Imagining a People (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 4)

Warning: Major spoilers from The Dark Knight Rises

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

What then of The Dark Knight Rises, to which I have already alluded so many times?  Although it is not my main interest here, I should not, given our consideration of the “Atonement” at the end of The Dark Knight, omit to mention the Christological resonances which echo throughout the film.  As mentioned above, although The Dark Knight appears to end on the decision to buy peace at the cost of a lie, there remains the possibility that the deception is only temporary, that Batman will rise from his self-imposed “death” to receive public vindication and become the true savior of Gotham.  The very title, The Dark Knight Rises, suggests just such a resurrection motif, and as the film unfolds, this motif is reinforced by so many gestures that it could not be mere coincidence.  Before such resurrection, though, the symbolic death of exile accepted at the end of The Dark Knight must be consummated with a true defeat.  This comes at the hands of a mysterious and inhuman denizen of the underworld who lives in eternal torment, serving only himself after being cast out of the order to which he belonged (in case we didn’t get it, he identifies himself early on in the film as “the Devil.”).  Batman is betrayed into the hands of this enemy by a Judas of sorts.  His back is broken and he is left for dead in a deep pit that is repeatedly referred to as “Hell,” from which he will watch Bane terrorize and destroy his now-unprotected people.  After being told to “Rise,” Batman succeeds in escaping this prison on his third attempt, and returns to Gotham, where he reveals himself in secret to his followers, and then defeats Bane and his cohorts, liberating Gotham from their clutches and receiving his vindication as the city’s savior, not its enemy.  At the end, he disappears into the air, presumed dead by many, though he is not in fact, and he lives on as the city’s symbol, having returned to them hope and the possibility of justice.  Indeed, he leaves behind him a dedicated disciple, who, it is hinted in a Pentecost-like scene (when John/Robin is surrounded by the bats in the cave), will take up his mantle and carry on his legacy. The correspondences are far from perfect—for instance, the first Judas turns out to be an ally in the end, and it is an earlier ally who is revealed as the true Judas after Batman’s return to Gotham; and the “Ascension” at the end functions more like another “Atonement,” since it appears that Batman is in fact giving up his life, rather than merely disappearing to another place.  And there are any number of ways in which Batman is not very Christ-like (though it is notable that all the way to the end, he keeps his “one rule”—even Bane is killed by another, not by him).  Nolan, it seems clear to me, is playing around with the Christological symbolism* to a greater extent than we find in other superhero films, capitalizing on its mythic potential and ability to highlight other themes he wishes to emphasize, but it is not meant to serve as the fundamental locus of meaning even for The Dark Knight Rises. Read More

Death is Swallowed Up in Victory

Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Those who sow in tears, shall reap joy
He who goes forth and weeps, bearing precious seed,
Shall come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls away.

Therefore be patient, dear brothers, unto the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits for the precious fruits of the earth
And is patient for it, until he receives the morning rain and evening rain.

But the word of the Lord endures for eternity, 
The redeemed of the Lord will come again
And come to Zion with a song; eternal joy shall be upon their heads;
They shall take joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall depart.

Lord, teach me that I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose, and I must go hence.

Behold, my days are as a handbreath before Thee,
and my life is as nothing before Thee.
Alas, as nothing are all men, but so surely are the living.

They are thus like a shadow, and go about vainly in disquiet;
They collect riches, and do not know who will receive them.
Now, Lord, how can I console myself?  My hope is in Thee.

The righteous souls are in the hand of God, and there no torment shall touch them.

How lovely are Thy dwelling places, O Lord of Hosts!
My soul demands and yearns for the courts of the Lord;
My body and soul rejoice in the living God.

Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; they will praise You forever.

“You now have sorrow; but I shall see you again
And your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one shall take from you.
Behold me: I have had for a little time toil and torment, 
And now have found great comfort.
I will console you, as one is consoled by his mother.”

For we have here no continuing city, but we seek one to come.  

Behold, I show you a mystery:
We shall not all sleep, but we all shall be changed
And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet.
For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
Then shall be fulfilled the word that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all Praise, honour and power,
For Thou hast created all things, and through Thy will
They have been and are created.

Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth.

Yes, saith the Spirit
That they rest from their labours, and their works shall follow them. 

