God forms Adam from dust, breathes life into his nostrils, and places him in a garden in the land of Eden. We know from Ezekiel (28:13–14) that the garden is planted on a mountain, but we could have inferred that from Genesis 2, since a river flows out of the garden and downhill to Assyria, Cush, and Havilah, where there is gold.
Human history begins on a high place, but Adam is created to ascend, from height to height. The garden isn’t the highest point in Eden. A river arises in Eden, above the garden, and then flows through the garden. Adam isn’t to remain in the garden forever. He’s to climb from the garden to the pinnacle, to the source of Eden’s river.
Even after Adam is cast out and down east of Eden, ascension is still the destiny of the human race. The rest of the Bible is full of ascensions. The flood lifts the ark above the mountaintops, and Noah, the first postdiluvian Adam, rebuilds humanity from Mount Ararat, where he plants a vineyard. Abraham’s great test takes place on Mount Moriah. The temple is built on that same mountain, and all the idol shrines in Israel are built on “high places.” Priests go up into the inner sanctuary, as worshipers “go up” to Jerusalem singing “Psalms of ascent.” David is taken from the sheepfold and given a name among the great ones, while Solomon builds an ivory throne that sits atop a seven-step, stylized mountain. Each of these is a reminiscence, each a small, sometimes symbolic, and always partial recovery of Adam’s original elevation.
And each is an anticipation, pointing ahead to the Last Adam who is elevated beyond the garden, beyond even the peak of Eden, beyond the clouds and the firmament, all the way to the right hand of the Father in the highest heaven. Jesus ascends as a priest after the order of Melchizedek, a king who takes a throne higher than Solomon’s. Jesus’s ascension isn’t a “religious” event with a “spiritual” significance. It fulfills the human vocation to become God’s prince ruling God’s universe. It’s the foundation for a profoundly humanistic Christianity.
It’s a commonplace of Patristic theology that Jesus took our humanity to the throne of heaven. The novelty of the ascension is not that the Son of God reigns. That’s as old as eternity. The novelty that astonishes the angels is the elevation of human nature to the throne of God. And the New Testament makes it clear that the members of Christ—his disciples who trust, love, and follow him—are elevated along with him. We, not just Jesus, are enthroned in heaven (Ephesians 2:6). Our lives are hid with Christ in heaven (Colossians 3:1). Martyrs, like the faithful Martyr Jesus, sit on thrones (Revelation 20:4). This isn’t a future hope. The saints already share the glory of Jesus’s ascension.
That seems a suitable stopping point for human history, but it’s only a halfway point. Human history is about our ascent from garden to peak, from earth to heaven. It’s also about humanity’s descent back to earth again. This too is anticipated from the beginning. Adam is created to ascend into Eden, but he is also sent out and down, out of Eden to follow the rivers down to lands of gold.
Much of the book of Revelation envisions humanity’s ascent to heaven. Martyrs under the altar cry out for vindication and are given white robes as a pledge that they will join the heavenly choir. The 144,000 gather around the Lamb on Mount Zion as first fruits. Once harvested, they stand on the glassy firmament to sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb. Up, up, up, until the beheaded sit on thrones once occupied by angels.
At the very end of Revelation, though, John stands on the last of the Bible’s mountains to see the heavenly Jerusalem descend. It’s a garden city, with a river flowing down its golden boulevards and fruit trees on it banks—but this garden city doesn’t stay in the high place. God builds and populates a heavenly city to send it back down to earth. Even Jesus doesn’t stay in heaven forever. As we confess in every creed, we believe that he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Heaven is not our home, our ultimate destiny. Heaven is where things happen first, where our nature is first enthroned in Christ Jesus. But the last part of our journey slopes downward, from heaven to earth. Ascension is not the endpoint of the human story. We ascend in order to descend, and the end comes when heaven breaks through the firmament to couple with earth, when heaven comes to earth to heavenize it.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.
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