Skip to comments.Doubting the Ascension
Posted on 05/29/2006 7:16:39 PM PDT by sionnsar
This is an excerpt from my sermon this morning on the Ascension.
The biblical account of the Ascension of Jesus into the clouds is one of the first places critics go when arguing that the bible is myth and fairy tale. John Spong, the (thankfully retired) Episcopalian bishop who openly rejects the idea that the bible is Gods Word and has written many books to argue his point, suggests that the account of the ascension proves that the bible is a book that may be interesting and perhaps inspired in some places (in the same way Shakespeare was inspired), but it is not the Word of God; not the infallible revelation of Gods nature and will that Christians claim it to be.
Why, you might ask, is the Ascension of all things such a target? Spong argues that there is a false assumption about the nature of the physical universe at the center of the Ascension accounts that falsifies the accounts themselves and thereby indicts the entire New Testament.
If you turn to Acts 1 youll find the passage to which he refers. Ill reproduce verse 9 here: After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Keep your finger in Acts for the moment while I read the account from the Gospel of Luke: When he had led them out to the region of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. (Luke 24:51)
Both of these accounts were written by the same human author, Luke, in the first century well before the rocket age, before telescopes even. In the ancient world, before modern astronomy, people assumed that the earth was the center of the entire universe and that above the atmosphere one would find not space or planets or the sun but heaven itself and below the earth, if you could dig far enough, youd find the place of torment, or the place of the dead.
That assumption, Spong points out, is articulated quite clearly in our readings from Acts and Luke. Jesus is taken up beyond the clouds into heaven.
But now that modern science has demonstrated that the earth is not the center of the universe; that heaven is not above the atmosphere and hell not below the ground, the account of Jesus Ascension seems silly. Where is Jesus going? Heaven isnt up.
Heres how Spong puts it:
If Jesus ascended physically into the sky, and if he rose as rapidly as the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), he would not yet have reached the edges of our own galaxy Space is incomprehensibly vast. The bible is incredibly limited in terms of the knowledge available to us today. (Spong, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism, p. 31)
Certainly, if God is really the Creator he would know about the galaxy he created? And if the bible is Gods Word, then why on earth would it record something so obviously false? That the bible records Jesus going up into heaven either shows that the disciples were lying or that the Ascension is pure legend but whatever the case it certainly demonstrates that the bible as a whole cannot be considered the infallible Word of God.
Well, it was a nice try but this criticism is actually an easy one to answer and an important one to answer.
First we need to remember something we learned in our various discussions of the resurrection. People doubt miracle accounts for one of two reasons: either they have a scientific objection, miracles are impossible, or a historical objection; they question the accuracy of the biblical record. If their objection is scientific, then they arent really questioning the bible so much as theyre questioning the existence of a Creator God. If God exists, then miracles are possible.
How many people here believe that God exists? Good. Theres no reason then for anyone here to doubt that Jesus could have ascended into the clouds physically; its possible.
But just because its possible, doesnt mean it happened. You could also object for factual reasons, you might consider the accounts themselves implausible. That is the sort of objection we are dealing with here. The accounts claim that Jesus ascended, physically rose up, into heaven.
Heaven is not up.
The account is, therefore, false on factual grounds.
The problem with this objection is that it assumes a certain level of divine incompetence.
Let me explain. How many people have dogs? How many people have dogs trained to fetch? If you want your dog to fetch the morning paper, do you say, Maggie, would you mind rising up from your resting place and retrieving the morning periodical?
What do you say?
Maggie, fetch the paper!
Now, if you are my dog you just sit there. Some dogs, however, actually fetch the paper.
Everyone knows that you cant speak to a dog, even a well trained dog, like you speak to a person. Youve got to get down to the dogs level.
The same is true for small children. Lets say Im teaching my two year old son Aedan about God. I dont say: Now Aedan, Im going to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God is One in substance and three in Persons...
What would Aedan do?
He wouldnt understand a thing I said.
Ive got to get my words down to his level. Good communication requires getting down to the level of your audience.
If you and I know that, what about God? If God the Father wants to communicate to first-century human beings that hes taking his Son (body, soul and divinity) into heaven, and first century human beings believe that heaven is above the clouds, whats he going to do?
Hes going to get down to their level.
Hes going to raise Jesus up into the air and have him disappear into the clouds.
These guys are fishermen and tax collectors and laborers. Hes not going to give them a science lesson. Well, you know Peter, in actuality the earth is a ovular sphere, surrounded by a an atmosphere comprised of oxygen and water molecules that form a thick layer of protection against suns rays
No, the Father doesnt care about Peters scientific knowledge. He wants Peter to know that Jesus is going into heaven to sit at his right hand just as the prophets foretold. Since the disciples think that heaven is up, God causes Jesus to go up. God is the perfect communicator. He knows just how to get his point across to people wherever they are, whatever their education level, whatever their level of comprehension.
So not only is the ascension possible, but the bible provides a perfectly plausible, believable, and rational account of it. If God wants to communicate with pre-scientific people he does so pre-scientifically, in accordance with their ability to comprehend. Jesus ascended into the clouds because that is where the disciples believed heaven to be.
The ascension is true. It really happened in history. Jesus really did ascend bodily into the clouds and then he was translated physically beyond this physical universe into heaven to be with his Father.
The article IMHO, respects the faith man places is his own rationalization over faith in Christ.
I've heard it expressed another way. The Gnostics had it partially true, just insufficient belief in God through faith in our Lord Savior Christ Jesus. Some gnostic positions hold that reality is influenced by belief. The more people believe a particular aspect, with a void of any other opposing belief, and that might simply become reality.
Now consider Cartesianism and rationalism. If this aspect of gnosticism is true, then the more people relied upon rationalism, the more physical reality began to comply with belief. In turn, the scientific methodd to an extent, simply begged the question. If nobody else believed in it, and the hyposthesis was tested, it might be allowed to come true in fruition of the bodily domain, ergo science advances and many people believe that science merely studies a pre-existant universe and how it behaves.
Then we consider Descarte's Cogito Ergo Sum. Unlike Christianity, where God imputes biologic life, soul life and regenerates spirit life, instead man arrogant believes he has concluded he has existed due to his belief he exists. In many respects Descartes presented a counterfeit world for man to believe. Instead of the object of faith being God, the outside object of faith is the Creation, its corresponding processes, laws, rationalism becomes to doctrine of thie new age.
Now from our modern day worldly perspective, scarred by rationalism and science, presupposing all previous generations were not simply as advanced, and the world today is better understood, whenever one considers miracles or supernatural events recorded in Scripture, there is a tendancy to discount the veracity of the report or at least reduce the literal interpretation in favor of science.
On the contrary, if one faithfully seeks God on His terms, Scripture actually provides much more pertinent insight to the physical, thinking and spiritual domains than any other source, simply because our understanding Scripture while in fellowship with Him, allows His revelation to set us apart from all counterfeit schemes of thinking, deciding and behavior.
Yes, the Ascension is true, just as is the Rapture will become reality. Until then, the mechanics might not be as important as what He has already provided us in Scripture, as a method for us to further place ourselves through faith in Him by His protocols.
" respects the faith man places is his own rationalization over faith in Christ."
No friend. I believe the Ascension is true because it is recorded in God's Holy Word. But that does not mean apologetics are unnecessary. The question Spong raises is a difficult one for many. I think my explanation directly addresses Spong and reaffirms the truth of God's Word for doubting minds.
I think Spong is grasping at ridiculous reasons to not believe. When a man gets to this point, you know their conscience is really working overtime. I mean really. This objection is just laughable.
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