Every age has seen its own special attacks on the Word of God. Some have been direct assaults, some have been attempts to undermine and overthrow it from within, the most effective have combined both methods. Humanly speaking, only one thing has prevented Christianity from being blotted out of the memory of man: the fact that it happens to be the truth of God.
This has a negative aspect. As God's Word is truth, whatever opposes it is untrue, and whatever is untrue is ultimately stupid. Hence, when one digs down critically into the attacks on God's Word they are always found to be irrational and sometimes even downright silly.
Rudolf Bultmann is one of the latest of these enemies of the Word, and
here is an extract from a review of a book about his teaching:
However, we are not excessively clever people like Bultmann and his followers, so we cannot afford to rely on our imagination for our facts. We must therefore begin by examining the accounts of the Ascension to find out what they actually do declare. Then it will be time enough to discuss what they presuppose. Before we do that, it would be as well to examine the presuppositions of this Reviewer. Observe, by the way, the little twist involved in calling it a "story" instead of an "account" or even "narrative." Obviously that particular Reviewer thinks very poorly of it.
When we see a storm cloud with rain, or a bird, or an aeroplane, approaching us, we naturally think of it "coming down." That does not mean that it is coming down from some location "above the sky." It simply describes in understandable language two impressions received by our senses, that it is above us and that it is coming nearer us. In other words, we are describing phenomena as they appear to our senses interpreted by our minds, and not necessarily things as they actually are.
Human language was developed in the first instance to serve human needs. Only long after was any attempt made to adapt it to metaphysical speculation and still longer after to scientific observation. So ill-suited is it for the last purpose that in the half century or so before the present time scientists have had to reply on symbols and equations rather than confuse their thinking by using ordinary words. Popular scientific expositions are usually inadequate, inaccurate and misleading just because in them an attempt is made to interpret the scientific language by translating it into ordinary language. When scientists are forced by circumstances to come down to ordinary life and language, they do precisely what everyone else does: express themselves in ordinary words and speak of phenomena as they appear to be to our senses, not as they actually are or are supposed to be. What else, indeed, could they do?
If we turn to the word hElios, sun in Wigram's concordance of the Greek Scriptures we will find that out of some thirty-two occurrences, seven refer to the sun rising and three to the sun setting—that is, nearly a third are devoted to "Hellenistic-Jewish cosmology" of the most flagrant sort.
But before we rush in to condemn the absurdity of these ignoramuses in writing this sort of thing, let us take a look at any almanac that gives more than simply days, weeks and months. Then we shall discover that these works, based on the calculations of these modern astronomers and with their full approval, also talk of sunrise and sunset, and even the times of rising and setting of the moon, and also with some, those of the more important stars. So these leading modern astronomers are just as ignorant and benighted as the poor Scripture victims of "Hellenistic-Jewish cosmology." In homely language we are as bad as they were—worse, if our brilliant modern theologians are correct, for we and the astronomers have no excuse for not knowing better.
Needless to say, there is no absurdity at all in speaking of the sun rising or setting. It is simply the most convenient way of describing the phenomenon as it appears to us. The question whether it is the earth itself or the sun that moves does not arise and is altogether unimportant.
And if those who talk so scornfully of the Greek Scriptures were really honest men it would not arise for them either. Consistently the Scripture writers described what they saw as it appeared to them to be. And why not, when we in our supposed enlightenment do no better? Whether the Twelve or Paul believed that the earth was fixed and flat, or whether it was thought to be a moving sphere, is totally irrelevant and unimportant in this context. We do not know, and we cannot possibly tell; because none of them happened to think it worth their while to write for us a textbook of mathematical astronomy. Their great aim was to reveal spiritual truth, the supreme fact that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. All the chatter about "Hellenistic-Jewish cosmology" is just a smoke-screen to hide this fact from our eyes. No sane person complains because a text-book on Physics or Astronomy makes no mention of spiritual truth, so why should anyone complain that the Greek Scriptures throw no light on Physics or Astronomy? It is impossible to contend that the spiritual value of the Greek Scriptures would have been enhanced by adding to them a treatise on Relativity or similar themes. A man can live a full, holy and happy life without knowing anything of such matters; but he cannot even begin to do so without knowing Christ Jesus as his Saviour and Lord.
