“Ideas Have Consequences.” That was the title of a book that I was required to read early in my theological education. It was not a profound book, but its title was memorable. We speak today about how certain decisions often produce what we call “unintended consequences.” The world of politics is filled with illustrations of both the fact that ideas have consequences and that there are unintended consequences connected with almost every decision one makes.
The same is true in the development of religious thought and tradition. In this series on what the Bible really says about the resurrection of Jesus, we have traced the pathway on which whatever it was that was experienced on the first Easter traveled among the earliest followers of Jesus. There was in these disciples a tremendous sense that somehow death could not contain that life. In time that sense, perhaps inevitably, created stories that put literal details into that experience. So it was that stories of a tomb, a symbol of death that could not contain that life, were developed.
Among the followers of Jesus, there was also a sense of his continued presence after the crucifixion. This experience ultimately created stories that suggested that this presence was literal and real. We noted that Paul used the word “ophthe” to describe these appearances. It was the same Greek word used by the translators of the Hebrew Scriptures to describe God appearing to Moses at the burning bush. What kind of appearance was that? Was it physical? Could it have been photographed? Could this experience be real and yet not physical? As stories developed about various people seeing the risen Christ, the authors of the gospels began to give narrative form to the ecstatic claims of those who said: “We have seen the Lord!”
This process, we have noted, grew slowly, starting with Paul, who wrote between 51 and 64 CE. He gave no appearance content. Paul was followed by Mark ca.72 CE, who never portrayed the risen Jesus as appearing to anyone. This note changed in Matthew ca. 85 CE, as the women saw him physically and the “eleven” saw him, but not physically. Physicality was, nonetheless, emerging as the new way to view the resurrection.
Luke, writing about a decade after Matthew, accelerated this process of physicality. Resurrection had become for him the resuscitation of a deceased body. That was the new idea that would bring with it not just consequences, but also “unintended consequences.”
Listen to Luke’s language. Luke has Jesus invite the disciples to observe his hands and his feet. His resuscitated body, he was seeking to demonstrate, was the same body as his crucified body. He had been restored to his pre-crucified self.
Resurrection was now understood to mean resuscitation from death back into the world of time and space, the only difference being that Jesus now bore the scars of crucifixion. If that was not perfectly clear, Luke then had Jesus invite the disciples to “handle him,” to note that he was not “a spirit,” the proof being that a spirit does not have flesh and bones. With this new, physically restored body, the continuous life of Jesus was established. Look, however, at the inevitable and unintended consequences of that new understanding.
How then does a resuscitated, physical body ever escape the world of time and space? The normal way that one departs this world is to die. Presumably, Jesus had done that, but it did not work. He had reversed death and had returned to life. Was he, therefore, destined to inhabit the earth forever? Luke had essentially created this problem by literalizing the Easter story until it meant not resurrection into the eternal life of God, but resuscitation back into the physical life measured by history.
Paul had recognized this potential problem and had even spoken to it when he said: “Christ being raised from the dead, dieth no more. Death hath no more dominion over him” (Rom 6:9). Paul later would assert that “The life he (Jesus) lives, he lives to God” (Rom 6:10). Paul concluded this passage by saying that we, like Jesus, were called to be “alive to God” (Rom 6:11). Once Luke had turned the Easter story into a physically resuscitated body of flesh and bones, however, he could no longer fall back on this Pauline understanding. At the same time, however, the idea of a resuscitated Jesus inhabiting human history, unable ever to depart this life, became an increasingly inescapable problem.
Luke then proceeded to solve this unintended consequence by developing the Easter tradition in a dramatically different way. If Jesus had been raised physically then he had to depart from this world physically. He had to go to wherever God was thought to inhabit. This is how the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven was born. It was a 10th decade Lucan story, one that had never been mentioned up to this time anywhere in any other Christian writing.
