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Ascension Day and Astronaut Jesus

May 17, 2012

For those not down with the liturgical calendar Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, forty days after Easter Sunday. Then, 10 days after Ascension Day, there is Pentecost celebrating the disciples being en fuego.

As James pointed out earlier this week Ascension Day and the story which inspires it challenges the claims of any person to read the Bible literally.

And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”

There’s two aspects to this story I’d like to comment on. First, if we were to take the story literally then the two men in white clothing ask perhaps one of the silliest questions in the Bible, “why do you stand looking into the sky?”

I can just imagine one of the disciples turning around and sarcastically replying, “Well, Jesus came back to life and started walking through walls and stuff, and now he just floated to heaven on a cloud… so yeah, I’m trying to get my head around this for a minute if you don’t mind.”

Second, and more importantly, we can’t really take this story literally for a variety of reasons. Literally Jesus goes up to heaven in the story. This ‘perspective’ is built on the cosmology of first century persons

However, as we all now know, heaven is not ‘up’, and if everyone on earth were to be raptured ‘up’ to heaven they would go in a variety of different directions in our solar system as we are on a planet orbiting the sun, while rotating at 23.5 degrees.Which one of these persons would fly ‘up’ to heaven?

So according to the story, astronaut Jesus flies his cloud up, and I assume we are to believe that he no longer needs oxygen in his resurrected body and that he is impervious to the vacuum of space. But where would Jesus be traveling to if we know that it’s not just a short trip ‘up’ to get to heaven?

This is a picture of our galaxy

Our galaxy is 100,000 light years across, so that means if traveling at the speed of light “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). ~ Keith Ward (The Big Questions in Science and Religion p.107, via James McGrath].

On the one hand it surprises me looking back at my earlier cognitive categories for reading and understanding biblical narratives that I could hear and read this story with absolutely no skepticism whatsoever. Jesus flew to heaven. Check. Flip the page to the Upper room story without even considering some of the problematic issues in the ascension narrative.

Now of course there are theological ‘explanations’ for the story, but what I am referring to in this post is the physical realities and difficulties, simply put: it cannot be read literally and made to cohere with what we now know about our planet, solar system, and galaxy.

Originally posted on June 5, 2011

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2012 12:27 pm

    Just so I can wrap my own head around your observation here, are you saying there is no room for miracles in Christianity at all?

    And of the Ascension is not to be taken literally, I assume the doctrines of the miraculous Virgin Birth and the Resurrection are to be taken figuratively as well?

    I’m not trying to paint you into a corner, I’m just trying to understand from what perspective/worldview you view Scripture from.

    • May 17, 2012 8:28 pm

      “what I am referring to in this post is the physical realities and difficulties [with reading literally], simply put: it cannot be read literally and made to cohere with what we now know about our planet, solar system, and galaxy.”

      Nothing less, nothing more.

      • May 22, 2012 10:28 am

        Again, I wasn’t trying paint you into any corner. It’s just that if one removes the miraculous from Christianity, you truly have no worldview worth considering.

        Personally, I have no problem with Jesus literally ascending, but I don’t believe he went warp speed into some place in our own universe. When he “went out of sight” he probably just disappeared into whatever dimension heaven is located.

        Now I am well aware that you have readers who will say that the story in Acts is nothing more than allegory or a legend, but in my humble opinion, a Christianity stripped of the miraculous is a worldview hardly worth considering or even wasting one’s time with.

        • Paul D. permalink
          May 22, 2012 6:52 pm

          ‘When he “went out of sight” he probably just disappeared into whatever dimension heaven is located.’

          I don’t mean to make this sound sillier than it is, but you would prefer that Jesus basically performed a magic trick, floating up until he could find a cloud to hide behind, and then activated his inter-dimensional communicator and had God beam him back to the mother ship?

          “a Christianity stripped of the miraculous is a worldview hardly worth considering or even wasting one’s time with.”

          I would say that a Christianity focused on the miraculous is as worthless as astrology, voodoo and every other superstitious primitive worldview.

          Jews ask for miraculous signs, and Greeks look for wisdom…

          • May 23, 2012 9:12 am

            Paul:

            Then you are certainly qualified to answer a question that has been eluding me for years. Like I said to Scott, I’m not trying to paint anybody in a corner. I’m not trying to even make a point. I am one of the rarest people you’ve ever met. I really do want an answer and I’m more than happy to even let you have the last word if you can answer my question.

            Making an assumption (and do correct me if I’m wrong) you believe there is nothing miraculous in the Christian story, that the Virgin Birth, the Water into Wine episode, any of the miracles in the Gospels, and including the physical resurrection of Christ without even mentioning the Ascension, what do you (or others if you do not fit into this picture) find of any interest in Christianity when there are many other worldviews in the marketplace of ideas that are far superior in their materialism (Doaism, certain forms of Buddhism, secular humanism, etc.)

            I’m coming from the perspective of a counselor which is what I actually am in real life. I’m trying to understand why somebody would build a career or a life on a religion in which they deny its miracles especially when the whole structure stands or falls on the reality of the miraculous/supernatural.