So runs the text of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, which I was privileged enough to see performed for the first time this weekend—a masterpiece that must surely rank as one of the great musical testaments to Christendom. Although Brahms’s own Christian commitment is open to some doubt, this text, compiled by Brahms himself from the pages of Luther’s German Bible, surely represents one of the most powerful affirmations of Christian faith in God and hope in the resurrection in the face of death.  Indeed, I have little hesitation in saying that as a response to the fear of death, it is much more authentically Christian than the traditional Requiem Mass, with its morbid meditation on “that day of wrath, calamity, and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness, when thou shalt come to judge the world by fire,” and fearful pleas for mercy.  

Imagine my indignation, then, when confronted with these incoherent declarations from the concert’s program notes, courtesy of one Femke Colborne: “Brahms chose and assembled a selection of texts from Luther’s translation of the Bible. . . . [However,] the German Requiem is less overtly religious than a traditional requiem. . . . It deals primarily with the human suffering caused by death and the grief of those left behind, and although some of the texts deal with the hope of resurrection, there are no overt references to Christian dogma.”  Let’s leave aside for the moment the oddity of Requiem consisting entirely of texts from the Christian Scriptures and not being overtly Christian.  Let’s leave aside the question of how statements like “Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all Praise, honour and power, for Thou hast created all things, and through Thy will they have been and are created” contain no overt references to Christian dogma.  Indeed, let’s leave aside the point that not merely “some,” but fully half of the words of the Requiem’s text deal with the doctrine of the resurrection.

I’m particularly intrigued by the stunning claim implied by the last two clauses of that extract from the program notes—that the hope of the resurrection is not a Christian dogma.  It would be hard, in fact, to imagine a more Christian dogma than that of the resurrection of the dead.  Indeed, it was of course this doctrine, more than any other claim of the early Christians, that was a scandal and nonsense in the ancient world.  No Greek, no Roman, no barbarian or mystery religion, indulged in such an absurdly optimistic doctrine.  Perhaps it is a sign of just how thoroughly the Christian revolution has transformed the human consciousness that we now take for granted its most distinctive claims.  Indeed, perhaps Mr. (Mrs.?) Colborne could be forgiven his mistake, given the prevalence of a curiously vague and humanistic fascination with the idea of “resurrection” in Brahms’s German Romantic contemporaries, such as Mahler.  And to be sure, a vague and syncretistic hope in “resurrection” is a widespread theme in the post-Christian Western consciousness.

But I suspect that what Mr. Colborne really had in mind was that Brahms’s Requiem was less fixated with the idea of wrath, judgment, and hell, than a traditional Requiem Mass, and that since it didn’t talk about these things, there was no overt Christian dogma.  After all, we all know that what religion, and especially Christianity, is really all about is judgment and hellfire and all that.  Christianity is there to make us afraid of death, of a wrathful deity who will torment us if we don’t do what he wants.  Things like hope and comfort in the face of death, confidence of joy in the hereafter, etc., all that is quite natural and commonplace, not Christian at all.  Thus does Mr. Colborne betray the benighted ingratitude of modernity.  For of course, in the ancient world, it was clear that the precise opposite was the case.  Any pagan could’ve told you that death was fearful and terrifying, that we would probably face a wrathful deity and more than likely suffer torments after death if we fail to placate him.  Ancient religions may have disagreed about many things, but one thing they could agree on: joyful hope in the face of death, confident in a gracious God who had triumphed over death and would restore you to bodily existence, was delusional optimism.  And yet, so thoroughly has this delusional optimism triumphed, that we now take a vague and watered-down form of it (having quietly substituted the immortality of the soul for bodily resurrection) for granted, and dismiss Christianity as having nothing to offer but a return to morbidity.  



De-Theologizing Harry (or, The Death of the Death of Death)

On Thursday night, I had the privilege of seeing the final Harry Potter movie in the city where the books were conceived and written, so I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on how faithfully this last crucial film reflected the rich theology of J.K. Rowling’s creation.  I should mention that I was, until the very last book, something of a Potter skeptic, unconvinced that the books were anything more than a fun and overhyped story.  But in the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was bowled over by the overt and profound Christological elements, which were so prominent that it seemed impossible that they could be integrated without overwhelming the story and turning it into a sermon.  That they did not do so is a remarkable tribute to Rowling’s literary prowess.  Following the logic of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the final book revealed that the magical world of wonder that Harry inhabited was not all there was–there was a deeper magic, which overturned all the calculations of the magical world. 

