Despite the great importance and influence of the early church's belief in the ascension of Christ, it is described explicitly in the New Testament only twice. In Acts, after the resurrected Christ reminded his apostles that they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit, he was “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1.9). The second‐century CE addition to the conclusion of Mark adds that after Christ's ascension he “sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16.19).
In the Hellenistic world the ascent of a king, prophet, hero, or holy man to the heavens, the place of the gods, was a well‐known motif signifying the divine status of the one who ascended. Heracles was deified through an ascension to heaven, and Ganymede became immortal when Zeus lifted him into heaven to serve as cupbearer to the gods. More generally, under the influence of Platonism, all human souls were believed to be immortal and returned to the heavens when cleansed of their mortal attachments. Christ's ascension similarly demonstrated his divinity, but more importantly, through the church's prophetic interpretation of the Jewish scriptures, the ascension of Christ also signaled the beginning of a messianic kingdom and the empowerment of Christ's followers by virtue of their identification with him through the rite of baptism.
Although rare in Jewish tradition, ascent into heaven is recorded in the case of Enoch, who “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (Gen. 5.24), and the prophet Elijah, “who ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2.11); noncanonical writings also record the ascensions of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Ezra. The ascension of Christ was unique, however, because of its eschatological significance for early Christianity. The authors of the New Testament believed that Psalm 110, celebrating the king seated at the right hand of God, referred to the ascended and victorious Christ who was exalted over all heavenly powers. The ascension was also seen as an elevated form of priestly sacrifice, for Christ is described as “the great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Heb. 4.14), the sanctuary made by God.
The earliest kerygma of the church thus proclaimed not only Christ's resurrection but also his ascension into heaven and enthronement at God's right hand. Christians celebrated the inauguration of this messianic kingdom and the demise of the present eon, for when Christ was given dominion over the demonic powers of this age, so were the members of his church. The letter to the Ephesians speaks of the “immeasurable greatness of God's power for us who believe” (Eph. 1.19), for the members of the church were united with Christ who is “above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph. 1.21).
The exorcisms and miraculous cures performed by the apostles in Acts were understood to be manifestations of the Holy Spirit that Christ “poured out” (Acts 2.33) on his apostles after his ascension, sharing his dominion over the demons of this world with all members of his church. Thus, Paul says: “So, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.… For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3.1–3). This “death” and hidden exaltation of Christians was effected through the ritual of baptism, which Paul compared to a burial and rebirth with Christ (Col. 2.12; Rom. 6.3–4); baptism thus elevated the members of the church into Christ's heavenly kingdom.
Among gnosticizing Christians, baptism was understood to be a rite of immortalization that deified its initiates. According to the gnostics, if baptism initiated Christians into the death and resurrection of Christ, as Paul argued, then it also united them with Christ's ascension and enthronement, separating the baptized entirely from the mortal sphere. The gnostics' radically transcendent interpretation of baptism was opposed by Paul, who argued that Christ's exaltation was achieved through his humiliation and suffering on the cross and that the ascension of Christians would not come until the parousia.
Nevertheless, otherworldly speculations on the ascension and immortalization of the soul developed rapidly among gnostic Christians for whom the ascension of Christ established the pattern for their visionary journeys. The gnostics' elaborate portrayals of the soul's ascent, although influenced by Hellenistic thought, in turn came to influence the understanding of the ascent and deification of the soul in Platonic, Hermetic, and other philosophical circles from the second to the fourth centuries CE.
See also Theophany.