July 20, 2010

Did the Prophet Elijah Actually Ascend 'Into' Heaven?

By D. Panagopoulos

There seems to be a misconception - not only among heretical groups but also among many Christians – which involves a belief that the Prophet Elijah either died just like every other Prophet, or, that he ascended bodily into heaven. Let’s examine what the truth really is.

It is true, that some of us – both of the laity and of the Clergy - have not observed with the appropriate attention the relative passage of the Old Testament, in which is mentioned the ascension of the Prophet Elijah.

If one studies this passage carefully, one will notice there is a tiny 2-letter (Greek) word "ΩΣ" ("as if"), which will greatly facilitate their rationalizing, since the dogmatic aspect found in the Dedicational Hymn for this Saint is usually rejected by them, i.e. "The second Precursor to the Presence of Christ - Elijah the glorious…"

And here is the text of the event in question (4 Kings 1:11):

“Και εγένετο αυτών πορευομένων, επορεύοντο και ελάλουν (Ηλίας και Ελισσαιέ)· και ιδού άρμα πυρός και ίπποι πυρός και διέστειλεν ανά μέσον αμφοτέρων και ανελήφθη Ηλιού εν συσσεισμώ ΩΣ εις τον ουρανόν.”

"And it came to pass, while they were walking, as they walked and spoke (Elijah and Elisha), behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire parted the two of them, and Elijah was swept up, in a whirlwind, AS IF into the heavens."

The expression "AS IF into the heavens" is clear evidence that he did not actually ascend INTO heaven. However, many people have been misled and have incorrectly interpreted this text, because they have read a paraphrased Old Testament text, and not the actual text. The paraphrased text says: “And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven”, proof that this little word "ΩΣ" carries the potential to solve the issue and to prove that Elijah did not go up into heaven.

In the 5th Ode of the second Canon dedicated to the Lord’s Ascension, there is the following hymn:

"Ξένην Σου η Γέννησις, ξένη Σου η Ανάστασις, ξένη και φρικτή Σου, Ζωοδότα, η εκ του Όρους θεία Ανάληψις, ην εξεικονίζων Ηλιού, τέθριππος ανήρχετο, ανυμνών Σε, Φιλάνθρωπε."

"Foreign is Your Birth, foreign is Your Resurrection, foreign and dire, O Life-giver, is your divine Ascension, which Elijah foreshadowed with his four-horsed ascent, thus glorifying You, o Philanthropist."

The Hymn-writer in this text is telling us, among other things, that the ascension of the Prophet Elijah was a precursor, a foreshadowing (not INTO Heaven, only AS IF into heaven), of the Ascension of the Lord that was to come later on.

We also have the words of Saint Athanasius the Great, who clarifies things even more. According to him:

"Συ δε μοι λοιπόν, αγαπητέ, της λέξεως την ακρίβειαν σκόπησον, της ΩΣ, και μη σε διαλάθη συλλαβής Γραφικής περιουσία κ α ι δύναμις· μηδέ τη της λέξεως παραδρομή (το ανελήφθη δηλαδή) τω Δεσπότη τον οικέτην νομίσης ισότιμον· ΟΥ ΓΑΡ ΕΙΣ ΟΥΡΑΝΟΝ ΗΛΙΑΣ ΑΝΕΡΧΕΤΑΙ, ουδέ διαδραμών το στερέωμα, τοις εκείσε χωρίοις αυλίζεται· άλλ’ άκουσον τι φησίν ο αναγών· 'Εν δε τω ανάγειν Κύριον τον Ηλίαν ΩΣ εις τον ουρανόν'· ιδού μικρά λέξις (το ΩΣ) έστησε τον Ηλίαν προς τα άνω φερόμενον· αρκεί γαρ τω Προφήτη τιμηθήναι τω τύπω· προ γαρ του Δεσπότου τον οικέτην ουρανός ουχ υποδέχεται· ουδείς γαρ αναβέβηκεν εις τον Ουρανόν, ειμή ο Υιός του ανθρώπου ο ων εν τω Ουρανώ· ετηρείτο γαρ τη των ανθρώπων απαρχή δια τον των ανθρώπων Ποιητήν ο Ουρανός. Ούτω μεν ουν τοις περί τον Ενώχ και Ηλίαν ο Θεός αγαθή ελπίδι εύφρανε τους ανθρώπους, δι’ ων ανθρώποις ούσι τον του αέρος δρόμον ιππήλατον ήπλωσε" (Λογ. Β’ εις την Ανάληψιν).

