The Problem of the Ascension

Here is an argument that seems to pose a prima facie problem for the core Christian doctrine that Christ ascended into heaven:

(1) Christ has a body
(2) Whatever has a body is physical/extended
(C1) Therefore Christ is physical/extended [1,2]
(3) Christ ascended into heaven
(4) Whatever ascends into heaven is in heaven
(C2) Therefore Christ is in heaven [3,4]
(5) Heaven is non-physical/unextended
(6) If something is non-physical/unextended then whatever is in it is non-physical/unextended
(C3) Therefore Whatever is in heaven is non-physical/unextended [5,6]
(C4) Therefore Christ is non-physical/unextended [C2,5]
(C5) Therefore Christ is physical and not physical/ extended and not extended. [C1,C4]

Holding onto (1) seems to be essential to the Christian message given the theological thesis that whenever a human soul does not poses a body, the human is dead and the fact that Christ is not dead (“Christ is risen indeed!”).

One may also argue for (1) on medical grounds. Whenever a humans brain and heart cease to function, the human is dead, and if Christ has no body then he has no brain and no heart, so he would have no brain and heart to function, so he would be dead, but as I said before Christ is not dead, therefore Christ must have a body. (It would seem odd to think the one that defeated death ascended into heaven only to be dead again).

One may also argue for (1) on the basis that it follows from the traditional view of the Eucharist. Whether one accepts consubstantiation or transubstantiation one must believe that the ascended Christ has a body for both views entail that he does.

(2) just seems to be an essential truth about what bodies are; they are extended, physical things. It seems impossible to imagine something being a body but not being extended. What would it even be to be an unextended body? It seems that any unextended thing would not be a body at all.

(3) is just the Christian doctrine in question. Denying it would result in either denying Christianity full stop or falling into some extreme heresy such as docetism.

(4) just seems to be a truism. If I ascend into space then I am in space, likewise if I ascend into heaven I am in heaven.

(5) Seems to follow from the standard Christian belief that heaven is a spiritual realm. If it is spiritual it is not bodily. If it is not bodily then it is not extended. Further if it is spiritual, since spirits are unextended then it is unextended.

(6) Seems to me to be true for how could an extended thing be in an unextended place?

So the question is what premise(s) could one push on to get rid of the problem in a non-ad hoc and convincing way or is there a way to render the argument invalid?

I haven’t seen much work at all on this problem. William Lane Craig has a small reply to an argument a long these lines, he seems to think that we ought to deny (1). I find this completely unsatisfactory for the reasons I gave above and I believe that it is probably unbiblical. So let me know your thoughts because I have been thinking about this a lot recently and find it to be a very interesting problem.



  1. I love how I’ll find an email in my inbox every few months notifying me of a post here. This is an interesting question.

    My knee-jerk reaction is to feel skeptical of (5) & (6), so I’ll bite.

    What gives us the licence to assign attributes of non-physical-ness/unextended-ness to anything?

    It seems this is wholly outside of our experiences of reality to attribute.

    • Sean,

      You say that you are skeptical of (5) and (6) on the grounds that “this is wholly outside of our experiences of reality to attribute” and you ask what gives us permission to attribute non-physicality and lack of extension to a thing.

      I think lurking in your comment here is a certain lean towards a logical positivist kind of attitude, which, I’m must say, has gone the way of the dingo in current analytic philosophy. We don’t need to experience something in order to attribute certain properties to them. I have never experienced the number 2 yet I can say many things about the properties it has, for example it is the successor of 1. Further, there are plenty of things in which metaphysicians would say are not extended. Any abstract object wouldn’t be extended, properties aren’t extended, space-time points aren’t extended (or else they wouldn’t be a point). As far as non-physical things go, once again we have abstracta such as propositions, states of affairs (in the Notre Dame sense), numbers, platonic universals, perhaps minds, and plenty of other entities.

      Beyond this, I interact with concepts everyday and concepts are certainly neither physical nor extended. How is it that the concept ‘circle’ is either physical or extended? Surely, anything that concept applies to must be extended but the concept itself is not.

      • Summa,

        Thanks for the thoughtful response. I feel, as typically is the case when reading this blog, immediately out of my element by your response.

        Before I attempt to tackle your response, I’d like to become a bit more educated on “extendedness”, in the philosophical sense. Wikipedia seems to give me a few possibilities as to what the term means, but more importantly I desire to understand the term in these sense that both you and the original argument mean it. Any good sources?

      • Sean,

        Sorry for the delayed reply. I don’t spend much time thinking about this blog, which often leaves me forgetting about who I’ve replied to and who I haven’t.

        I’m not sure if I have a great definition for ‘extendedness’, and I’m not sure that I can give a full definition that will be air-tight (I don’t necessarily think I need to for many concepts though, so long as I can illuminate how to use them and how they work). That being said, one could just say that to be extended is to have (and maybe just to have) spacial dimension. From what I know Descartes seemed to think something like this. From what I gather he thought extendedness was just to be located over spatial coordinates. I think he then goes on further to say that to be a body is just to be extended (which leads to weird views that what we would normally end up thinking of as empty space ends up being a body).

        As you can see in Paul’s post Aquinas seems to deny that bodies need to be extended. Another possible reading is that he may be denying the partial definition I gave above. Aquinas may then go on and say that to be extended is to have dimension and that’s all that is necessary for extendedness.

