The Problem of Enoch and Elijah

Post by
Ambrose Andreano

Is it really true that Enoch and Elijah never died?

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According to mainstream Christian tradition, Enoch and Elijah were the only people in human history to have ever escaped death. Many believe that they are still living somewhere on this planet. For years and years I personally struggled through Enoch and Elijah, and the implications of believing they literally ascended to heaven, like Christ, but never died. This is made especially troublesome when Athanasius says humanity is without exception under the natural “law of death,” or God is a liar. He says the following:

But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, "Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die." "Ye shall surely die”—not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption[1] [...] The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die [...] [2]

Thus, for Athanasius, for one to be properly classified as human in Adam, one must die, because God said “ye shall surely die.”[3] However, we must look at the evidence from the scriptures.

New Testament Evidence

First, in the New Testament, John records the following in his Gospel:

No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.[4]

And then elsewhere it says in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God [...] These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.[5]

John Chrysostom tried to wiggle out of this dilemma in Hebrews by saying Enoch is simply the one exception to Paul’s list of saints, saying, “The word all [in “these all died in faith”] is used here not because all had died, but because with that one exception all these had died, whom we know to be dead.”[6] Critical thinkers will not find this argument to be very convincing since it is mainly just a deflection (and a highly arguable one at that), and it also must be squared with the Athanasian law of death.

We also have an account of this very same act of aerial translation in the person of Philip:

And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing. But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.[7]
Elijah’s Translation

The Old Testament shows that Elijah was notorious for his disappearing acts, because it happened all the time, and people were already aware of this pattern of supernatural location shifting, slippery fellow that he was. Here is the testimony in 1 Kings showing how whenever the king’s men came to take Elijah, God picked him up and took him away from the danger so he should not see death (presumably because God was not done with him yet):

And as Obadiah was in the way, behold, Elijah met him: and he knew him, and fell on his face, and said, Art thou that my lord Elijah? And he answered him, I am: go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here. And he said, What have I sinned, that thou wouldest deliver thy servant into the hand of Ahab, to slay me? As the LORD thy God liveth, there is no nation or kingdom, whither my lord hath not sent to seek thee: and when they said, He is not there; he took an oath of the kingdom and nation, that they found thee not. And now thou sayest, Go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here. And it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from thee, that the Spirit of the LORD shall carry thee whither I know not; and so when I come and tell Ahab, and he cannot find thee, he shall slay me: but I thy servant fear the LORD from my youth.[8]

And in 2 Kings we see that God was going to translate Elijah again, and the people of Bethel knew the routine. Eventually, Elijah was taken by a whirlwind accompanied by chariots of fire into the sky and out of the sight of Elisha:

And it came to pass, when the LORD would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal. And Elijah said unto Elisha, Tarry here, I pray thee; for the LORD hath sent me to Bethel. And Elisha said unto him, As the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. So they went down to Bethel. And the sons of the prophets that were at Bethel came forth to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the LORD will take away thy master from thy head to day? And he said, Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace.[9]

Notice how afterwards the onlooking people went off to look for Elijah, knowing where God usually takes him. Why would people go on a three day journey through the countryside to find a man who they believed is not even on earth, but was rather taken up to the celestial realm of the gods? They knew the routine, and they knew Elijah was simply relocated:

And they said unto him, Behold now, there be with thy servants fifty strong men; let them go, we pray thee, and seek thy master: lest peradventure the Spirit of the LORD hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley. And he said, Ye shall not send.[10]

This is made clear in the scripture because seven years later[11] we find Elijah still on earth having written to the King of Judah, Jehoram:

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 [...][12]

Therefore, we can see that the texts which were typically assumed to be in reference to Elijah being caught up to heaven in a chariot of fire, never to be seen again, preserved from the law of death, do not in fact testify to this understanding when read carefully.

Additional Evidence

The very same translation seen from Philip and Elijah is again found in Ezekiel:

Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, all my words that I shall speak unto thee receive in thine heart, and hear with thine ears. And go, get thee to them of the captivity, unto the children of thy people, and speak unto them, and tell them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear. Then the spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great rushing, saying, Blessed be the glory of the LORD from his place. I heard also the noise of the wings of the living creatures that touched one another, and the noise of the wheels over against them, and a noise of a great rushing. So the spirit lifted me up, and took me away, and I went in bitterness, in the heat of my spirit; but the hand of the LORD was strong upon me. Then I came to them of the captivity at Telabib, that dwelt by the river of Chebar, and I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days.[13]

In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus says that Elijah and Enoch were removed from the sight of the public so that people would not know of their death:

Accordingly the king in a very little time died, as Elijah had foretold; but Jehoram his brother succeeded him in the kingdom, for he died without children: but for this Jehoram, he was like his father Ahab in wickedness, and reigned twelve years, indulging himself in all sorts of wickedness and impiety towards God, for, leaving off his worship, he worshipped foreign gods; but in other respects he was an active man. Now at this time it was that Elijah disappeared from among men, and no one knows of his death to this very day; but he left behind him his disciple Elisha, as we have formerly declared. And indeed, as to Elijah, and as to Enoch, who was before the deluge, it is written in the sacred books that they disappeared, but so that nobody knew that they died.[14]

Moses even though his death was known, because of the perceived providential significance of not being able to find the corpse. Scripture says “So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.”[15]

Origen was one of the only theologians who noticed this problem of Enoch and Elijah being viewed as similar to Christ, because scripture gives the impression that Christ’s resurrection and ascent into heaven was the first event of its kind, taking evidence from Isaiah 34:6 & 63:1. Origen is also very aware of the mainstream view and how many would be excessively reluctant to accept any nuance of this topic and even take offense to another suggestion. He makes a distinction between three words: (1) the assumption of Elijah, (2) the translation of Enoch, and (3) the ascension of Christ, saying the following in his Commentary on Psalms:[16]

