The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts (written by the same author no less) both describe a strange account: that sometime after his resurrection, Jesus was lifted up into the clouds and the disciples saw him no more.
That’s quite the exit!
The extraordinary departure of Christ raises at least two immediate questions: What happened? And, what does it mean?
Our ability to answer the first question is quite limited. The Ascension is a mystery of faith, not a riddle to be solved, nor a science experiment that can be repeated.
And yet, there’s nothing wrong with thinking theologically about this profound scene in the New Testament. So let’s give it a shot:
Perhaps the first thing that needs to be noted is that Christ did not ascend because heaven is “up.” Of course, if we use the word “heaven” to mean the skies (or outer space in a broader sense), then yes, heaven is directionally up; and Christ appears to have ascended that way. But if we’re talking about “heaven” as a spiritual realm or state of being, then no, heaven is not up.
As the doctrines and traditions of Christianity were being formed in the first few centuries after Christ, some of these ideas were informed by something called Neoplatonism.
Neoplatonism is a (non-Christian) mystical worldview, which asserts that there is one perfect intelligent source of all things that stands at the “top” of all that is. Everything else is a product or manifestation of that source.
Did you catch the “top down” language of that? Namely, some “higher” reality exists; and we are somewhere “lower” than it. The goal of Neoplatonism, then, is to release our rational spirit/soul/consciousness (call it what you will) to return to the highest level of all reality.
Sound familiar? Very clearly, as Christianity was forming its doctrines and traditions, the Neoplatonic idea of “heaven up” and “earth down” shaped our theological language.
It need not though.
The God of Jesus is not a Zeus-like figure standing with a robe and beard at some “top” point of everything. The God of Jesus is the same one of the Hebrew scriptures. The God who is the I Am that I am (or the I Will Be what I Will Be). The God of Jesus is everywhere and in all places: within us, around us, and in whom both the heavens and the earth and the realm of spirits have their being.
The God of Jesus doesn’t exist “up;” the God of Jesus exists everywhere, and exists in a perfect state of grace. If we want to call that perfect state of grace the “heaven” spirits return to after death, so be it. But let’s be relatively sure about something: heaven is not up, God is not Zeus, and thus when Christ ascended, it was not to some place “up there.”
Even the author of the Book of Acts tells us that the Ascension of Christ is not about heaven being “up.” In it we read that while Jesus was ascending and his disciples were watching, “two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11).
In other words, the author of the Book of Acts is saying that Christ’s supernatural exit is meant to signify the way in which Christ will come back. But “Christ’s return” is a topic for another day. Let’s stay with “ascension” a bit longer.
In our ordinary use of the word “ascend” or “ascension,” it means “up.” And yes, the narratives say Christ went up (but only as a sign of how Christ would return). Ascension, however, not only means “up” when thinking theologically. It can also mean “to be transformed.” This seems to be exactly what’s happening in the New Testament narratives about Christ’s ascension.
Consider it this way:
The Gospel of Luke begins with the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary, such that the beginning of Christ’s story suggests that Jesus had some kind of divine nature to his humanity. What kind of divine nature, Luke doesn’t say. And how that divinity/humanity thing works out is also a topic for another day. But what we can say is that the life of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel began in a supernatural way. Then he lived his life in very earthly “this world” ways. He was born like an ordinary human. He ate. He loved. He got frustrated. He taught. He died. But then we read that something surprising happened. We read it not only in the Gospel of Luke, but in all of the Gospels.
Namely, the New Testament Gospels claim Christ was resurrected from the dead. Resurrected!
And let’s be clear: resurrection is not resuscitation.
In the days of Jesus, resurrection was something that some Jewish people believed in. But according to this belief, it wasn’t supposed to happen until the end of this age, a future time at which God will recreate the cosmos, and all of creation will be remade into eternal incorruptible bodies.
The New Testament Gospels claim that is what happened to Jesus. Surprise!
But what happened next is even more surprising: Christ not only is resurrected from the dead (something that’s not supposed to happen until the end of natural time); Christ ascends and then is then seen no more.
A transformation takes place.
In the historic creeds of the Church it is said this way: Christ “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But if God is everywhere and in all places, in an eternal state of grace, then Jesus is not actually “sitting down” next to God (because then God would be Zeus and Jesus would be something like the god Apollo).
The theological language of the creeds can mean that at the “ascension of Christ” Jesus was transformed into the very state of God’s being. Which, if true, means that just as God is everywhere and in all places–so too Christ is in a transcendent/ascended state of being–one with God who is everywhere and in all places.
Admittedly, this kind of thinking stretches the mind, a lot.
It also requires faith–because this is not something that can be proven empirically. So we might put it the way that the Gospel of John does: That in the beginning was the Word (eternal wisdom), the Word was with God and was God. The Word incarnated (became flesh) and dwelt among us (in the person of Jesus). And after the resurrection of Christ, the Incarnate Word of God transformed, once again, back into the eternal state of God’s being: who is everywhere and in all places.
All of this is a bit on the deep end of the theological pool. But it’s also good news.
If that reading of the Ascension of Christ is right, it means that the God we believe in is not some distant being who only knows grace and glory.
It means the God we believe in has experienced, through Christ, the trials and hurts of this world; but also what of this world makes us laugh, gives us pleasure, and leads to joy.
And so in this sense, Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father: co-existing eternally with God, who looks upon us with unconditional love.
But notice, we still haven’t been able to say what the divine mechanics of ascension and transformation are. Only God knows. And so in many ways it seems best to leave much of the Ascension to mystery.
But there is also a rather earthly hope present in the mystery of the Ascension. Namely, if the ascension of Christ assures us that our eternal destiny is secure in the hands of a loving God; then we need not be looking skyward like the first disciples. We need to cast our vision upon the earth that we’re upon. In short, the resurrection and the ascension say:
“You’re eternal destiny is going to be okay. The Christ who was with you now goes before you, into eternity, to receive you. Now: Go to work! Do the business of living on earth as it is in heaven, just as Christ commanded.”
Unfortunately, certain (if not popular) forms of Christianity have turned it around. Instead of drawing on faith in Christ as an assurance of our eternal security in God, by which we are freed to do the goods works of the reign of God, some forms of Christianity have watered down the faith to an anxiety-laden question: “What do I have to believe correctly to avoid hell?” When Christianity is reduced to “believing correctly” so as to go to heaven and avoid hell, it becomes a system of heady doctrine and apocalyptic nightmares. And yet, Jesus of Nazareth taught very little about life after death, except to say that those who follow his teachings should live so that that heaven shines through to earth in the here-and now.
That is not to say what we believe in is irrelevant. We’re creatures that can think and find meaning in all things. What we believe in (or not) shapes our understanding of the world, and what we take to be really real.
So it is good to believe in Jesus, because that act of faith allows us to tap into the assurance that God loves us always; and it allows us to be guided by God’s commission for us to live by the light of God’s love. But when we reduce faith down to a transaction of what God needs you to believe in order to “save” you; and if the rest of a Christian’s life is spent waiting, looking skyward for Christ’s return… that seems to miss the point of most everything that Jesus taught!
So this year as we celebrate the Ascension, try drawing on the Ascension narrative as a reminder that your eternal destiny is secure with God and Christ. And then, shift your vision from looking into heavenly mysteries, and turn back to Earth to embody the good news of Christ’s teachings: loving the unlovable; standing for justice; forgiving wrongdoings; and manifesting peace.
As we do this, we make heaven known on earth… with the Ascended Christ as our Vision and Power to make it so.