"Therefore you, my beloved one, observe with precision the word ΩΣ, and let not this Scriptural syllable’s treasure and power escape your notice, nor through any misinterpretation (of the ascension) be misled into equating the Lord with the supplicant (Elijah). FOR ELIJAH DID NOT ASCEND INTO HEAVEN, nor did he - by traversing the firmament - become a resident of its courts; instead, pay attention to what the text mentions: 'Upon sweeping up Elijah AS IF into Heaven'. Behold, one small word (ΩΣ) was given to portray Elijah as moving upwards; for it was enough that the Prophet was honored by a semblance (AS IF) of ascent; Heaven could never receive a supplicant (Elijah) before receiving the Lord – for 'nobody has ever gone up to Heaven, except the Son of Man, Who is in Heaven'. Heaven was reserved for the Creator, the beginner of mankind. Thus, with Enoch and Elijah, God gladdened the people with a promising hope, by spreading before them an ‘airborne highway’, as though for horse-drawn vehicles" (Homily 2 on the Ascension, PG 28).

In other words, this pillar of Orthodoxy, our Athanasius the Great, urges us to notice the tiny syllable ΩΣ, which should not escape our attention as it is a syllable of Scriptural treasure and power, because it alone testifies that Elijah did NOT ascend INTO heaven. It furthermore implies that nobody else has ascended into Heaven except the One Who descended from it. In the words of the Lord in John 3:13: "Ουδείς αναβέβηκεν εις τον ουρανόν ειμή ο εκ του ουρανού καταβάς, ο υιός του ανθρώπου ο ων εν τω ουρανώ" ("Nobody has ever ascended into Heaven, except He Who descended from it; the Son of Man, Who is in Heaven"). Also, that Heaven is reserved for the Lord, the Master and Creator, and not for a servant (supplicant). Therefore, both the ascension of Elijah, as well as the transfer of Enoch, were nothing more than advance notices of the Lord’s forthcoming Ascension, and, following His, our own.

Furthermore, Father Epiphanios (Theodoropoulos) says the following, with regard to the Ascension:

"Και ανελήφθη Ηλίας εν συσσεισμώ ΩΣ εις τον Ουρανόν· το δε, ΩΣ εις τον Ουρανόν, αμφίβολον έχει την έννοιαν· το δε, ΕΙΣ τον Ουρανόν, τρανήν δείκνυσι την αλήθειαν."

“'And Elijah was swept up, in a mass upheaval, (‘upheaval’ = a powerful shuddering, or a convulsion occurring around him), AS IF into the heavens.' The expression ‘as if into the heavens’ leaves a margin for doubt; however, the expression ‘into the heavens’ leaves no doubt that it is indicating a truth.”

The Holy Father is making a distinction here, between the ‘ascent’ of the Prophet and the Lord’s Ascension. Because indeed, in Elijah’s ascension we have the tiny syllable «ΩΣ» (as if), which has a doubtful inference, whereas in the Lord’s Ascension, we have another tiny syllable «ΕΙΣ» (into), which boldly states the truth. In the (Greek) Scriptural references to the Ascension of the Lord, we only find the expression “into Heaven” and not “as if into Heaven”, as we can see from the examples below:

a) "Τι εστήκατε εμβλέποντες εις τον Ουρανόν; Ούτος ο Ιησούς ο αναληφθείς αφ’ υμών ΕΙΣ τον Ουρανόν, ούτως ελεύσεται ον τρόπον εθεάσασθε αυτόν πορευόμενον ΕΙΣ τον Ουρανόν."

"Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)

b) "Εξήγαγε δε αυτούς (τους μαθητάς) έξω έως εις Βηθανίαν και επάρας τας χείρας αυτού ευλόγησεν αυτούς· και εγένετο εν τω ευλογείν αυτόν αυτούς διέστη απ’ αυτών και αναφέρετο ΕΙΣ τον Ουρανόν."

"And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and was carried up into heaven." (Luke 24: 50-51)

c) "Ο μεν ουν Κύριος μετά το λαλήσαι αυτοίς (τοις μαθηταίς) ανελήφθη ΕΙΣ τον Ουρανόν και εκάθησεν εκ δεξιών του Θεού."

"So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God." (Mark 16:19)

As we can see in the above three Scriptural passages that refer to the Ascension, there indeed is the word “into” (ΕΙΣ), whereas in the Prophet’s ascension, there is the word “as if” (ΩΣ).

When interpreting the above passage in Luke 24:50-51, the Blessed Theophylact of Bulgaria says:

"Ηλίας μεν γαρ ΩΣ εις Ουρανόν· ωσανεί γαρ εδόκει EIΣ ουρανόν αναφέρεσθαι ο δε Σωτήρ ΕΙΣ τον ουρανόν, αυτός πρόδρομος πάντων ανελήλυθε μετά της αγίας σαρκός αυτού, εμφανισθήναι τω προσώπω του Θεού και σύνεδρον αυτήν αποδείξαι τω Πατρί."

