N. T. Wright on the Ascension of Jesus and Heaven

This is the twenty-fourth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“. Previously we focused on the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Here, we focus on an Anglican theologian from the more Evangelical side of the Anglican Church.

The previous follow-up posts were becoming so numerous —and the text block listing and introducing them was so large— that they were soon going to take up more space than the posts themselves. Thus, I organized and listed them here.

I will not introduce N.T. Wright here, except to say that Wright writes well (yes, that construction was purposeful), that I have enjoyed reading him for years (I started with The Crown and the Fire, The Challenge of Jesus [the first book that actually helped me to think about Jesus as a historical figure, believe it or not], Following Jesus, The New Testament and the People of God, and Evil and the Justice of God), and that you can find some articles and sermons and courses of his here and here. If you like him, you would probably not do wrong to pick up his Collected Essays. I would avoid his “For Everyone” series, which is so popular it is devoid of any academic or spiritual nutrient. On to Wright, and what he says about the ascension of Jesus.

Wright often attacks the Enlightenment in his sermons and writings, often suggesting that the Enlightenment, among its other errors, often tries to separate things that should be held together. Thus, he mentions that

[a] robust approach to study of the New Testament will therefore give sufficient space to its historical context as well as to its theological content. The New Testament is history and theology mixed together — for the very good reason that the faith which he first Jesus-followers inherited from ancient Israel and reshaped around Jesus himself was all about the coming together of heaven and earth. Splitting them apart, as has so often been done, is a sign of our times, more specifically of the Enlightenment’s separation of timeless truths from contingent historical realities, whether by sceptics or by their devout opponents. The challenge in studying the New Testament today is to do justice to both, to history and theology alike, disregarding neither and constantly seeking their intended fusion. [N.T. Wright & Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 79]

Wright frequently repeats the basic assertion that “[t]he Jerusalem Temple had always been seen as the place where heaven and earth were joined”, and so he goes on to say that “Luke’s description of the ascension assumes that now it is Jesus himself who joins heaven and earth in one (though the Temple remains for a while, and the disciples worship in it for the moment).” [ibid., 628] Wright correctly notes the inner connection between the ascension of Jesus and Pentecost in Luke:

As heaven and earth were joined in the person of the ascended Jesus, so now the breath of heaven comes to earth, constituting Jesus’ followers as the new Temple, the people in whom the powerful divine presence truly dwells. [ibid., 629]

He is right about the Jerusalem Temple being an earthly heaven, a copy of celestial things, and the locus of divine presence among the people, but he is missing the spatial elements of “celestial” and “heaven”, which are definitely there in the Bible.

Later on, commenting on the high priestly portrait of Jesus in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Wright says that 

the point here is that Jesus, having died and been raised from the dead, was then exalted in the ascension to the very throne of the father in order that he might continue to implement the work he had accomplished on earth; and that the role he is thereby taking is that of the true high priest. The priest was and still is one of us. [ibid., 718]

He goes on to flesh out the portrait in Hebrews:

At the heart of the theology of Hebrews is its christology. At the head of the letter we learn that Jesus the son of God is superior to the angels. […] Jesus is also totally and truly human, and he still is. Jesus is ‘our man in heaven’. The one who lived our life and died our death has now been exalted and glorified precisely as a human being. God has put a human being at the helm of the universe (Heb. 1—2). Hebrews is, as much as any other book in the New Testament, the great exponent of ‘the ascension’, in which Jesus completes his sacrifice not on the cross but, as though in a single action, when he presents his blood in the heavenly sanctuary, thus clearing the way for the heaven-and-earth new reality in which God himself will dwell with his people for ever. [ibid., 728]

In many of his sermons, articles, and books, Wright emphasizes that the general picture of the New Testament is not that the future of the world is heaven and life-after-death, but (I am quoting his phrase from memory) “life after life-after-death”, namely, a new heaven and earth. He is correct on this point, but he can still try to “backworld” (to use Nietzsche’s term) what was, for the New Testament writers, the geographic location of the space above the firmament — heaven, or the heaven of heavens. In his Surprised by Hope, Wright expresses his apologetic wishes to this end, and his frustrations on this point:

Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life — God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever. And when we come to the picture of the actual end in Revelation 21-22, we find not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.

Most Christians today, I fear, never think about this from one year to the next. […] It is simply assumed that the word heaven is the appropriate term for the ultimate destination, the final home, and that the language of resurrection, and of the new earth as well as the new heavens, must somehow be fitted into that. [N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 19]

Wright here refers to Ulrich Simons’ Heaven in the Christian Tradition in an endnote (#13), and quotes him as writing “The Bible views Heaven and Earth as one world. If the earth is spatial, so is Heaven” [Simons, 126], which really does drive my point home, but Wright seems to grimace at this as “never quite resolv[ing] matters in the way the New Testament itself does”. [ibid., 299] It starts to feel more like Wright is engaged in a set of counter-assertions after a certain point.

