Ascension Deficit Disorder

Ascension Deficit Disorder May 29, 2014

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.”

And so each year at this time, for the past several years, I highlight these quotes from two contemporary Christian authors:

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 (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992) 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 my own thoughts from a post in 2011:

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.


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  • Anastasios Gounaris

    Sorry, but I have never read anything more absurd in my life. What do YOU propose happened on the day of Christ’s Ascension???

    • Even if I am wrong, I sincerely doubt that you have never read anything more absurd in your life. I am not persuaded that there was a “day of Christ’s ascension” of the sort we find depicted only in Acts. I believe that that author gave expression to his conviction that Jesus is now seated at the right hand of God, within the framework of his cosmology in which heaven was literally “up there” and not too far away, especially from Jerusalem.

      • Anastasios Gounaris

        I don’t know, I would have to think long and hard as whether I’ve read anything more absurd. I suppose it’s possible. I notice you say that the Ascension as “depicted only in Acts.” By that, do you imply that the event lacks credibility because it wasn’t splashed all over the media of the Roman world? If so, that would be absurd too – because at that point Jesus’ followers were a small and motley group which would not have attracted any attention whatsoever – even in their immediate vicinity. All Acts is saying is that Jesus SOMEHOW was taken from them and disappeared from their view. Even if Acts had been written against the context of today’s astronomical knowledge, I don’t believe anyone would assert that He is somehow floating out there in the cosmos alongside the Voyager spacecraft!

        • I was referring to the fact that the event is not narrated anywhere else in our early Christian sources prior to Acts.

          What do you understand Jesus’ upwards-journey to mean, if not that he ascended to a heaven that was literally upwards? If heaven is not spatial, then what was the point of his traveling upwards into the sky (the word for which also meant “heaven” in ancient Hebrew and Greek, since they were not yet aware of the need to make such a distinction)?

          • Tim

            Maybe it happened like in “Fringe” and he just crossed over to the other side, kind of like a parallel universe.

          • Anastasios Gounaris

            The Book of Acts IS an early Christian source! So where else would you expect to read about this but in the account that directly follows the Gospels? Christ’s Ascension is mentioned in Luke 24:50-53 (NKJV)

            “And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven. And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God. Amen.”

            This leads right into the Book of Acts. At any rate, you’re splitting hairs – especially because our weak and puny little human minds cannot possibly understand exactly what it means for Jesus to sit “at the right hand of the Father.”

            However in traditional Orthodox Christian theology Jesus’ bodily Ascension is important because Jesus was incarnate as BOTH God and Man. Being BOTH God and Man is central to His essence. Thus we believe that He continues to exist as humanity knew him during His 33 years on this earth – as the perfect God-Man.

          • Guest

            Orthodox Christian icon of the Ascension . . .

          • I was contrasting Luke- Acts with earlier Christian sources. I am not sure why that was not clear.

            I am not trying to split hairs. I am trying to explore the fact that the author of Luke-Acts thought that one could reach God’s right hand by flying upwards far enough. I do not think that most Christians today think in those terms.

  • Andrew Dowling

    On a slightly related note, I’ve been reading the Acts Seminar’s book on Acts and its historicity. I’ve really enjoyed Joseph Tyson’s past work, but a number of the Seminar’s assumptions and conclusions I find overly skeptical, and I’m not one to shy away from biblical skepticism. Have you read it James?

    • I often feel the same way about the Jesus Seminar. I have yet to read their Acts volume, alas.

      • Andrew Dowling

        It’s the problem with a bunch of liberal scholars in a room together; the most radical will likely be the most outspoken, and liberals being liberals (and I’m definitely one) will be open to most any idea and have biases towards traditional apologetic answers.

        I found the work of individual JS members (Crossan, Patterson, Borg) to be much better and nuanced than the comprehensive work the JS put out . . too many shallow assumptions ie “a Jesus saying was similar to a common Wisdom saying . . Jesus couldn’t have said it!” or “the Apostles likely fled Jerusalem after the Crucifixion . . thus the whole Pentencost episode in Acts set in Jerusalem is unreliable” etc.

        • MattB

          Even though I’m not liberal and don’t really agree with the Jesus seminar on a lot of things, I think my favorite scholar from the JS is John Dominic Crossan since he’s calm and usually pretty informative on the Historical Jesus.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Matt . . .you’re not liberal?? I never would’ve guessed . . .:)

          • MattB

            Haha, you knew all along didn’t you?

        • I feel the same way. I may disagree with their conclusions, but Borg, Crossan, Patterson, Chilton, and others always make for interesting reading. I suspect that if the Jesus Seminar were limited to its most professional scholarly members, I might still disagree with their conclusions, but would not do so with the same sense of frustration. 🙂

  • friendly reader

    All your examples are recent, but as far back as 1529 Luther was arguing against Zwingli that the idea of Christ’s bodily ascension into heaven was too literal, and that it should be understood as a metaphor for Christ returning to God’s almighty power, not his physical body sitting at God’s physical “right hand.” And that was from a guy who was behind geocentrism 110%.

  • Greg Oliver Sr

    Literalism is the short road to cognitive dissonance.

    • Tim

      Kind of like the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?