When we read in Luke 24.50-51 and Acts 1.9-11 that Christ was taken into heaven we ignore how this imagery made sense to the ancients in light of their cosmology: heaven is above and earth below. Now that we’ve sent satellites, spacecrafts, and even humans into space we realize that this up-and-down universe doesn’t quite exist. Where did Jesus go? Can modern Christians find meaning in the ascension?

Last week I saw this clip from ‘The Jesus Film’ depicting Jesus’ ascension from his point of view:

I admit thinking that it was a bit ridiculous. Why is Jesus floating like a balloon into the sky?

Of course, God could have taken Jesus into his heavenly realm in such a way that it would have made sense to the ancients. Jesus didn’t keep going into space, past Jupiter, to some floating New Jerusalem a few miles past Neptune. Rather, Jesus disappeared into a parallel reality, yet God accomplished this in a way that would have conveyed symbolic meaning to the disciples.

This leaves us with another problem though. The return of Christ is presented to us in 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 in the same cosmological terminology. Jesus is depicted as coming from heaven above to earth below. How do we read this now? Do we read this Daniel 7 imagery as Paul using symbolic language not intended to describe the return of Christ in literal imagery (as I think N.T. Wright has suggested)?

Brandon G. Withrow wrote a piece for The Huffington Post titled, “Science and the Up and Down of Christ’s Ascension” that discusses some of these very things (including the scene from ‘The Jesus Film’ that I shared). He frames the same question this way:

“Christ’s ascension and return mentioned in Acts made sense in this up-and-down universe; it was not like anyone had ever been to space. This was eventually challenged, however, when the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) introduced the heliocentric view, namely that the earth and the planets move around the sun (helio).

“There were many implications for Copernicus’ position. To reject the idea of heaven as above runs counter to the record of Acts and it could put Jesus’ return into question, particularly since Acts says his return will happen the same way as he left.”

The Johannine language regarding the Second Coming is more compatible with the modern mind. It speaks of Jesus’ “appearing (1 John 2.28).” But do we want to act like the concordist who try to match Genesis 1 to modern science or should we let the ancient worldview stand on its own, let it tell us a theological truth–Christ will return–without trying to explain how this “works?”

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See also:

Larry Hurtado, Jesus’ “Ascension”