Experience shows that the most conceited people are always the most ignorant. It is pretty safe to assume that the Reviewer who wrote the words quoted above has never subjected himself to the years of severe discipline necessary to achieve a degree in Physical Science. Those who have done so nearly always have acquired some of that humility which the pursuit of the truth of God always tends to engender; for let us not forget that this is what real scientific research actually is. Such truth is of a lower order of value than spiritual truth; but the physical universe is a work of God and the study of it therefore a study of God's work.
Thus, it is unlikely that those who so blatantly despise "Hellenistic-Jewish cosmology" are aware that a thousand years before the Greek Scriptures were written Chaldean astronomy had achieved results astounding when one considers that the telescope had not yet been invented. These astronomers could predict eclipses with great accuracy and apparently even had some notion of the cause of them. They certainly knew that an eclipse of the sun could not possibly occur at the full moon or within a few days if it. Therefore it is extremely improbable that Luke, a highly educated physician, could have been unaware of this truth and therefore that he would have allowed himself in Luke 23:45 to use a word that might be taken to mean that a solar eclipse had occurred during the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. Admittedly the English Revisers and the C.V. both avoid rendering ekleipontos by eclipsing, the former using failing and the latter defaulting instead; but such caution does not appear to have appeased the enemies of Scripture. And, as a matter of fact, neither makes sense. The English R.V. has to add the word light which is not in the Greek (the sun's light failing) with a marginal alternative "Greek, the sun failing"; and how the sun can "default" is far from clear, for the three other occurrences of ekleipO (Luke 16:9; 22:32; Heb. 1:12) give no help towards an explanation. The textual evidence in favour of ekleipontos instead of eskotisthE, darkened, is not very strong, being confined to three uncials and possibly a fourth.
The essential point is that a temporary darkening of the sun's light, though involving what we would call a miraculous act by God, would not entail a violation of what are some times called "the laws of nature"; whereas a solar eclipse, an eclipse of the sun by the moon, near the time of full moon, would do so; for it would necessitate the temporary transference of the moon to the opposite side of its orbit and its subsequent replacement.
However, this textual question is not in itself of outstanding importance. For our present enquiry what does matter is, first, that men like Luke were not nearly so ignorant as many people nowadays affect to believe and, second, that in no place does Scripture pronounce on matters of cosmology. Such pronouncements have to be read into it by people who trade on the scientific ignorance of their dupes in order to belittle God's Word.
Having cleared the ground, we can now examine the accounts of the departure from this world of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Matthew ends his account of the Lord's ministry with what the C.V. Note to Matt. 28:18 aptly describes as a preview of the establishment of the Kingdom in the coming eon. Certainly this commission has never yet been carried out.
Mark is very brief, for he simply tells us that "the Lord. . . was got up into the heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God" (Mark 16:19). Acts uses the same word about Him three times, in Acts 1:2, 11, 22; but the verb analambanO here is found in nine other passages, of which five are in Acts. The first of them, Acts 7:43, reads: "And ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch." The second, 10:16, is in the vision of the sheet: "and immediately the vessel was got up into the heaven." The third and fourth (20:13, 14) refer to getting Paul up into a ship. The fifth (23:31) describes picking him up for a journey. Of the rest, in Eph. 6:13, 16 we are exhorted to be taking up the panoply of God and the large shield of the faith. The final one of all, 2. Tim. 4:11, reads: "Taking up Mark, lead him back with you." One remains, 1. Tim. 3:16: "was taken up in glory." This suggests a link with Mark's account. Anyone who can find "Hellenistic-Jewish cosmology" in all this must possess most remarkable powers of imagination. Anyhow, it is not open to the sceptical critics to find fault with Mark here, since they are unanimous in declaring that the last twelve verses of his Gospel are a forgery subsequently added to it.
