Ascent and descent

‘Highs and lows’ and ‘ups and downs’ are well-recognised English colloquialisms for good and bad events or states, and occur in the Bible too. High places and mountains are also significant to the geography of the Bible and feature as locations for many scenes of action.

Pagan heights

Many of the religions practised in and around Canaan in Old Testament times revered special ‘high places’ as locations of worship and ritual. As the Israelites moved into the land, they were commanded to destroy these sites and the objects they contained (Numbers 33:52). However, they did not fully obey and were repeatedly tempted into idolatry (for example, Jeremiah 32:35). In 1 Kings 18:17-19; 1 Kings 18:36-39 Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal favoured by the Israelite king Ahab in a public display of divine power on Mount Carmel. King Josiah, who ‘did what was right in the eyes of the Lord’, destroyed all the high places as part of his many religious reforms 2 Kings 23:19.

Staircase to heaven

Jacob's ladderThe idea of the biblical God residing in ‘the heavens above’ is portrayed by the vision given to the patriarch Jacob. He saw a ladder between heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending, and heard God speaking to him from the top Genesis 28:10-13.

Mountain encounters

Mount Sinai is the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone Exodus 34:1-8. It was a location of both ascent and descent: Moses ascended to the top to hear from God; God descended to speak with him there (Exodus 19:20). The mountain was associated with elemental awesomeness, also experienced by the prophet Elijah when he encountered God on Mount Horeb (see 1 Kings 19:11-13).
There is a sense that high places are somehow ‘closer’ to God - in the New Testament, Paul used this idea by comparing the physically high Mount Sinai (associated with laws which can never be perfectly fulfilled) with the even higher ‘Jerusalem above’ (associated with the freedom Christ brings to believers) Galatians 4:26.

Mount Zion

The association of high places and meeting with God was cemented by God’s selection of Mount Zion as the hill on which his Temple in Jerusalem should be built. Mount Zion thus has special symbolic and prophetic importance throughout the Bible, and is used by way of synecdoche to represent God’s chosen dwelling place/people (e.g. Zechariah 9:13; Hebrews 12:22.

Psalms and poetry

As pilgrims climbed the hill to Jerusalem during annual festivals they sang the ‘Songs of Ascent’, a group of fifteen Psalms (Psalms 120 - 134) which prepared them for their eventual destination. The act of ‘raising one’s eyes’ was a metaphor for looking to God:
I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. 
                                                                                Psalm 121:1-2 ESVUK
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! 
                                                                                Psalm 123:1 ESVUK     
When medieval architects were later building cathedrals, they often raised the chancel up steps to reflect this idea of ascending to worship God.
However, God is not confined to high places. The Psalmist reflected on his presence in the depths too (Psalms 139:8; Psalms 130:1-2). A similar confidence was echoed in the New Testament by Paul, regarding the love of God Romans 8:38-39.


The Fall is a theological term used to sum up the account about the disobedience of the first humans when tempted in Genesis 3:1-24. The phrase connotes a descent from a state of innocence and closeness to God, to a state of sin and separation from him.
In addition, the idea of ‘fallenness’ is used to explain the existence, nature and activity of the devil and demons. The term also indicates their defeat by God. When Jesus sent out his disciples to minister in his name, he ‘saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ Luke 10:17-18. In the Old Testament, Isaiah described the ousting from heaven of the hubristic ‘Day Star’ (historically translated ‘Lucifer’) Isaiah 14:12-15. From these and other passages (e.g. Revelation 12:7-10) it was widely understood that demons were angels (associated with the exalted realms of heaven) who rebelled and were therefore ‘cast down’. 


Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God who came to earth in human form, before returning to heaven. This journey of descent to humanity, then ascent back to God’s throne, is captured in the early Christian hymn quoted in Philippians 2:5-11:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.                        Philippians 2:5-11 ESVUK     
During his earthly ministry, Jesus did much of his teaching on hilltops (where it was easy to be seen and heard) and regularly went to the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem to speak with his disciples or pray. Alone, in a high place, Jesus faced temptation from the devil (see Matthew 4:8-11) and his own fears before his arrest (Luke 22:39-44
Ascension of ChristThe account of Jesus’ transfiguration is framed by ascending, then descending a mountain, echoing the idea of ‘touching the divine’ then coming ‘back down to earth’ (Matthew 17:1-9). Conversely, between his crucifixion and resurrection, Christ ‘descended to the dead’ as the apostles’ creed states (summing up the idea that his spirit descended into hell to free the souls of the righteous 1 Peter 3:19; 1 Peter 4:6) – see Book of Common Prayer > Morning Prayer > Apostles’ Creed.
It was on the Mount of Olives that Jesus finally parted with his disciples in bodily form after his resurrection, an event remembered by the Christian church as the Ascension (see Acts 1:9-12).

Ascent and descent in literature

  • According to Aristotle’s Poetics, one of the most powerful plot components of tragedy is perepeteia – a change by which the situation is reversed. In SophoclesOedipus Rex (c.429 BC), for example, the protagonist’s fortunes shift from good to bad when he discovers that Laius was his father and Jocasta is his mother
  • The protagonist of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c.1599-1606) rises through the ranks to become King of Scotland, as prophesied. However, he and his wife quickly sink in a mire of madness and fear and are overthrown by their enemies
  • Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost starts with recounting the defeat and fall of Lucifer (Book 1), before detailing the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve (Book 9)
  • In Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 satiric novel Decline and Fall, Paul Pennyfeather is subjected to a series of farcical ups and downs, beginning with his unjust expulsion from Oxford University and ending up … right back where he started, at Oxford!
  • In The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Tom Wolfe follows the changes in fortune of several characters connected with a hit-and-run accident. The owner of the car, McCoy, loses his immense wealth, his job, his family and his social standing. By contrast Fallow, the washed out journalist who exposes the case, gains fame, fortune and a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.

Other cultural references

  • A Matter of Life and Death is a 1946 romantic fantasy film originally entitled ‘Stairway to Heaven’ because of a famous Jacob's ladder-type scene depicting an escalator between earth and the afterlife.

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