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BIBLICAL ASCENSIONS INTO HEAVEN

One of the most puzzling features of the biblical books is the reference/s to ascending into heaven.  What is generally accepted is the fact of Jesus` ascension after his crucifixion on the cross, though there are several versions of this, dependent on which gospel you are reading. The Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are similar but different in their relation of the circumstances of Jesus being taken up into heaven. John`s version deviates somewhat from the narratives in the three gospels mentioned above.  As we have seen in my earlier studies, there are other (non-canonical) gospels, such as those of Philip and Nicodemus which provide other scenarios.  However, the fact of Jesus ascension into heaven is on the whole accepted by scholars and readers of the bible, at least by those who believe in Jesus` resurrection from the dead. As we see, there is much written evidence testifying to this aspect.

Maybe less convincing are the stories of being “taken up”  (into heaven) about Enoch and Elijah.  According to the bible reading, these two did not die in the normal sense, but entered heaven,not to return to earth.  There is however the assumption of Mary the mother of Jesus , a cardinal dogma in the Catholic Church (at least).  No documents attest to this incident, in which Mary also did not return to earth.  Three  other biblical figures attract attention on this subject: Isaiah,  Levi, and Ezekiel as revealed in the documents, “Ascension of Isaiah”, “Testament of Levi” and the Book of Ezekiel  One can read these documents which relate the so-called experiences (or visions) of “heaven” undertaken  by them and related to their community on their return to earth, as it were.

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Let us deal with the assumption of Mary first, as it is of course not mentioned in the bible, but was first promulgated officially by the then Pope, Pius xii in 1950.  However for centuries the idea that Mary had been “assumed” into heaven had been believed by Catholic laity and theologians alike.  It was presumed that so important a personage as the mother of Jesus could not have died in the accepted sense, but had to have a supernatural end to life.  This article of faith said that the body of Mary, after death, was taken up into heaven and reunited with her soul. Nowadays the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Assumption (in August) every year. Although we have said that there are no biblical texts that attest to the assumption or ascension of Mary, there are apocryphal, Gnostic documents that suggest the elevation, but these lack credibility , some of them undoubtedly spurious. (We can look at some of these later). Notions of an assumption began to circulate widely in the 6th or 7th centuries, and indeed  at one time the “Feast” was regarded as of equal status  to Easter and Christmas  (decared by Pope Nicholas 1 in 863). The concept of the “Immaculate Conception” ( declared officially in 1854) , reiterated the belief that Mary was free from original sin and there arose  from this idea or dogmatic statement , the belief  that Mary had been, fittingly, taken up into heaven. As the “Mother of God” and “Mother” of Christ`s Church this was only her due. The whereabouts of her tomb are not known for certain: both Jerusalem and Ephesus laying claim. There is an interesting (and intriguing) story purportedly given by St. Juvenal when he was Bishop of Jerusalem at the Council of Chalcedon (451) that when Mary`s tomb (wherever it was) was opened some time in the 1stcentury,   it was found to be empty, (thereby creating the probable original concept of Mary`s assumption).  This day, denying the doctrine is blasphemous.

The Feast of the Assumption is widely celebrated by several Churches and in several lands.

LEVI was the third son of Jacob and Leah. He is described as a mystic and a prophet. His “Testament” dates from the 2nd century BC, and is an Apocalyptic text (i.e. one concerned with future momentous happenings). Parts of the text were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in the original Aramaic. It is presumed that the document is authentic, i.e. actually written by Levi. The subject matter is largely concerned with prognosticating the shortfalls of his, Levi`s, descendants. What interests us most however in Levi`s Testament is his relation of two “visions”  (of heaven) he had which are mainly on the subject of the priesthood, promised and then delivered.  Then follows a section on the misdeeds of his descendants. Of some moment is the next section where a righteous priest is mentioned who will restore the damage done by Levi`s descendants. Who the righteous priest actually is we do not know for sure, but it may be one John Hyrcanus, (135-104 BC) , a Jewish high priest who became a just and enlightened ruler.

