Did Jesus Really Ascend into Heaven?
AMONG the places of interest pointed out to sightseers visiting Jerusalem is the Chapel of the Ascension. Situated on the Mount of Olives, outside the walls to the east of the old city of Jerusalem, it houses “the stone said to bear the imprint of the feet of Christ,” the “actual spot he last stood and from which he was lifted up.” truly one must be credulous or naïve indeed to believe such a preposterous legend.
Going to the opposite extreme are many clergymen of Christendom. As we are told in The Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. 10, p. 633): “What does the modern church make of the ascension of Christ? Very little, one might well confess. Published sermons on the Ascension are hard to find. Yet in the thought of the early church the Ascension occupied a position of crucial importance.”
In fact, the trend today is to throw doubt on the ascension of Christ into heaven as being a specific event. Some stumble over the fact that the Bible speaks of Jesus ascending or going up into heaven. And says Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible (Revised Edition): “The Ascension of our Lord is not related as an event in the synoptic Gospels. . . . The only narrative of the Ascension as a separate event is found in Acts 1:6-11. . . . What is precarious [that is, questionable] about the narrative in Acts is the suggestion that the Ascension is a distinct event separable from the Resurrection, and the placing of it in the sequence of events.”
A Distinct Event
The writer of the book of Acts, that is, Luke, not only ‘suggests’ that the ascension of Jesus was indeed an event separated from his resurrection but is very explicit about it. He specifically gives us the details of the event, when, where and how it took place.
When did it take place? Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, for Luke goes on to tell about Jesus’ ascension right after making the statement: “To these [his disciples] also by many positive proofs he showed himself alive after he had suffered, being seen by them throughout forty days and telling the things about the kingdom of God.”—Acts 1:3.
Where did the ascension take place? At the Mount of Olives, for right after telling of it Luke goes on to report: “Then they”—his disciples that had witnessed the ascension—“returned to Jerusalem from a mountain called the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem, being a sabbath day’s journey away.”—Acts 1:12.
And how did it take place? We read: “After he had said these things, while they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud caught him up from their vision. And as they were gazing into the sky while he was on his way, also, look! two men in white garments stood alongside them, and they said: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus who was received up from you into the sky will come thus in the same manner as you have beheld him going into the sky.’”—Acts 1:9-11.
How can such a record be termed “precarious” or only a “suggestion”? The ascension as a specific event is repeatedly referred to here. Jesus is reported to have been “lifted up.” His apostles looked on “while he was on his way.” And the two angels said that “this Jesus who was received up from you into the sky” will come again. Could anything be more explicit than these statements?
No doubt this gradual departing of Jesus, ascending upward before their eyes, was to underscore the fact that he really was ascending into heaven and that they could not expect to see him again. In his previous appearances after his resurrection he most likely suddenly disappeared from their sight, even as we read of his doing after he had comforted the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. After making himself known to them, “he disappeared from them.”—Luke 24:31.
Those critical of the ascension account recorded at Acts chapter 1 question the authenticity of the parallel account at Luke 24:50, 51, saying that only Acts refers to the ascension as a separate event. But do they do so with sufficient reason or on adequate grounds? True, a few of the old manuscripts do not contain the words “and began to be borne up to heaven,” but many others, such as the Alexandrine, the Vatican 1209 and the Codex Ephraemi, do contain these words. The verses in their entirety read: “But he led them out as far as Bethany [on the Mount of Olives], and he lifted up his hands and blessed them. As he was blessing them he was parted from them and began to be borne up to heaven.”
The fact is, the scholars Westcott and Hort, who compiled one of the most authoritative Greek Bible texts, included the words as being in question in their text. And as has well been observed, the difference is “more easily explained as an omission from the Western than as an addition to the Oriental text.”
There has also been considerable discussion of the fact that, according to the account at Luke, chapter 24, it seems that Jesus ascended into heaven the very day he rose from the dead. Why might one draw this conclusion? Simply because the intervening events are not reported there. But at 1 Corinthians 15:4-8 further details are given. There it states that Jesus appeared time and again to his disciples after his resurrection and before his ascension into heaven.
Jesus himself over and over again stated that he would return to his Father in heaven: “I am going my way to the Father.” (John 14:12, 28; 7:33; 16:5, 10, 28) The apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost called attention to the proof that Jesus had indeed ascended to heaven, saying: “This Jesus God resurrected, of which fact we are all witnesses. Therefore because he was exalted to the right hand of God and received the promised holy spirit from the Father, he has poured out this which you see and hear.”—Acts 2:32, 33.
Bearing similar testimony are the writings of Christ’s apostles. They tell that Jesus is at the right hand of God (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1); that he was highly exalted (Phil. 2:9-11; Heb. 7:26); that he is in the heavens. (Eph. 6:9; Phil. 3:20; Heb. 4:14) In view of all this testimony, there simply can be no question that the Bible teaches that Jesus not only rose from the dead but also ascended into the heavens, where he has been residing ever since.
In What Direction?
Some object to the Bible’s teaching that Jesus ascended into heaven, saying that it is not reasonable to believe that heaven is “up” from the earth regardless of where one may happen to be. But this objection is not sound. The New York Times, in reporting on one of the trips made by certain astronauts, stated that they “ascended to 739 nautical miles,” whereas actually they moved out that distance from the earth.