But the question was, could Hollywood grasp this deep magic?  It had failed abysmally in the recent Narnia adaptations, sucking all traces of theology out with startling efficiency.  The less overt theology of Lord of the Rigns had escaped somewhat more intact, though still crucially undermined at points.  Whether intentionally or simply out of blindness, Hollywood shows itself remarkably adept at de-theologizing stories, and converting them, so far as possible, into some kind of feel-good humanism.  I had a suspicion, especially after Deathly Hallows Part One, that this supremely theological tale would be no exception.  Alas, I guessed rightly. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)

Now don’t get me wrong.  From a strictly cinematic standpoint, and indeed from the standpoint of fidelity to the book, this film was, to my mind, all that could be wished for through its first 100 minutes or so.  Even after that, I think it would be quite a decent film to anyone who hadn’t read the book.  But these last 20 minutes, encompassing the part after Harry dies and Rowling cranks up the theology into high gear, subtly but systematically removed four key elements of these final chapters, which I shall call “The Death of Death,” “The Life of the Age to Come,” “The Atonement,” “The Last Judgment.”  Note that not everything I sketch here is explicit in the book, and indeed, Rowling seeks to explain each of these phenomena in terms that make sense within the world of the book–this is literature, not a sermon, or even an allegory.  However, I am fairly sure that I am reading each of these out of the book, not into it.


The Death of Death

What is it that happens when Harry gives himself up to death, and why is he able to come back from the dead?  Well, in answer to the first question, we could certainly say that the Horcrux that is within Harry is destroyed; Voldemort is rendered vulnerable.  This alone is rich with theological significance.  Harry destroys the power of sin and death by bearing it within himself, and letting it die with him, just as Christ identifies himself with sin and fallenness, bearing it to the cross (does anyone think it’s a coincidence that Harry finds himself at “King’s Cross” at his death?) where it can be destroyed by dying with him.  But if that were all, there would be no reason why Harry would have to knowingly and willingly give himself up; as long as Voldemort killed Harry in battle, one way or another, the Horcrux destruction would be accomplished.  And yet great stress is laid in the book on the necessity that Harry voluntarily take this death upon himself.  He must give himself up to death.  Nor, if it were merely about destroying the Horcrux, would there be any reason he should come back from the dead, just as, from the standpoint of Christian theology, if redemption was merely the expiation of sin at the cross, it’s hard to see what significance the resurrection has.  

To fully grasp what’s going on at this point in the book, we have to think of the significance of the Deathly Hallows, which are after all what the book is all about.  The theme of the book is established many chapters earlier, at Godric’s Hollow, with the twin New Testament passages, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” and “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Harry wants to destroy the power of death, to become the master of death, but the way in which he does so is crucial.  It matters where his treasure is, what it is that he truly values.  If he wants to overcome death for himself, to set himself up as its master, then he will be little better than Voldemort.  This is the symbolism of the choice between Hallows and Horcruxes, which is built up throughout the earlier chapters of the book and comes to a razor-sharp point at Shell Cottage.  Harry recognizes that he must choose between pursuing the Hallows, overcoming the power of death by taking to himself more power than death, or by embracing the route of powerlessness, the long hard path of destroying the Horcruxes, which means eventually giving himself up to death on behalf of others.  (This fascinating dialectic is almost completely left out in the film The Deathly Hallows Part One, and so its resonances are absent at the crucial moment in Part Two, and the extensive conversation on this point between Harry and Dumbledore at King’s Cross is omitted.)

Harry is to become the master of death, but master not by setting himself over it but by putting himself under it.  Death exhausts its force by being poured out on him, the one who willingly seeks it for himself to save others.  Love is stronger than death.  “But I should have died–I didn’t defend myself!  I meant to let him kill me!” Harry exclaims. “And that,” Dumbledore replies, “will, I think, have made all the difference.”  This enigmatic comment is left unexplained, but for the reader looking for an explanation within the existing logic of the books, Harry’s cheating of death is explained in terms of the power of Harry’s blood, itself clearly rich with theological overtones.  The power of love in his mother’s sacrifice is in his blood, and although Voldemort took Harry’s blood to weaken Harry and strengthen himself, in this blood is the power of life that makes it impossible for Voldemort to finally kill Harry. 

