In His night conversation with Nicodemus, the Savior says, And no man hath ascended up to Heaven, but He that came down from Heaven, even the Son of man Which is in Heaven (Jn. 3:13). Many opponents of Christ see in this phrase a contradiction in the words of Scripture, for the Old Testament relates how Elijah ascended into Heaven and how God took Enoch to Himself. Let’s try to sort this issue out, using the Tradition of the fathers of the Church as the key to Scripture.
First, let’s consider the story of Enoch. The apostle Jude says that Enoch was the seventh from Adam (cf. Jude 1:14). There are two phrases in the Bible about the end of his earthly life: In the Old Testament it says, And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him (Gen. 5:24); the apostle Paul also says about Enoch that by faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him (Heb. 11:5). There is nothing about Heaven in either phrase. It says only that Enoch was translated, but does the relocation really have to be to Heaven? Enoch was moved to a certain place, but it was not that place to where Christ ascended. St. Gregory Palamas says, “God carried away Enoch too, but did He take him to Heaven? Certainly not! For no man hath ascended up to Heaven, but He that came down from Heaven. St. Theophylact of Bulgaria speaks just as apophatically about Enoch’s fate: “Thus, that he was translated alive, and that he is still alive we know, but where or how is unknown, because Scripture does not speak about it.” Therefore, there is not even the slightest foundation upon which to say that the words of Christ contradict the life story of this righteous one.
There is another aspect in analyzing the Old and New Testament texts that deserve special attention. The Savior speaks of Himself as an active participant in the Ascension to Heaven, but Enoch was passive in his translation. It should be emphasized that the Savior Himself ascended into Heaven, and God translated Enoch, not to Heaven, but to a particular place.
What happened with the other Old Testament righteous one, who, like Enoch, has not yet tasted death? Where did the Prophet Elijah ascend to?
The Prophet Elijah
The question of Elijah’s ascension is more difficult and more interesting. What do we know about the prophet Elijah and his ascension into Heaven? In the Synodal translation of the Bible it says, [T]here suddenly appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and sundered them both; and Elijah was taken up by a whirlwind into Heaven (4 Kg. 2:11). It would seem that this is a clear contradiction to the words of Christ, that no man hath ascended up to Heaven, but He that came down from Heaven, even the Son of Man (Jn. 3:13). Did the Savior really not know this story with Elijah? Did the apostle John, giving us these words of Christ, really not know the story? Why didn’t Nicodemus, the expert in the Law and Prophets, immediately refute the Savior’s retelling of the ascension of Elijah? Probably because in the Savior’s time, Fourth Kings did not say that the prophet Elijah ascended into Heaven.
The thing is that the text taken for the basis for the translation of the books of the Old Testament into Russian (the so-called Synodal translation) was the Masoretic—a text which the Jews-Masoretes redacted all the way up until the tenth century AD, “smoothing out” the prophetic and Messianic spots.
But in the Church, maximum authority belongs to another translation of the Old Testament books—the translation of the seventy. This work was carried out in the third to second centuries B.C. by Jewish sages. This text was used by the apostles and the holy fathers living in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. This translation was used as a foundation by Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Let’s see what it says about the ascension of Elijah into Heaven:
And it came to pass as they were going, they went on talking; and, behold, a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and it separated between them both; and Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind as it were into Heaven (4 Kg. 2:11).
The only difference from the Masoretic text is in the words “as it were” (“яко”), but the meaning changes dramatically. Elijah was taken not into Heaven, but as if into Heaven—that is, he was raised up into the air. How did the holy fathers understand this spot in Scripture?
St. Photios: “And Elijah, as a slave, was taken to the aerial heights, but not into Heaven, but as it were into Heaven (4 Kg. 2:11). The Lord, as the Ruler of all, ascended not as it were into Heaven, but truly into Heaven did He ascend.”
Euthymius Zigabinos, quoting Blessed Theodoret of Cyrrhus, says, “He commands them (the angels) to open the everlasting gates, as they had never before been opened for human nature. For none among men has ever passed through them. Although the great Elijah ascended, it was not into Heaven—but as if into Heaven.”
Our hymnography also speaks about the prophet’s relative ascension:
St. Romanos the Melodist notes that although the prophet Elijah was lifted up, he was not blessed to enter into Paradise: “Elijah, sitting upon a fiery chariot, ascended, as if into Heaven, as is written, but not reaching Heaven.”
It follows from these quotes that the prophet Elijah was not taken into Heaven. So then where? And where is he now? The prophet was elevated into the air (“as it were into Heaven”), however this heaven is not one and the same as the spiritual Heaven—Paradise. St. Symeon the New Theologian contemplates this rather apophatically: “Elijah was taken in a fiery chariot, and before him Enoch, but not into Heaven, but to some other place—not of his own power, although he was translated.” St. Gregory the Dialogist gives a more cataphatic image. He describes the place where the prophet Elijah abides thus: “Elijah was caught up into heaven, but the aerial one, which is distinct from the incorporeal one… so he was appointed to a secret region of the Earth, where he ought to dwell in bodily and spiritual peace hitherto, until, at the end of the world, he will again appear on the Earth to pay the debt of death.”
The Prophet Elijah ascended as it were into Heaven, but not of his own power, but on a fiery chariot, with angelic assistance, as St. Photios wrote. Thus the prophet Elijah’s human nature and human infirmity were manifested in his ascension, as he was unable of himself to ascend into the heavens, but was borne up by angels. In ascending, Christ displayed His Divine nature and omnipotence. St. Gregory the Dialogist says, “Elijah ascended into the sky on a chariot as proof that he, as a man, could not do so without aid. This aid was rendered him by angels, when he ascended into the aerial heaven; for he could not of himself ascend there, because his natural weakness did not allow him to separate from the Earth. Meanwhile, as the Savior did not need a chariot, so He did not need the angels, for by His own Divine power the Creator ascended into Heaven, because He was returning to there from whence He descended. He entered there where He had habitation from the ages: for, although He ascended as man, as God He possessed both Heaven and Earth.” Therefore, the Savior, the Son of Man, Himself ascended into Heaven, as He promised, but Elijah was raised into the air and placed in a secret region of the Earth.
If Elijah was taken as it were into Heaven, then what is that Heaven to which the Savior ascended? As St. John of Damascus says, the Son of God “becomes Man, but does not leave Heaven and the bosom of the Father,” and, having divinized human nature, “ascends to where He was before as God.” The Son of God, the Second Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, having assumed human nature, elevates it to the “bosom of the Father,” or, as the Gospel says, to the right hand of God (cf. Mk. 16:19), to where neither man nor angel can climb—to where only the Spirit searches out the depths of God.
We have touched upon God’s mysterious concealment of the two Old Testament righteous ones. The prophet Elijah and Enoch were translated to some secret earthly place, where they await the apocalypse. The prophets did not ascend into Heaven; there is no contradiction here with the words of Christ pronounced in His nighttime conversation with Nicodemus: No man hath ascended up to Heaven, but He that came down from Heaven, even the Son of man Which is in Heaven (Jn. 3:13).