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I've found two verses which seem to be contradictory, so I'm hoping someone can explain how they can be reconciled.

No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven--the Son of Man. (John 3:13, NIV)

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. (2 Kings 2:11, NIV)

Jesus was well-versed in the Old Testament, so why would he say what he did in John 3:13?

Is it possible that this was just a nasty tornado and Elijah was just not to be found (or elaborate metaphor for a "whirlwind" of an attack, ripping up dust like fire, from enemies and he was killed or kidnapped and killed)?

Note that the NLT adds "and returned":

No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven. (John 3:13, NLT)

But I don't know warranted this addition is, as no other translations have it.

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    Great question! There is also the case of Enoch.
    – user13992
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 19:18
  • Christ is only one “who ascended”. As in He did it. Whereas Bible says “God caused Elijah to ascend“. Elijah didn’t ascend. He was ascended.
    – Al Brown
    Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 13:39
  • @AlBrown really? He was 'taken up' Mk 16:19, Acts 1:9, 1:2.
    – steveowen
    Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 23:33

2 Answers 2

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The Greek text of John 3:13 states,

John 3:13 in Robert Estienne's 1550 Textus Receptus

ΙΓʹ καὶ οὐδεὶς ἀναβέβηκεν εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εἰ μὴ ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ὁ ὤν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ TR, 1550

which may be translated as,

13 And no one ascended into heaven except he who descended out of heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.

There are some who believe that Jesus is speaking in John 3:13. Others believe that the author of the fourth gospel (who many assume to be a certain “John”) is speaking. However, identifying the speaker is not essential for the purpose of this discourse. Rather, we shall focus on the issue of the Lord Jesus Christ being the only one to ascend to heaven.

Those familiar with the Old Testament know that both Elijah the prophet and Enoch ascended to heaven before dying. Yet, John 3:13 states that no man ascended to heaven but the Son of Man, the Lord Jesus Christ. How, then, do we reconcile this supposed contradiction?

The Lord Jesus Christ ascended (ἀνέβη) to heaven and descended (κατέβη) out of heaven under his own power and volition. On the other hand, individuals such as Enoch and Elijah were taken or brought up to heaven by God.

Regarding Enoch, Gen. 5:24 states,

24 And Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.

כד וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וְאֵינֶנּוּ כִּי לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים

Enoch, being a man, could not and did not ascend under his own power and volition. Rather, God took him into heaven.

Regarding Elijah, 2 Kings 2:1 states,

1 And it came to pass, when Yahveh caused Elijah to ascend to heaven in a whirlwind, that Elijah and Elisha went from Gilgal.

א וַיְהִי בְּהַעֲלוֹת יַהְוֶה אֶת אֵלִיָּהוּ בַּֽסְעָרָה הַשָּׁמָיִם וַיֵּלֶךְ אֵלִיָּהוּ וֶאֱלִישָׁע מִן הַגִּלְגָּל

The infinitive הַעֲלוֹת (haʿalot) is conjugated in binyan Hifʿil, and thus means “to cause to ascend (go up).”

Gesenius wrote,1

Gesenius, p. 631, binyan Hifʿil of ʿalah

The Hebrew text literally states that Yahveh caused Elijah to ascend to heaven, or in more polished English, Yahveh brought/ took Elijah up into heaven. Like Enoch, Elijah could not and did not ascend under his own power and volition.

Thus we see that in both cases of Elijah and Enoch, these individuals were taken up into heaven by God and not under their own power or volition. On the contrary, the Lord Jesus Christ descended2 from heaven (upon his incarnation) and then later ascended to heaven (after his resurrection) under his own power and volition.


References

Gesenius, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm. Gesenius’s Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. Trans. Tregelles, Samuel Prideaux. London: Bagster, 1860.

Footnotes

1 p. 631
2 Furthermore, no mere man has ever descended from heaven. This is conclusive evidence of the supernatural nature (i.e., deity) of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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    So basically the difference is in the deliberate use of the term "ascended", that Jesus ascended means he went up by his own will/action, whereas Elijah was taken up. Is that a correct summarization pretty much?
    – stimpy77
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 19:30
  • Indeed. When it says, "And no one ascended into heaven except he who descended out of heaven...," the fact that Jesus descended first out of heaven means that he's no mere man like Elijah and Enoch. Binyan Hif'il is generally causative. Meaning, God caused Elijah to ascend. "To cause someone to ascend" can also be understood as "to bring someone up." Another example. "To cause someone to remember" can be understood as "to remind." But, the important thing about Hif'il biyan is that it is causative. It doesn't say Elijah ascended to heaven, but rather, God caused Elijah to ascend.
    – user900
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 19:37
  • And as for Enoch, it explicitly says that God took him, not that he ascended (i.e., under his own power).
    – user900
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 19:39
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    @Jas3.1 The Greek says ἀνεφέρετο, which is the 3rd person imperfect indicative middle of ἀναφέρω, "to carry up." This may be interpreted as "he was carried up" or "he carried himself up," this Greek form is ambiguous in meaning.
    – Wtrmute
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 13:58
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    @SimplyaChristian: True, in this passage we have an aorist, which does distinguish between middle and passive (ἐπήρατο vs. ἐπήρθη). I guess this is where Tradition comes to the rescue, but that will not be acceptable to someone who holds to Sola Scriptura.
    – Wtrmute
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 20:25
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In Scripture, "heaven" (shamayim / ouranos) has three possible meanings:

    1. The Beatific Vision, i.e. the state of seing the divine essence with an intuitive vision and face to face. This is the meaning in John 3:13. Paul calls it "the third heaven" in 2 Cor 12:2.
    1. The firmament (Gen 1:8).
    1. The sky or atmosphere. This is the meaning in 2 Kings 2:11.

Moving now to Enoch and Elijah, I will answer according to Catholic doctrine.

It is de fide that no human soul, much less a whole human person, enjoyed the Beatific Vision before Jesus died on the cross (with the exception of Jesus Himself, Who enjoyed it in his soul from the moment of his conception).

Therefore, at the time when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, no whole human person or disembodied human soul had ascended to heaven (1), either by being taken up into heaven by God or by their own power or volition. Only "the only begotten God, the One Who Is in the bosom of the Father" (Jn 1:18) from all eternity, "Who descended from heaven" (Jn 3:13) when He assumed a human nature, was in heaven, both as God and, in his soul enjoying the Beatific Vision, as man.

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