Floating Up Into Heaven
Being raised in a Christian home I never had reason to doubt the Ascension of Jesus. It was always a part of the Apostle’s Creed that I’ve been reciting since I can remember.
“The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
The story is found in a few places in the Bible. It’s longest version is in Acts 1.
Acts 1:1–11 (NIV)
1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
I can’t say I thought a lot about it. It was simply part of the story.
Also growing up I never thought much about what I call common cosmology. Even though again from a young age I, with nearly everyone around us in this part of the world, assumed that the earth is a giant ball floating in space around the sun, I also instinctively identified heaven as up and hell as down. Only later as I passed through stages of childhood development did I ponder the incongruities of what science was teaching me about the structures of the earth below and the atmosphere above us that heaven and hell were relocated into a different “dimension” as my sciency imagination tried to perceive it. If I watched Star Trek or other science fiction things could pop in and out of our experiential world from different “dimensions”. Reality sort of overlapped.
Yuri Gagarin was famously and quite likely falsely quoted as saying “I looked and looked and looked but I didn’t see God” after his famous first flight into orbit but by this point few expected he would. CS Lewis also famously responded that this is not the sort of place heaven is, that God can’t simply be found as another piece of his creation.
Looking for God—or Heaven—by exploring space is like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope that you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters.
Lewis, C. S. (2009). Words to Live by: A Guide for the Merely Christian. (P. F. Ford, Ed.) (Adobe Digital Edition, p. 265). HarperCollins e-books.
It is helpful, however, to note that our imagination of “heaven” being up and hell being down is bestowed to us by history as popular or folk cosmology. Just because it isn’t scientific in the sense that we know science doesn’t mean that knowing this scheme isn’t important for understanding how past cultures thought.
Ancient Hebrew shared a rough cosmological picture with their neighbors, just as we do today. You can find that cosmology sketched out in Genesis 1 quite clearly as long as you read it in the old King James or some other translation that doesn’t try to obscure it for our sensitive modern readers. The picture is littered throughout the Old Testament in many places with the vault of heaven holding back the great sea above and the temple of the Lord sitting atop it all.
Many Christians and non-Christians today work themselves up needlessly over all of this. While this ancient imaginary was assumed by many its importance for us is that this arrangement governs the imagery of the story telling throughout the Bible. Even though later readers of the Bible from the church fathers to the Reformers understood that through the Bible God reveals himself to various cultures in ways that common humanity can understand, the cultural furnishings are important for figuring out what various elements mean. We don’t stumble on the fact that in Spanish “the sky” and “heaven” have the same word “los cielos”. Let’s not stumble on these elements but rather understand how they play throughout the long narrative of the Bible.
Something like this YouTube treatment of heaven and earth can really help you understand why so many things in the Bible are shaped like they are.
Heaven, Temple and No Temple
If we understand some of this a number of stories in the Bible begin to come alive.
We see in Genesis 2 that there is no temple in the garden of Eden. That is because Heaven and Earth were not yet divorced and the garden of Eden was the royal garden of the great temple of God in Heaven. After the rebellion the man and the woman are exiled from that garden and forbidden to enter by royal guard, the angel with the flaming sword.
When Israel is rescued from Egypt and living in the wilderness they are given detailed instructions to build a tabernacle, which is a portable temple. The point is that this is to be sort of God’s RV for the desert wanderings. The detailed instructions are given that it artistically connect to the original Garden of Eden. Israel, God’s invasion into our rebellion, becomes space where God can dwell again with his people. The temple in Jerusalem then becomes God’s permanent embassy, his home on earth mirroring his temple in heaven above the earth.
Now suddenly “ascensions” make sense in the ancient imaginary. This is how people on the earth visit the court or offices of God to meet him, conduct business. Etc. It also explains why the tower of Babel is built, in make our way to look God in the eye. Mountains were common emblems of divinity, being closer to God. God comes down onty Sinai, in a sense meeting us half way. The Greek gods live on a mountain. Why Jacob dreams about a “ladder” or a grand staircase where the messengers of God, angels, ascend and descend on their business trips. and why throughout the ancient world people might ascend to be with God. Elijah goes up in a chariot of fire. It all fits together if you understand the ancient imaginary.
Heaven is the Control Room of Earth
Another important element is that “heaven” isn’t just the place where God lives, it is the palace from which God works. In the ancient world, as we still see in places like “The White House”, the place of “rest” of the potentate is also the place from which the ruler governs.
Astrology was common in the ancient world even more than it is today but few people ask where we might have gotten the idea that stars dictate what happens on earth. Again, it makes sense if you understand what heaven is.
While from the Mosaic law into the Christian period Jews and Christians have always resisted astrology, they understood why the other nations of the world that didn’t have their special relationship with the Lord of Creation played around with it.
