Rethinking Ascension

By George Clifford

Luke’s gospel ends with an unidentified force or actor carrying Jesus up into heaven (Luke 24:51); in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of his impending ascension (John 20:17), and the book of Acts begins with a retelling of Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9). Based on those New Testament passages, the Church annually commemorates Jesus’ Ascension into heaven on the fortieth day after Easter. This year, the feast fell on May 1.

From a scientific perspective, the concept of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as depicted in Scripture is nonsensical. If Jesus ascended into heaven, then given the right information an aerospace engineer could calculate heaven’s direction, but not its distance, from earth. The accurate data needed for that calculation includes the geographic point at which the ascension occurred, the hour and minute, day of the year, and year in which the ascension occurred, Jesus’ trajectory into the sky, and the relative location of the solar system and universe within the cosmos at the time of the ascension.

Some might ridicule a literal reading, contending that heaven – the place where Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father – surrounds the cosmos, lying outside space and time. Yet the New Testament ascension narratives presume a flat, three-tiered cosmos consisting of heaven above, earth in the middle, and hell below. Before dismissing my claim that the New Testament presumes a three-story cosmology as wrong, remember the words of the Nicene Creed we Episcopalians (like many other Christians) often say at Holy Eucharist, “he [Jesus] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Those who have personally circumnavigated the world know that the earth is round. For others, video and photographic evidence from outer space provides convincing evidence that the earth is spherical. In other words, a basic presumption of the New Testament versions of the ascension is scientifically wrong.

Presupposing that one rejects a literal interpretation of Jesus’ ascension, what better options do twenty-first century Christians have for understanding Jesus’ ascension?

The first option, already mentioned, consists of spiritualizing the ascension, postulating the existence of a spiritual realm that lies outside the space-time continuum. Increasing numbers of people, however, find the idea of a supernatural deity, a deity who exists not only in but beyond the cosmos, unbelievable. Scholars and spiritual leaders like Bishops John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God) and John Spong (Jesus for the Non-Religious) have helpfully articulated why such a belief seems incompatible with other elements of our modern worldview.

A second option is to ignore Jesus’ ascension and hope that others do so as well, an approach that Ascension always falling on Thursday aids. After all, Christianity emphasizes God’s presence not absence in the world. Historically, one of the important functions of the ascension was to explain Jesus’ physical absence to people who believed in a physically empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily resurrection. The New Testament specifies that Jesus appeared amongst his disciples for forty days after rising from the dead. When people stopped encountering Jesus, what had happened to him? Novelists and others have imaginatively answered that question, producing a wealth of material. Jesus went to India; he disappeared unknown among peasants elsewhere; etc. Those explanations typically undercut Christianity’s premise that Jesus was not resuscitated but resurrected, receiving a qualitatively new form of life. Thankfully, the feast of Pentecost quickly follows Ascension and ecclesial attention shifts from the absent Jesus to the now present Holy Spirit. This overly facile and dishonest option describes what many contemporary Christians do, especially in Churches without a liturgical calendar or lectionary that forces one to pay at least annual lip service to the ascension.

A third option, my preference, begins by acknowledging the theological difficulties that Jesus’ ascension poses and then re-examines the data. Biblical numerology provides a helpful starting point. The Bible – Old and New Testament alike – associates the number forty with a theologically significant period of extended duration. For example, rain fell for forty days and nights while Noah was in the ark (Genesis 7:4). The Israelites who fled Egypt ate manna for forty years (Exodus 16:35). Moses was forty when he visited his Israelite relatives (Acts 7:23) and then sojourned in the wilderness forty years before his experience of the burning bush (Acts 7:30). Moses spent forty days and nights on the mountain before receiving the Ten Commandments from God (Deuteronomy 9:11). Jesus fasted forty days and nights in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2). Perhaps the forty days the risen Jesus spent with his disciples points to an indefinite but considerable period of time following Jesus’ crucifixion in which the disciples experienced Jesus’ presence with them. They experienced Jesus in a new, radically different manner, a manner that the disciples did not know how to describe, a manner that transformed their despair over his death into the hope that built the Church. So the disciples grasped the metaphor of resurrection as a way to speak about their new experience of Jesus (see my earlier Episcopal Café essay, “Resurrection, Not Resuscitation”). In time, the disciples’ experiences of Jesus in this new way diminished in frequency and dimmed in intensity. Ascension became the accepted metaphor for explaining why that had happened.

Metaphors and other figures of speech are the only way in which humans can speak of God because our language, by definition, is human language and God is not human. Our perspective as humans is perhaps equally or even more limited than language. Twenty-first century Christians need offer no apologies for finding first century metaphors highly problematic. The first century metaphor of resurrection presumes a worldview in which gods often have or assume human form, an idea common to both the Greek and Roman pantheons. Similarly, the three-storied cosmos ascension presumes was intrinsic to the dominant first century worldview.

The note that I hear most clearly and loudly in the New Testament ascension narratives is that the disciples, post-resurrection, were utterly convinced that the Jesus story had not yet reached its end. They believed that God would write at least one more chapter in the Jesus story. Our Eucharistic prayers affirm this belief in a story for which the conclusion has yet to be written with some form of the proclamation that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

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