The Lord Jesus Christ, whose flesh was the first to “rest in hope,” is saying these things. For he was crucified and became “firstborn from the dead”;[17] and after the resurrection he was assumed into heaven[18] and took his earthly body with him, so that the heavenly powers were terrified and stunned when they saw flesh ascending into heaven. For it is written of Elijah that he was, as it were, assumed into heaven,[19] and of Enoch, that he was translated,[20] but it is not said that he ascended into heaven. The one who wants may take offense at our words, but I shall nevertheless assert with all confidence that, just as Christ is “firstborn from the dead,” so he was the first to bring flesh to heaven. After all, the heavenly powers are quite terrified at the very novelty [of the thing], since they were now seeing what they had never seen before: flesh ascending into heaven. And that is why they say: “Who is he who comes from Edom?”—that is, from the earth, and, “The red of his vestments is from Bosor”;[21] for they saw in his body the marks of the wounds from Bosor,[22] that is, the marks that he had received in the flesh.[23]

In trying to reconcile Chrysostom and Athanasius, one may attempt to make the argument that the “two witnesses” of Revelation 11:3 who are killed in Revelation 11:7 are to be identified as Enoch and Elijah. In other words, God has continued to extend their life (presumably an event similar to Hezekiah’s life extension[24]) but they would eventually die at a later date, maintaining the Athanasian law of death. However, this interpretation is predicated on unclear and arguable grounds. For example, though the two witnesses may be Enoch and Elijah, they just as well may not be Enoch and Elijah. Though of course one would be obligated to make the association to make the law of death work. And if we grant Origen’s argument that Christ’s ascension was a unique event, even according to the angelic realm, why would they be surprised at the coming of Christ when such an ascension already happened twice before? Would this not in some way cheapen what Christ has accomplished?

Enoch as the Divine “Metatron”

Since I am on the topic of Enoch, I thought it would be interesting to take a detour and discuss a particular Kabbalist reading of Enoch. Though it is apocryphal according to mainstream Judaism, there were certain mystics among the Jews who said that Enoch was transformed into a god (angel) and given the name Metatron, who became the highest over all angelic powers. Metatron is given a role that appears to be that of a judge and is enthroned with an apparent equality with God. This led to polemical traditions to develop that accuses Metatron of heresy for daring to suggest that there were “two powers in heaven.”[25] Anyone who has an advanced education in theology can immediately see the similarities between the Jewish assertions about Metatron and the Christian assertions about Jesus Christ inspired by Daniel 7. The sections of 1 Enoch called The Book of Parables[26] asserts that Enoch and The Son of Man whom he beheld are the same person, despite the fact that they at first appear to be separate. This would obviously foreshadow the idea of one person having both a divine and human nature. And because the Messianic expectation was in reference to this very Son of Man, the expectation would then also be understood to be a return of Enoch: superseding the return of Elijah as prophesied in Malachi 4:5. Therefore, if Christ said John the Baptist was this Elijah who was to come,[27] then it stands to reason that Christ could be said to be the Enoch to come, since Christ identifies Himself as this divine Son of Man,[28] and His apostles follow this interpretation.[29]

Conclusion

This topic is difficult and mysterious regardless of whatever one chooses to believe. Perhaps Enoch and Elijah did eventually die like everyone else who experienced translation, and were miraculously preserved for a time as a sign to men; a way to send a message. This would be similar to how Polycarp was miraculously unable to be burned by fire before ultimately dying by being pierced with a dagger.[30] It seems clear to me that translation means transportation from one location to the other through the air, and does not mean one escapes death, ascends physically to the realm of the gods to be made immortal. Understood this way, Enoch and Elijah did eventually die afterwards, as do all human beings under the law of death. One may also believe that the lives of Elijah and Enoch were literally preserved from death, but of course one would also need to explain Christ associating the prophesy of Elijah to be concerning John the Baptist and not a literal return of Elijah as Elijah, as well as the fact that there does not seem to be any scriptural support for the suggestion that Elijah never died, but only that men did not see him die. Whatever the case may be, it is my hope that this essay is helpful for those who are honest students of the scriptures.

__________

[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation 3.3-5.

[2] Ibid., 6.2-3.

[3] Genesis 2:17.

[4] John 3:13.

[5] Hebrews 11:5, 13.

[6] John Chrysostom, Homilies on Hebrews 23.3.

[7] Acts 8:38-40.

[8] 1 Kings 18:7-12.

[9] 2 Kings 2:1-3.

[10] 2 Kings 2:16.

[11] Seven years by comparing I Kings 22:42, and II Kings 3:1, 8:16.

[12] 2 Chronicles 21:12.

[13] Ezekiel 3:10-15.

[14] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 9.2.2.

[15] Deuteronomy 34:5-6.

[16] The comments are on Psalm 16:9 in particular, salvaged by Pamphilus.

[17] Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5.

[18] Cf. Mark 16.19; Luke 24.51; Acts 1.9, 11.

[19] Cf. 2 Kings 2:1, 11.

[20] Cf. Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5.

[21] Isaiah 63:1.

[22] Cf. Isaiah 34:6.

[23] Pamphilus, Apology for Origen (FOTC 120), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), pp. 104-105.

[24] Cf. 2 Kings 20.

[25] Alan Segal, Two Powers in Heaven:Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Brill, 2002) pp. 60-61

[26] 1 Enoch 37-71.

[27] Cf. Matthew 11:14.

[28] Matthew 8:20, 9:6, 10:23, 11:19, 12:8, 32, 40, 13:37, 41, 16:13, etc.

[29] Cf. Revelation 1:13; 22:6.

[30] Cf. Martyrdom of Polycarp 15-16.


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