In short, in Harry’s death, we witness the death of death in his own death.  Like Christ, “death has no more dominion over him.”  What this means is more than just the destruction of another Horcrux; Harry has not just struck one more blow, but in fact the decisive blow.  But to bring this decisive blow to completion, Harry must be resurrected.  Death must be publicly exhibited as overthrown, its powerlessness before the power of love must be displayed and enacted, Harry must tread the powers of evil underfoot, must reverse the sentence of death that Voldemort has enacted on him by returning it upon Voldemort.  And this resurrection must be no mere “rescuscitation,” it must be the return to life of someone over whom death no longer has hold (more on this in the next section).

All of this, I think, is clear enough in the book, although generally hinted at rather than openly set forth.

In the film?  Nope.  In the film, the conversation between Dumbledore and Harry is abbreviated so as to omit any sustained reflection on the significance of what has happened, and Harry simply asks, more or less, “So, can I go back?”  To which Dumbledore replies, more or less, “Well, if you want to.”  Why should he be able to go back?  On what basis?  Can the story just conveniently break the rules of its own world whenever it wants to?  No, as in Narnia, what we have here is not the normal rules of magic, but a deeper magic at work.  Thus far, the departure in the film is primarily one of omission, not commission, but the ramifications are still significant.  The following features will show, I think, that I am not reading too much into this omission.  


The Life of the Age to Come

When Harry comes back to life, it is not merely a reversal, a resuscitation.  He comes back as one who has passed through death and come out on the other side.  Now, clearly Rowling does not make too much of this.  This is a story, not a sermon, and Harry is, for purposes of the story, just a regular old human being, not the God-man.  He will go on to live a normal life, and presumably to grow old and eventually die again.  Nonetheless, the sense that “death has no dominion over him” anymore is conveyed in several ways.  

After he comes back, Voldemort, thinking him dead, triumphs over his body by casting the Cruciatus Curse, which ought to inflict unspeakable pain on any living thing.  However, Harry is impervious, he feels no pain.  Voldemort’s magic can no longer affect him.  For this reason, Harry can now face Voldemort without fear.  It is not as if he has now merely nullified Voldemort’s advantage and now comes back to fight him on equal terms.  The terms are completely unequal.  Voldemort has no chance, and Harry knows it.  The game is up.  “You must believe that you have magic that I do not, or else a weapon more powerful than mine,” says Voldemort.  Harry replies, “I believe both.”  Nor does Harry even have to cast a killing curse–Voldemort’s simply rebounds upon himself and he is destroyed. In the book, this is explained primarily in terms of the logic of the Elder Wand, and its change of allegiance.  The Elder Wand, the greatest of the Deathly Hallows, represents the power of mastery over death, the power that Harry has refused to try and seize.  And nonetheless, it has been granted him, in a roundabout fashion, ultimately because of Dumbledore’s self-sacrificial renunciation of it.  But in any case, the upshot is that Harry now, having given himself up to death, has been vindicated as the true master of death, against whom Voldemort has no power.  

Contrast this to the movie.  Here, there is no hint that we have anything but a rescuscitation, an unexplained but convenient mechanism for Harry to return to fight another day, so that Round Two can commence, and the special effects guys can go crazy for another battle scene.  The battle that commences is not one that, as in the book, is essentially futile from the start (for Voldemort), but one in which Voldemort still seems to have the upper hand.  Harry is running and dodging, the snake is striking at people (instead of being decapitated right at the beginning of the sequence), and nothing really seems to have changed.  Voldemort and Harry grapple together, and when their wands finally do meet, it takes some time before Harry can overpower and thus destroy Voldemort.  Instead, in short, of a narrative in which the decisive victory has already been achieved by the renunciation of force, Harry triumphs, it seems, by superior force in a final closely contested showdown.

It’s also worth noting one little sequence in the movie that runs quite counter to the theo-logic I’ve sketched here. Voldemort comes into the castle courtyard with Harry’s body, exulting over his triumph, and Neville steps forward to challenge him.  Neville tells Voldemort that Harry hasn’t really died, because he lives in each of them, in their hearts.  He is still with them in spirit, and so it really makes no difference.  They will still fight.  Now, to be sure, in the book, the defenders of the castle are still defiant, but they are utterly downcast.  They may not want to submit, but it is clear that Harry’s death does make a difference.  Harry being truly alive and Harry being “alive in their hearts” are not the same thing, just as, contra modern liberal Christianity, Christ being resurrected and him living on in the disciples’ hearts are not the same thing.  As Paul says in Corinthians, “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”


The Atonement

One of the most beautiful parts in the book is the revelation that just as the death of Harry’s mother protected him, so Harry’s giving himself up to death on behalf of his friends means that they are covered by his death, they are, as it were, atoned for.  The sentence of death was on each of them, unless Harry went to die himself.  He does so, and the power of evil and death no longer has any hold on them either.