Did you ever ponder why John in Revelation 1:16 sees Jesus as holding “seven stars” in his hand?
If you watch the weather in California you note that we are always looking over the Pacific to see what our weather is going to be in the future. Since Heaven is the control room of earth the ancients always looked in the sky to see what was coming their way in terms of the commands of the gods, the fates, or whoever they imagined ran heaven.
Hebrews and Christians believed they didn’t need such thing because rather than just watching for signs we have a relationship with the mover. So when we see Jesus in Revelation 1:16 holding the stars this is signalling to the churches that John writes to Jesus is Lord over the events on earth.
Could Jesus Fly?
Another element of Ascension Day is the question of flying. According to the story when Jesus ascended he literally flew. Now this isn’t such a strange thing on Scripture given the flight of various winged creatures including angels, a wheel in the middle of the air for Ezekiel and the chariot of fire that took Elijah to heaven. If Jesus walked on water what would make flight out of the question.
Again our focus should not be on Jesus as a flying man, an ancient version of Sally Field’s “The Flying Nun”, but rather what this tells us about Jesus.
CS Lewis in his book on Miracles talks about miracles of the new creation. Lewis has a fascinating theory about our relationship with the natural order. He imagines that prior to our rebellion the natural order obeyed us as its proper crown. Part of what the cursing of the field and the womb in Genesis 3 implies is that when we rebelled against God he put the creation against us. This suggests that in the New Creation Nature 2.0 will be rightly subjected to what Lewis calls our “spirit”.
The body which lives in that new mode is like, and yet unlike, the body His friends knew before the execution. It is differently related to space and probably to time, but by no means cut off from all relation to them. It can perform the animal act of eating. It is so related to matter, as we know it, that it can be touched, though at first it had better not be touched. It has also a history before it which is in view from the first moment of the Resurrection; it is presently going to become different or go somewhere else. That is why the story of the Ascension cannot be separated from that of the Resurrection.
Lewis, C. S. (2001). Miracles: A Preliminary Study (pp. 241–242). New York: HarperOne.
In the Walking on the Water we see the relations of spirit and Nature so altered that Nature can be made to do whatever spirit pleases. This new obedience of Nature is, of course, not to be separated even in thought from spirit’s own obedience to the Father of Spirits. Apart from that proviso such obedience by Nature, if it were possible, would result in chaos: the evil dream of Magic arises from finite spirit’s longing to get that power without paying that price. The evil reality of lawless applied science (which is Magic’s son and heir) is actually reducing large tracts of Nature to disorder and sterility at this very moment. I do not know how radically Nature herself would need to be altered to make her thus obedient to spirits, when spirits have become wholly obedient to their source. One thing at least we must observe. If we are in fact spirits, not Nature’s offspring, then there must be some point (probably the brain) at which created spirit even now can produce effects on matter not by manipulation or technics but simply by the wish to do so. If that is what you mean by Magic then Magic is a reality manifested every time you move your hand or think a thought. And Nature, as we have seen, is not destroyed but rather perfected by her servitude.
Lewis, C. S. (2001). Miracles: A Preliminary Study (p. 245). New York: HarperOne.
Jesus’ “flight” as it were is too a demonstration of the new humanity and our new relationship with Creation 1.0 and Creation 2.0.
What Cloud Obscured Jesus? Which Cloud Accompanies his return?
One way to understand “clouds” in Acts 1 is of course just ordinary clouds that are of course in the sky. Did Jesus go so high as to reach the clouds? How high were the clouds that day? Knowing just how high clouds can be because of airplanes Jesus if he got high enough might have been really tiny before he met a cloud.
This line of thought leads us now where.
Again we need to understand “clouds” in this line of thinking in keeping with the paradigm of the conversation. We should also recognize that “clouds” in the Old Testament were sometimes just clouds but sometimes also the glory “cloud” of the Tabernacle and the presence of the Lord. Clouds will make regular appearances with God. God speaks out of them. At the Transfiguration in Luke 9 when Jesus is transfigured a cloud appears and covers them and the voice from the cloud testifies that Jesus is his son. Clouds are sometimes just clouds, but they are often Biblical language for heaven, God’s presence, and they associate and accompany glory.
What then does the Ascension Mean?
Ascension Day (which is a Thursday) normally gets little press. It is not in the class of Christmas and Easter and doesn’t even get the billing of Pentecost. People will celebrate Mother’s Day far more than they will Ascension Day.
Ascension Day is the enthronement day for Jesus’ reign.
On Ascension day he transitions from the post-Resurrection mode he was in since Easter and appears to his disciples to make the point, with all of the stagecraft available to him, that he is Lord and that he reigns over the earth. The following week at Pentecost the Ascension enthronement will be completed with the sending of the Spirit.