He begins his testament by telling us of the occasion when, as he was feeding his flock, “the spirit of understanding of the Lord”  came upon him and he prayed that he might be saved. “There fell on me a sleep” he continues and he saw the heavens open and an angel beckoned him to enter (the heavens). Levi encountered a first heaven, then a second, and the angel told him he would enter a third and there “stand near the Lord” who would “declare his mysteries”  which Levi had to report to men and proclaim “concerning Him that shall redeem Israel”.  The news to men was that the Lord shall appear “among them” to save them all.   (We may note the similarity so far to Enoch`s testimony when he also entered heaven. More on this aspect later.)

The angel spoke to him of the “heavens which have been shown to thee”, going on to describe the “lowest” level (for the unrighteous) and awaiting the day of judgement; the second level contains the avenging “armies” (needed at judgement day); while in the highest dwells the “Great Glory” and next to this is the dwelling place of the archangels. Levi is told by the angel that the Lord shall execute judgement on men, but that He will spare him (Levi) because of his righteousness and will make him a priest. Then, continues the testament, the heavens were further opened, whereby he saw the holy temple, and upon a throne the “Most High”. Then, the testament continues, the angel brought him down to earth , giving him a shield and sword, and telling him to destroy evil enemies. Levi asks the name of the angel, who replied “I am the angel who intercedeth for the nation of Israel” that they may not be “smitten utterly”.  After this Levi relates how he awaked, blessing God.

Then he discharged the task laid on him and informed his family about what he had experienced. Later, as he says, he saw a vision like the former. Men in white raiment clothed him as a priest, telling him that henceforth  he was a “priest of the Lord”. He was washed and anointed and clothed as a priest and told that from his seed would arise a king in Judah  who would establish a new priesthood. (See earlier)  – whose “presence is beloved” as prophet of the “Most High”.  Other future blessings, he is told,  are promised for his righteous descendants. When he awoke, Levi continues, he realised that this dream was like the first, but this time he did not divulge any of it generally.  He then speaks  about performing his priestly duties and living a  pious life. He spoke to his sons, warning them against ungodliness and the evils which would befall transgressions against the “Saviour of the world, Christ”. ( Prophetic words indeed, written BC!), He counsels his sons against sins, promising them a heavenly wisdom if they live by his words. He speaks about keeping the commandments, but warns them not to be “puffed up” because of their (presumed) priestly calling, and once again tells them to avoid pride which may itself lead them (and their descendants)  into iniquity.

Levi next speaks of a priest who “shall be perfect with the Lord”  but then tells of members of the priesthood who shall fall from grace  and become sinners. After this however “the Lord will raise up a new priest” who will “shine forth as the sun on the earth” and there will come upon him the “spirit of understanding and sanctification” , and his priesthood will be “enlightened through the grace of the Lord”. His children will “tread upon evil spirits” and the Lord will be “well pleased”  Levi then asks his own children to choose between light or darkness; they chose light and Levi said that the Lord is witness. Well pleased with the outcome, Levi lay down and “was gathered to his fathers”.

(Reading the above, it is clear that Levi prophesised the coming of the Messiah some 100 years before Christ`s birth).

 

A vision of “the heavens” (or account of a “visit” ) is also  attributed to  Isaiah in the document “Ascension of Isaiah” probably dating from about 150 AD, (unlike the above which we are reminded is BC) and like Levi, he  did “return” to earth.  (The document is one of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha).

Isaiah however died a violent death (unlike Levi)  – he was in fact martyred.   Also dissimilar is the authenticity of the text itself, which is generally believed to be by several hands, and is therefore a composite text the writing of which may have   been spread over about 100 years.  However we do know for sure.  The document, the Ascension of Isaiah, appears to fall into two parts: the Martyrdom and the Visions.

The Ascension was written by a Christian (or Christians) with the aim, as far as we can tell, of endeavouring to combat contemporary ills in clerical (and lay) life and to try to instil in his readers a respect for traditional morality.  The first part of the document is concerned with the martyrdom of Isaiah and the second part is devoted to the visions of the prophet which he relays to  listeners in earth. (He also talks about the birth of Jesus and the crucifixion.). It must be emphasised that the document is based on several earlier texts. It does seems as if the original language was Greek . We are principally concerned in this article with Isaiah`s ascension or vision of the seven heavens which refers to the coming deliverance by a Saviour. (This latter only makes sense in the context of an original  BC document.)