“‘You won’t be killing anyone else tonight,’ said Harry as they circled, and stared into each other’s eyes, green into red.  ‘You won’t be able to kill any of them, ever again.  Don’t you get it?  I was ready to die to stop you hurting these people. –‘ 

‘But you did not!’ 

‘–I meant to, and that’s what did it.  I’ve done what my mother did.  They’re protected from you.  Haven’t you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding?  You can’t torture them.  You can’t touch them.'” 

This is one of the most overtly Christian ideas in the book, and is entirely omitted in the movie.  There is no sense that Voldemort no longer has power against Harry’s friends.  Quite the contrary–he is still a terrifying force, striking at will, with, it appears, a very real chance of triumphing.  


The Last Judgment

Finally, we come to the only change from the book that has been significantly remarked upon, because this one is too obvious to miss.  In the book, Harry faces down Voldemort in the Great Hall, in the presence of all.  Everyone falls silent and stops their fighting and watches the final encounter.  And instead of simply going for each other, Harry and Voldemort have a conversation.  Only at the end, when Harry has laid everything bare, does he engage and destroy Voldemort.  In the movie, the final showdown occurs alone, in a courtyard, with no one watching or listening, and only a minimum of conversation.  

Is there any significance to this?  I think there is.  

For what we have at the end is not so much a battle as a judgment.  As I have said, Harry has for all practical purposes already triumphed.  He has passed through death, he has overpowered death, he is the lord of the Elder Wand.  What remains is simply for him to exhibit this triumph.  All of this, I think, is theologically significant.  At the end of the age, Christ will not simply snap his fingers and wipe out evil, and everyone will live happily ever after.  No, he will be publicly vindicated, as will all his saints.  All evil deeds will be brought to light and laid bare, and the righteous will shine for all to see.  The lies of ages will be unravelled, and the truth will finally be spoken for all to hear.  The spell of deception which the Evil One has laid upon the world will be broken.  The wicked will be given one final chance to repent (or not, depending on your precise theology).  Christ will be publicly proclaimed as the true Lord of Ages, and he will name the Evil One for who he really is.  In short, just judgment will at last be given.  

All of this happens in that final showdown in the book.  It is crucial that Harry be publicly vindicated as the righteous one, the one who gave himself up to save the world, and that Voldemort be named for who he is–Tom Riddle, a coward.  The truth will finally be told about Dumbledore and about Severus Snape–the righteous will be vindicated, and Voldemort’s lies about them finally unraveled.  Harry will warn Voldemort of the terrible end that awaits him, and summon him to a last repentance, but in vain.  Voldemort’s claims to supremacy will be shown to be empty, and Harry revealed as the true lord of the Elder Wand. 

Although I doubt the filmmakers had any idea what they were doing when they altered this showdown, I think they were instinctively flinching from the intolerably eschatological nature of it all.  For the modern, the battle against evil, insomuch as there is one, is one that we each have to fight within ourselves, is one in which we are each alone and each victory is ours alone.  The idea of a final public confrontation, a judgment in which the nature of evil is laid bare for all to see, is foreign and unacceptable.  Nor can the modern handle the revelation of true lordship.  We saw this in Lord of the Rings and Narnia movies, in the watering down of the idea of kingship.  So it is here.  Harry’s supposed to be someone with whom we can all identify, and in the very last scene, he appears just a little too lordly.  Suddenly he is revealed as the guy who holds all the cards, so to speak, who suddenly has access to all kinds of truths that we as readers are still trying to figure out.  No doubt the filmmakers felt that audiences really wouldn’t be able to relate to such a transfigured Harry, and so the final confrontation must be no more than a last personal showdown between Harry and his nemesis.


