Christ’s Ascension and Biology

The expansive claim that “our world belongs to God” has long been a central principle undergirding Christian– and especially Reformed Christian– engagement with biological science. It is commonplace, and appropriate in my view, for Reformed biologists to emphasize the goodness of creation, citing evidence from certain Psalms (such as 19 and 104) and Romans 1, and pointing to the incarnation as a profound reaffirmation of God’s original declaration that “it was good” with particular reference to living things, and especially to bodies.

There is, however, a clear weakness in this central focus on the goodness of creation: it underemphasizes, or even ignores, the devastation and distortion of creation by the fall. As Neal Plantinga notes in Engaging God’s World (Eerdmans, 2002, 47), we can genuinely sing “This is My Father’s World,” and yet there is something seriously wrong with a view of creation that minimizes the corrosive effects of sin on the world, and especially its effects on living things and the systems they create. At the very least, a pervasive “creation is good” stance can make it difficult to discuss meaningfully the many aspects of the biological world that seem to be anything but good.

How, for example, does a creation-af- firming view accommodate the existence of HIV, or any number of other viruses that wreak horrific havoc in human bodies and lives? What can this view say about devastating genetic disease, about schizophrenia, about plasmodium falciparum (the parasite that causes malaria)? Some Christian scientists, reflecting on these disturbing realities, have proposed that such scourges do not necessarily result from the fall but instead are natural parts of an evolving creation. They “come with the package.” Needless to say, these ideas, though perhaps valid and useful, seem to underestimate the contamination of creation by sin and evil.

I believe that a focus on the ascension of Christ, in the specific context of the incarnation (a “continuing incarnation”), provides a much better grounding for Christian reflection on the biological world. First, the ascension and incarnation are central, creedal, bedrock truths of Christian faith–no prooftexting here. Second, the ascension represents a post-fall event, a “public truth” that cannot be interpreted, as can the Genesis proclamations, as a pre-fall designation of creational goodness that has been since invalidated. But finally, and most importantly, the ascension carries the following startling implication, as articulated by theologian Gerrit Dawson: “The meaning of a continuing incarnation is revealed in all its splendour: in the person of the eternal Son, the Triune God has taken up humanity into his being for ever” (Jesus Ascended, P&R Publishing, 2004, 53). There is human flesh in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father.

Human flesh, with protein and carbohydrate, bone and muscle, DNA and mitochondria, is in heaven, already, waiting to greet other embodied beings who will be raised with him. This astounding fact is, I think, a better place to start when clearing the ground for a serious consideration of the biological world. It does not imply that the whole shebang is good, for surely there was a transformation (glorification) of Jesus’ body, and there were some things that he didn’t take with him. But it does imply that flesh, biological stuff, cells and DNA and blood and guts, are things that do not merely and universally pass away. They can last, somehow, forever. This is quite a different–and in my view, a better–way of asserting that there is something biological about creation which is good.

Stephen Matheson is assistant professor of biology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.