'He Ascended Into Heaven'

Between Heaven and Hell Sermon No 5

Prof. Morna Hooker

Robinson 20 May 2012

‘He descended into hell;

The third day he rose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father almighty.’

   Those three short sentences lie at the heart of the creed that we so often find ourselves saying, and they confront us with enormous problems.  It is no wonder that they are met with scorn by the so-called new atheists.  What upon earth does it mean to say that Christ descended, rose and ascended?  All three statements are expressed in the mythological language of the time, for the peoples of the ancient world believed that they lived on a flat earth, with heaven up there, and Hades down below.  If Christ had died, then he had joined the dead, who disappeared into Hades; if he had been raised from the dead, then he was seen again on earth; and if he had returned to God the Father, then he must have ascended to God in heaven.  Here is the three-decker universe of our Sermon series’ title. 

     When I was a small girl – which, you will realize, was a very long time ago – we used to sing a hymn which began ‘There’s a friend for little children, above the bright blue sky’.  Any educational psychologists among you will be able to tell me whether or not it is wise to encourage children to use mythological language in this way, for when they grow up they are likely to discard not only the literal but the metaphysical meaning as well.  You may have noticed, however, that Charles Wesley used very similar ideas in the hymn we sang just now – though in far more sophisticated language – when he described Jesus as ‘parted from our sight, high above yon azure height’.  And though Wesley belonged to a far less astronomically-educated age than our own, I am quite sure that he did not believe that the throne to which he says Christ returned was literally perched somewhere up above on a cloud. 

        This is the language of myth – but myth does not, contrary to common usage, refer to something untrue, but rather to an attempt to express truth in picture-language.  Dante’s hell, we learned last week, cannot be accurately located. 

The earth, we discovered long ago, is not flat but round.  And the Russian cosmonaut Gargarin was said to have flown in space but seen no God there. 

Of course he hadn’t, since God is not be found sitting on an azure throne or even on a cloud.  But the imagery is powerful, nevertheless.  Myth is the language which serves to describe the indescribable.  The Christian declaration that Christ ascended into heaven uses the imagery of space and time to describe a truth that lies outside space and time. 

        Centuries before Christ was born, Solomon used spatial imagery in the same way.  He knew perfectly well that ‘heaven and the highest heaven’ could not contain the God whom he worshipped.  He nevertheless built a Temple which could in a sense be regarded as the dwelling-place of God, the symbol of God’s presence with his people.  And even though ‘heaven and the highest heaven’ could not contain this God, Solomon’s addressed him with the words ‘Hear in heaven your dwelling place’.  God was not confined to the Temple, for he was the God of the whole earth; neither was he confined to heaven, since he was far greater than the highest heaven.  Yet the Temple and heaven acted as symbols of God. 

        And so I come to my picture, which some of you will have seen before, but which I cannot resist using once again, since it is such a delight.  It represents one of  the glorious stained glass windows in Fairford parish church, and the part of the window which concerns us is the third panel from the left.  Almost the entire panel is taken up with what looks like a gigantic green mushroom, but is in fact intended to represent the mountain from which Jesus is said to have ascended, though how anyone but an experienced rock climber armed with crampons and ropes could possibly have got to its top is not clear.  Since the window is tall and thin so is the mountain, but its enormous height reminds us of the great distance between earth and heaven.  It would seem that this mountain has served as a kind of giant rocket-launching pad, for at its foot are the 11 disciples, gazing up to heaven, and at the very top of the window is a black square – though whether this is meant to represent the black hole of the unknown into which Jesus is disappearing or the bottom of his clothing I am not sure.  At the base of the black square, however, Jesus’ two feet can clearly be seen as he vanishes from view. 

        Last week we heard something of what Dante saw when he was taken on a guided tour of hell, purgatory, and heaven – the kind of escorted tour that Thomas Cook was later to make famous, though his tours were to less exotic destinations.  On such a tour the interesting features of the country through which one was travelling were pointed out.  But many centuries before Dante, Jewish writers had composed similar travel yarns, describing how one of the great figures of the past – the figure of Enoch was a popular choice – had been  taken around heaven and shown the sights.  Of course Enoch saw God on his throne, and the righteous around him.  But was he seeing a vision of the future – what would be true, at the end of time, or was a seeing into heaven as it is now

       That question is in fact a meaningless one, because 'heaven’, like God himself, is outside both time and space.  We cannot locate heaven, any more than we can locate God himself.  ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we pray, longing for a better time; ‘thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’.  Already God’s will is done in heaven, then, because already he is king, already he rules, already his kingdom exists, and already men and women are obedient to him.  Thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven – and it is as though this world were a copy of another world – a parallel universe, a kind of mirror image of this one.  Here things go awry, because men and women disobey God’s will, but in heaven, all is as God planned it to be.

