8. The Ascension of Jesus

8. The Ascension of Jesus

Jesus often spoke about his ascension, as he did about his death on the cross and his resurrection. He claimed that he had descended from heaven and that he would ascend back to heaven (John 3:13; 6:62; 20:7). The Bible teaches, that after his resurrection from the dead, Jesus ascended far above all the heavens, to the very throne of God himself (Ephesians 4:10; Revelation 3:21).

The Islamic idea

The majority of Muslims believe in Jesus’ ascension. The basis of this belief is found in two passages in the Qur’an (Surah 3:55; Surah 4:158) but a lot of support is taken from the traditions. A general belief is that Jesus was raised to the second or third heaven, but the Qur’anic statement means that he was raised to the very presence of God: ‘bal rafa’ahu ‘llahu ‘ilayh’, Nay, God raised him up unto Himself (Surah 4:158). Why would God choose to raise Jesus above the heavens into his presence? The only answer the Qur’an gives is that God wanted to save him from the Jews.

The Biblical answer

Jesus said: "I am from above ... I am not of this world" (John 8:23). He told the disciples: "I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father" (John 16:28). Before his crucifixion he prayed these words: "And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began" (John 17:5). This is a clear testimony that Jesus existed and shared the glory of God before even the world was created. Now, after the completion of his earthly task, he was returning to his previous realm.

A Muslim’s dilemma

For a long time, Muslims have seen that such an understanding about the destiny of Jesus undermines the Muslim’s claim about the uniqueness of Muhammad as the PROPHET. A comparison between Muhammad, whose body lay buried in the grave and the living Jesus in heaven, could be unfavourable to the spread of Islam. Thus no wonder some people like Mirza Ghulam Ahmad have come forward to suggest that Jesus did not ascend to heaven: "Nowhere in the Qur’an is there any warrant for the popular belief of many Muslims that God has ‘taken up’ Jesus bodily into heaven."1 The majority have vociferously rejected this idea, but a minority including Ahmadis still continue to believe that Jesus never ascended to heaven. In their belief the expression ‘raf ’ or ‘rafa’ employed in the verses of the Qur’an refer to Jesus’ spiritual exaltation and not his physical ascension.

The argument against Ascension

In Mirza’s opinion, the ascension is contrary to modern science. He writes that one may be able to spread such a belief among the people of Africa and the unlettered Bedouin of Arabia, but not amongst educated people, especially the people of America and Europe, who are already trying to get rid of the absurdities in their religion. He argues that in this philosophical age it is a big mistake to think that one would be able to achieve religious success while holding on to such beliefs.2

If such is the case, why then did Mirza believe that Jonah was alive in the belly of the fish for three days? How could he accommodate other similar matters relating to the metaphysical domain, like revelation, angels, resurrection and to some extent, reincarnation and the transmigration of souls?3

Following the same route, Zafrullah Khan says: "It is contrary to God’s law for a human being to ascend to heaven in his physical body and the Holy Prophet, being human, though a divine Messenger, could not ascend to heaven."4

First, unlike Ahmadis, Muslims do believe that Muhammad visited the heavenly realms. The occasion is known as Mi’raj - ascent to heaven. Second, yes it is impossible to ascend with a normal physical body, but it was possible for Jesus because of his glorified body and above all because of his divine status. It was recognisable as the same body, but with aspects and abilities attributable to the glorified, spiritual state.

Referring to Mark 16:19 and Luke 24:51, Zafrullah Khan alleges that they are merely statements of belief and not ‘a physical observable event’.5 Ahmad Deedat, although a Sunni Muslim who believes in the doctrine that Jesus was taken up into heaven without crucifixion and death, exalted the swoon theory very much in his debates with Christians. In one of his writings, he claims that the story of the ascension only depends on the two references, Mark 16:19 and Luke 24:51:

There have been only two references in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and of John to the most stupendous event in Christianity - OF JESUS BEING TAKEN UP INTO HEAVEN.6 [capitals his]

Deedat then rejects the authenticity of these two passages just because the Revised Standard Version of the Bible identifies them as being among the ‘variant’ readings and concludes: "The inspired authors of the Canonical Gospels did not record a single word about the ASCENSION of Jesus."7

It is interesting to note that long before Deedat Mirza Ahmad also stumbled on these references and thus argued that those passages could not be trusted, because Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses or apostles during Jesus' ministry.

A response

If the whole doctrine of Jesus’ ascension were based only on those two references, indeed this would be a serious problem. However we find that all the inspired writers of the Gospels knew about the ascension of Jesus. Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Right at the beginning, he tells about the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:9). In John’s Gospel, after his resurrection, we find Jesus saying: "I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God" (John 20:17 RSV). There are several other references in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ ascension is mentioned (John 6:62; 7:33; 8:21,22; 14:2,5,28; 16:5,17 etc.). Matthew and Mark wrote about the second coming of Jesus (Matthew 10:23; 16:27; 24:27; 26:64; Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62). They would hardly mention his second coming from heaven if they believed that Jesus had not first ascended.

In the Qur’an, there are only two references to the ascension of Jesus, yet most Muslims believe that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven. Similarly there is only one verse in the Qur’an about the second coming of Jesus and yet Muslims believe in it whole-heartedly. In the Bible we find passage after passage where the crucifixion of Jesus, his death and burial are mentioned. There are many references available too about his resurrection and ascension, just as there are verses that talk about his second coming.