  2. I have no idea how physical people (Jesus, probably Mary, Elijah, Enoch) get up to Heaven with their bodies.

    But I can give you a list of sources where St. Thomas Aquinas talks about it, and then there’s a commentary on this by Garrigou Lagrange and another mention about bodies in Heaven by Jacques Maritain. Lagrange is a dyed-in-the-wool Thomist, and Maritain is pretty Continental, so you may not like their arguments, but there you go… I don’t know many of the analytical philosophers…

    Aquinas: Summa Theologica, Part 3, Q. 57, esp Article 2 and Article 4. Reply Obj. 3 gets somewhat at it with “Although it is not of the nature of a body for it to be in the same place with another body, yet God can bring it about miraculously that a body be with another in the same place, as Christ did when He went forth from the Virgin’s sealed womb, also when He entered among the disciples through closed doors, as Gregory says (Hom. xxvi). Therefore Christ’s body can be in the same place with another body, not through some inherent property in the body, but through the assistance and operation of the Divine power. ”

    Aquinas in this section refers to Part 1, Q.8, Article 2, Objection 3: “…But if its totality be considered according to quantity which it has accidentally, then it is not whole in every part of the surface. On the other hand, incorporeal substances have no totality either of themselves or accidentally…” and insists that the body of Jesus being in Heaven has both the important aspects of the body: It is located in a particular place and has a particular extension (this seems to me to be why he would refer to this section).

    Also he mentions, in Part 1, Q. 52, Article 1: “Accordingly there is no need for saying that an angel can be deemed commensurate with a place, or that he occupies a space in the continuous; for this is proper to a located body which is endowed with dimensive quantity. In similar fashion it is not necessary on this account for the angel to be contained by a place; because an incorporeal substance virtually contains the thing with which it comes into contact, and is not contained by it: for the soul is in the body as containing it, not as contained by it. In the same way an angel is said to be in a place which is corporeal, not as the thing contained, but as somehow containing it.”

    And this Garrigou-Lagrange argues (in his books about God and the Agnostic Antimonies) that just as angels, who have no bodies, can occupy a place, Jesus’s body can exist in Heaven, even though it is extended. But I really think we need to invoke the miraculous here. Clearly, this is not a natural property of bodies.

    Maritain gives a spiritualist answer in the end of his “Degrees of Knowledge” book, which I don’t have here in St. Andrews, so I can’t look it up. But I’ll ask a friend about this, and he might know.

    The way I suspect it works actually centers around another question Thomas Aquinas answers, in Part 3, Q. 76, Art. 3. Here, he talks about transubstantiation. One Catholic belief is that Jesus is bodily present in the bread and wine, not only their whole, but also their separate parts. And if you divide the parts over and over (Aquinas thought you could do this infinitely), Jesus’s entire body would be present in each part.

    This raises a problem… if Jesus’s body is human, is it really of the nature of a body to be able to be multiplied and extended like this? The specific objection:

    “Objection 2. Further, since Christ’s is an organic body, it has parts determinately distant. for a determinate distance of the individual parts from each other is of the very nature of an organic body, as that of eye from eye, and eye from ear. But this could not be so, if Christ were entire under every part of the species; for every part would have to be under every other part, and so where one part would be, there another part would be. It cannot be then that the entire Christ is under every part of the host or of the wine contained in the chalice. ”

    “Objection 3. Further, Christ’s body always retains the true nature of a body, nor is it ever changed into a spirit. Now it is the nature of a body for it to be “quantity having position” (Predic. iv). But it belongs to the nature of this quantity that the various parts exist in various parts of place. Therefore, apparently it is impossible for the entire Christ to be under every part of the species.”

    His reply to Obj. 2: “The determinate distance of parts in an organic body is based upon its dimensive quantity; but the nature of substance precedes even dimensive quantity. And since the conversion of the substance of the bread is terminated at the substance of the body of Christ, and since according to the manner of substance the body of Christ is properly and directly in this sacrament; such distance of parts is indeed in Christ’s true body, which, however, is not compared to this sacrament according to such distance, but according to the manner of its substance, as stated above (1, ad 3).”

    His reply to Obj. 3: “This argument is based on the nature of a body, arising from dimensive quantity. But it was said above (ad 2) that Christ’s body is compared with this sacrament not by reason of dimensive quantity, but by reason of its substance, as already stated.”

    In other words, Christ’s perfected body (and by extension Mary’s, Enoch’s and Elijah’s) has no extension in Heaven, but is substantially in Heaven, because extension is not part of the substance of bodies, according to Aquinas.

    In my opinion (and I can find this nowhere else, but in St. Thomas’s work) Aquinas would reject your Premise 2: “Whatever has a body is … extended.”

    (The above is taken from a Facebook discussion on the same. My own opinions and a highly speculative argument based on somewhat questionable physics will follow!)

    • Paul,

      Thanks for re-posting this over here! I’ll repost what I take my critiques to be of this sort of position.

      I have been thinking a lot more about what the Angelic Doctor has to say about this point and I think I’m starting to see a little more of his motivation for rejecting two, but I would like to re-read these sections that you sent me and go over them point by point to really try to pick out in full detail what Aquinas is getting at.

      I look forward to reading your own personal opinions on the issue!

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