Years ago I read with great interest “The Ascent of Man”, first published in 1973 (BBC), by Jacob Bronowski. As a humanist he took the view that man ascended both biologically and culturally to his present point without divine aid. Though I had no quarrel with the notion of man’s ascent, I disagreed with the naturalism which underlay his view of evolution. However, many Christians deny the very idea of the ascent of man. They argue that man originally had, in the words of Milton, a “high estate” at his creation and lost it through the sin of Adam. The idea is that creation, including man, as the work of God was perfect from the beginning. Thus even today in 2008 Christian writers still talk of the “Fall”, of a fallen creation and of a cosmic curse, all of which seem to be conspicuous by their absence in the Bible. Behind their thinking lie the ideas of Augustine of Hippo, d. 430 AD, and his schema of creation, fall and redemption, which reflect his erroneous interpretation of the biblical evidence.
Also a number of years ago I read John Passmore’s “The Perfectibility of Man”. This too I found very stimulating, but again I seem to recall that a Christian reviewer adopted the idea that perfectibility for man was out of the question since he had fallen “in Adam” and was born sinful! Apart from scriptural denial of this (see e.g. Dt. 1:39; Rom. 4:15, etc.), my problem here was that the Bible seems to have a good deal to say about perfection especially in the book of Hebrews. While it says on the one hand that Jesus was perfected (Heb. 2:10; 5:9), it implies on the other that the goal of all human beings is perfection (Heb. 6:1) or glory (2:10) in the presence of the God of glory whose moral and generic nature we are intended to share (Rom. 5:2; 2 Pet. 1:4) as his spiritual children (Eph. 1:5, etc.). On reflection this appears to be the objective set before Adam, his physical son (Luke 3:38), in Genesis 1 and 2 but which he failed to attain because he sinned.
So what the Bible really appears to be saying is not that man is intrinsically unperfectible but that as one who is created both mortal and corruptible (Rom. 1:23) he always comes short of the glory of God by his own efforts (Rom. 3:23, cf. 8:3). Like Adam, but not “in Adam” which idea is an illegitimate addition to Scripture, he fails to keep the law (commandment) which promises escape if it is kept (Rom. 7:8-10), sins, and experiences death and decay (Gen. 3:17-19) in direct contrast with his immortal, incorruptible Creator (cf. Rom. 1:23). And since all men apart from Jesus sin (Rom. 5:12), they fail to meet God’s condition of life. Instead of ascending to heaven, to the presence of God as Jesus did, they all, Enoch and Elijah apart, lapse into the earth from which they came in the first place. Clearly Christian ideas of perfection and ascension require closer inspection.
Man in the Bible
According to the book of Genesis man, though created in the image of God, is born like the animals without knowledge of (the) law and of good and evil. However, he is implicitly challenged, first, to gain honour and glory by exercising dominion over creation (Gen. 1:26-28; Ps. 8:5f.; Rom. 2:7,10) and, second, to keep the law (a single commandment in the first place for one who is to all intents and purposes a spiritual child) in order to gain life (Gen. 2:17). Adam is thus presented as the first man who fails and all his progeny like him (Gen. 3-5; Rom. 3:23; 5:12). However, in his grace and mercy God makes a covenant with Noah and thus obviates the destruction of the earth which has failed to produce its intended harvest (Gen. 6:11-13).