As for the other changes, I can only speculate whether the filmmakers were intentionally de-theologizing or whether they really just didn’t get it.  Sadly, based upon the way in which reviewers have reacted to the film and endorsed the ending, I’m afraid it’s the latter.  Perhaps this is, if anything, more disturbing–to live in a society which is no longer reacting against or fleeing from God, but has just forgotten how to even recognize Him

Beyond Space and Time: O’Donovan on the Ascension

Today is Ascension Day, which, although one of the great feasts of the Church calendar, is not something most Christians give much heed to.  Perhaps that is because we don’t really know what to make of the ascension.  We confess it in the Creed, to be sure, we believe it happened, to be sure, but we don’t really give much thought to how it happened, or to what on earth–or in heaven–it means.  The former, perhaps, we can’t really know.  But the latter we should know.  Oliver O’Donovan offers some very thoughtful reflection on both in On the Thirty-Nine Articles (of which, apparently, a new edition is coming out in a few months!):

“For the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is that the renewal of creation has begun. In a body that represents ‘the perfection’ of man’s nature we see the first-fruits of a renewed mankind and a sign of the end to that ‘futility’ which characterizes all created nature in its ‘bondage to decay’ (Rom 8:19-21). There are two aspects to this renewal which have to be kept in a proper balance. On the one hand we must not understand the newness of the new creation as though it implied a repudiation of the old. The old creation is brought back into a condition of newness; it recovers its lost integrity and splendour. In the resurrection appearances of Jesus the disciples were offered a glimpse of what Adam was always meant to be: lord of the elements, free from the horror of death. On the other hand, restoration is not an end in itself. Adam’s ‘perfect’ humanity was made for a goal beyond the mere task of being human; it was made for an intimacy of communion with God. The last Adam, in restoring human nature, leads it to the goal which before it could not reach, brings it into the presence of God’s rule, where only the one who shared that rule could bring it. And so it is that the moment of triumph divides into two moments, a moment of recovery and a moment of advance. The resurrection must lead on to the ascension: ‘Do not hold me,’ said Jesus to Mary in the garden on the first Easter morning, ‘for I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ (Jn. 20:17). In the Western church we speak of God’s deed of ‘salvation,’ emphasising the aspect of recovery and deliverance from sin and death.  In the Eastern church they speak more commonly of theosis or ‘divinisation’, emphasising the advance beyond simple restoration to communion with the divine nature.  Both aspects are present; they are differentiated in the two steps of Christ’s exaltation.

Differentiated, but not therefore torn apart.  We cannot overlook the fact that of the four Gospels one, St. Mark, has nothing to say about the ascension; two, St. Matthew and St. John, hint at it allusively, and only one, St. Luke, narrates it as an event. In the theology of the Pauline epistles it remains, more often than not, undifferentiated from the resurrection.  The ascension, we must judge, does not stand over against the resurrection as the resurrection stands over against the crucifixion, it does not add a new element to the story which was not present before, but unfolds the implications of what is present already in the resurrection. Are we, then, to agree with Barth’s statement that ‘the empty tomb and the ascension are merely signs of the Easter event, just as the Virgin Birth is merely a sign of the nativity’?  No.  For, as Barth himself elsewhere wished to say, what the ascension shows us of the meaning of Christ’s triumph is distinct: It is the mark which defines one side of the resurrection, the elevation of Christ to the Father,  and therefore stands in contrast to the landmark which defines the other side, the empty tomb. In between them, holding the two boundary-marks together into one triumphant happening, are the actual appearances of the risen Christ throughout the forty days.

This raises the question of how we are to understand the ascension as an event. Can the statement, ‘he ascended into heaven’, stand alongside the statements, ‘he was crucified, died and was buried’ and, ‘on the third day he rose again’?  However problematic the statement of the resurrection may seem to be, the problems posed by the ascension are of a much more fundamental kind.  For ‘heaven’, ‘God’s throne’ and ‘the right hand of the Father’ are not places that can be mapped topographically within space.  The verb ‘ascended’, like the verb ‘came down’ in the creed, can refer to no spatial movement known to man.


Christians believe that God, in the person of his Son, has established communication between his being and our created space-time order. How else can we speak of this communication except ‘coming’ and ‘going’, as ‘up’ and ‘down’? We say that Christ ‘came down from Heaven’ and ‘ascended into Heaven’, yet do not think of the incarnation and ascension as journeys through space from one location to another, like a journey between the earth and the moon. As Athanasius said wittily: “When Christ sat on the right hand of the Father, he did not put the Father on his left.” These events are transitions between the universe of space and time that God has made and his being which is (in a sense that we can apprehend, but not comprehend) beyond it. Yet these transitions are ‘objective’ in the sense that they cannot be reduced to states, or occurrences, of Mind. The incarnation is not simply a mythic portrayal of the fellowship between men and God, nor the ascension of the triumph of the cross. Insofar as these transitions have one foot in our space and time, they are seen there as events — events which, however, have another end to them beyond the historical sequence of which, at this end, they form a part.

