Come up here,” Jesus said to John, and at once John was standing before his throne (Revelation 4:1). Where was Jesus, and where did John go?
Christian theology is much better in dealing with time than space. We profess that Jesus will return in the future, and thus we are resigned to the absence of his glorified body in the present, but in the meantime, where is he? These are the kinds of questions raised by the ascension, one of Christianity’s most neglected doctrines. For most theologians, the resurrection steals all the glory from the ascension, but it should be the other way around. In the resurrection, God conquers death, but in the ascension, Jesus Christ transforms the cosmos. Everything about the nature of that cosmic transformation depends upon the question of space. By ‘real place’ I mean a reality that is in some kind of continuity with the space-time of our world. Obviously, the reality of heaven—the kingdom where God’s will is done in a way that is yet to come on earth—is both continuous and discontinuous with the reality of earth. If it is simply continuous, then we will not need to be transformed to enter into God’s presence. If it is utterly discontinuous, then God’s kingdom will end up replacing, rather than transforming, our world. How we think about the afterlife depends upon how we balance the continuities and discontinuities between heaven and earth.
However that balance gets worked out in its considerable details, continuity has to take precedence over discontinuity. After all, we are material creatures, and even if we define God in terms of immateriality, we cannot define heaven in that way. Jesus ascended there in his resurrected body, and all bodies take space—even if glorified bodies take glorified space. No contemporary theologian has demonstrated the systematic importance of the ascension for Christian faith more than Douglas Farrow. There is so much to praise in his new book, Ascension Theology, that I feel a bit reluctant to raise a reservation. Nonetheless, on this pivotal point, Farrow loses his balance. He sets up a dialectic between continuity and discontinuity, and as is usually the case in such dialectics, negation overcomes affirmation. The result is an apophatic theology of the ascension since, if matter as we know it will not have any place in heaven, then there is nothing we can know about where Jesus is today.
Farrow sets up his dialectic by comparing Origen’s “ascension of the mind” to Irenaeus’s “ascension of the flesh.” He is sympathetic to the latter, but he thinks it needs to be qualified by Augustine’s interpretation of John 20:17: noli me tangere is a warning “not to have materialistic thoughts about Christ.” In fact, Farrow’s sensitivity to the way that the ascension has become “an embarrassment in the age of the telescope and the space probe” almost forces him to side with Origen. For Farrow, space travel should impede, rather than inspire, our ability to imagine “a corporeal substance passing into a realm that by definition was for spiritual substances only.” The resurrection transformed the material of Jesus’ body, but the ascension did not change the nature of space.
Farrow says that Jesus in the ascension is “translated or relocated,” which means that “He is ‘placed’ in the sense that he is ranked first rather than last.” The ascension was an ontological act that involved no actual movement. Indeed, “to understand it in terms of motion through space which—even if we allow for a variegated space that may be open in its interpretation to some more modest form of cosmological speculation—is a non-eschatological construct.” Not only did Jesus not travel through space, he also did not end up in a place. Farrow quotes John of Damascus saying, “We do not hold that the right hand of the Father is an actual place,” and elaborates by calling Jesus’ destination “this place that is not a place.”
By insisting that the ascension is cosmology-defying rather than cosmology-constructing—that is, it is indifferent to every cosmology and thus has implications for none—he leaves us no room to imagine what heaven might be. The ascension has no cosmic coordinates because Jesus moves “not upwards in space, but from the old creation to the new,” and the two creations have nothing substantial in common. The ascension, contrary to the clear statements of scripture, marks “the divergence of his history from ours that leaves us gazing dumbfounded into the heavens.” Jesus arose in bodily form, but he disappeared in space.
Discontinuity, for Farrow, serves to save Christianity from too much speculation about matter. The enemy of ascension theology is Gnosticism, which errs by treating “Jesus’ departure in terms of a vertical progress through successively higher cosmic strata.” Under the Gnostic label, Teilhard de Chardin comes in for sustained and harsh criticism for identifying Christ with “the theanthropic power that is slowly transforming our transient nature into a unified spiritual one.” To a naïve reader, that power might sound like an account of transubstantiation, broadly construed, but for Farrow, it is a “blasphemous reversal” of the Eucharist. There is “no advance towards God” in this life or the next because there is no medium through which our ascent can be said to increase in transformational intensity. Deification, it follows, is a matter of “the setting of man, once and for all, within the open horizons of the Trinitarian life” rather than an eternal progression within the horizon of heaven.
Nor do the bread and wine constitute a medium through which Christ begins the process of calling all of nature to its heavenly destination. Just as Farrow attempts to balance continuity and discontinuity in interpreting the ascension, he wants to balance the Catholic “temptation” to “underestimate the absence of Christ” in the elements and the Protestant temptation to underestimate the presence. The “dialectic” between the two is about the new creation yet to come, which will be “virgin born.” He agrees with Thomas Aquinas, who writes that, “Christ’s body is not in this sacrament in the same way as a body is in a place, which by its dimensions is commensurate with the place.” For Farrow, the Eucharist is the presence of Christ’s absence.
Near the end of his book, Farrow laments the absence of ascension imagery in contemporary Christian practices. Images, however, must have a medium, which Farrow forbids. This book shows just how hard it is for even the best of theologians to place matter on the side of the divine. Negative theology has its place, but it still has to do justice to Luke’s statement that Jesus was “lifted up” before “a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). Otherwise, the transformation of Jesus’ body remains an event hidden in the tomb, and the lifting up of that body an unseemly description of an action that happened only in the mind of God.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Thing. He is the author of Jesus Christ, Eternal God and, forthcoming, Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed. Image from Wikimedia Commons.