Many Christians reflect often on how the resurrection impacts the everyday life of believers. Because Jesus lives, we will live too. But what about the ascension of Jesus? Is it a doctrine we return to?
In the following excerpt from Patrick Schreiner’s forthcoming book, The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine, we see five reasons that we sometimes overlook the ascension—and why Jesus’ resurrection isn’t complete without it.
1. The Bible speaks little of it
Christ’s ascent can be overlooked for many reasons, but one of the most obvious reasons is that it seems that the Bible speaks little of it. Nowhere does the New Testament use the customary Greek word for “ascent” (anabasis). Only two places in the Scriptures narrate the event—the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:9–11). The ascension narrative account covers a mere seven verses in the Bible, which, if you are counting, is 0.03 percent of all the verses in the Scriptures.
Some readers might be surprised to hear the end of Matthew does not portray Jesus ascending. The original conclusion to Mark does not include anything about it, and at the end of John, Jesus is still on the earth. Even Paul’s list of what is of first importance does not include the Messiah’s ascent (1 Cor 15:1–2). If this is a key part of the narrative, then why do the other Gospel writers not include it? Why is it given so little space in the narrative? Why is the word never used? And why does Paul not give it first importance?
2. The ascension seems like a bad plan
The second reason the ascension can be neglected is that it can appear to be a bad plan. Jesus remaining on the earth seems intuitively like a better idea. This can be seen by the following premises and conclusions:
- Premise 1: Being with Jesus bodily in the new heavens and earth is the best end state.
- Premise 2: Jesus is no longer with us in his body.
- Conclusion: It would have been better if he had not left.
In some ways, the ascension appears like the worst plan ever. Jesus’ life is good. Jesus’ death is good. Jesus’ resurrection is good. Jesus’ ascension . . . we have questions.
If Jesus were here on earth, a number of things would be easier.
Take evangelism, for example. Talking to people about this figure who is long gone is not the easiest sell. But if Jesus were still on earth, it might be easier to convince people of his importance. We live in a world that prizes and prioritizes physical proof. People want tangible evidence for claims—not assertions impossible to prove.
People may also think it would be better if he were on earth because he could be more of a comfort to us. If Christ were physically beside us, his comforting hand would be with us as we go through sorrows. Currently, we must pray to a Savior we cannot see and many times cannot hear.
My children consistently ask me why God cannot come and show himself to us so that they can obtain more confidence. If we are honest with ourselves, we feel the same way. The Messiah’s ascent can seem like a bad plan.
3. The implications are unclear
The third and related reason people disregard Christ’s ascent is that it is hard to know why the event was necessary. The meaning of the ascension is a little blurry, or maybe it is our eyes. Why did he need to ascend? Was the resurrection not enough?
The disciples fell into this mode of thinking after Jesus’ resurrection. Before Jesus ascended they asked, “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel at this time?” (Acts 1:6). They were not expecting the ascension. Was now the time when Jesus would set up his kingdom and conquer the forces against them? Maybe that is why they were caught staring into heaven and the angel told them to get to work. What they thought and hoped for was not as they imagined. Jesus was not supposed to leave, according to their plan. Complicating it even more, the only two scriptural passages recounting the ascension contain little theological explanation for the purpose of the ascent (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:9–11).
Modern readers find themselves staring into the heavens alongside the disciples with confused looks on their faces. This lack of explanation has sent interpreters on a search for the purpose and goal of Christ’s ascent. . . . the rest of the Scriptures do fill this out for us, but the reasons are not all located on the same page, nor in the same Testament.
4. The event is abnormal
The fourth reason the ascension can be deserted is that the event is objectively strange and outlandish from a modern perspective. In the days following Galileo and astrophysics, Newton and neural exploration, Copernicus and cloning, the ascent seems ridiculous. The ascension involves a middle-aged man going up into the air (maybe fast, maybe slow, but I like to think at medium speed) and disappearing into the clouds. Where did he actually go? With our modern scientific worldview, we know he must have traveled through the atmosphere, and then what? And how did he survive without a NASA space suit?
Even if you accept supernatural healings and the resurrection from the dead, those miracles make more sense because people can then live restored lives.
The disciples were left gaping into the heavens not knowing what to do. He did not die this time—he left.
Though we like to think we are different from the disciples, we can find ourselves also staring into the sky wondering what has happened and why this event was necessary.
5. The resurrection subsumes the ascension
The final—and maybe most influential—reason the ascension gets neglected is that the Scriptures sometimes conceptually combine the resurrection and ascension.
They at times slide seamlessly from Jesus’ death to his glory, with the resurrection and ascension both included in the latter category. Luke 24:26 recounts how Jesus said the Christ would suffer and then enter into his glory. Luke moves quickly from Jesus’ death to his glorious state. Paul in Philippians 2:8–9 pivots from the cross straight to the Christ’s exaltation. Peter spent a significant amount of time in his first sermon on the fact that “God raised [Jesus] up” (Acts 2:24, 32). But all of Acts 2:24–36 is about the resurrection-ascension, sometimes making it hard to distinguish between the two.
In the apostles’ minds, the upward movement of Jesus rising from the dead continued in the ascension. As John Webster states, “Resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session together constitute the declaration or manifestation of the lordship of Jesus Christ.”1 This could help explain why some people speak of the resurrection and then stop.
However, a harmful underside lurks beneath this.
When most readers see these texts, they think only of the resurrection. This is not wrong; it is simply incomplete.
When the New Testament writers refer to the exaltation, they think of the completed act of resurrection-ascension as a whole. But when we say “exaltation,” we are more prone to think only of the resurrection. Dawson rightly affirms in response, “The resurrection requires an ascension to be completed.”2
To put this another way, we cannot equate the resurrection with Christ’s full glorification. If the resurrection fully confirms Jesus’ lordship, then the ascension becomes an anticlimax. We can have the tendency to cut off what is implicit in the apostles’ presentation and only speak of the resurrection.3
The biblical authors viewed Christ’s act of rising as incomplete until Christ sat on his glorious throne. As Michael Horton says: we typically “treat the ascension as little more than a dazzling exclamation point for the resurrection rather than a new event in its own right.”4
Though the ascension might seem like another affirmation of God’s victory, the ascension represents progress—a new stage—in Christ’s exaltation, where he exercises his threefold office (prophet, priest, king) in a climactic way.
This post is adapted from The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine by Patrick Schreiner, available soon through Lexham Press.
- John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2014), 34.
Andrew Murray understands the ascension to be one of four pillars on which the church is built. “Faith has in its foundation four great cornerstones on which the building rests—the Divinity of Christ, the Incarnation, the Atonement on the Cross, the Ascension to the Throne. The last is the most wonderful, the crown of all the rest, the perfect revelation of what God has made Christ for us. And so in the Christian life, it is the most important, the glorious fruit of all that goes before.” Andrew Murray, The Holiest of All (Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1996), 46.
- Michael Horton, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 3.