upon or proved, it is assumed as a fact among the other facts of Christ’s life, as consistent with them, and as real. There is no suggestion that it is an idea less historical than the other features described.

4. Modern departures from the traditional view.—Within recent years the traditional view of the Ascension has been vigorously contested in various interests. From the side of naturalistic theory the idea of corporeal ascension has been assailed as absurd. Different rationalistic tendencies have scouted the event as delusion (classical representatives are Renan in France; Strauss in Germany; Baur, Schenkel), or myth, whose growth was natural from the presence of contributory elements in the intellectual and religious atmosphere of the age which were not only not inharmonious with such an idea and event, but even rendered it necessary (cf. Keim, M. Arnold, ‘Supernatural Religion,’ etc.). Even the necessities of a true spiritual experience have been urged against it by at least one considerable school (viz. that of Ritschl), which has vastly enriched present-day theological movements by a singularly impressive attempt to interpret the Christian facts through analysis of the ethical experience of the Christian personality, since such experience, it is maintained, best grows and is best explained by communion with the Exalted Christ, conceived not as ‘reaching down within the realm of our earthly experience,’ but as ‘otherwise than we see Him in the mirror of history’ (Herrmann, Communion of the Christian with God, Bks. ii., iii.),—a conception to which the Evangelical record as it stands is not adequate. In association with those attempts the relevant textual evidence has been painstakingly sifted and found insufficient (as, e.g., latest by Schmiedel in his Encyc. Bibl. article on ‘Resurrection and Ascension Narratives’). The departures from the traditional view here referred to are better dealt with under Resurrection. Here we may point merely to two considerations. First, the whole controversy between orthodox and liberal thought as to the miraculous features in the history of Christ’s life has entered on a new phase. A separation is being made between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Christ of faith’ identified by ecclesiastical dogma. It is admitted that what we have in the Gospel narratives was written after the identification was practically complete. The ‘Jesus of history,’ therefore, can be resuscitated only by going behind even the oldest historical sources; where, the presumption is, it will be found that the miraculous incidents disappear. The various sources whence the ‘myth of Christ’ is derivable are inquired into; the ignorance of the times, the manifest prejudices of His biographers, and the natural tendency in Oriental minds to expand fact into fable.* [Note: Cf. Browning, Christmas Eve, xv.]

The hypotheses of fraud, or delusion, or vision, previously entertained, are discarded and ‘the intellectual atmosphere of the age’ substituted. In particular, in the matter of the Ascension emphasis is laid on (a) current Jewish ideas concerning the departure of great men of God; (b) alleged similar ideas in ethnic religions; (c) contemporary apotheosis of the Roman emperors; (d) the natural working of the human mind, venerating a great name, to idealize the life and invest its close with marvel—as all contributory to the belief. Such analogies are pressed with ingenuity. It may be rejoined, however, that in reality they are not in point. Prevailing mental conceptions do not seem even to have favoured the acceptance of the doctrine, not to speak of having originated it. The narratives give the consistent impression of its novelty. It appears as not native, but alien to the disciples’ thought. Comparison with the assumption of Enoch and of Moses or the translation of Elijah, or with the deification of the Imperial representative, or with the Buddha-legend, only serves to demonstrate its striking originality, It has a character, place, and use that cannot be assigned to these. It is not in the same plane or in the same department of thought. It possesses an inevitableness, a conscious connexion with previous conditions, a naturalness as another and new aspect of Jesus’ life yet continuous with and necessarily complementary to it, which they all alike lack. It lacks their formality, spectacular effect, incoherence with real life. The motives, moreover, which prompted the Senate to give each successive emperor a place among the gods, or the Hindu devotee to regard his hero as divine, are easy to trace: in the former instance political; in the latter, religious indeed, but too naïve for the Jew, who had no natural tendency to deify—such a tendency has not been proved, it is incompatible with the exclusive and stubborn monotheism of the race. The belief enshrines in simple and reticent phrase the reception by the disciples of a new fact of His Person, which brings new light and adds new mystery, yet for which they had been prepared.

Secondly, the attempt to separate the Christian facts from Christian experience is not well based. We may rejoice to witness that the life of faith now is the being in Christ in a richer sense than the being with Him before He ascended. The acknowledgment, however, neither disproves the necessity for His life before the Ascension, nor proves the necessity to visualize it after the Ascension. The increase of faith may not, indeed, come by a mere ‘return to Jesus’ as He was known before His death; but how can He as ascended be fruitfully contemplated by ignoring His earthly existence? Then, again, wherein lay the need for the disciples to give outward form to their emotions more than for us now? The narratives they have given us, it is averred, are due to their spiritual imagination embodying in mythic form their spiritual experience. The disciple lives by faith and not by sight, it is argued, hence Christian experience must dispense with outward events.* [Note: The references in the foregoing section are to the school of Ritschl on the one hand (cf. Herrmann, Communion with God, etc.), and to such theistic theologians as Martineau and Estlin Carpenter (cf. the former’s Seat of Authority, also sermon on ‘Ascension’ in vol. entitled National Duties; and the latter’s The First Three Gospels.]

