Up, Up, and Away!

Today was the Feast of the Ascension. There are two favorite quotes of mine related to the ascension, which I have shared at least twice before on this blog. Here they are again:

First, Keith Ward (The Big Questions in Science and Religionp.107):

We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed).

And second, from James D. G. Dunn’s article on “Myth” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p.568),

To demythologize the ascension is not to deny that Jesus “went to heaven”; it is simply to find a way of expressing this in language which takes it out of the realm of current or future space research.

And here are my own thoughts from a couple of years ago related to this topic:

Ascension day is a perfect day to draw attention to the fact that literalism is not only problematic, but impossible. Even if someone insists on maintaining the literal truth of the claim in Acts that Jesus literally went up into heaven, they cannot maintain the worldview of the first century Christians which provided the context for the affirmation. They knew nothing of light-years, distant galaxies or interstellar space without oxygen. And it is not possible, through some act of either will or faith, to forget absolutely everything that has been learned since then and believe as they did. Even those who willingly choose to disbelieve modern science are making a choice that the first Christians did not have to, and thus accept dogmatically what early Christians naively assumed because they knew no better.

There are plenty who continue to claim they are Biblical literalists. But there are no actual Biblical literalists. Because even the precise words of the Bible, taken literally, mean something different today than they did almost 2,000 years ago.

Of course, that’s not the post in which I relate the story about the ascension of Jesus to Iron Man.

Finally, here’s a cartoon that was shared by a couple of different people today:

  • Nick

    Its interesting, if you look at Orthodox icons of the Ascension, St. Paul is there in deliberately anachronistic fashion as is the Theotokos in her theologically significant regalia. I think it’s to emphasize that the historical nature of what happened that day is not to take precedence over the liturgical reality it conveys (that Christ’s Ascension is a part of the salvation of the entire Church, Jew and Gentile alike).

    This is further underscored by Christ being surrounded by the geometric aura known as the “mandorla” which indicates that what is happening is an event that must be perceived first and foremost with spiritual eyes. As Father Thomas Hopko puts it, it is not as if two guys who were having lunch on the other side of the hill could have looked up and seen a man slowly rising up into the air on a cloud.

    At least, that’s how I understand it, not being Orthodox myself.

  • Just Sayin’

    So what literally happened when Jesus departed from his disciples for the last time?

    • Nick

      My theory, He just disappeared like so many other occasions during the week after He rose. Either the disciples saw Him lifted up as a vision in order to encourage them or else the “on a cloud” language is simply metaphorical.

      I think that either way, the punch of the Ascension narrative is what we find in Acts 1,

      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 [ie. suddenly and marvelously].”

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

      What literally happened?

      They literally passed on the oral tradition of Jesus ascending into Heaven.

  • potiphar

    C S Lewis points out that to disappear is fundamentally different from to ascend: “For a phantom can just fade away; but an objective entity must go somewhere – something must happen to it.” In other words, the literal understanding of Scripture is likely to be less misleading than any plausible conjectural reconstruction based on modern naturalist cosmology.

    What “actually” happened is that Jesus physically transcended the inferior realm of earth for the superior realm of heaven. And that’s what the disciples “saw” – they didn’t see him fly into outer space, or disappear. The question is surely how what they saw can be described – for surely the supernatural truth can’t just be reduced to a natural reality, as if only the natural is actual.

    If that’s a conceptual problem, consider that heaven cannot be perceived with physical sight, but can be experienced internally and, presumably, in the resurrection body to come. So how could there be a simple way to describe Jesus’s transition from a world that is perceived physically to a world that is perceived spiritually?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=592003242 Jerome Herr

    So the Father beamed the Son back home?

  • Just Sayin’

    If it happened within the physical realm of the senses — which it did, the disciples saw it — then surely it can be described.

    • potiphar

      It happened in the mental realm of perception – which includes the realm of the senses but could also include other things including (negatively) hallucination or illusion or (positively) vision or direct spiritual insight. And certainly all that can be described – but only by those who experienced it. And if they describe it as Jesus ascending, who’s qualified to know better?
      If their experience was influenced by their world-view, so what? Does translating it into our world view add to the reality? Why? What they experienced is irreducible to some other experience they didn’t have.
      I could describe to you a near-death experience I had. You might speculate on some physiological cause, or even on my interpretation of some genuine spiritual experience: in the end, what “really happened” was a near death experience as I describe it. I won’t take kindly to being told what I really saw was some other experience, because it wasn’t..

  • Mikail2

    Great post, James. In my journey, it is the failed apocalyptic prophecies of the New testament, many of which are attributed to Jesus, and the ascension story which states that Jesus left the physical universe by flying to the sky (Science has shown that this is impossible) made it totally clear to me that the Bible is not a 100% inerrant document and that it contains historical and scientific inaccuracies.

    These are the two reasons why I no longer believe the historical Jesus was a god man and it’s also why I no longer believe he physically rose from the dead.

  • Just Sayin’

    What I’m trying to understand is where then is Jesus’ physical body today? It has to be physically somewhere. Trolls like Steven Carr have an obviously trite reply, but I’m looking for something creedal Christians can believe.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      While I think that there are those who would indeed say that, since Acts depicts Jesus moving up into the air, he must still be out there somewhere, or indeed have reached warp speed. But for those more open to considering how our cosmology differs from that of first century people, one could simply view Acts as either the author expressing his conviction that Jesus went to where God is in first-century terms, or that God accommodated to the understanding of people in that time and elevated Jesus into the air in order to convey the point. I wouldn’t recommend embracing that last option, but if we are trying to be comprehensive then it is worth mentioning.

      As for where Jesus’ physical body is, I think that most of today’s Christians don’t think of “heaven” as a physical place, or God as occupying physical space in a normal 3-or-4 dimensional sense. And so it doesn’t really make sense to hold that view while also insisting that Jesus went to heaven in bodily form and that he exists that way now, does it?

      • Just Sayin’

        Thanks for these thoughts. Why is God accommodating and elevating Jesus not a good option?

        I’m a bit confused by your last para. Do you think it problematic to believe in a physically resurrected Jesus now with the Father (who is spirit)? I do too, and am hoping there is a way not to have to abandon what seems to be this creedal Christian belief.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          It seems to me to be problematic to say that God is spirit, and that Jesus is physically at his right hand. And so I would think that someone who wanted to maintain the core of Jesus having gone to where God is would more naturally either posit a physical place for God, or (I suspect much more preferably) posit that Jesus’ present state is of a similar sort to that of God’s own existence.

          • Just Sayin’

            Okay, I see what you’re saying now. Thanks.


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