In Judaism it is almost always left quite vague as to what sort of a body the resurrected will possess. […] Most of the Jewish texts that glance at the question have little to say beyond this apart from occasional references to “glory”, perhaps in the sense of light. […] It is of course Paul, in a much misunderstood passage in 1 Corinthians 15, who sets this out most clearly and to whom many, though not all, subsequent writers look back. [ibid., 43]

Wright is noting the passage in which St. Paul writes that our body is now a “soulish” body, but it will be raised a “spiritual” body. Now, it seems obvious, given that St. Paul likens the spiritual body to the different kinds of stars, that some kind of casual Stoicism is in effect — “spirit” is being used in a technical sense for a different kind of matter than the one of which we are mostly composed (that being “flesh and blood”), even though we have “spirit” as an anthropological feature, as St. Paul writes elsewhere. Given the star connection, it is strange that Wright goes on:

this transformed physicality […] does not involve being transformed into luminosity. Here again many go wrong, misunderstanding the word glory to imply a physical shining rather than a status within God’s world. [ibid., 44]

I am not sure that these things are necessarily as separated as Wright is trying to make them; there does not seem to be room for that in the general mentality of the second temple Jewish world.

~~~

At one point, Wright states that “it is impossible to collapse the ascension into the resurrection or vice versa.” [ibid., 109] He then suggests that the ascension plays an important role in Christian teaching, and that when it is ignored the Church starts thinking sloppily about herself. His inspiration for this? A book by Douglas Farrow titled Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology, which I will need to cover here, eventually — probably rather soon, in truth. Apparently following Farrow, Wright sees literalists who “insist that Jesus must have done a kind of vertical take-off” going to war with skeptics, “with each feeding off the other.” [ibid., 110]

He goes on to ask, very explicitly, “[W]hy has the ascension been such a difficult and unpopular doctrine in the modern Western church?” Then, he offers an answer, reiterating many of his main assertions about heaven along the way:

[It] is not just that rationalist skepticism mocks it (a possibility that the church has sometimes invited with those stained-glass windows that show Jesus’s feet sticking downward out of a cloud). It is that the ascension demands that we think differently about how the whole cosmos is, so to speak, put together and that we also think differently about the church and about salvation. Both literal[111]ism and skepticism regularly operate with what is called a receptacle view of space; theologians who take the ascension seriously insist that it demands what some have called a relational view. [Wright refers to T. F. Torrance here, in an endnote — Space, Time, and Resurrection & Space, Time, and Incarnation] Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on the earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. “All authority is given to me,” said Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “in heaven and on earth.”

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians. [ibid., 110-111, boldface type mine]

Wright thinks we should not impose Platonic assumptions —which he alleges come from our culture— onto Jesus — e.g., that he was divine, became human, and went back to being divine. He asserts, rather, that we should let the truth about Jesus challenge our culture.

He is worried —again, seemingly following Farrow’s Ascension and Ecclesia— that if we ignore or downplay the ascension of Jesus, that “the church [will] expand[…] to fill the vacuum” [ibid., 112, italics Wright’s]

Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church —when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him— only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand — when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present — are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present […]. [ibid., 113]

Regarding that “wrong view of world history”, Wright seems to think of it as a specimen of ‘the Church filling the vacuum’, namely, a triumphalist view of history, one in which Jesus either “become[s] king of the world gradually”, or whose “kingdom […] [is wrongly] identified, one for one, with the extension of the [306] church’s witness and influence”. [ibid., 305-306]

The ascension thus speaks of the Jesus who remains truly human and hence in an important sense absent from us while in another equally important sense present to us in a new way. At this point the Holy Spirit and the sacraments become enormously important since they are precisely the means by which Jesus is present. Often in the church we have been so keen to stress the presence of Jesus by these means that we have failed to indicate his simultaneous absence and have left people wondering whether this is, so to speak, “all there is to it.” [ibid., 114]

In a comment that reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, Wright insists that Jesus is “a more solidly embodied human than we are — but absent from this present world.” [ibid., 114, italics are Wright’s own]

~~~

“We need […] a new and better cosmology […].” [ibid., 114] Apparently this means one that our current culture doesn’t have the resources to think about Jesus’ absence rightly, or his presence. Wright assures us that one thing we can rule out, however, is the notion that the Biblical cosmos is tiered:

The early Christians, and their fellow first-century Jews, were not, as many moderns suppose, locked into thinking of a three-decker universe with heaven up in the sky and hell down beneath their feet. When they spoke of up and down like that they, like the Greeks in their different ways, were using metaphors that were so obvious they didn’t need spelling out. As some recent writers have pointed out, when a pupil at school moves “up” a grade, from (say) the tenth grade to the eleventh, it is unlikely that this means relocating to a classroom on the floor above. [ibid., 115, boldface text mine]

Wright’s final words on this are as such:

The mystery of the ascension is of course just that, a mystery. It demands that we think what is, to many today, almost unthinkable: that when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly (thought this does not necessarily follow from the other two) two different kinds of what we call time. We post-Enlightenment Westerners are such wretched flatlanders. [ibid., 115, boldface text mine]

Now, Wright is correct that it is not “life after death” that the NT writers present as the ultimate goal of creation, but “a new heaven and earth”; what is off-stage in the top floor for now becomes joined with the (earthly) stage at the consummation of all things. There is, perhaps, an argument that one could make situating heaven eschatologically, rather than spatially (the argument that Wright seems to want to make), but it would need to confront what seems to me to be an obvious feature of the Biblical text: the tiered cosmology. This goes for Jesus’ current ‘location’, as well.

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