In Chapter 19 of Historical Theology, Gregg Allison traced the development of the church’s belief about Christ’s resurrection and ascension.
The early church relied on the apostolic witness to the resurrection and ascension as revealed in the gospels and the epistles of Peter and Paul. “Following the period of the apostolic witness to the resurrection and ascension, the early church continued to insist on the reality of those events and to explain their significance” (Allison, 2011, 412). Docetism was one of the early heresies that the church had to confront since it taught that Jesus only appeared to be a real human being; they also downplayed the resurrection and denied its actual occurrence. Another heresy taught by a Greek philosopher named Celsus “proposed that the alleged appearances of the risen Christ were nothing but dreams or the products of wild imagination” (Allison, 2011, 413). The church fathers refuted these false claims and their position is summarized in the early church’s creeds: “[I believe] he suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and he ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father…” (The Nicene Creed)
The medieval church continued to confess and honor the traditional church doctrines of the resurrection and ascension (Allison, 2011, 416).
Appealing to Luke 24:46, Thomas Aquinas offered five reasons for the necessity of the resurrection:
- God lifts the humble.
- The Christian belief in Christ’s deity is confirmed by his rising again.
- The resurrection gives hope to believers.
- Encourages believers to holy living.
- For the justification of believers.
Turning to the ascension, Aquinas believed that Christ’s ascension fosters faith, hope, love, and reverence for Christ (Allison, 2011, 415).
The principal Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) continued to affirm the traditional church doctrines of the resurrection and ascension; however, Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli had different views about the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Allison states, “For Zwingli, on the one hand, it meant that the ascended Christ could not be physically present in the Lord’s Supper. Luther, on the other hand, held that the ascended Christ was indeed present bodily in that celebration” (Allison, 2011, 418).
The modern period witnessed the undoing of the church’s historic consensus regarding the resurrection and ascension of Christ (Allison, 2011, 420). Liberal protestants began to question the credibility of the gospel writers and the historicity of their accounts. Here are some of their false claims: the disciples stole the body of Jesus, the women entered the wrong tomb, the disciples fabricated the resurrection, Jesus faked his death. Responding to these false beliefs, evangelical theologians like William Craig defended the resurrection by restating that:
- The resurrection narratives can be shown to be complementary, not contradictory, in nature.
- Both internal and external evidence confirms the authenticity of the gospels, so the testimonies of the gospel writers regarding the resurrection are reliable (Allison, 2011, 426).
In Chapter 8 of Pilgrim Theology, Michael Horton showed the significance of the resurrection and ascension of Christ.
Concerning the resurrection, Horton focused on the already and not yet scheme. Presently, the kingdom is a spiritual reality, but the resurrection of Christ assures us that one day it will be a physical reality—where believers are raised to new life and the creation restored to its perfect state. Horton notes, “In the resurrection of Christ, then, we see the power of the age to come exercised in the present” (Horton, 2011, 217). He then explored the ascension accounts in the New Testament and noted the spiritual realities that came about as a result of Christ’s ascension: the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4), spiritual gifts bestowed upon the church (Eph 2:6-7), the church is empowered to fulfill the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). Commenting on the significance of the ascension, Horton notes, “The ascension of Christ actually created a new state of affairs in the world. In other words, it is an eschatological, not just historical event” (Horton, 2011, 225).
Richard Gaffin’s Resurrection as the Redemption of Christ explained why it is necessary to speak of the resurrection as the redemption of Christ. Since Christ’s resurrection marks the completion of the once-for-all accomplishment of redemption, Gaffin believes that the application of redemption to the individual believer is related to Christ’s resurrection as the redemption of the last Adam (Gaffin, 1987, 117). Gaffin states, “. . . justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification as applied to believers are derived from the significance of the resurrection of Christ” (Gaffin, 1987, 127).
The works of Allison, Horton, and Gaffin showed me the importance of understanding the theological and practical significance of the resurrection and ascension of Christ. The justification of the believer must not only be based on the death of Christ but must also include Christ’s resurrection and ascension. When these two doctrines are ignored, the church misses crucial truths in the gospel and for practical Christian living. The gospel does not end with Jesus hanging on the cross; if that were the case, Paul is right in saying “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19 NIV). But because Jesus rose again, He is able to save those who believe in Him (Rom 10:13). Furthermore, Christ’s resurrection secures the future resurrection of every believer (Phil 3:20-21).
Crouse notes, “If we downplay the resurrection, we downplay the ascension even more” (Crouse, Module 6). But when the ascension is given the attention it deserves, it is able to impact the life of the believer in the following ways:
- Peace in times of distress because Jesus is interceding on his behalf.
- Power to serve because of the spiritual gifts bestowed by Christ.
- Power to live a holy life because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
- Assurance of salvation because of the exalted position of Christ in heaven.
- Hope in times of injustice because Jesus will return to judge the wicked.