I’ve had more than a few Mormons ask about this, so I’d like to share the two basic evangelical views. While Jesus has a permanent human nature, between now and the Second Coming he either (1) has temporarily “exited this four-dimensional space-time continuum” or (2) is located somewhere in a place with spatial dimensions. Mormons tend to have a caricature of evangelicals as not believing in the physical resurrection, and may think of position 1 as proof of that. But in reality both views affirm that Jesus will permanently be “corporeally [bodily] present to his people” after the Second Coming.
The first view as articulated by William Lane Craig:
“So how should we conceive of Christ’s resurrection body today? Christ in his exalted state still has a human nature; he did not “enter back into God’s own existence.” But Christ has exited this four-dimensional space-time continuum. Therefore, perhaps we might say that his human nature does not now manifest itself corporeally. Compare a tuning fork which is plucked and begins to hum. If the vibrating fork is placed in a vacuum jar, though it continues to vibrate, it does not manifest itself by a humming noise because there is no medium to carry its vibrations. Similarly, Christ’s human nature, no longer immersed in spacetime, does not manifest itself as a body. But someday Christ will return and re-enter our four-dimensional space-time continuum, and then his body will become manifest. In the new heavens and the new earth Christ will be corporeally present to his people. Christ, then, has a human nature which is manifested as his physical resurrection body when he exists in a spatio-temporal universe.”
The second view as articulated by Wayne Grudem:
1. Christ Ascended to a Place. After Jesus’ resurrection, he was on earth for forty days (Acts 1:3), then he led them out to Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, and “lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50–51).
A similar account is given by Luke in the opening section of Acts:
And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9–11)
These narratives describe an event that is clearly designed to show the disciples that Jesus went to a place. He did not suddenly disappear from them, never to be seen by them again, but gradually ascended as they were watching, and then a cloud (apparently the cloud of God’s glory) took him from their sight. But the angels immediately said that he would come back in the same way in which he had gone into heaven. The fact that Jesus had a resurrection body that was subject to spatial limitations (it could be at only one place at one time) means that Jesus went somewhere when he ascended into heaven.
It is surprising that even some evangelical theologians hesitate to affirm that heaven is a place or that Jesus ascended to a definite location somewhere in the space-time universe. Admittedly we cannot now see where Jesus is, but that is not because he passed into some ethereal “state of being” that has no location at all in the space-time universe, but rather because our eyes are unable to see the unseen spiritual world that exists all around us. There are angels around us, but we simply cannot see them because our eyes do not have that capacity: Elisha was surrounded by an army of angels and chariots of fire protecting him from the Syrians at Dothan, but Elisha’s servant was not able to see those angels until God opened his eyes so that he could see things that existed in that spiritual dimension (2 Kings 6:17). Similarly, when Stephen was dying, God gave him a special ability to see the world that is now hidden from our eyes, for he “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” ’ (Acts 7:55–56). And Jesus himself said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2–3).
Of course we cannot now say exactly where heaven is. Scripture often pictures people as ascending up into heaven (as Jesus did, and Elijah) or coming down from heaven (as the angels in Jacob’s dream, Gen. 28:12), so we are justified in thinking of heaven as somewhere “above” the earth. Admittedly the earth is round and it rotates, so where heaven is we are simply unable to say more precisely—Scripture does not tell us. But the repeated emphasis on the fact that Jesus went somewhere (as did Elijah, 2 Kings 2:11), and the fact that the New Jerusalem will come down out of heaven from God (Rev. 21:2), all indicate that there is clearly a localization of heaven in the space-time universe. Those who do not believe in Scripture may scoff at such an idea and wonder how it can be so, just as the first Russian cosmonaut who came back from space and declared that he did not see God or heaven anywhere, but that simply points to the blindness of their eyes toward the unseen spiritual world; it does not indicate that heaven does not exist in a certain place. In fact, the ascension of Jesus into heaven is designed to teach us that heaven does exist as a place in the space-time universe.