Millard Erickson on the Ascension of Jesus

This is the seventh follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“. The first follow-up post is here. The second follow-up post is here. The third follow-up post is here. The fourth follow-up post is here.

The fifth follow-up post was broken up into several parts; follow-up post five-one is here, post five-two is here, post five-three is here, post five-four is here, post five-five is here, post five-six is here, and post five-seven is here.

Starting with the sixth follow-up post, I will focus (not indefinitely) on modern Protestant, then modern Catholic, then modern Orthodox interpretations either of the ascension of Jesus in Luke-Acts or of the nearly-identical articles from the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds that refer to Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The sixth follow-up post (Dodds) is here.

The free-church Protestant Millard Erickson (who is an inerrantist as far as I can tell), in his Christian Theology, writes that

In premodern times the ascension was usually thought of as a transition from one place (earth) to another (heaven). We now know, however, that space is such that heaven is not merely upward from the earth, and it also seems likely that the difference between earth and heaven is not merely geographic. One cannot get to God simply by traveling sufficiently far and fast in a space vehicle of some kind. God is in a different dimension of reality, and the transition from here to there [711] requires not merely a change of place, but of state. So, at some point, Jesus’s ascension was not merely a physical and spatial change, but spiritual as well. At that time Jesus underwent the remainder of the metamorphosis begun with the resurrection of his body.

The significance of the ascension is that Jesus left behind the conditions associated with life on this earth. Thus the pain, both physical and psychological, experienced by persons here is no longer his. The opposition, hostility, unbelief, and unfaithfulness he encountered have been replaced by the praise of the angels and the immediate presence of the Father. God has exalted him and given him a “name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11). The angels have resumed their song of praise, for the Lord of heaven has returned. What a contrast to the abuse and insults he endured while on earth! Yet the song of praise now goes beyond that which was sung before his incarnation. A new stanza has been added. Jesus has done something he had not done previous to his incarnation: [he has] personally experienced and overcome death. [Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983/2013), 710-711]

Reading the back of Erickson’s Christian Theology reveals that it was praised by figures such as J.I. Packer (whom we’ll cover two posts from now) and Wolfhart Pannenberg, whom we’ve covered before, and whose position on these topics we’ll treat several posts from now. This is somewhat discouraging, as it seems that Erickson is saying: “Jesus didn’t make voyage through the firmament to the heaven beyond it; we now know that there is no such place. It is silly to think that he went into space. Instead, he only started to go into space, and then he slipped into another dimension while he went through a metamorphosis.”

I will repeat his words:

One cannot get to God simply by traveling sufficiently far and fast in a space vehicle of some kind. God is in a different dimension of reality, and the transition from here to there [711] requires not merely a change of place, but of state.

So there was an error (‘it turns out God is not in the sky after all’), but we can rectify that by making an assertion. “God is in a different dimension of reality.” Until you can show that this is faithful to the older notions of God as spatially located above the dome of the sky, and how this makes sense of the biblical and patristic and early- and late-medieval and renaissance and reformations notions, related to this, of the ascension of Jesus in terms of the internal assumptions of these ideas themselves, rather than being a post-facto attempt to save the appearances of those ideas, this looks like a cheap sales attempt to fix a bad situation.

Erickson also seems to require that God’s presence be differentiated — note: “the immediate presence of the Father.” Divine location of some sort seems to be hard to shake.

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Header image found here.

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