Today is Ascension Day. The cartoon above is one that I have shared before. In my opinion, all Christians ought to have “ascension deficit” and it should not be considered a “disorder.” The author of Acts had no notion of light years, of outer space, of the things that are part of our understanding of the cosmos. As someone I know once put it, “The ascension is harder to believe in than the resurrection.”
First, Keith Ward (The Big Questions in Science and Religion, p.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).
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.
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, 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.
UPDATE: Now see too Peter Chattaway’s post on the literalism or otherwise across the history of movies about Jesus.