         In the Gospels we’re told of how, on one occasion, the Pharisees asked Jesus to tell them when the Kingdom of God would arrive.  It’s no good saying ‘look, it’s here’, or ‘there it is’, he replied – no good trying to pin it down, to say when or where it would arrive, because the Kingdom is among you.  In other words, it’s a present reality – provided we are prepared to enter it.  In the Fourth Gospel Jesus rarely refers to the Kingdom of God – instead he speaks about eternal life – not something to be hoped for (or dreaded) in the future, but a quality of life to be enjoyed here and now.  Heaven, in other words, is all about us, if only we are aware of it – a parallel universe, if only we can enter it.

        How does one describe something that lies outside our time and space?   Writers and artists alike use metaphors familiar to them.  How else can one describe the unknown, except by using images that we know?  So heaven is described as an endless banquet – an enjoyable occasional event, but even feasts would surely get a little boring if they went on for ever.  In some religions, heaven seems to be envisaged as an endless sexual orgy.  The author of the book of Revelation has a more aesthetic understanding of heaven.  The righteous have harps, he tells us, and continually sing a new song: so, choir, heaven is going to be an endless choir-practice, with Tim Brown conducting!  Elsewhere, the author of this book speaks of the elders prostrating themselves before the throne of God, and casting down their crowns at his feet.  If they are to keep this up for all eternity, they will need to keep jumping up and casting down their crowns again; I’m afraid heaven sounds too much like an endless work-out in the gym to attract me.  But of course heaven lies outside time, so boredom does not enter into the equation.  Just as Dante’s descriptions of hell were attempts to describe what it means  to be cut off from God, so these images are different attempts to express what it means to live in the presence of God.      

The picture of a three-decker universe was an attempt to describe in three dimensions something which lies outside both space and time.  How else can one speak of heaven except in terms of what is familiar to us?  Yet heaven simply does not fit either into space or into Einstein’s fourth dimension of time.  But that does not mean that the myth is untrue.  I discovered recently that physicists have outgrown these four dimensions.  Talking to a group of alumni – all of them mathematicians – on high table recently I asked them whether they believed the extraordinary theory that there are no fewer than 11 dimensions, and was assured that they did.  The 11th dimension is apparently infinitesimally narrow, and infinitesimally long.  And at its other end, I am told, we can expect to find a parallel universe.  No doubt some of you know all about these theories, but to a non-scientist like myself it all sounds like science fiction – or perhaps like the story of Alice, falling down a very long and very narrow rabbit-hole, and finding another world at the other end.  But maybe scientists – and theologians – in their different ways are right.  There is a reality which lies beyond our common perceptions of space and time.

       The story of the Ascension points to realities that cannot be adequately expressed in images that belong to this world, existing as it does within the constraints of time and space.  Notice how the story itself reminds us of this by describing the disciples’ reaction to what happens.  It is a common device used by the evangelists to point to the reality behind a story by showing us the disciples doing and saying stupid things, so prompting us to think ‘Oh – they’ve clearly got it wrong, so what does this story really mean?’  And so it is here.  First of all, the disciples ask Jesus if this is the time that they have been waiting for – in effect, the end of time.  And Jesus rebukes them for thinking that dates and times are of any significance, since God is already King, and what is truly important is that the power of the Holy Spirit is going to sweep them off their feet.  Time doesn’t matter, for God is outside time – what matters is that they get on with the work he has given them to do.  That’s where they will find the Kingdom – the rule – of God. 

       And the second mistake follows on immediately.  Note how in our picture the disciples stand at the foot of the mountain, gazing intently upwards at those two disappearing feet. ‘They were gazing intently into the sky as he went,’ Luke tells us, and all at once two angels stood beside them.  ‘Men of Galilee,’ they ask, ‘why are you standing there looking up into the sky?’  God is not confined by space, any more than he is by time.  There is no point in gazing into heaven, for Jesus will return to them, and what they have to do is to get on with the task he has given them.  It’s in doing that that they will find him. 

          Whether, outside space and time, there exists a parallel universe in which we shall all twang our harps or spend eternity researching in some heavenly library, or doing whatever else is for us the best way in which to worship God

I do not know.   What the story of the ascension teaches us, once we unpack it from its spatial and temporal imagery, is that Christ himself is no longer constrained by time and space but is with us here, now, and for ever.  And even though we continue to live in a world governed by time and space, we can choose, by the way we live, to share here and now in the Kingdom of God – 

God’s eternal and heavenly rule – once demonstrated to us in time and space in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.