 

THE VISION

We are told that Isaiah had an audience with the then king of Judah, Hezekiah, to speak “words of truth and faith” and during this he (Isaiah) saw a vision, and was as it were transported to a heavenly kingdom by an angel from the seventh heaven. This vision of a world “hidden from the flesh” Isaiah narrated to Hezekiah and to other prophets. He spoke of a glorious angel who raised him on high and asked the angel who he was. The angel told him to wait until he had seen the heavenly degrees – the he would know. (Notice the parallels so far with the Levi document.) Then, said the angel, “Thou wilt return into this thy body”.

They ascended and Isaiah entered a region of strife and fighting. After this,  Isaiah entered the first heaven where he saw a throne, flanked by angels who were giving praise. Then he was raised through six heavens , seeing multitudes of angels and being awe-struck by marvellous sights and sounds. The accompanying angel spoke to him, saying , “No man about to return into a body of that world has ascended or seen what thou seest or perceived what thou hast perceived..” …”for it has been permitted to thee in the lot of the Lord to come hither…” Finally Isaiah reached the seventh heaven and was almost blinded by a great light , and rejoicing and praising the Lord, he begged the angel that he should not have to return to the “carnal world”.   In the seventh heaven he saw Enoch, and other notable figures. The angel then tells Isaiah (foretells) of the Son who will come down to free men but that he will be crucified, only to rise again on the third day. Isaiah beheld the righteous worshipping and giving praise and said “I was once again transformed and became like an angel…..and I saw the Lord”  Then he heard the voice of the Most High, the Father of my Lord, speaking “to my Lord Christ who will be called Jesus” The voice told him to descend to the earth, but in the likeness “of all who are in the heavens” (i.e. like an angel) . After this it appears that Isaiah observed the Lord`s movements in the various heavens, and puzzled he again turned to his angel who said: “Understand, Isaiah, for for this purpose have I been sent from God “ ( presumably the purpose was to show heaven to Isaiah who would tell earth  dwellers of God`s plans) . He also saw Mary, the mother of Jesus, and relates the story of the birth of Jesus. Isaiah then returns to his theme of the Lord`s glory and destiny – his crucifixion .  After imagining Christ`s death,  the prophet relates Jesus`s ascent into the heavens. The angel then speaks to Isaiah saying, “ Isaiah, it is enough for thee….for thou hast seen what no child of flesh has seen…and thou wilt return into thy garment of the flesh  until thy days are completed. Then thou wilt come hither”.

On his return to earth Isaiah spoke with Hezekiah and related all that had happened to him , asking the King not to repeat it to the people of Israel .  Unfortunately the words of Isaiah did become known, and the presumption is that the interpretation of the words and visions would be deleterious to the future of the Jewish nation and that above all,  Isaiah had  made it all up or had experienced the visions by means of occult power.  Tragically we are told that because of the above, Isaiah suffered death – a martyr.

 

We now come to the two people in the bible who it appears did ascend (or were taken up ) into heaven, had visions but who did not return, unlike the subjects of our previous two studies, They were Enoch and Elijah . Like Jesus they also ascended.

The most famous statement concerning Enoch is “Enoch walked with God and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis). As Hebrews  says, he had pleased God and his reward was “not to see death”. Regarding Elijah, he was walking  with his son when a chariot appeared separating them; Elijah was taken up by a whirlwind “into heaven” and was seen no more. Both presumably remained in the presence of God.  However we must add that according to Mark, Elijah did appear once on the earth, after his ascension (and the ascension of Jesus)    in the presence of Jesus, Peter , James and John. I emphasise the word “appeared”.