Regrettably, in the course of church history biblical covenant theology has been much misunderstood, but it is highly relevant to the theme of man’s maturation, perfection and ascent and/or descent. Properly appreciated it deals with man’s intrinsic development from innocent immaturity and to perfect adulthood. All babies who attain to knowledge and/or of law begin, like Adam and Eve, by learning to respond (negatively in the event) to their parental ‘no’. Like the race as a whole in its heathen stage, they share as they mature the blessings of the covenant with Noah (cf. Acts 14:16f.) which remains in permanent operation (cf. Gen. 8:21f.; Acts 14:17, etc.). Clearly this covenant provides the stage of man’s development whether good or evil. The fact was and is that man in his heathenism lacking adequate knowledge of God descends into ignominious sin, as Paul indicates especially in Romans 1:18-32 (cf. Eph. 2:1-3; 4:17-19). It is precisely because of this that God first made a covenant with Abraham (later expanded and supplemented by that with David) through whom he promised to bless the world (Gen. 12:1-3,7; Ps. 89:1-4, etc.). Then he made a covenant of law with Moses by means of which he set the standard of righteousness to which all his chosen people were urged to attain in order to gain life (Dt. 30:15-30, etc.). In the event, all this was apparently to no avail because, unbelief apart, no one was capable of keeping the law (1 K. 8:46; Ps. 130:3; 143:2; Rom. 3:9,12, etc.). This is essentially the theme of Paul’s letter to the Galatians (see e.g. Thielman, pp.262-275). In the end God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3) who, as Paul indicates (Gal. 4:4f.), perfectly recapitulated the covenant experiences of his forebears (cf. Mt. 2:15), kept the law, gained righteousness and life, inaugurated his own covenant by his death and achieved perfection (Mt. 3:15; 5:48; 19:21; John 19:30). As a result of this he ascended and took his seat at his Father’s right hand. All was done on behalf of those who were to believe in him so that by faith they too might achieve righteousness, perfection and ascent to heaven and the presence of God (Heb. 2:10; 1 Pet. 3:18, etc.). In the famous words of Irenaeus, he became what we are so that we might become what he is.
It would seem then that the biblical covenants reach their climax and fulfillment in Christ who serves as the author and pioneer of the salvation of his people. (See further my Covenant Theology.)
The Perfection and Ascent of Jesus
Since the perfection and ascent of man have been basic to God’s plan from eternity, it is important at this point to focus on Jesus in more detail.
For a start we must recognize that Jesus, the Son of God, came into a world that had failed to produce what it was in principle intended to produce. (The difference between the preceptive, Mt. 5:48, and decretive, Rom. 11:32, will of God is important here.) In order to be the second Adam or the second representative man, he had like Adam and start from scratch (cf. Phil. 2:7). Biologically, like Adam he was fathered by God (Luke 3:38, cf. Ps. 139:15f.), underwent gestation in his mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13) and was created (Heb. 10:5) knowing neither good nor evil (Isa. 7:15f.). Clearly, as a developing infant, he did not like Adam break the paternal commandment to eat symbolically of the forbidden fruit. In contrast with his forebears (Jos. 24:2,14), he remained unscathed by sin during the heathen part of his life in Egypt and, as both a spiritual and physical son of Abraham, kept the law of Moses after his bar mitzvah (cf. Luke 2:40-52; Gal. 3:17-22). The result of this was that his Father acknowledged him as his true Son, a chip off the old block, so to speak, at his baptism. As one who had achieved righteousness by keeping the law, he was endowed with the Spirit and given the eternal life (regeneration) promised to (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.) but forfeited by Adam and the rest of his progeny. In other words, he pioneered what for us is the regenerate life here on earth (cf. Mt. 5-7) and proceeded to inaugurate the kingdom of God in his people by his death, resurrection and gift of the Spirit (John 7:39).
In view of the fact that as mortal, corruptible flesh it was necessary for him to leave this earth, that is, ascend to heaven as an individual (John 20:17) and be glorified at God’s right hand (Phil. 2:9-11; Rev. 3:21), it is here that his and apostolic teaching is of paramount importance.
The Teaching of John
First, it is made unmistakably clear that Jesus descended from the Father in heaven at his incarnation. John begins his gospel by underscoring Jesus’ pre-existence and divine nature (John 1:1-5, cf. Phil. 2:6f.). Then against this background he claims that the Word became flesh, dwelt with men as man (1:14, cf. Heb. 2:10-18) and made God known (1:18). Jesus himself is portrayed as teaching this. He insists on his descent from heaven and proclaims his eventual return there both implicitly and explicitly (John 3:13; 6:38,42,62; 5:30,37f.; 7:16,18,28f.,33-38; 8:14,16,18,23,26,38, 42, 55f.; 14:2f.,19,28; 15:15; 16:27f.; 17:5,24, etc.). Earlier Jesus had apparently seen himself as a bridge or ladder between heaven and earth (John 1:51) and this viewpoint is underscored by his claim that he is the way, the truth and the life (14:6). Clearly, he who had gained righteousness by keeping the law and gained eternal life (Lev. 18:5) was the paradigm of the spiritual birth (regeneration) of all who believed in him (cf. Heb. 2:11). And just as he eventually ascended into heaven after his death and resurrection, so would they (though the majority who died and suffered decay like David would do so by a somewhat different route, cf. Acts 2 and 13).
