Ascension of the Risen Jesus into the Realm of God is just one of many biblical Sky Journeys.
Ascension is one of those Christian realities of which we are so spuriously familiar. Just what exactly was the Ascension? “…He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father…”—So goes the Creed we Catholics profess on Sundays and Feast Days. But what was it, literally?
Watch the brief video here—
Ascension and 21st Century Western Questions
Was the Ascension of Jesus literal space travel? Did Jesus take off into outer space? If so, how far did he go out into the Final Frontier? Wouldn’t that mean he has a trajectory and velocity? Was he quick enough to leave the solar system? Or, like Dr. Manhattan in Alan Moore’s “WATCHMEN,” could he be chilling out on Mars or some other solar system planetary body or moon? Is he watching us from “up there”?
If the Ascension is literal space travel, did Jesus become radioactive when he passed through the Van Allen radiation belts? Could we see him with the Hubble space telescope? If these questions sound like mockery, that is not my intention. They are given to provoke critical reflection as to the meaning of our Lord’s ascension, what it can mean in contrast with absurdities.
Is the Ascension of Jesus a physical reality? And was it like any other historical event? When did it happen exactly? Many Christians in the pews would swiftly and mechanically respond like well-trained parrots, “FORTY DAYS after Easter Sunday!”
New Testament Inconsistencies with the Ascension
But analysis of the New Testament reveals that dating the Ascension proves troublesome. The anonymous, unknown author of “Luke-Acts” tells the story twice. In Luke 24:50-53, he gives a frankly bizarre story of the Ascension happening the evening following Jesus’ resurrection. But this same author, in his follow-up work called “Acts,” tells of Jesus’ Ascension happening forty days after the resurrection (Acts 1:1-12)! What gives?
If we turn over to the Fourth Gospel called “John,” that text does not provide a description of the Ascension. But we can assume that it happened sometime during the day of the resurrection after Jesus appeared to and commissioned Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18) and when he later appears that night to the Eleven minus Thomas (John 20:19-23). As a matter of fact, the Johannine Jesus group acknowledged multiple Ascensions and DESCENTS of Jesus! What’s up with that?
Insights Concerning Round-trip Sky Journeys
Cultural anthropology and cognitive neuroscience may shed some light on things we understand via spurious familiarity. What if I told you that human beings are capable of making a round-trip journey between “the earth” (i.e., consensus reality) and “the sky” (i.e., alternate reality) all the while keeping their feet firmly planted on the ground? Scripture shows us examples of such round-trip sky journeys (e.g., the astral prophet John in Revelation 4:1-2).
Some make one-way sky journeys, and have yet to complete the circuit (like Enoch in Genesis 5:24; Elijah in 2 Kings 2:1-12; Ezra in 2 Esdras 8:19b). If they haven’t died already, eventually they will when they get back, at least according to Israelite tradition. They eventually die if they have not already.
Israelite tradition also tells of a postmortem sky journey into alternate reality, an experience given everyone when they die. We could say that this one-way trip happened to Jesus in his Ascension, except that occurred after his resurrection, when his life was transformed and raised by God. Just prior to being raised by God, just after his death, Jesus had journeyed to what some cultures imagine as the roots of the Axis Mundi or Cosmic Tree of Life, and there had proclaimed God’s salvation to “them that sleep” (an ancient belief expressed in the Gospel of Peter 41).
The Developing Tradition of Ascension
Theologically speaking, “Ascension Day” should not be thought of as a historical commemoration. The New Testament treats the Ascension as an integral part of the Easter event—inexorably bound to Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, the earlier resurrection appearance narratives (1 Corinthians 15:1-11) depict these appearances as manifestations of the already risen and ascended One.
In later documents, the resurrection appearance narratives (like in “Luke” and “John”) seem to have a tendency to separate the resurrection from the ascension. But even so these later documents don’t figure them to be two successive events. The later Jesus groups separated them so as deepen their understanding of the Risen Lord.
Afterlife, Eschatology, or Sky Journey Right Now?
The author of the essay we call “Hebrews” gives praise to the high priest Jesus who prepared “a new and living way” into the sky vault sanctuary (Hebrews 10:19). This author exhorts believers to enter that sanctuary right now, immediately. Not after they kick the bucket! Not after Jesus comes back and establishes theocracy—right now while they still are breathing.
Look how similar that is to John 14:4, where the Johannine Jesus tells his disciples: “Where [I] am going you know the way” (so as to prepare a place for them, because he would come back again and take them to himself, so that where he is they also may be). Is he talking about a heavenly afterlife? Ask many theologians and catechists to explain that and they will respond that Jesus is talking about going to heaven after you die, in the afterlife. But was that what the Johannine community understood by these words? This is doubtful, folks.
Turning to the very late document called “2 Peter,” readers are exhorted to grow in virtue “for in this way entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you” (2 Peter 1:11). Some scholars have understood “richly provided” referring to repeated access into that eternal kingdom.
Then look over at Colossians 3:1-3—
“If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Enjoying Sky Journeys NOW
Do the believers behind these documents seem to be preoccupied with some end-time experience? Could they be anticipating an afterlife with Jesus? It doesn’t seem so. In contrast, it looks like some New Testament people were already enjoying such sky journeys or one-way ascensions into Alternate Reality regularly and routinely while they were still alive. When they eventually died, their death would only render permanent what these believers already were frequently experiencing.
As scholars like John Pilch and Morton Smith point out, we can see evidence from within fifteen or twenty years of Jesus’ death and resurrection of early Jesus group believers enjoying ascensions while living. Would it be wrong to assume that Jesus, before his death, instructed his followers in this practice? If that is true, how come we seem to have forgotten this in our later Christianity?
Perhaps in later posts we will revisit the questions above concerning the Ascension of Jesus in light of what we know concerning altered states of consciousness, one of which is the sky journey.