• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

The Ascension: Did Jesus Pass Saturn on His Way Up?

A new friend writes:

George Stroumboulopoulos had Bill Maher on his program talking about his film ‘Religulous’.  Bill asked a question, not unlike the questions you were asking Friday ie) ‘what really happened’,  when Jesus ascended bodily into heaven.  Bill was of course happily irreverent, wondering if Jesus was concerned about the disciples seeing up his robe as he arose, further wondering what happened once Jesus reached the zone where there is no oxygen, and then queried whether Jesus just carried on up past the moon and planets to…where?

Oh, those stupid religious people! They can’t see the fatal problems right in their own texts! Ho, ho, now we have Jesus freezing and gasping as he ascends through the stratosphere, only to have to dodge asteroids between Mars and Jupiter and–well, gosh, how boneheaded can you get?

Boneheaded enough, I suppose, to keep yakking in public about how moronic religious people are without doing the basic journalistic research anyone would do on any other subject.

Example A:

Journalist: Isn’t it crazy to think that that pile of wood and metal and fabric could possibly get off the ground?

Wilbur and Orville Wright: Well, we just flew it, so I guess it’s not crazy to think that.

Example B:

Journalist: Dr. Physicsguy, it seems obviously stupid to believe that light is somehow both a wave and a particle. How could anyone believe something so flatly contradictory? Are all you physicists nutty professors or what?

Physicist: Well, Mr. Journalist, it turns out that for decades we have had scientific evidence that light sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes behaves like a particle. Let me explain…

What about Jesus’ ascension? Well, Jesus does not in fact go up all that far. If one reads the actual account with a modicum of attention (Acts of the Apostles chapter one), one finds that “a cloud received him out of their sight.” Jesus does not, in fact, rise up through the atmosphere. Once he gets to the height of “the sky” or “the heavens” (same thing in Hebrew and in Greek), the dramatic point is made: this crucified “failure” is being vindicated by God and on his way to the majesty he deserves. The point made, Jesus disappears into a cloud and transfers (we know not how) to his current situation at the right hand of God.

Ah, the skeptic might say, but what about that little trick of the cloud? Where does Jesus go and how does he get there?

The believer answers, I just told you: he went to his current position at the right hand of God (which means, to the administrative centre of the universe), which is a “where” we don’t understand, and he went there by a means we don’t understand. BUT (the believer might rush to say) when it comes to what a deity does, we can’t be expected always to understand. We don’t even understand whether there is a Higgs boson or dark matter, very basic issues when it comes to the composition of the universe. We shouldn’t expect to understand how Jesus gets around in his new, resurrected state.

Okay, the skeptic might reply, so you’re just taking it on faith, then? No good reason for your belief?

Not so, the believer ought to say. I have good grounds to believe that Jesus was resurrected, that the New Testament account of his ascension is accurate, and that the Christian interpretation of the significance of what happened is true. I don’t have a complete physical explanation for what happened (yet), no, but I do have rational grounds to believe that it happened–not unlike my physicist friend who took me to Fermilab and showed me a bubble chamber and said, “Well, something just happened there, and I can tell you at least partly what happened, even though I can’t say (yet) why it did and therefore can’t fully explain it.” He has good grounds for both his explanation and for why he can’t yet explain it all. Same here.

There are serious questions to raise about the Christian faith, but entertainers (let’s call him what he is) like Bill Maher really should stick to trying to be funny since they can’t seem to distinguish between the serious and the silly.