Many Muslims and Ahmadi followers in particular try to read between the lines in a way they would never dare to do in the case of the Qur’an. For example, in Acts 1:9 we read that Jesus was "taken up" before the eyes of the disciples and "a cloud hid him from their sight". Shams, a respected Ahmadiyya missionary asserts his own interpretation with these words:

To be hidden from sight does not mean that he went up into the sky. It is very possible that he went to the top of the mountain, and the peak being obscured by clouds or mist, he was hidden from them; then from the top of the mountain, he proceeded on his way down the other side, leaving the country for some other land where he would be safe from the enmity and machinations of the Jews.9

What an attempt at explaining away the whole incident! He totally ignored what followed in the next two verses, where two men dressed in white stood beside them and said: "Men of Galilee, ... why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11).

In this passage words "into the sky", "taken from you into heaven" and "you have seen him go into heaven" are used. Shams did not even mention them. Jesus could easily have told his disciples that he was not going to the Father, but to a far country. But then he would never have said that he was ascending to the Father (John 20:17). Long before his crucifixion some of his disciples and other Jews became concerned about his attitude and claims. In response, Jesus said: "Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!" (John 6:61-62). If Jesus were not ascending to heaven he would not have used words like this again and again. He would never have kept his disciples in the dark.

Kashmir instead of heaven

Certainly it would have been disgraceful for Jesus, who is given the title "the prophet of Islam" in Muslim circles, to advise his disciples to stay in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4), to bear persecution when he himself runs away to another country, ‘to be safe from the enmity and machinations of the Jews’, as Shams claimed. What kind of prophet would he be, who after sneaking away, sends two men to say he had ascended into heaven? (Acts 1:11). This makes Jesus the instigator of a plan of deceit. The way Jesus taught, lived, and gave his life, one cannot accept that he was a ‘deserter’ or a liar.

To make room in their narrative for Jesus’ visit to Kashmir in India, the Ahmadiyya would go to any length to suppress the Gospel truth and ignore clear references in the Bible. For example, consider Jesus’ words when he prayed for his disciples just before his crucifixion: "I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world and I am coming to you ... I am coming to you now" (John 17:11,13). He was praying in this way to God. Was God living only in Kashmir that Jesus said, "I am coming now"? If Jesus knew there remained a task for him to reach the ten lost tribes of Israel in person, he would never have said these words in his prayer, "I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began" (John 17:4-5). This is not all. If the mission of reaching the lost sheep as the Ahmadiyya claim was about to take place, then Jesus would never have said: "It is finished" (John 19:30).

Did Jesus die at the age of 33, 60, 120, or 125?

To convince his readership, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad claimed that Muhammad said: "Jesus was 125 years of age when he died." He went so far as to claim that all the sects of Islam believed Jesus was a travelling prophet and lived for 125 years.10 However Shams, Mirza’s follower, claimed that Muhammad said, "Jesus died at the age of one hundred and twenty years"11

If Muhammad said Jesus died at the age of 125 and all the sects of Islam believe this then why do the Qur’anic classical commentaries state his age as being around thirty three? That is not all. In his earlier book, Izala Auham, Mirza claimed that Jesus died in Galilee after his escape from the cross.12 In the same book he tried to prove from the traditions of the Mishkat and Muslim that Jesus must have died before reaching sixty or seventy.13 To confirm this, in another book, Atmam-ul-Hujjat, he quoted Imam Malik (the founder of one of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence) as believing that Jesus died when he was 33 years old. Mirza even alleged, on the authority of one friend, that the tomb of Jesus was in Syria.14

But now, to prove that Jesus did not die in Galilee, or somewhere in Syria but in Kashmir, India, Mirza again wanted to show from the Muslim traditions that Jesus in fact survived longer and travelled to India. He quoted from a book, Kanzul Ummal which he called "a comprehensive book of Hadith". For example the following:

  1. "God directed Jesus (on whom be peace): O Jesus! Move from one place to another; go from one country to another lest thou shouldst be recognised and persecuted."15
  2. "Jesus always used to travel; he went from one country to another, and at nightfall wherever he was he used to eat the vegetation of the jungle and to drink pure water."16

Interestingly enough, he quoted the above traditions in his Urdu version along with the Arabic original. In the first Hadith, in his translation he inserted the words: "Go from one country to another." In the second he added: "He went from one country to another." Even if one is bound to accept his editing, it does not prove that Jesus travelled to India. The fact that Jesus was a traveller during his ministry can be seen in the Gospels, but he did not cross the boundaries of Israel. From village to village and town to city, he preached the good news of the Kingdom of God. When a man said to him: "I will follow you wherever you go," Jesus replied: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Luke 9:57-58).

In the Old Testament we are told that ‘Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, ... but to this day no-one knows where his grave is’ (Deut 34:5-6). Muhammad, however claimed to have known where Moses’ grave was. Abu Huraira is said to have heard Muhammad saying: "If I were there, I would show you his grave below the red sand hill on the side of the road."17 Those Muslims who oppose Mirza argue that to find Jesus’ grave was much more important. If his body had been laid to rest somewhere, Muhammad would have known it and told his disciples. It would have made Mirza’s task much easier. For it is certain that Muhammad did believe in the bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven.

Notes on Chapter 8:

  1. Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, p.135.
  2. Ahmad, Izala Auham, p.268.
  3. Ahmad, Taryaq-al- Qulub, p.155n.
  4. Zafrullah Khan, Deliverance from the Cross, p.68.
  5. ibid., p. 69.
  6. Deedat, Is the Bible God’s word?, p.17.
  7. ibid., p.19.
  8. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Izala Auham, p.420.
  9. Shams, Where did Jesus die?, p. 61
  10. Ahmad, Jesus in India, p.53.
  11. Shams, Where did Jesus die?, p. 153.
  12. Ahmad, Izala Auham, pp. 473-474.
  13. ibid., pp. 623-625.
  14. Ahmad, Atmam-ul-Hujjat, pp.17-19.
  15. Ahmad, Jesus in India, p.53.
  16. ibid., p.54.
  17. Sahih Bukhari, vol. 4, p.409.