Ascended into Heaven

There is no longer such a thing as a world arranged literally in three storeys. But was such a conception ever really intended in the articles of faith about the Lord's descent into hell and ascension into heaven? It certainly provided the imagery for them but it was just as certainly not the decisive factual element in them. On the contrary, the two assertions, together with faith in the historical Jesus, express the total range of human existence, which certainly spans three metaphysical dimensions if not three cosmic storeys. To that extent it is only logical that the "modern' attitude should dispense not only with the ascension and descent into hell but also with the historical Jesus, that is, with all three dimensions of human existence; what is left can only be a variously draped ghost, on which - understandably - no one any longer wishes to build anything serious.

Hell, existence in the definitive rejection of "being for", is not a cosmographical destination but a dimension of human nature, the abyss into which it reaches down at its lower end. We know today better than ever before that everyone's existence touches these depths; and since in the last analysis mankind is "one man" these depths affect not only the individual but also the one body of the whole human race, which must therefore bear the burden of them as a corporate whole. From this angle it can be understood once again how Christ, the "new Adam", undertook to bear the burden of these depths with us and did not wish to remain sublimely unaffected by them; conversely, of course, total rejection in all its unfathomability has only now become possible.

On the other hand, the ascension of Christ points to the opposite end of human existence, which stretches out an infinite distance above and below itself. This existence embraces, as the opposite pole to utter solitude, to the untouchability of rejected love, the possibility of contact with all other men through the medium of contact with the divine love itself, so that human existence can find its geometrical resting place, so to speak, inside God's own being. The two possibilities of man thus covered by the words heaven and hell are, it is true, completely different in nature and can be quite clearly distinguished from each other. The depths we call hell man can only give to himself. Indeed, we must put it more pointedly: hell consists in man's being unwilling to receive anything, in his desire to be self-sufficient. It is the expression of enclosure in one's own being alone.

These depths of hell accordingly consist by nature of just this: that man will not accept, not take anything, but wants to stand entirely on his own feet, to be sufficient unto himself. If this becomes utterly radical, than man has become the untouchable, the solitary, the rejecter. Hell is wanting-only-to-be-oneself; what happens when man barricades himself up in himself. Conversely, it is the nature of that upper end of the scale which we have called heaven that it can only be received, just as one can only give hell to oneself. "Heaven" is by nature what one has not made oneself and cannot make oneself; in scholastic language it was said to be, as grace, a "donum indebitum et superadditum naturae" ("an unowed gift added on top of nature"). As fulfilled love, heaven can always only be granted to man; but hell is the loneliness of the man who will not accept it, who declines the status of a beggar and withdraws into himself.

Heaven is not to be understood as an everlasting place above the world, nor simply as an eternal metaphysical region. On the contrary, "heaven" and "the ascension of Christ" are indivisibly connected; it is only this connection that makes clear the christological, personal, history-centred meaning of the Christian tidings of heaven. Let us look at it from another angle: heaven is not a place which before Christ's ascension was barred off by a positive, primitive decree of God's, to be opened up one day in just as positive a way. On the contrary the reality of heaven only comes into existence through the confluence of God and man.

Heaven is to be defined as the contact of the being "man" with the being "God"; this confluence of God and man took place once for all in Christ with his stride over bios through death to new life. Heaven is accordingly that future of man and of mankind which the latter cannot give to itself, which is therefore closed to it so long as it waits for itself, and which was first and thoroughly opened up in the man whose field of existence was God and through whom God entered into the creature "man".

We described resurrection and ascension as the final merging of the being "man" with the being "God", a process that offers man the possibility of everlasting existence. We have tried to understand the two happenings as love's being stronger than death and thus as the decisive "mutation" of man and cosmos, in which the frontier of bios is broken down and a new field of existence created. If this is all correct, then it means the beginning of "eschatology", of the end of the world. With the crossing of the frontier of death the future dimension of mankind is opened up and its future has in fact already begun. It also thus becomes evident how the individual's hope of immortality and the possibility of immortality for mankind as a whole intertwine and meet in Christ, who may just as well be called the "centre" as, properly understood, the "end" of history.

Modern thinking usually lets itself be guided by the idea that eternity is imprisoned, so to speak, in its unchangeableness; God appears as the prisoner of his eternal plan conceived "before all ages". "Being" and "becoming" do not mingle. Eternity is thus understood in a purely negative sense as timelessness, as the opposite to time, as something that cannot make its influence felt in time for the simple reason that it would therefore cease to be unchangeable and itself become temporal. Fundamentally these ideas remain the products of a pre-Christian mentality which takes no account of a concept of God that finds utterance in a belief in creation and incarnation

But eternity is not the very ancient, which existed before time began, but the quite other, which is related to every passing age as its today, and is really contemporary with it; it is not itself barred off into a "before" and "after"; it is much rather the power of the present in all time. Eternity does not stand by the side of time, quite unrelated to it; it is the creatively supporting power of all time, embracing passing time in its own present and thus giving it the ability to be. It is not timelessness but control of time. As the present that is contemporary with all ages it can also make its influence felt in any age.

The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, by virtue of which the eternal God and temporal man meet in one single person, is nothing else than the last concrete manifestation of God's control of time. At this point of Jesus' human existence God took hold of time and drew it into himself. His power over time stands embodied before us, as it were, in Christ. Christ is really, as St John's gospel says, the "door" between God and man (John 10.9), the "mediator" (1 Tim 2.5), in whom the Eternal One has time. In Jesus we temporal beings can speak to the temporal one, our con-temporary; but in him, who with us is time, we simultaneously make contact with the Eternal One, because with us Jesus is time and with God eternity.

In his earthly life Jesus did not stand above time and space but lived from the midst of his time and in time. The humanity of Jesus, which placed him in the midst of that age, hits us in every line of the gospels; and we have, from many points of view, a clearer and more living picture of him than was vouchsafed to earlier periods. But this "standing in time" is not just an outward cultural and historical framework, behind which could be found somewhere ot other, untouched by it, the supratemporal essence of his real being; it is much rather an anthropological state of affairs, which profoundly affects the form of human existence itself.

Jesus has time and does not anticipate in sinful impatience the will of the Father. "Therefore the Son, who in the world has time for God, is the original place where God has time for the world. God has no other time for the world than in his Son; but in him he has all time" (Urs von Balthasar). God is not the prisoner of his eternity: in Jesus he has time - for us, and Jesus is thus in actual fact the "throne of grace" to which at any time we can "draw near with confidence" (Heb 4.16).