Luke and the Apostolic Writers
This testimony is not, however, confined to John. Luke describes Jesus’ ascension into heaven in both his gospel and at the start of Acts. In the latter, the outpouring of the Spirit, promised in John’s gospel on Jesus’ ascension (7:39), is graphically portrayed (ch. 2,3,10, etc.). Again, Paul strongly asserts both the descent and ascent of Jesus in Ephesians 4:9f. He also insists that believers are sealed as Jesus himself was (John 3:34; 6:27) by the Spirit (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). In other words, they are prepared as those who have received spiritual birth (John 3:1-8) through faith in Christ to inherit the eternal life (John 3:16) impossible in mortal, corruptible flesh (1 Cor. 15:50, cf. John 3:1-8). While Paul has little to say about the original descent of Jesus at his incarnation (cf. Gal. 4:4; 1 Tim. 3:16), he implies his ascent when he announces his second descent from heaven at his coming in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and Titus 2:13, for example. This time, however, Jesus comes in his divine glory (Luke 9:26) to rescue his people by raising them to heaven (1 Thes. 4:17, cf. John 14:3; 12:26) on the one hand, and to wreak vengeance on his enemies (2 Thes. 1:8; 2:8) on the other. (1* Note the typological lessons of history, e.g. the rescue of Noah and the drowning of his mockers in the flood; the rescue of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and Moses’ rescue of his people from Egypt and the drowning of the Egyptians in the sea. Bearing Luke 17:28f. in mind, we might also recall the rescue from fire in Daniel 3.) For Paul (2 Tim. 4:8), as for James (1:12), Peter (1:5:4,10, cf. 1:1:3f.) and John (Rev. 2:10), the goal of life is the prize of the heavenly call in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14).
The author of Hebrews thinks similarly (cf. Heb. 3:1; 6:1). While he portrays Jesus, having dealt definitively with sin, as seated at the Father’s right hand and reflecting the radiance of his glory (1:3), he also portrays him as returning to rescue his people (Heb. 9:28). The implication of this is that we who have received a heavenly calling (3:1) will be with him in the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22-24; 13:14, cf. John 12:26; 14:2f.; 17:24; Rev. 3:21, etc.).
Of course, there is more evidence to appeal to, but on the basis of what has been outlined above we can conclude that the ascent and perfection of man were in the plan of God from the beginning, indeed, from before the foundation of the world (Mt. 25:34; Rom. 8:29f.; Eph. 1:4f.; 4:15!). Man who was uniquely created in the God’s image was always intended to achieve his likeness as his child (Rom. 8:12-17; 1 John 3:1-3). In the event, while Jesus served as our prime prophet on earth, he became our high priest and king at his ascension to heaven. And it is to his image that we are conformed (Rom. 8:29). We are led to believe that even now he sits on the throne of the universe (cf. Mt. 28:18) applying the redemption he achieved while on earth and putting his enemies under his feet in preparation for the grand finale involving the full tally of his people (Rev. 6:11; 7:9). Then, when all is accomplished, he will present his kingdom to God (1 Cor. 15:24-28), and the ascent of man will be complete.
In light of this certain things must be said. While naturalism must be rejected, biological, intellectual, cultural and spiritual evolution, or development, are facts of life inherent in the plan of salvation. What has a beginning must have an (eschatological) end or goal (cf. Phil. 1:6). While the temporal material creation serves the purpose of nurturing the growth of man to physical and spiritual maturity, it is in itself futile and corruptible (cf. Ecclesiastes, Heb. 1:10-12; 12:26-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12), understandably in the eyes of unbelievers the work of a blind watchmaker. But then we have to reckon with the fact of anthropological dualism. While as flesh man ascends briefly from the ground to physical maturity only to descend futilely to decay (or, alternatively expressed, progresses from the womb to death in the tomb) like the rest of the animal creation (cf. Eccl. 3:18-21; Ps. 49:12,20), as spirit he progresses from the image of God to his likeness in Christ (Rom. 8:29f.; 2 Cor. 3:18) and takes on his generic nature (2 Pet. 1:4) and glory (Phil. 3:21; John 17:5,24) as his spiritual children (Rom. 8:14-17; 1 John 3:1-3).