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 in the life of Jesus are as often disputed by skeptics as the Ascension. In fact, it may even top the list. Critics dismiss it out of hand as a myth, born of an ancient view of the universe in which heaven was “up there,” just beyond the clouds.
But we’ve turned our telescopes to the skies for centuries now, they’d argue. We’ve sent probes and people far beyond the clouds, into the dark depths of space. There’s no sign of heaven up there – just more space. So then, where did Jesus go? Where is he now?
Truth be told, more than a few Christians also struggle at times to reconcile the Ascension with their 21st-century picture of the universe. But this shouldn’t be the case. In light of modern cosmology – and with a few skeptic assumptions cleared away – the Ascension should be far more awe-inspiring than the ancients might ever have imagined.
A three-tiered universe
Millennia ago, ancient cultures in the Near East and around the Mediterranean believed in what modern scholars call a three-tiered universe. In this model, the Earth was thought to be a flat disc floating on water, with the underworld beneath and heaven as a solid dome above. Based on this, skeptics have leapt to the strange conclusion that Jesus rising through the clouds into heaven must be a myth that reflects this outmoded cosmology.
The first problem with this theory, however, is that by the time of Jesus, virtually nobody in the Greco-Roman world believed in the three-tiered universe anymore. It was already considered dusty ancient mythology.
As early as the 5th century BC, Greek philosophers had theorized that the Earth was round. By the 3rd century BC, they’d proven it via mathematics and empirical 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), but surrounded by vast planetary and stellar orbits on a scale far beyond the ancient three-tiered model. Over more than three centuries, these concepts had spread throughout the Hellenistic world, including among the Jews.
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 that his writing betrays a reliance on Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, long discredited in his day, is historically irresponsible to say the least.
More than that, such an assertion ignores Luke’s own stated purpose for writing. He was not interested in spinning myths and fables in the manner of the epic poets. As a careful historian, Luke was concerned with collecting and organizing detailed evidence and eyewitness accounts about the life of Jesus, so that his readers might know for certain that the things they’d been taught about Jesus were actually true.
Accordingly, 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.
Luke didn’t have the benefit of telescopes or NASA or modern astrophysics. There’s no way to know what his specific views might have been about the nature of the cosmos. But in any case, those views have no bearing on whether the Ascension in fact 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 their 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, speak 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 of 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.
Moreover, all of humanity shares an innate sense that whatever is up there is exalted and majestic and beyond our control or understanding. This has nothing to do with ancient cosmology and everything to do with universal human perception. Since the beginning of time, we’ve stared up at the sky in wonder, and the Scriptures tell us that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). Whatever our concept of heaven itself, it is literally above and beyond our world and outside our earthly sphere of experience.
Jesus in the flesh
After his Resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples in ways that occasionally bypassed the limits of the natural world. He would pass through solid locked doors. He would appear suddenly and then disappear 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 up through the clouds?
At least two reasons come to mind. First, Jesus had taken pains to assure his disciples that he wasn’t merely a spirit but had risen in bodily form. He had invited them to touch the wounds in his hands and side. He had continued to eat and interact with them over the course of 40 days. If he had then just vanished, never to be seen again, it would have severely undermined the credibility of the Resurrection. It would have suggested that 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 demonstrated that he was forever united to his creation and to humanity as our divine-human representative.
Second, the Ascension provides a far more potent symbol of Jesus’ exaltation as the Son of God than simply vanishing from the Earth ever could. As discussed, there is a universal human impulse of awe and wonder at what lies above and beyond our world. And while it’s true that God is everywhere at all times, he is also far above and far beyond everything. In the language of the theologians, 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 light 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 begin answering those questions, it’s helpful to recall that everything Jesus did while on Earth was with a human audience in mind, for their benefit, in terms they 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 like fashion at the end of the age. What happened the moment after he disappeared from their view has not been revealed, likely because no human mind could ever begin to grasp it.
No, Luke and other early Christians certainly did not believe that 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 be so crass as to 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 know it, because God doesn’t need a place. Although he speaks of his temple and throne room in anthropomorphic terms that 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 first-century believers who viewed the universe according to the Hellenistic model, these truths would have been astounding enough. Based on what we’ve come to know of the size and scope of the cosmos, our sense of awe and wonder and worship is almost beyond words – which is exactly as God intended.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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