With this in mind let us think further about the ascension. Obviously, in one purely negative sense, it is an event in time: the resurrection appearances of Jesus came to an end. St. Luke makes it very clear that this is one important aspect of the ascension. It is the point at which Jesus is “taken from the disciples until he is restored to them at the end of time (Acts 1: 9,11). Even St Paul, who narrates his own vision of the risen Lord on the Damascus road as one of the resurrection appearances, acknowledges that it is ‘out of order’ (1 Cor. 15:8). But there is more that must be said about the event than that it was the cessation of the resurrection appearances. It is not only a ‘taking from’, it is a ‘taking up.’ It is a material event which involves the material body of Jesus; it leaves this spatio-temporal order to enter the immediate presence of the Creator…. This transition from the earth to Heaven is more than a reversal of the incarnation at which God ‘came down’; It is the elevation of man, physical spatio- temporal man, into an order that is greater than the physical and the spatio-temporal, and which is not his native habitat. What form does the human body take outside space and time as we know it?  Obviously, that is the unanswerable question, the one which earns St. Paul’s withering response, ‘You fool!’.  All we can say is that the transition has occurred, that there is a beaten path that lies before us, linking our physical existence to an existence in the presence of God which lies beyond its conditions We cannot see the path –the cloud which hid Jesus on the mountain-top is a veil for that which cannot be comprehended from below — but we know that the path has been taken and that we are to take it too.

In the same way that Jesus’s ascension means the elevation of humanity beyond the limits of ‘our’ space, it means also the elevation beyond the limits of ‘our’ time. Here we must guard against the suggestion in Article 4 [of the Thirty-Nine Articles] that Jesus is, as it were, killing time until his coming again: ‘he ascended . . . and there sitteth, until he return’. There is nothing wrong with these verbs; they represent, quite properly, the different points at which Christ’s triumph intersects with our time, past, present and future: he ascended, he sits, he shall return. But this time is our time; he is not bounded by it as we are, but is lord over it. We should not begin to ask what the ascended Lord is doing in the meantime, during the long wait before he must return.


What we see in the Epistle to the Hebrews is something very characteristic of the New Testament as a whole, the assertion that the Christ-event is the last thing in God’s plan for the world, and that with its completion the end of time has, in effect, already come.  We are seen to have our existence, as it were, in the middle of the end, in between the last things and the last things.  Still to come is the universal manifestation of Christ’s glory, but the time-lapse which separates that from the accomplishment of that glory in the ascension is of no significance.  It serves the function of permitting the gospel to be preached to the end of the earth, but it does not add to, or subtract from, God’s saving deed.  Thus we find, both in the Scriptures and in the creeds, that the ascension and the parousia (the return) of Christ are seen together, almost as one event.  When Christ sits down at the right hand of God, that is a gesture not of a patient waiting but of triumph.  The triumph is already achieved; it only remains for the triumph to be manifested universally.  Christ ascended has reached the fulfilment of man’s destiny; he is already at the end of time.  Mankind will follow him to that fulfilment.  Time is thus not an iron cage within which all events are bound, but a dimension of history–and in the fulfilment of the purpose of history in Christ, we see that time, too, is fulfilled.”

The Descent to the Dead

“The central meaning of the descent to the dead is that Christ’s identification with mankind in death is at the same time a proclamation of God’s favour, to those who are already dead, and also to those who have still to die.  The link between the cross and the resurrection is explicit.  Already the conquest of death is preached.  By making himself one with us in the darkness of God’s wrath, Jesus brings us out from darkness into the light of God’s favour.  And in particular he brings those long dead: the place of St. Peter speaks of the generation who died in the primaeval flood, because they, alone among all generations, had no symbolic prefiguring of the Paschal Mystery to instruct them.  They stand appropriately for all who have died without hearing the message of hope.  To all who have lived and died in every age the one perfect work of identification and vindication extends its summons to rise from the grave and be alive for evermore.”

–Oliver O’Donovan, On the Thirty-Nine Articles