There is in both statements a gross exaggeration. The full glory of Christ’s Person is, of course, immeasurable: no vision or bodily appearance can possibly exhibit it except in faint traces. Is the vision therefore useless? The contrary is the very principle of the Incarnation; God revealing Himself in personal, eventful form. ‘The Christian facts underlie Christian faith, and make it progressively effective’ (Westcott, ‘Work,’ 2). And this because they manifest the Person of Christ, by them His Person is brought within the range of our experience; they are the channel of His communicating His power to us. The facts and the faith are vitally related. They form one reality. They are distinguishable as aspects of that reality, but not to be separated. In explaining the reality it is not legitimate to make the distinction and then proceed to reject one of its terms, resolving, as may happen, on the one hand, the experience into an aftermath of the event; or, on the other, the event into a vivid picture of the experience. In both cases the witness is invalidated by imagination. The second of those tendencies is aggressively in vogue. If carried to its logical issue, it must eviscerate the Ascension-experience of Christ of all objective substance, and expunge the narrative from the gospel. But to do this is to create a lacuna in the facts which will prove intolerable.

On the whole, the new method of psychological analysis of the primitive Church consciousness has brought no new danger. In at least three respects it is beneficial: it has given the coup de grace to earlier negations (cf. Schmiedel in above cited article); it has withdrawn attention from the details to the belief itself as the heart of the question, as the better mind of the Church insists; it has broadened the range of points to be considered, opening the door for a class familiar to traditionalists but hitherto excluded by advanced critical investigation.

5. General consequences for Christian faith.—Belief in Christ’s Ascension involves several general consequences of an interesting kind. From the earliest time it was seen, e.g., to be a type of the ascension of all believers. If Heaven is His true abode, it is also theirs; and this as the natural goal of human nature, the end continuous with the beginnings of human life on earth. For Christ, His Ascension was the assumption of His own proper life, the orderly passing into its full exercise and enjoyment; for the Christian, it is the orderly completion of his life recreated in Christ. It is not simply the ideal to be set before his natural life here, and to be realized by modification or development hereafter. The earthly life is renewed by being incorporated into Christ, through whose Spirit a new power enters into it; he is a ‘new creature.’ But the new creation is his own proper life, to live below it is to degrade his nature. The renewed earthly nature is already begun to be taken into God; like Christ, believers are ascending even here. To this process the ascension is but the natural close. As such it is at once the entering into the heavenly inheritance of blessing and the entering upon the triumph of them that endure.

Again, the Ascension of Christ assures and develops the desire for immortality. It has greatly quickened interest in the hope of life after death, and encouraged the conviction that it will be justified by the event. There are ‘natural intimations of immortality.’ There is a practically universal remonstrance of the human heart against the grave. The highest knowledge of this world has always been optimistic of reaching a world of solved problems and of realized ideals. The latest gift of science to mankind is the gospel of hope which is contained in the doctrine of evolution, ‘man is not man as yet, but in completed man begins anew, a tendency to God’ (Ascent through Christ, iii. 3). But of all this there never has been real certainty. The hope is but a longing and an inference at the best. Did Christ actually ascend? The conviction that He did has for centuries been rooted in Christian minds, and has reacted on the general hope. It has assured them that the spirit in man is more powerful than death; it has furnished the proof, as it is the illustration, of man’s final destiny. That conviction, be it observed, is not an inference from the general hope. It is a fruit of fellowship with Christ. It is a religious experience: the experience, viz., of men who, united to Christ, share in the power of His Spirit, and by that power enter upon endless life. Further, Christ’s Ascension offers a suggestion of important possibilities for the bodily nature. There is to be ‘a redemption of our body’ (Romans 8:23); there is ‘an image of the heavenly’ (1 Corinthians 15:49) we must bear; a ‘spiritual body’ (1 Corinthians 15:44), the ‘body of glory’ (Philippians 3:21), that will be raised; ‘our mortal bodies’ are to be ‘quickened’ (Romans 8:11). The future life is not to be one of pure spirit: it is to be ‘clothed upon’ (2 Corinthians 5:2). In no respect did Christ assume fundamental divergence between His nature and human nature. The Apostolic thought dwells on His oneness with His brethren. Later theology became audacious, and affirmed explicitly, ‘Man is to be made God.’ Manhood is to be taken up into the Godhead. That the body in some mysterious manner is to participate in this glorification would appear to be necessary, however difficult the conception. The one precedent for the thought is Christ’s, whose body was not dissolved but transfigured. See Body.

Literature.—Milligan’s The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord still remains the most exhaustive book in English on the theological aspects of the subject. Every ‘Life of Christ’ deals, with more or less fulness, with the event in its historical details: see specially the studies of Fairbairn, Gilbert, Farrar, Edersheim. Of brochures, the following are important:—Knowling, Witness of the Epistles, 397–414; Bernard in Expository Times, 1900–1901, pp. 152–155. There may be consulted also: Bruce in Expos. Gr. Test. vol. i.; Swete, Apostles’ Creed; Westcott, Historic Faith, ch. vi., Revelation of the Risen Lord, chs. x., xi.; art. ‘Ascension’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible; Paget, Studies in the Christian Character, Sermons xxi., xxii.; Findlay, Things Above, 119–133.

A. S. Martin.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ascension (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/a/ascension-2.html. 1906-1918.

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