The Ascension: Beyond a three-tiered universeWritten by Subby Szterszky
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And when [Jesus] had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)
Next to the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, few events of Jesus’ life are as often disputed as the Ascension. Skeptics dismiss it as myth, born of an ancient view of the universe in which heaven was “up there,” just beyond the clouds.
We’ve turned our telescopes to the skies for centuries, they argue. We’ve sent probes and people far beyond the clouds, into the depths of space. There’s no sign of heaven up there – just more space. So where did Jesus go? Where is he now?
Truth be told, there are also Christians who struggle to reconcile the Ascension with their 21st-century picture of the universe. But this shouldn’t be the case. In view of modern cosmology – and with a few skeptic assumptions cleared away – the Ascension is far more awe-inspiring than the ancients might ever have imagined.
A three-tiered universe
Millennia ago, cultures in the Ancient Near East and around the Mediterranean believed in what modern scholars call a three-tiered universe. In this model, Earth was thought to be a flat disc floating on the oceans, with the underworld beneath and heaven as a solid dome above. Based on this image, skeptics have leapt to the conclusion that Jesus rising through the clouds into heaven must be a myth that reflects this outmoded cosmology.
The first problem with this theory is that by Jesus’ time, no educated person in the Greco-Roman world believed in the three-tiered universe. It was already considered ancient mythology, and had been for centuries.
As early as the 5th century BC, Greek philosophers had theorized the Earth was round. By the 3rd century BC, they’d proven it via mathematics and observation of lunar eclipses, shadows on the ground, and ships on the horizon. They’d even calculated the rough size of the globe with remarkable accuracy. The Earth was still thought to be the centre of the universe – although even that idea was being challenged – yet surrounded by vast planetary and stellar orbits on a scale far beyond the ancient three-tiered model. Over more than three centuries, these discoveries had spread throughout the Hellenistic world.
Luke the historian
Luke, who recorded the Ascension in his Gospel and in the book of Acts, was an educated Greek physician, a cultured product of that Hellenistic world. To suggest his writing relies on Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, long discredited in his day, is historically dishonest at best.
More than that, such an assertion ignores Luke’s stated purpose for writing. He wasn’t interested in spinning myths like the epic poets, Homer and Hesiod. As a historian, Luke was concerned with collecting and organizing detailed evidence and eyewitness accounts about the life of Jesus, so his readers might know for certain that the things they’d been taught about the Lord were true.
Luke’s account of the Ascension, which bridges his two books, is packed with naturalistic detail – it took place near the village of Bethany, on the Mount of Olives, following a final conversation between Jesus and his disciples, after which the Lord was lifted from the Earth and disappeared from view into the clouds.
As a 1st-century Greek, Luke didn’t have the luxury of telescopes or NASA or modern astrophysics. There’s no way to know what his personal views were about the nature of the cosmos. But whatever the case, those views have no bearing on whether the Ascension took place, any more than a modern reporter’s views would affect whether a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral took place. Historical events aren’t bound by the beliefs of those observing them. They just happen.
The view from Earth
As a rule, people describe the world in phenomenological rather than technical terms. We use the language of subjective experience rather than external observation. That’s why all of us, including scientists and meteorologists, talk of sunrises and sunsets rather than of the Earth rotating on its axis relative to the Sun.
In the same way, from an earthbound perspective everything outside the world is “up.” Thanks to gravity, the Earth is beneath our feet, while the sky and everything beyond is above our heads. Thus, anything (or anyone) that leaves the Earth must do so by going up.
Humanity shares a common intuition that whatever is up there is majestic and beyond our control or understanding. This has nothing to do with ancient cosmology and everything to do with universal perception. Since the beginning of time, we’ve stared at the sky in wonder, and the Scriptures tell us that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). Whatever our belief about heaven, it is literally above and beyond our world and outside our earthly sphere of experience.
Jesus in the flesh
After his Resurrection, Jesus showed himself to his disciples in ways that at times went beyond the limits of the natural world. He passed through locked doors, or appeared suddenly and then disappeared in a moment. This raises a reasonable question: When it came time for him to leave the world and return to heaven, why didn’t he simply vanish instead of rising through the clouds? At least two reasons come to mind.
First, Jesus took pains to assure his disciples he wasn’t merely a spirit but had risen in bodily form. He let them touch the wounds in his hands and side, and he ate and interacted with them over a period of 40 days. If he had then just vanished, never to be seen again, it would have undermined the credibility of his Resurrection. It would have suggested his Incarnation was temporary, that he was shedding all vestiges of the physical world for the spiritual. But by passing through the natural skies in his physical body, he showed he was forever united to his creation and to humanity as our divine-human representative.
Second, the Ascension offers a far more potent symbol of Jesus’ exaltation as the Son of God than just vanishing from Earth ever could. As discussed above, there’s a universal human impulse of awe and wonder at what lies above and beyond our world. While it’s true God is everywhere at all times, he’s also far above and far beyond everything. In theological language, he’s transcendent as well as immanent. Jesus’ ascent through the clouds (and his eventual return the same way) is a powerful visual reminder of his supreme position and divine sovereign authority.
A cosmic perspective
Modern skeptics (as well as inquiring believers) may still ask: Once Jesus passed through the clouds, where did he go? Where is he now? In view of what we’ve come to know of the size and nature of the universe, how fast and how far did he have to travel to get where he was going? Where is heaven, anyway?
To answer those questions, it’s helpful to recall that everything Jesus did while on Earth was with a human audience in mind, in terms humans could understand. His Ascension offered concrete proof to his disciples that his work on Earth was finished, that he was returning to the place of power and glory with his Father, and that he would come again in the same way at the end of the age. What happened the moment after he disappeared from the disciples’ view has not been revealed, likely because no human mind could begin to grasp it.
Luke and other early Christians didn’t believe Jesus had gone to the crystal dome in the sky from Mesopotamian mythology. Nor did they think he’d entered the quintessential sphere beyond the planets from Hellenistic cosmology. And neither should we imagine Jesus living somewhere outside the orbit of Pluto, or past the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way, or beyond the farthest galactic supercluster.
In modern terms, it might be best to think of heaven as another dimension, an order of reality different from anything we’ve experienced. It’s not a place as we might imagine, because God doesn’t need a place. Although he speaks of his temple and throne room in anthropomorphic terms we can understand, no throne room or temple could contain him. He inhabits every atom of his creation, but also exists outside and independent of it, so that the entire vast cosmos is a mere speck in his hand.
The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus as the Creator of that vast cosmos, the one who upholds it by the word of his power. After he had offered himself as a sacrifice for sin, he returned to the place of ultimate authority in the presence of his Father (Hebrews 1:1-4).
For 1st-century followers of Jesus, who viewed the universe through the framework of Hellenistic cosmology, these truths would’ve been astounding enough. Based on what we’ve come to understand about the size and scope of the cosmos, our sense of awe, wonder and worship can expand almost beyond words.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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