Turning now to Luke we find in his Gospel only one verse
relevant to our theme,
Where we first find references to ascending into heaven is in John's Gospel. In John 1:51 it is the angels of God; in 3:13 it is the Son of Mankind, as also in 6:62. Thereafter, in Rom. 10:6 the Apostle Paul asks: "Who will be ascending into the heaven?" In Eph. 4:8-10 Paul writes of Christ ascending on high. In his vision the Apostle John is invited to ascend to heaven (Rev. 4 : 1) and later the two witnesses ascend (John 11:12).
Between them John 3:13; 6:62 and 20:17 raise a very curious
question: Precisely when did the Lord Jesus ascend to heaven? The first
The whole problem is very difficult, and I do not pretend to be able to give a complete explanation or do more for the present than indicate it. I can only hope for further light on what appears to be a great puzzle. There are, however, a few points to be considered.
First, John's Gospel and Paul in Eph. 4:8-10 are alone in writing of the Lord Jesus as "ascending to heaven," and both couple with it references to the Lord having first "descended." To my mind, there is a distinct suggestion that the whole matter is outside and apart from recorded history.
Second, in Mark and Luke the carrying up, lifting up, was done to the Lord Jesus; He was, as it were, the passive recipient of something planned for Him. But John writes of His Ascension as carried out Himself.
Third, there is no record of any witness to the Lord Jesus ascending, not even in John 20:17; whereas the carrying up was witnessed in each account of it.
As to whether the Notes to John 20:16 and 20:17 in the 1930 C.V. are correct I would not care to pronounce definitely. In my view, the whole matter calls for deeper consideration than it appears as yet to have received.
What certainly does emerge from our study of this most profound subject is that no cosmological presuppositions of any sort at all are involved in it. Any objection to the idea of being taken up to heaven vanishes when we ask ourselves "Why not down to heaven?" The incongruity of the latter is plain, and it derives not so much from any physical ideas of up or down as from psychological considerations—the fact that we all naturally think of God as up above. The difficulties of the Ascension are not physical or scientific at all, but are due to the fact that the exact nature of the event or events under consideration is beyond the power of ordinary language to describe and probably of human minds in a state of mortality to understand. It brings us face to face with the ultimate mysteries; and before them we ought to bow our heads in awe, not preen ourselves in contemplating our own cleverness.
Anyone who has kept abreast of the development of modern Physical Science and who has read something of the various attempts to spin cosmological or philosophical systems around them, will appreciate that though there is a very high proportion of fantasy bound up in such systems, there nevertheless is a vitally important core of truth in them. This is that the universe is an exceedingly mysterious thing about which we know infinitesimally little. It now seems clear that even solid matter is mostly a sort of emptiness, and that instead of some 92 kinds of tiny unalterable atoms it consists of a number of even tinier particles, some of which have extraordinary properties or can be turned into others even odder. It is also clear that we are still no more than on the threshold of any adequate understanding of these mysteries. Is it not, then, ridiculous for anyone to cavil at the accounts of the Ascension of the Lord Jesus on the ground that they are incredible in a scientific age? In fact, nothing is incredible nowadays, unless it contradicts known facts or unless it involves self-contradiction, that is, unless it is in the nature of things impossible. The man who says, " I do not know," and then almost in the same breath disparages the miracles recorded in the Gospels, is doing something that is inherently absurd. To allege that the evidence for these miracles and for the Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord Jesus is insufficient to command acceptance of them is not an unreasonable line to take, provided it is done in sincerity; but to dismiss them off-hand as impossible without even troubling to examine the evidence, is merely an act of folly.
