I have never asked the grinning bobcat why he grins, but Disney’s Pocahontas suggested I should. My fear is not so much the question, as the response. Bobcats are not good Socratic discussants. Everyone has questions, but not everyone has the same questions.
- If one witnessed the ascension of Jesus into heaven, what do you believe such a person would report having actually seen?
I assume M* is not like the chap I met once who carefully explained to me what would have happened to Jesus’ body at escape velocity (it is not good) and how Jesus could not have left the solar system yet, let alone made it to Heaven. He imagined Jesus still shooting upward toward the stars and then pointed out that no telescope has gotten pictures of Him.
This person was either a bit whack or was doing a reductio on the story of the Ascension. Look how silly Luke was! People back in his day believed in a tiny cosmos where Jesus could fly up to Heaven and sit down on a chair with God. Of course, now we know . . . you get the idea. This is strikes me as not terrifically interesting, but obviously other smart people do worry.
Jesus talks about going to the Father and the New Testament epistles place Christ in Heaven, but only Luke pictures the event. Luke** wrote about that here and here.
His Gospel account:
51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven.
His account in Acts:
After saying this, Jesus[a] was taken up while those who had gathered together[b]were watching, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
If you had been watching:
- You would have seen Jesus rise above you.
- Vanish into the clouds.
That’s it. If you stood there, you could not keep watching him ascend like some Messianic balloon. When Jesus appears to the disciples in Luke, He sometimes just appears and other times vanishes. Something is happening with Jesus that is not merely physical (though it has that component).
Appearance versus Reality
Today as I woke up I watched the sun rise and light up my bedroom. This is not a mistake, even though I know the sun does not rise. We can describe things as they appear without saying that is what is happening in fact or entirely.
Jesus appears to go “up” and disappears into the “clouds.” That is what he seems to do. Where does he go? Does he keep going up past the clouds? Or does he vanish as has happened before in Luke? The image of the ascension is natural to us. The dead are buried in the earth, they go down. Jesus is alive, He goes up.
Where does He go next? He goes to God.
What was Luke’s Cosmology?
Unfortunately for us, we do not know what Luke’s view of the cosmos was. The ancient world had a great many competing cosmologies. Some were very sophisticated, as Plato’s was in Timaeus. Plato’s cosmos was large and he held to it tentatively: it was more likely than not. Folk cosmologists could be as simple as having Heaven “up there” and Hell “down there.” In addition, there is the intent of the book: theology not science. His “cosmology,” if there is one, could be doing theological work using a teaching device or ima
We simply cannot take the most foolish (to our ears) cosmology and attribute it to Luke to score points. Of course, I cannot say that Luke (as a maybe physician!) must have had a sophisticated Greco-Roman cosmology. Whatever Luke’s beliefs, he reports an ascension, but does not report that Jesus got to the top of the dome, went into the throne room, and pulled up a chair.
God is spirit.
Most of what was happening at the ascension could not be seen and what was there to see was simple and not garish. This was no Ovid: Jesus simply went home. The Apostles did the same.
*M is a non-Christian that sent me 55 questions early this year. He has asked that I not reveal his or her name. I will write as if “he” is a male, but this is for convenience. I do not know if I will get to all his questions. Here are questions 1, 2, 3, 17, 23, 26, 27, 34, 35, 37 , 54 , and 55.
**Nothing I am saying depends on the identity of Luke or on a single author for Luke.