Doubtless Jesus’ ascent did begin with an upward (actually outward) movement—even as did that of the astronauts—from the place where the apostles stood. Afterward Jesus logically took whatever direction was required in order to reach his heavenly Father’s presence. It is of interest that at times the Bible uses the term “depart” when speaking of angels leaving the earthly scene.—Luke 2:15; Acts 12:10.
However, it must be admitted that our knowledge of the spirit world is indeed limited. It seems well therefore to think of Jesus as ascending, not only in a directional sense, but also as to the sphere of activity and level of existence in the spirit realm, to the actual presence of God. That realm, after all, is not bound by physical or material laws, factors or limitations.
In What Body?
Does the fact that his apostles witnessed Jesus going to heaven mean that he ascended to the presence of God in a human body? That is the general consensus in Christendom, but not so. Why not? For a number of reasons. We are told that “Christ died once for all time . . . being put to death in the flesh, but being made alive in the spirit.” (1 Pet. 3:18) That is why he could appear in the midst of the apostles although the doors were bolted and why at times he “disappeared from them.” (Luke 24:31; John 20:26) Furthermore, we are assured that “flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom.” So Jesus could not have entered heaven with a fleshly body.—1 Cor. 15:50.
Moreover, Jesus said that he was giving his “flesh in behalf of the life of the world.” Since Jesus thus laid down his human body as “a corresponding ransom for all,” it follows that he could not have been resurrected in a human body with human life without making void his ransom sacrifice.—John 6:51; 1 Tim. 2:5, 6.
But someone may ask, How could that be? Are not spirits invisible to man, and do they not come and go as the wind, even as Jesus told Nicodemus? (John 3:8) Yet Jesus appeared in a human form to his disciples after his resurrection. True, but that was merely by materializing in a human body for the occasion. That is why he was not recognized by Mary nor by his apostles on the shores of Galilee. (John 20:15-17; 21:4) This was nothing unheard of, for time and again angels materialized human bodies, as when one “appeared” to Moses, another to Joshua and another to the parents of Samson, to mention but a few instances. (Josh. 5:13-15; Judg. 13:3-20; Acts 7:35) Thus Jesus reassuringly communicated with his apostles by appearing in a body that they could see, yes, and feel, as in the case of Thomas.—John 20:26-29.
Why Did Jesus Ascend to Heaven?
All the foregoing evidence and reasons are greatly strengthened when we consider why Jesus simply had to ascend into heaven. It was in the very fitness of things. Jesus willingly left heavenly glory, came to earth as a man, suffered greatly and gave his human life as a sacrifice. (Phil. 2:5-8; Matt. 20:28; Heb. 5:8) Are we to conclude that for all this God would not reward him but leave him in the grave or merely upon the earth? The apostle Paul assures us that God is not unmindful of the sacrifices his servants make. (Heb. 6:10) So we cannot conclude otherwise than that God would suitably reward Jesus for his unselfish course.
In fact, Jesus expected to return to the glory that he had with his Father, even as can be seen from his prayer on the night of his betrayal: “Father, glorify me . . . with the glory that I had alongside you before the world was.” (John 17:5) God not only answered this prayer but gave Jesus even greater glory: “For this very reason also God exalted him to a superior position and kindly gave him the name that is above every other name, so that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend . . . and every tongue should openly acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”—Phil. 2:9-11.
And there are even more compelling reasons. Jesus gave his human body and life as a sacrifice for man’s sins, but to be able to apply the merits of that sacrifice as a high priest so that mankind would be able to get the benefit of it he had to be raised from the dead and ascend into heaven. And so we read: “Christ entered, not into a holy place made with hands . . . but into heaven itself, now to appear before the person of God for us.” And further: “If anyone does commit a sin, we have a helper with the Father, Jesus Christ, a righteous one.”—Heb. 9:24; 1 John 2:1.
More than that, for the countless millions who have died and who are in the memorial tombs to get the benefit of Christ’s ransom sacrifice, it is necessary that they be raised from the dead, and this privilege God has given to his Son. It is a spirit person with ‘all power in heaven and in earth’ who is to perform that great resurrection miracle.—John 5:28,29; Matt. 28:18.
Further, Jesus continually spoke of the kingdom of God; in fact, that was the theme of all his preaching. In his model prayer he indicated that the purpose of the Kingdom was to sanctify God’s name and cause God’s will to be done upon earth as in heaven. To make possible the sway of that kingdom upon earth, Jesus Christ and his heavenly hosts must first make an end to this present wicked system of things, invisible and visible, which the Bible tells he will do soon.—Matt. 6:9, 10; Rev. 16:14, 16; 19:11-21.
Besides, we are told that “he must rule as king until God has put all enemies under his feet. As the last enemy, death is to be brought to nothing.” That will mean that God through Christ will have wiped out every tear from human eyes, that Adamic death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. Such a glorious consummation of Jehovah God’s purpose regarding the earth and man can be brought about only by means of a heavenly king, the heavenly King, Jesus Christ.—1 Cor. 15:25, 26; Rev. 21:4.
Truly, there can be no doubt that God’s Word makes abundantly and explicitly clear that Jesus Christ did indeed ascend into heaven.