Christian teachings about Jesus’ ascension are uncomfortably problematic.
First, the image of a king ascending to heaven, residing there as a god worshipped by his former subjects, is not unique to Christianity. Romans believed that Romulus (a boy and only later mythologized as a wolf), who with his brother Remus founded Rome, ascended at death to heaven and became the popular god Quirinus. Other ancient figures alleged to have ascended to heaven include Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament, Hercules, Empedocles, and Alexander the Great. Was Jesus’ ascension historical fact or simply a well-intentioned attempt by Jesus’ first disciples to frame his story in language and metaphors widely known and understood in the first century? If the latter, the story has become a dated and generally misunderstood attempt to describe the intimacy with God that the disciples experienced in their relationship with Jesus.
Second, the image of Jesus ascending to heaven from Palestine, which several hundred years ago was a favorite subject of artists, today often evokes the continuing conflict between religion and science. The pervasive imagery, if taken literally, presupposes a flat earth, flat not because of globalization but because of a wrong view of the solar system. Thinking that heaven connotes a physical place – necessary if one believes in a physical resurrection - poses the additional difficulty of identifying that place’s locale, presumably somewhere in this physical cosmos.
Third, understanding the imagery subtly suggests that earth is at the center of creation, something ancient mapmakers who placed Jerusalem at the center of creation recognized. Nothing in the Bible requires this view; contemporary astronomers convincingly marshal evidence to the contrary. Earth is far from the cosmos’ center; humans are not necessarily the apogee of creation.
Fourth, spiritualizing the image of Jesus ascending to heaven, while avoiding the previous two problems, may imply that heaven is better than earth or that the future is preferable to the present. Yet God created heaven and earth. Valuing heaven more highly than earth requires considerable hubris: who are humans to assess God's handiwork? Admittedly, individual humans may reasonably prefer heaven to earth (e.g., the Apostle Paul, frequently persecuted for his beliefs and practices) or earth to heaven (e.g., people who believe that death is the end of existence). If, however, as the Church has long taught, God determines the number of a person’s days, then being where God wants one to be – earth or heaven – is best for that person at that moment.
Fifth, the New Testament repeatedly states that God is at work reconciling all creation to God's self. Unfortunately, widespread emphasis on heaven as the locus of life after death not only devalues the earth but also causes the Church and Christians largely to ignore the importance of caring for all creation. God calls humans to join God in the work of reconciling all creation (and not just fellow humans!) to God.
Finally, the New Testament and orthodox Christian theology incorporate a commonly unacknowledged contradiction. On the one hand, Jesus says that he must leave the disciples but promises the gift of the Spirit to his disciples as a guide and advocate in his absence. The Nicene Creed affirms Jesus’ absence – he sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven – and the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. On the other hand, much of the Church believes that Jesus is present in the Eucharist: this is my body; this is my blood. Whether understood in terms of transubstantiation, real presence, or spiritual presence, this affirmation is a prima facie contradiction of the premise that Jesus is now present in heaven rather than on earth. Furthermore, Christians for almost two millennia, notably including the Apostle Paul, claim to have encountered the risen Jesus on earth in spite of Jesus having ascended from earth into heaven.
So what can Christians meaningfully say about Jesus’ ascension?
First, Ascension reminds us to understand our theology metaphorically, to hold even the most cherished concepts gingerly, tentatively. Contradiction becomes paradox when we recognize that neither claim is ultimately true, that both claims at best represent partial truths, and that the claims’ incompatibility points to a mysterious otherness into which we can live but which we can never adequately articulate or describe. Like the early Christians, we do well to frame our experience of God in the language and metaphors of our time and culture, always cognizant that these are earthen vessels. After all, these earthen vessels are all that we have.
Second, struggling with Ascension’s problems offers a helpful antidote to our proclivities for hubris and anthropocentricity. Thinking about Ascension can remind us that although God created humans and crowned us with glory and honor, God's love has a breadth and depth that encompasses all life and the whole cosmos. Ascension, rightly understood, emphasizes God's reliance upon us as co-redeemers rather than passive participants of creation’s renewal. Jesus is not here; we are; therefore, God relies upon us to act.
Third and finally, Jesus’ ascension is a sign of hope. God remains involved with the cosmos. Whether conceived in terms of the activity of the Son or the Holy Spirit – thankfully, this post is about Ascension and not the Trinity so I, in good conscience, ignore that issue – God’s activity continues. God's reliance upon us to act is not an abdication of God's responsibility but an invitation to partner with God. We do not have to understand how that occurs, correctly identify which person of the Trinity acts, or even accurately discern what God is doing. We can know that our work of reconciliation will ultimately prevail because God works with us. This hope is Ascension’s real message.