In John`s gospel Jesus  says that no-one ascended into heaven except himself which on the surface seems to contradict the ascensions of Enoch and Elijah. However the significance  is that  Christ came down from heaven (as the Son of God) in the first place and only later ascended back into heaven – which of course was not the same situation as pertained to our two prophets. Here we may quote another passage from John: (speaking to his followers) : “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.” Regarding the ascensions, it is clear from the Old Testament that God came down to earth to speak with humanity several times, and that in the New, Christ  (or the Son of God) came down to earth in mortal form.  It was only after Christ became man (on earth) that people, such as the author of Revelation,  ascended into heaven and returned.

Ezekiel`s  Book, especially the sections on the heavenly visions, is a puzzling document. It is not always easy to read, decipher the meaning,  but it is above all intriguing. The Book itself is called after the prophet Ezekiel, but like so many of the biblical Books was probably not written by the ascribed author; however some parts probably were. The likelihood is that there were several writers over a number of years, but the usually accepted date is about  500 BC.  The visionary sections were in all probability written by Ezekiel himself: the book is mainly a record of Ezekiel`s prophecies which he disclosed to his community. He , as far as can be gathered, was a priest and one of the Israelite exiles in Babylon. He was very clearly concerned about his people living in bondage to their Babylonian captors and much of his book reflects this.

It is the first section of the book that concerns us in the present context. This describes his encounter with the Lord travelling on a very strange chariot indeed; a most puzzling passage which has been variously interpreted. It does need to be read! (All of chapter 1) It may be noted here that the Book of Revelation (more on this later) seems to refer to some of Ezekiel`s visions. It does not appear however that the words of the prophet had much impact on his contemporaries although he was often regarded as a speaker of oracles. When exactly he died and how is not known.

Much of Ezekiel`s prophecy was fulfilled, however. His purpose in writing the book was to emphasise that trust in the Lord would never be mistaken and that despite difficult times the nation had to have faith in God. Very often he is ,to say the least,  critical of his people, denouncing them for their sins, and foretelling of divine punishments. In one vision he tells of God revealing to him the reason for these punishments. In another, towards the end of the book, he speaks of the re-emergence of the nation, nurtured by God and restored to glory.

At this juncture we can look at some of the sections concerning Ezekiel`s visions. He begins abruptly: “…as I was among the exiles …..the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” (1;1) As we mentioned earlier, Ezekiel saw God in a chariot drawn by weird creatures. He saw a “firmament” and a throne and a brightness and realised he was in the presence of the Lord who spoke to him, addressing him as “son of man”.  God told him  to go to the house of Israel and “speak my words to them”. After this the “Spirit lifted me up and took me away”. Several times God spoke to Ezekiel, commanding him to carry out certain instructions. One of the main themes of the text is God`s anger with his chosen people, and therefore the necessity for reform and repentance on the part of the nation. Later we read of Ezekiel`s visit to the “house of the Lord” where he saw angels and cherubim, whose impression on Ezekiel was of threat to all sinners. “Then the vision that I had seen went up from me”: (11; 24)

So far we have said little about Elijah and Enoch apart from mentioning their vision or ascension. The Book of Enoch although not to be found in any of the Christian Bibles is in truth one of the most revealing and remarkable texts in the whole field of religious literature.  The Book is one of the Hebrew apocryphal documents written about 200 BC. As Enoch was the great, great, grandfather of Noah, he could not possibly be the author of the texts we now have unless an original now lost existed.

Enoch in his Book describes the heavenly spiritual world in some detail and also deals similarly with his visions of Hell. A great many topics are mentioned,  among them the fallen angels, and their illicit relations with human women. One of the most censorious according to the text is the disclosure of occult and secret knowledge to humans which was misused by   them and eventually brutish behaviour ruled as a result. Consequently (as we know) a flood was needed  to wipe out the sinners and restore the balance.

Much interesting and revealing matter is to be found in the Book of Enoch –Book 1, that is : all concerned with heavenly activity and/or beings. The Book itself largely describes the fall of the Watchers (angels who came down from heaven but who were attracted by mortal women),   whose liaison resulted in wicked giants. Enoch`s visit to heaven  is in the form of a vision. (See my article on the Book of Giants for further elucidation.) The final part is concerned with Enoch`s journeys through heaven , the earth and hell (Sheol).