One thing that modern Science has done for us in pushing back the frontiers of knowledge is to a considerable extent to cut away the ground from under the unbeliever's feet. Within the memory of many still living, the material world seemed neat and compact and safe. It was an accepted belief that what secrets that remained were soon to be elucidated. I even remember long ago reading the report of a speech by a then quite well-known scientist, in which he lamented the "fact" that soon there would be nothing more left to discover! These comfortable delusions have dissolved away, leaving us with a universe lonely, hostile and terrible, if there be no God.
As God's Word is truth, increase in scientific knowledge may be expected to reinforce rather than hinder our faith in it; and that is what in fact has happened. We now are beginning to have some understanding of the mysteriousness of space; and the dream that other material universes, unknowable to us at present, may possibly lie alongside our own, no longer seems altogether fantastic. The secure finite sort of "box" that a century ago our universe was supposed to be is now as remote from ordinary thought as the even smaller "box" under a solid dome of sky of a thousand years ago. The plain truth is that Scripture does not concern itself with such matters, and all notions like these are quite unimportant in relation to it. God's Word exists in its own right independently of all such issues. I t spoke to men of those days as clearly and unequivocally as it would do to the men of our own day, if only they would listen instead of thrusting their own finite and materialistic notions into it.
We need to keep in mind, also, that some unsound "science" was imposed on the Scriptures during the Dark Ages. An outstanding example is the word "firmament." Undoubtedly those who coined this word had in their minds a definite idea of a solid vault or dome above the earth—but that exists only in the Latin word and the English word from which it is derived, for the original Hebrew cannot mean anything of the sort. So the despised "Hellenistic Jewish cosmology" was definitely ahead of the cosmology of the men who coined the word "firmament." Materialism is by no means a purely modern vice. It existed then as now, only our greater knowledge makes it all the more virulent and dangerous.
Apart from this, I must decline to discuss the question of the Hebrew Scriptures and Science, partly because I lack the equipment in Hebrew and partly because of the great uncertainties that still exist in this subject. If only the critics and journalists who talk so confidently about it could bring themselves to be humble enough to pronounce only on known facts, we would hear none of the profane chatter that is so. common in their writings. Where we do not know we should not talk.
Thanks to new techniques of Mathematics, Physics and. Chemistry, great and intensely interesting advances are being made in Biology, now in a state of very active development, particularly in the molecular structure of living matter, the proteins and haemoglobin; but, important though they are, they have no theological implications. The old and rather tiresome controversy about what is termed "evolution" is also becoming irrelevant. Until irrefutable facts can be produced to overthrow the Hebrew Scriptures, we can afford to stand aside from these arguments. After all, the onus of proof is on those who contend that the truly marvellous. complexity and ingenuity of the molecules which form the proteins, not to mention the living structures of which they are the building-bricks, just happened, and that there is no Mind behind them.
I remember when Scripture was definitely ahead in one respect of what was then "Modern Science." Nearly fifty years ago my attention was drawn to a most contemptuous reference to Rev. 11:7-13. How could the events in vv. 9 and 10 possibly occur? Why, only a comparatively few people could ever manage to observe the corpses of the two witnesses during a short period of only 3½ days! What could be more absurd than taking this literally?
Yet now, in these days of television, what could be more absurd than such an objection as this? True, it is not yet possible for the whole world practically simultaneously to witness an event in one spot, but already events in Great Britain are being transmitted for television in America within a few hours, and already there is talk of world-wide television broadcasts by means of artificial satellites.
Again, how could a human body, even the spiritual body of the Lord Jesus after He was roused, move through walls and ascend at will? This question was once unanswerable; but now we understand that the ultimate particles of what appears to our senses as solid matter are very small indeed compared to the volume they occupy, and that these particles conceal enormous energy, it is now no longer. In resurrection, our spiritual bodies will have at their command vast energies in their material particles, not to mention other sources of power, probably inconceivably tremendous, not knowable to us at present. True, we do not in practise know any more about how we could utilise such energy than our grandparents did; but at least we have been freed from the delusion that such powers are impossible.
R.B.W. Last updated 19.12.2005