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Jesus' ascension to Heaven

Difficulties interpreting Jesus' ascension

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Difficulties that skeptics and progressive Christians have about the ascension:

The ascension of Jesus and the four other individuals mentioned in the Bible who also ascended or are prophesized to ascend made a lot of sense to folks in the first century CE. They lived in a pre-scientific culture and believed in the "three story" view of cosmology. They viewed the Earth as being more or less in the shape of a flat dish; columns supported the earth over the abyss; there was a rigid firmament above the earth. Angels pushed the sun, moon, planets and stars along the underside of the firmament during day and night. Heaven was located above the firmament. Floodgates in the form of windows allowed God to pour water down from Heaven in the form of rain. With this concept of the universe, it made a lot of sense that if Jesus was to return to God, he would have to ascend from earth through the air towards Heaven.

This story has presents all sorts of difficulties to many liberal and progressive Christians today:

bulletIndividuals simply do not rise into the air -- at least not farther than they can jump -- unless they are pulled up by some mechanism.
bulletA person ascending a few miles into the air would die from lack of oxygen.
bulletHeaven isn't "up there," nor is Hell under the earth.

One solution to these difficulties, as suggested by Markus Borg, is to abandon the literal interpretation of the Gospel stories of the ascension and interpret them symbolically. He writes:

"To say that the risen and ascended Jesus is 'at God's right hand,' a position of honor and authority, means 'Jesus is Lord.' In the first century, when kings and emperors claimed to be lords, this claim had not only religious but also political meaning. To say 'Jesus is Lord' meant, and means, that the Herods and Caesars of this world were not, and are not.

Second, because the risen and ascended Jesus is 'one with God,' he (like God) can be experienced anywhere. Jesus is no longer restricted or confined to time and space, as he was during his historical lifetime. Rather, like the God whom he knew in his own experience, he continues to be known in the experience of his followers.

To use language from Matthew's Gospel, for Christians the risen and ascended Christ is Immanuel -- 'God with us'." 6

If Jesus' family tomb is ever found, as has been claimed in a 2007 documentary, Christians who believe that Jesus did not literally rise through the air to Heaven would have fewer difficulties understanding the ascension as a purely spiritual event.

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Difficulties that Oneness theologians have with the ascension:

The United Pentecostal Church teaches Oneness theology (a.k.a. "Jesus-Name" theology and by the derogatory term "Jesus only"). They reject the belief in the Trinity that is common among other Christian groups:

bulletThe Trinity concept includes one God who is simultaneously composed of three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
bulletOneness theology teaches that God has existed in "three different roles, modes, functions, or offices through which the one God operates and reveals Himself." 8 These roles are:
bulletAs God the Father in the Old Testament,
bulletAs Jesus the Son during Christís interval on earth from circa 5 BCE to circa 30 CE
bulletAs the Holy Spirit since Jesus' ascension to the present time.

Needless to say, the Jesus-Name and Trinitarian theologians consider each other as heretics.

Mark 16:19 presents problems to both Oneness and Trinitarian theologians. It states:

"So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God."

This cannot be interpreted literally by Oneness theologians because it implies that God the Father and Jesus are simultaneously existing.  It cannot be interpreted literally by Trinitarians because it implies that God the Father and Jesus are two separate entities with physical bodies. A solution is to interpret Jesus' ascension symbolically.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Marcus Borg, "The Ascension of Jesus," Beliefnet, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  2. David K. Bernard, "The Oneness of God - Chapter 6: Father, Son and Holy Ghost," at: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/

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Copyright © 2007 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance 
Latest update: 2018-AUG-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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