Wayne Grudem on the Ascension of Jesus, and on Heaven

This is the eighth 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, and the seventh follow-up post (Erickson) is here

The Reformed theologian Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) 617-618, says how far some will go to take this thought of Christ ascending spatially:

1. Christ Ascended to a Place. After Jesus’ resurrection, he was on earth for forty days (Acts 1:3), then he led them out to Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, and “lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up to heaven” (Luke 24:50-51).

A similar account is given by Luke in the opening section of Acts:

And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)

These narratives describe an event that is clearly designed to show the disciples that Jesus went to a place. He did not suddenly disappear from them, never to be seen by them again, but gradually ascended as they were watching, and then a cloud (apparently the cloud of God’s glory) took him from their sight. But the angels immediately said that he would come back in the same way in which he had gone into heaven. The fact that Jesus had a resurrection body that was subject to spatial limitations (it could be at only one place at one time) means that Jesus went somewhere when he ascended into heaven.

It is surprising that even some evangelical theologians hesitate to affirm that heaven is a place or that Jesus ascended to a definite location somewhere in the space-time universe. Admittedly we cannot now see where Jesus is, but that is not because he passed into some ethereal “state of being” that has no location at all in the space-time universe, but rather because our eyes are unable to see the unseen spiritual world that exists all around us. There are angels around us, but we simply cannot see them because our eyes do not have that capacity: Elisha was surrounded by an army of angels and chariots of fire protecting him from the Syrians at Dothan, but Elisha’s servant was not able to see those angels until God opened his eyes so that he could see things that existed in that spiritual dimension (2 Kings 6:17). Similarly, when Stephen was dying, God have him a special ability to see the world that is now hidden from our eyes, for he “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God’ ” (Acts 7:55-56). And Jesus himself said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

Of course we cannot now say exactly where heaven is. Scripture often pictures people as ascending up into heaven (as Jesus did, and Elijah) or coming down from heaven (as the angels in Jacob’s dream, Gen. 28:12), so we are justified in thinking of heaven as somewhere “above” the earth. Admittedly the earth is round and it rotates, so where heaven is we are simply unable to say more precisely — Scripture does not tell us. But the repeated emphasis on the fact that Jesus went somewhere (as did Elijah, 2 Kings 2:11), and the fact that the New Jerusalem will come down out of heaven from God (Rev. 21:2), all indicate that there is clearly a localization of heaven in the space-time universe. Those who do not believe in Scripture may scoff at such an idea and wonder how it can be so, just as the first Russian cosmonaut who came back from space and declared that he did not see God or heaven anywhere, but that simply points to the blindness of their eyes [618] toward the unseen spiritual world; it does not indicate that heaven does not exist in a certain place. In fact, the ascension of Jesus into heaven is designed to teach us that heaven does exist as a place in the space-time universe. [617-618]

To repeat the moves being made, Grudem is saying that “Admittedly we cannot now see where Jesus is, but that is not because he passed into some ethereal “state of being” that has no location at all in the space-time universe, but rather because our eyes are unable to see the unseen spiritual world that exists all around us.” Now, when Grudem refers to the passage in 1 Kings, there is something to it (that passage does seem to talk about spiritual beings around us that we cannot see), but this principle is not applicable to the ascension, where the body of Jesus is above the dome of the sky, and that dome needs to be opened in order for the visionary to see.

Grudem makes matters worse when he argues that “we are justified in thinking of heaven as somewhere “above” the earth. […] where heaven is we are simply unable to say more precisely — Scripture does not tell us.” –but it does tell us, and the assumption is clearly that it is above the dome that is above the sky.

In Chapter 57 of the same work, Grudem elaborates on what he means by heaven as a place (note how much he relies on “the testimony of scripture”):

1. What Is Heaven? During this present age, the place where God dwells is frequently called “heaven” in Scripture. The Lord says, “Heaven is my throne” (Isa. 66:1), and Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). Jesus now “has gone into heaven, and is at the right hand of God” (1 Peter 3:22). In fact, heaven may be defined as follows: Heaven is the place where God most fully makes known his presence to bless.

We discussed earlier how God is present everywhere but how he especially manifests his presence to bless in certain places. The greatest manifestation of God’s presence to bless is seen in heaven, where he makes his glory  known, and where angels, other heavenly creatures, and redeemed saints all worship him.

2. Heaven Is a Place, Not Just a State of Mind. But someone may wonder how heaven can be joined together with earth. Clearly the earth is a place that exists at a certain location in our spacetime universe, but can heaven also be thought of as a place that can be joined to the earth?

Outside of the evangelical world the idea of heaven as a place is often denied, chiefly because its existence can only be known from the testimony of Scripture. Recently even some evangelical scholars have been hesitant to affirm the fact that heaven is a place. Should the fact that we only know about heaven from the Bible, and cannot give any empirical evidence for it, be a reason not to believe that heaven is a real place?

The New Testament teaches the idea of a location for heaven in several different ways, and quite clearly. When Jesus ascended into heaven, the fact that he went to a place seems to be the entire point of the narrative, and the point that Jesus intended his disciples to understand by the way in which he gradually ascended even while speaking to them: “As they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9; cf. Luke 24:51: “While he blessed them, he parted from them”). The angels exclaimed, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). It is hard to imagine how the fact of Jesus’ ascension to a place could be taught more clearly.

A similar conclusion can be drawn from the story of Stephen’s death. Just before he was stoned, he, “full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’ ”(Acts 7:55–56). He did not see mere symbols of a state of existence. It seems rather that his eyes were opened to see a spiritual dimension of reality which God has hidden from us in this present age, a dimension which nonetheless really does exist in our space/time universe, and within which Jesus now lives in his physical resurrection body, waiting even now for the time when he will return to earth. Moreover, the fact that we will have resurrection bodies like Christ’s resurrection body indicates that heaven will be a place, for in such physical bodies (made perfect, never to become weak or die again), we will inhabit a specific place at a specific time, just as Jesus now does in his resurrection body.

The idea of heaven as a place is also the easiest sense in which to understand Jesus’ promise, “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). He speaks quite clearly of going from his existence in this world back to the Father, and then returning again: “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).

These texts lead us to conclude that heaven is even now a place—though one whose location is now unknown to us and whose existence is now unable to be perceived by our natural senses. It is this place of God’s dwelling that will be somehow made new at the time of the final judgment and will be joined to a renewed earth. [Ch. 57]

This position could not be more clearly stated. “When Jesus ascended into heaven, the fact that he went to a place seems to be the entire point of the narrative”. –but, if not the place above the dome of the sky, then where? The passage in Acts 7 where Stephen sees the heavens opened is not one in which his “eyes were opened to see a spiritual dimension of reality which God has hidden from us in this present age”, as Grudem has it, but reads:

54 When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 55 But [Stephen], being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” [Acts 7:54-56, NKJV]

Stephen “gazed into heaven”, which, for these writers, was thought to be above the firmament, the hard dome that encloses the air.

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