"As for Elijah, it was indeed AS IF into Heaven. For it is when one believes that INTO Heaven refers to the Savior, Who is to rise up again INTO Heaven; for He preceded everyone when He ascended, along with His holy flesh, to appear before the face of God and prove it as co-enthroned, next to the Father."

Dear friends, we shouldn’t wonder or be scandalized: there is most assuredly a difference between Elijah’s ‘ascension’ and the Lord’s, just as there is a difference between the Resurrection of the Lord and the other resurrections. Saint Gregory of Thessaloniki says:

"Ώσπερ δε αναστάσεις προ της του Κυρίου αναστάσεως πολλαί γεγόνασι, (εξ), ούτω και πολλαί αναλήψεις προ της αυτού αναλήψεως· και Ιερεμίαν γαρ τον Προφήτην ανέλαβε Πνεύμα, και τον Αββακούμ Άγγελος, και τον Ενώχ ανέλαβεν ο Θεός· μάλιστα δε των άλλων ο Ηλίας άρματι πυρός αναληφθείς αναγέγραπται· αλλ’ ουδ’ ούτος (ο Ηλίας) υπερέβη την περίγειον λήξιν, αλλ’ οίόν τις μετάθεσις ην η εκάστου τούτων ανάληψις, από γης αίρουσα και των περί γην ουκ εξάγουσα· καθάπερ και οι αναστάντες εκείνοι πάλιν εις την γην υπέστρεψαν, τελευτήσαντες άπαντες" (Λογ. α’ εις την Ανάληψιν).

“Just as there have been many other resurrections prior to the Lord’s (six in number), likewise there have been many ascensions prior to His; for even Jeremiah the Prophet was lifted up by the Spirit, and Habakkuk also by an Angel, and Enoch was also swept up by God. In fact, it is written that Elijah – unlike the others - was swept up in a fiery chariot; however, even he (Elijah) did not go beyond the boundaries of the earth, but, who knows what kind of a transportation each of these ascensions was, which lifted them off the face of the earth yet did not remove them from earth altogether. Just as the resurrected ones likewise 'returned to earth' again, after they had all eventually died.” (Homily 1 On the Ascension, PG 28)

It is surely evident now, after all our above clarifications, that the Prophet Elijah did not go up into Heaven, or Paradise as some people claim nowadays.

Before closing this subject, we would like to present two more pieces of evidence from the Holy Bible, which testify that Elijah did NOT, in fact, go up into Heaven.

The first one is in the New Testament, and it is the explicit statement made by Christ Himself, as used by Athanasius the Great in the article above:

"Και ουδείς αναβέβηκεν εις τον ουρανόν ει μη ο εκ του ουρανού καταβάς, ο υιος του ανθρώπου ο ων εν τω ουρανω."

"No one has ascended to heaven except He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven" (John 3:13).

Christ expressly states here that NO ONE has ascended to Heaven; no one, therefore NOT EVEN ELIJAH.

However, we have even more convincing evidence that Elijah did not ascend into Heaven after being “swept up”. The following passage from the Old Testament is extremely interesting:

"Και απέστη από Ιούδα Εδώμ έως της ημέρας ταύτης· τότε απέστη Λομνά εν τω καιρω εκείνω από χειρός αυτού, ότι εγκατέλιπε Κύριον τον Θεόν των πατέρων αυτού· και γαρ αυτός εποίησεν υψηλά εν ταις πόλεσιν Ιούδα και εξεπόρνευσε τους κατοικούντας εν Ιερουσαλήμ και απεπλάνησε τον Ιούδαν. και ήλθεν αυτω εν γραφή παρά Ηλιού του προφήτου λέγων· τάδε λέγει Κύριος Θεός Δαυίδ του πατρός σου..."

“So the Edomites revolt against Judah to this day. The same time [also] did Libnah revolt from under his hand; because he had forsaken the LORD God of his fathers. Moreover, he made high places in the mountains of Judah, and caused the inhabitants of Jerusalem to commit fornication, and compelled Judah to [do the same]. And there came a writing to him from Elijah the prophet, saying, 'Thus saith the LORD God of David thy father: Because thou hast not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat thy father, nor in the ways of Asa king of Judah…'" (2 Chronicles 21:10-12).

In this passage, it says that Elijah sent a letter (writing) to the king of Judah, whom he reprimanded for his irreverent behavior. What is of special interest here though, is that chronologically, Elijah had sent this ‘writing’ AFTER his “ascent towards Heaven”. This undoubtedly verifies that Elijah remained on earth, from whence he sent the letter. Unless Heaven has a postal service?

Read also:

Elijah, Enoch, and Moses

Ascent to Heaven in Antiquity

Source: From "The Second Precursor of the Coming of Christ".