At the beginning of the Book we are told that  Enoch is “a just man whose eyes were opened by God so that he saw a vision of the Holy One in the heavens, which the sons of God showed to me and from them I heard everything  and I knew what I saw, but these things that I saw will not come to pass for this generation but for a generation that has yet to come,”  It is the section known as the Dream Visions that are possibly the most interesting and significant, supposedly written  about  150 BC. , and dealing with the angels, the Deluge, the Exodus, and the destruction of Jerusalem.

Some texts describe Enoch`s life after his translation to heaven. There he is made guardian of all things celestial, and attendant on God`s throne.  He is the recipient of all knowledge and carries out God`s wishes, All wisdom was his, he was the chief of the angels and his earthly body was changed to one of light. He did not return to the world, but remained “taken up” in heaven.

 

Here we can add a few words more on Elijah, who like Enoch, was taken up to heaven.  He was possibly the pre-eminent Old Testament prophet, who lived a holy life and fought against evil;  some sources suggest he had healing powers and could do miraculous deeds.

Be that as it may there is no doubt that his name is venerated by Christian and non-Christian alike. .  The text, 2Kings, 3, tells us of Elijah`s “disappearance”. Apparently he was to be preserved by God so that he could be entrusted at the end of time with a mission of the utmost importance, to be accomplished before Christ became the Messiah. Whether this particular mission was accomplished we do not know. According to Kings, he was “translated” so that he could not taste death. It seems he was conversing with his son on the hills of Moab when a “fiery chariot and fiery horses parted them both asunder and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven”. An effort was made to find him but failed to produce anything.

Like Enoch, Elijah remained in heaven , rewarded by God for his exemplary life on earth.

Perhaps here a brief mention of the Apocalypse of Elijah would not be amiss. This apocryphal work is dated at some time in the 2nd century AD. The author or authors are unknown. The document is supposed to be an account of the revelations of an angel to Elijah. The substance of the book  is concerned with an adjuration to prayer, a foretelling and a description of a “Son of lawlessness” who eventually will be destroyed and a putative account of the martyrdoms of Enoch and Elijah based on unreliable evidence. Thus the Apocalypse as we have mentioned , is meant to be revelations by the archangel Michael to Elijah , largeiy consisting of a description of the Antichrist (the son of lawlessness) and revealing  how sin is punished.

Like Enoch, Elijah was taken up into heaven before normal death. He was a figure of great consequence to succeeding generations so it is no wonder that texts dealing with heavenly revelations are ascribed pseudepigraphically to him.

 

That very strange Book called Revelation purports to be a vision that one, John of Patmos (an island), had in about 95 AD. The book is open to various interpretations but mainly is concerned with describing the revelations given to John by Jesus Christ. The message of the text is that reconciliation with God is possible  if life is lived in accordance with his law. This apocalyptic book foretells great events and culminates in predicting end of world happenings. The author writes: “I was in the spirit on the Lord`s day and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet” which told him to write down what he was about to see. The revelatory vision/s are about to begin which comprise the burden of the book which was written to give succour to the Asian churches at a time when problems internal and external (Roman persecution) beset them’ The salient theme is that no matter what , faith in Jesus Christ is all important and  that God will destroy all evil. Thus to encapsulate, the Book is a record of revelations which God gave to Jesus, and then gave to John by sending an angel to him, who “commissioned” him (John) to write it down and thereby disseminate it.  A fitting conclusion to the Book is contained in some lines towards the end of the text: “As for the victorious, I will give him the honour of sitting beside me on my throne just as I myself have won the victory and have taken my seat beside my Father on his throne. Let the listener hear what the spirit says to the Churches”.

As we are not examining the Book itself, and are  keeping to the topic of biblical ascensions, we can make some general comment.   It is clear from a reading of Revelation that the author did not have visions of a heavenly paradise in which God and the angels dwelt – which makes it different in this respect (and others) from the other writings we have discussed. He was concerned with much more mundane (in its original sense) matters! He was not “taken up” from the world but had his visions on earth.