The story of the ascension of Jesus made assumptions that you and I cannot make. It became, therefore, literal nonsense in our time. The story of the ascension assumed that God lived above the sky of a three-tiered universe. It assumed that to return to God physically meant that one had to rise into the sky. Its nonsensical quality was brought home to me quite overtly by the popular, late astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, who said that if Jesus had literally and physically ascended into the sky and even if he had travelled at the speed of light, approximately 186,000 miles per second, he had still not, as of this moment, escaped the boundaries of our single galaxy!
We know today that it takes light about 100,000 years to journey from one end of our galaxy to the other, we also know that our galaxy is only one of billions, perhaps trillions of galaxies that inhabit the infinity of space. Luke would have had no sense of those distances, he was only interested in getting the physically resuscitated Jesus back into the dwelling place of God. He had to address the unintended consequences of the idea that he had himself largely developed, namely that the resurrection of Jesus was a physical phenomenon. Did Luke intend for the story of Jesus’ ascension to be understood literally? Of course not! My reason for being certain that he had no such intention is that he borrowed the content of his ascension story from another ascension narrative found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Then he expanded this earlier biblical story until it was big enough and grand enough to carry the meaning Luke was going to assign to it.
In fact, Luke was doing something with which Jews were very familiar. He was engaging in something they called “Midrash.” The Jews understood that spiritual truth could never be captured in literal words so they become storytellers, practitioners of “Midrash.” The content of his ascension story Luke took from the cycle of Elijah stories in II Kings, specifically the story of the ascension of Elijah told in II Kings 2:1-11.
In this story, Elijah did not die. He was like one other unique figure in the Hebrew Scriptures, Enoch, mentioned only once in Genesis (5:24). About Enoch the text said: “Enoch walked with God and was not, for God took him.” His life was believed to have been filled with such holiness that he escaped death, which was viewed at that time as “the punishment for sins.”
As Elijah prepared to hand over the role of “the prophet of Israel” to his chosen successor Elisha, Elisha made a kind of deathbed request of his master. If I am to succeed you, he said, “I need to be endowed with a double portion of your spirit.” Elijah was nonplussed by this request. “I do not know if it is in my power to grant this request,” he said, “but if you see me ascending into the sky, then you will know that your request has been granted.” The text tells us that at that moment out of the sky came a magical, fiery chariot drawn by magical, fiery horses. It landed at that very spot where this transfer of power was taking place! Elijah stepped on board this chariot, bidding farewell to Elisha. Then, drawn by those fiery horses and assisted by a God-sent propelling whirlwind, the chariot rose into the heavens.
Elisha “saw” and he called out: “My master, my master.” He knew his request had been granted. All that was left of Elijah after this departure was the mantle that he wore around his shoulders. Elisha picked that mantle up and draped it around his own shoulders. He now had “Elijah power,” indeed a double portion of Elijah power. The sons of the prophets recognized that this transfer of power had taken place and so they proclaimed that now “the spirit of Elijah rests upon Elisha.”
Luke took that story and applied it to Jesus. Jesus, he said, ascended into the God above the sky, but he was so much greater than Elijah that he needed no help from magical chariots, horses or whirlwinds. He ascended on his own power. He did not give a “double portion” of his human spirit to his single disciple. He rather poured out the infinite power of God’s Holy Spirit on the Christian community in such measure that it would embrace all time and all people. Luke took the fire both from Elijah’s horses and his horse-drawn chariot and turned it into “tongues of fire” that danced upon the heads of believers. He took the propelling whirlwind and turned it into the “mighty rushing wind” of the Spirit that filled the room where the followers of Jesus were gathered. In the process, he also solved the problem created by making the resurrection a physical body, by getting this physically resuscitated body out of this world and into the realm of God, which is what the original idea of resurrection had been all about, in the first place.
Ideas do have consequences. If one turns resurrection into physical resuscitation, one has to create a means to get that physical body back into the realm of God. More than anyone else, Luke had created that problem. The story of the ascension of Jesus was the way he decided to solve it.
Theology grows in surprising ways. Next week, we will examine the meaning of resurrection in the Fourth Gospel.