The intersection of heaven and earth, the boundary between the two, is not the same kind of boundary that we might find between two countries. If you were not on a marked road, crossing between countries is not necessarily something you would even notice. But crossing between earth and heaven necessitates a qualitative difference in experience.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the virgin, Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hades. On the third day He rose again from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Summary of the Text:
“And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:9–11).
After the resurrection, Jesus continued to appear to His disciples, teaching them and reminding them of things, doing so for forty days. After almost a month and a half of this, He gave them their final instructions, and then was taken up out of their sight. They watched as He ascended, and they watched continually until He disappeared into a cloud—indicating a significant height. The disciples were gazing steadfastly at Him, until they were interrupted by two men in white apparel. These two men were obviously angels, and asked them why they were staring up into heaven. This same Jesus, they said, was going to come back again, and He was going to come back again in the same way He departed. This means that the Second Coming of Christ will involve His return in the body.
Now when Jesus ascended, it says that the disciples were able to watch Him ascend. They did so until He disappeared into a cloud. Now let us—as the apostle says elsewhere—be adults in our thinking (1 Cor. 14:20). We do not believe that Jesus just kept going, at approximately 30 mph, until He came to occupy His sky palace behind the moon. Neither did he continue at that same speed on His way to highest heaven—30 mph after two thousand years would place Him about 17.5 million miles away, which would mean He is just over halfway to Mars by now, with Mars at its closest. We are Christians, which means we are committed to faith in the miraculous. But this does not mean that we committed to childish absurdities.
The Scripture teach that heaven and earth have undergone a “divorce,” and an essential part of Christ’s work was to bring them back together into union again. “And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20). Because of man’s sin, heaven and earth were thrown out of joint. And the previous unity was not demonstrated through what we would call “space travel.” That’s not how Gabriel came to speak to Mary. So through Christ we are being introduced into a completed nature that is being transformed, and reunited again.
Facing the Difficulty:
When we reject the materialist cosmology, which we do, with its endless concourse of blind atoms, this does not mean that to be pious Christians we must adopt a view of the cosmos that is a triple-decker stage set (Heaven, earth, Hell), made out of painted plywood. The language used for us is metaphorical, and the enacted language of the Ascension is metaphorical. As on many other topics, C.S. Lewis is particularly helpful:
“All the accounts suggest that the appearances of the Risen Body came to an end; some describe an abrupt end about six weeks after the death. And they describe this abrupt end in a way which presents greater difficulties to the modern mind than any other part of Scripture. For here, surely, we get the implication of all those primitive crudities to which I have said that Christians are not committed: the vertical ascent like a balloon, the local Heaven, the decorated chair to the right of the Father’s throne.”
But while Scripture does not require from us faith in “primitive crudities,” it does require from us a robust commitment to the supernatural, to the miraculous, and to a view of the cosmos that will earn us the scorn of materialistic atheism.
“The records represent Christ as passing after death (as no man had passed before) neither into a purely, that is, negatively, ‘spiritual’ mode of existence nor into a ‘natural’ life such as we know, but into a life which has its own, new Nature. It represents Him as withdrawing six weeks later, into some different mode of existence. It says—He says—that He goes ‘to prepare a place for us’. This presumably means that He is about to create that whole new Nature which will provide the environment or conditions for His glorified humanity and, in Him, for ours.”
As Lewis argues elsewhere, we cannot talk about the arrival of the Lord in this world (or His departure from it) without using metaphorical language. We can impoverish our metaphorical language, but we can’t make it less metaphorical. If we say the Lord “entered” this world instead of saying He “came down,” we are substituting a man coming into a room for a parachutist. But both images are metaphors, describing the intersection of spiritual/physical with an image of physical/physical. But that intersection is not actually physical/physical. At the risk of being misunderstood, it is spiritual|physical/physical|spiritual. In short, we are in over our heads.
The Scripture uses the term heaven to refer to different realities. We have the heavens to refer to what we call the sky. Birds are creatures of heaven (Gen. 6:7). Jesus says the same thing (Matt. 6:26). Heaven is where rain comes from (Jas. 5:18).
A second use of heaven refers to what is commonly called outer space. After describing the sun going dark, and the moon not giving its light, Jesus says that the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Matt. 24:29). Believers are to resist the temptation to worship these celestial bodies (Deut. 4:19). The stars are called the host of heaven.
But there is more. A third heaven contains realities beyond what we can see—called the highest heaven (Deut. 10:14), or the heaven of heavens (Ps. 148:4). This third heaven is where God’s presence is manifested, even though He cannot be contained by the heaven of heavens (1 Kings 8:27). And yet, God’s presence is somehow localized in this Heaven (Heb. 8:1; Acts 7:55). The presence of God is in this Heaven. “For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Heb. 9:24).
The Third Heaven:
Considering all these things, we should locate the “third heaven” that Paul equates with Paradise (2 Cor. 12:2, 4), with the highest Heaven, where the presence of God is manifested. An alternative to this would be to equate it with the third sphere of the ancient cosmology (Venus), a view I find much less compelling.
“Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession” (Heb. 4:14).
And so then, let us consider what holding fast to our profession, what holding fast to Jesus Christ, actually entails.