            Troll me if you need to. Being a counselor I’ve been called every name in the book, but in the response, really do answer the question because I’m trying to understand from a counseling point of view why somebody would waste their time leaning the ladder of their life against a wall they have absolutely nothing but the most tenuous belief in.

  2. Paul D. permalink
    May 17, 2012 7:20 pm

    The ascension is, of course, an embellishment. Mark, the original gospel story, has no ascension and no resurrection appearance (the later longer endings aside). Jesus’s resurrection seems to have been a direct transition from the grave to heaven, as I believe is also implied in the epistles.

    Divine and semi-divine beings literally floating or flying up into heaven is a common genre trope in ancient literature, whether Jewish or Greek. Elijah and Enoch did it, as did Hercules and Apollonius of Tyana. Once Jesus was interpreted to have had a literally bodily resurrection, and the various resurrection stories had been devised, there was no other way the story could possibly end, but with an ascension. Mary ascended to Heaven without dying as well, according to Catholic and Orthodox tradition, and her assumption is celebrated Aug. 15.

  3. Paul D. permalink
    May 23, 2012 8:35 pm

    @Craig: I’m posting down here because WordPress doesn’t handle nesting too well.

    “what do you (or others if you do not fit into this picture) find of any interest in Christianity when there are many other worldviews in the marketplace of ideas that are far superior in their materialism (Doaism, certain forms of Buddhism, secular humanism, etc.)”

    This is an interesting question that I think Christian theologians have begun addressing. A deep study of the subject would have to include Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and modern proponents of progressive Christianity like John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, and Marcus Borg. I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been said, but religion has always evolved and followed the social Zeitgeist of its culture. I think if Christianity can continue its path of becoming more compassionate and humanist, there will be a great positive benefit that exceeds the benefit of me simply shopping around in the global marketplace of spiritual and ethical ideas.

    “I’m trying to understand why somebody would build a career or a life on a religion in which they deny its miracles especially when the whole structure stands or falls on the reality of the miraculous/supernatural.”

    Well, the majority of people simply stick with the religion we were raised with. But I think if you examine Christianity and religion with reason and honesty like Scott does in many of his posts, you find that the miracles and the impossible things you’re “supposed” to belief are, far from being the most important part of religion, its most damaging part, and the part that keeps it from maintaining its relevance to real life. I suppose it’s a bit like asking an astronomer why they would throw out all the supernatural aspects of astrology. (But don’t stretch that analogy too far.)

    • May 24, 2012 1:22 pm

      Paul:

      Thank you for the answer. Not only for the time you took, but the listing of source material that gives me many other avenues of exploration.

      I may at this time and even afterwards respectfully disagree, but at least I’ll finally have a grasp toward an answer to my question.

    • May 24, 2012 6:39 pm

      Why not stretch the analogy too far? I think if you were to compare Todd Bentley or Benny Hinn’s ‘claims’ to heal people they would be comparable to astrologers ‘claims’ to predict the future. Especially, in comparison to doctors claims to help people or astronomers claims to understand the actual function of the solar system, galaxy, and universe we live in. It’s a good analogy.

      • Paul D. permalink
        May 25, 2012 10:31 pm

        It might be better than I realized. :) After all, astronomy *began* with astrology and owes a great deal to it, and yet, the more we learned about the stars and the universe, the more and more irrelevant the superstitious baggage of astrology are compared to the true wonders and benefits of astronomy.

        And yet, the world is full of people who have no time for the time, effort, and humility it would take to learn astronomy when they can just read the daily horoscope, hire fortune-tellers, and act like know-it-alls.

  4. Craig permalink
    November 20, 2012 5:40 pm

    Miracles require a credulous audience. Remember that the Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus, like Moses, could turn their staffs into snakes, and no one seemed particularly surprised. Sure, Moses’ snake ate the magicians’ snakes, showing the Hebrew belief that their God was more powerful than other gods, but nonetheless, magicians serving the Pharaoh could perform miracles, too. And Simon Magus, in the book of Acts, could fly with no help from God. Jesus, though, could not perform miracles in Nazareth because people there, who knew him as the carpenter’s son, lacked faith. Could the Son of God really not perform miracles in his home town, or did the Gospel writers include that bit to show why the people back home weren’t all converts or to defuse negative reports from Nazareth? Son of God or not? Did corpses really climb out of their graves at the moment of Jesus’ death and wander the streets of Jerusalem? I met a woman a couple of years back who told me earnestly that “they” were raising people from the dead in Africa, “yet you never see it on the news.” Is it possible the miracles and healings were just stories, passed on by gullible believers? Well meaning, maybe, but still gullible? Other cultures have unbelievable stories, too, and we don’t accept them. Why accept the Christian miracles, but not all the others? We could argue theology, apologetics, and pseudo-science ’til the cows come home, but a basic understanding of comparative literature solves all the mysteries.

    Craig

    • November 21, 2012 9:27 am

      I am Craig Alan Loewen who has been part of this discussion and I wish only to state the Craig who wrote the above is not me.

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