The particulars of the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ, and the prophecy of His Return to Judgment, cannot be interpreted as properly essential parts of the doctrine of His Person.
When we compare with the canon for dogmatic statements, the propositions, on the one hand, concerning the Person of Christ which we have so far set forth, and on the other the statements contained in the oldest creeds expressing these facts (i.e. Resurrection, Ascension, and Judgment), it will be seen that the former correspond to both the requirements insisted on, and the latter to neither. For if the saving efficacy of Christ depends upon the being of God in Him, and trust in Him is based upon the impression' that such a living being of God indwells Him, then it is not possible to prove any immediate connection between these facts and that doctrine. The disciples acknowledged in Him the Son of God exclusive of having the faintest forewarning of His rebirth and Ascension, and we as well may say the same of ourselves; furthermore neither the spiritual presence which He assured nor all that He said about His lasting influence upon those who were left behind is arbitrated through each of these two facts (Orlinsky & Bratcher, 1991).
This may well depend upon His sitting at the right hand of God; by which however, since the expression may be strictly an impossible one, we must understand simply the peculiar and incomparable dignity of Christ, raised above all conflict; but not upon a visible resurrection or ascension, since of course Christ could have been raised to glory even without these intermediate steps; and if so, it is impossible to see in what relation both these can stand to the redeeming efficacy of Christ. It is true, on the one hand, Paul seems to attribute to the resurrection, just as much as to the death, a share of its own in redemption;
yet on the other, the way in which he brings it forward as a guarantee of our own resurrection
shows that he in no sense thinks of it as having an exclusive connexion with the peculiar being of God in Christ. Also, it is never adduced as an evidence of the divine indwelling in Christ; for it is everywhere ascribed, not to Himself, but to God.
No more does John adduce the visible ascension as a proof of the higher dignity of Christ. Hence we may safely credit everyone who is familiar with dogmatic statements with recognition of the fact that the right impression of Christ can be, and has been, present in its fullness without a knowledge of these facts.
Return to Judgment
So far as the Return to Judgment is concerned, we can treat of the doctrinal significance of this idea only at a later point. Here it need only be remarked that although the Judgment, in so far as we regard it as a transferable divine act, is so closely bound up with the work of redemption that it is not easy to think that God could hand it over to any but the Redeemer, yet this implies nothing greater in the Person of Christ than already we ascribe to Him apart from this; and in any case it does not really belong to the work of redemption itself, since of course those who believe do not come into judgment. But considered as the Return of Christ it is connected with the ascension as its counterpart. Just as the latter is only an accidental form for affecting the sitting at the right hand of God, so also the promise of return is only an accidental form for the satisfaction of the longing to be united with Christ (Bruce & Rupp, 1968). And just as the incomprehensible and miraculous in the ascension cannot be made dependent on the divine in Christ, which reveals itself as the impulse to all His free actions, and since the ascension is nowhere presented as His act, no more can the miraculous in the Return depend upon it. So that the dissimilarity between our propositions above (those, that is to say, which we have recognized as such) and these assertions must be clear to everyone.
Descent into Hell
It is somewhat different with Christ's so-called Descent into Hell.
This; according to its dominant idea; would certainly belong to His redemptive activities if only we could regard it as a fact. It would then have to be regarded as an exercise of His prophetic and high-priestly office towards those who had died before His appearance. But for one thing the only passage which seems to treat of this descent is far from including anything of the kind, and for another the transaction, even with this extended interpretation of the passage, would not correspond to the task to be accomplished, as we are bound to understand it (Denny & Taylor, 1985). For all those also who have died since His appearance without having heard the preaching of the Gospel have the same claims as the others. Moreover, the expressions used in that passage in no way compel us to assume such an otherwise unattested fact, any more than they fix the time at which it is supposed to have happened. For these reasons the Descent has been completely omitted from our proposition.
Belief in these facts, accordingly, is no independent element in the original faith in Christ, of such a kind that we could not accept Him as Redeemer or recognize the being of God in Him, if we did not know that He had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, or if He had not promised that He would return for judgment. Further, this belief is not to be derived from those original elements; we cannot conclude that because God was in Christ He must have risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, or that because He was essentially sinless He must come again to act as Judge (Bruce & Rupp, 1968). Rather they are accepted only because they are found in the Scriptures; and all that can be required of any Protestant Christian is that he shall believe them in so far as they seem to him to be adequately attested. Here the sacred writers are to be regarded only as reporters; accordingly belief in these statements belongs, immediately and originally, rather to the doctrine of Scripture than to the doctrine of the Person of Christ. Yet an indirect connexion with that doctrine is not to be denied to such belief, in so far, that is, as our judgment about the disciples as original reporters reacts upon our judgment about the Redeemer.
Anyone, for example, who, in view of the miraculous element involved, and to avoid accepting the resurrection of Christ as literal fact, prefers to suppose that the disciples were deceived and took an inward experience for an outward, ascribes to them such weakness of intellect that not only is their whole testimony to Christ thereby rendered unreliable, but also Christ, in choosing for Himself such witnesses, cannot have known what is in men.
Or, if we suppose that He Himself wished or arranged that they should be constrained to regard an inner experience as outward perception, then He Himself would be an originator of error, and all moral conceptions would be thrown into confusion if such a higher dignity as His were compatible with this. With the ascension it is different, so far at least as we have no adequate reason for maintaining that we have before us a direct report from an eyewitness of what actually happened, and least of all from an apostolic eyewitness. If, nevertheless, it is affirmed that Christ did rise from the dead, but was not taken up into heaven, but lived in concealment for an indeterminate time, so that He must have arranged something which could be regarded as ascension to heaven, then the case is just the same as with the resurrection. Least closely connected with the doctrine of the Person of Christ proper is the promise of His Return, especially as it is promised for the sake of an office to be fulfilled, and so far would belong to the next section, if only that office were one directly belonging to His vocation as Redeemer. Only if exegesis brought out clearly that a time had been fixed for this Return which has now long since elapsed, or if it were described in a way whose impossibility we could prove, would this necessarily react, if not on the doctrine of the Scriptures, yet certainly on that of the Person of Christ (Orlinsky & Bratcher, 1991).
Postscript to the Doctrine
The presentation of the Person of Christ given above, first in our own quite independent form of expression, then in closer connexion with the accepted forms of the Church, is, in essentials, so widespread and so long current in the Christian Church, that it must be regarded…