The Heidelberg Catechism talks about the Ascension of Jesus in this way.
Lord’s Day 18
Q & A 46
Q. What do you mean by saying,
“He ascended to heaven”?
A. That Christ,
while his disciples watched,
was taken up from the earth into heaven1
and remains there on our behalf2
until he comes again
to judge the living and the dead.3
Q & A 47
Q. But isn’t Christ with us
until the end of the world
as he promised us?1
A. Christ is true human and true God.
In his human nature Christ is not now on earth;2
but in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit
he is never absent from us.3
Q & A 48
Q. If his humanity is not present
wherever his divinity is,
then aren’t the two natures of Christ
separated from each other?
A. Certainly not.
is not limited
and is present everywhere,1
it is evident that
Christ’s divinity is surely beyond the bounds of
the humanity that has been taken on,
but at the same time his divinity is in
and remains personally united to
Q & A 49
Q. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven
A. First, he is our advocate
in the presence of his Father.1
Second, we have our own flesh in heaven
as a sure pledge that Christ our head
will also take us, his members,
up to himself.2
Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth
as a corresponding pledge.3
By the Spirit’s power
we seek not earthly things
but the things above, where Christ is,
sitting at God’s right hand.4
Putting it All Together
- We understand why Jesus went up in the presence of the disciples
- We understand how heaven relates to the events of earth.
- We understand how this flying miracle communicates to us his and our reigning with him over Creation 2.0.
- We get the association with “the clouds”.
Is there anything practical to this?
The point is that the Ascension is about Christ reigning over history and being involved in our world. Jesus isn’t just popping on now and again like after the Resurrection but is in fact available everywhere to us in a way he wasn’t before. This invites us to trust him.
If you go back to the Acts text note that the Ascension is an answer to the disciple’s question about the administration of God over Israel.
Acts 1:6–9 (NIV)
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
New week we’ll talk about Pentecost, how the Spirit changes us.
The disciples all along has been waiting and hoping that the mission of Jesus will restore the fortunes of Israel from their imperial overlords. Rome, and before her the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, many local kingdoms and all the way back to Egypt have dominated the people of God’s promise since it was given to Abram. While the hopes of the disciples were specific they were also limited. Their taste of shalom was tied to one specific oppression and their could not imagine that this was simply one element of sin’s oppression from the beginning. They imagined the Romans were their problem. Jesus knew that their problems were far greater. If the Romans were removed and by the exercise of angelic power Judah were to become the kind of dominant military/political power many prophets had envisioned they would have seen that the oppressor/oppressed dynamic actually are two sides of the same coin. This dynamic went all the way back to the Garden where the Man and the Woman in the Genesis stories rebelled and the stewards of the Garden were divorced from the palace above.
Jesus promise in the Ascension and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost addresses that divorce not by creating an empire like Egypt, Greece and Rome, but by addressing the human heart which is the source of imperial oppression.
How can the revelation of the Ascension be appropriated by the human heart?
We begin by recognizing the source of the great divorce and the fountain of imperial oppression. We have a natural tendency to hate God and our neighbor and to use both for our well-being at their expense. The first movement in a positive direction is to confess this about ourselves, not just our neighbors, and to own this about ourselves.
The Ascension of Jesus is a miracle which speaks of Jesus’ lordship. He reigns. He governs the earth. He holds the stars in his hands. He rules the nations. The vision of the Son of Man from Daniel 7 is fulfilled in him.
What that means is that he on our behalf, for our behalf even when the specific circumstances of our life would lead us to believe otherwise. I know that this kind of thinking is often dismissed as polyannic but our ground for it is the cross of Jesus. At that time when God’s efforts seemed to be collapsing completely he was actually winning his greatest redemption. This is validated by the resurrection.
The Ascension, is tied to the crucifixion and the Resurrection telling disciples of Jesus that they have no reason to fear and that even their loses can be turned to their gain. He reigns, let the earth rejoice!
How we live our lives in the light of the Ascension is grateful, hopeful, optimistic service. This optimism isn’t that the obedience we strive for, or the flourishing we try to express through our efforts will always bear the fruit we would hope for, but that in the light of Jesus’ ascended reign we work in alignment with the direction of God’s working. There will always be setbacks and stumblings and episodes where it seems all is lost, like we see in both Israel and the cross and again and again in church history, but we believe that the one who holds the future, the one who holds the stars, also holds us and this gives us the optimism strive forward, even when we imagine we will lose.
We follow this water walking, flying, star holding Jesus in the anticipation that heaven and earth will be restored, renewed and that we will reign with him when creation’s author, steward and subjects are all put back into alignment forever. This is the Christian life.