C. S. Lewis on the Ascension of Jesus

This is the fourteenth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“. The first follow-up post (on Aphrahat) is here. The second follow-up post (on the cosmography involved in the Sinai narratives in the Hebrew Bible) is here. The third follow-up post (a long excerpt from Paul Tillich on divine omnipresence in a one-story universe vs. a three-story one) is here. The fourth follow-up post (on the ascent through the eight heavens in The Apocalypse of Abraham) is here.

The fifth follow-up post on Theodoret of Cyrus 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. I reserve the right to break this order.

First, Protestant responses. They are in no particular logical or chronological order, and encompass evangelical and Magisterial Protestants — though I start with Reformed and Evangelical authors who take a somewhat more “high view” of the Bible and biblical authority, and then move towards those Protestant thinkers and traditions that are wrestling in a more open and public way with Christian theology in the modern world. The sixth follow-up post (Dodds) is here, the seventh (Erickson) is here, the eighth (Grudem) is here, the ninth (Packer) is here, and the tenth (Polkinghorne) is here. The eleventh post (Jenson, 1) is here, the twelfth post (Jenson 2) is here, and the thirteenth post (Jenson 3) is here.

In the first book of his space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis has his protagonist go into space; the protagonist is astonished that space is full of light, rather than empty; in a mood of wonder, the adventitious astronaut thus declares that we should rather call space by its older name, “the heavens”. Landing on a planet is not an elevation in this book, not a moving into some better-than-the-void place, but a degradation from pure light into density. This is, of course, empirically wrong, and is fiction from a Renaissance scholar enchanted with the empyrean and ideal spheres of yore; but the modern cosmos can’t be painted with that brush in any empirical fidelity, so the symbolic use fails.

Bishop Robert Barron’s “Word on Fire” ministry suggests that “Jesus, still in bodily form, chose to ascend not to the stars, but simply from the ground as the beginning of the super-physical journey to heaven.” A passage from C.S. Lewis’ Miracles is cited to support this, for Lewis thinks that visually what the apostles would have seen was merely most like a rising up into the air, because he was

still in some mode, though not our mode, corporeal, withdrew at His own will from the Nature presented by our three dimensions and five senses, not necessarily into the non-sensuous and undimensioned but possibly into, or through, a world or worlds of super-sense and super-space. And He might choose to do it gradually. Who on earth knows what the spectators might see? If they say they saw a momentary movement along the vertical plane—then an indistinct mass—then nothing—who is to pronounce this improbable?

In this interpretation, an attempt to put, into a narrative sequence, a description of what they saw with their senses must grapple with an experience that is quite impossible to communicate, but is forced into language that we all share. Unfortunately, no “like” or “as though” or “as if” statements were issued by the author(s) of Luke-Acts; quite the opposite is the case. This take of Lewis mistreats the writers of the biblical texts, suggesting that they were avid readers of E.A. Abbott’s 1884 Flatland or something.

C.S. Lewis also suggests that language about Christ’s ascension is of the same vein as talking about God’s right or left hands: can language adequately convey what it means? Yes, but it is hardly literal, Lewis writes; the imagery is “untrue”, but we must use images, and some are more fitting than others, Lewis writes. He is rightly aware of the difference between any language for God’s body taken literally and the significance that a Platonistic metaphysics must ascribe to such language. I am not certain that Lewis is correct in extending this kind of language to Jesus in the ascension, nor am I certain that Jews and Christians in antiquity did not mean, when they said the word “heaven”, something very substantial: a cosmological location that was thought to be physically adjacent to the earth and continuous with it in space. I am also rather confident that early Christians saw Jesus as “up there”. (At a certain point, we must take ancient authors at their word.) So Lewis:

“[A]n early peasant Christian might have thought that Christ’s sitting at the right hand of the Father really implied two chairs of state, in a certain spatial relation, inside a sky-palace. But if the same man afterwards received a philosophical education and discovered that God has no body, parts, or passions, and therefore neither a right hand nor a palace, he would not have felt that the essentials of his belief had been altered. What had mattered to him, even in the days of his simplicity, had not been supposed details about celestial furniture. It had been the assurance that the once crucified Master was now the supreme Agent of the unimaginable Power on whom the whole universe depends. And he would recognize that in this he had never been deceived.” Lewis, God in the Dock (Eerdman’s, 2014), 64

Lewis is generally correct in explaining the early Christian interpretation concerning language about God’s body. There are some clear exceptions (e.g., the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, &c.). Lewis’ argument seems to be true for most educated Christians in the late antique world, and through the Medieval and Renaissance periods; it is important to remember that there were exceptions to this rule, however, in fourth-century figures like Epiphanius of Salamis’ “Audians” or Socrates’ and Sozomen’s anti-Origenistic Anthropomorphites of the Egyptian desert (assuming they are not the same group).


Header image found here.


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