Ascension Day is weird when you think about it. It made a certain degree of sense, in a medieval universe, to think of three physical levels or planes of existence, with earth in the middle, hell below, and heaven above. In such a universe, Jesus’ physical exit from earth would be made literally ‘upwards’ in a vertical direction, through the clouds with little Jesus feet poking out as he floats upward. All of that is totally destroyed by the scientific understandings of the earth and space since the early modern age. Based on what we now know to be true about the physical universe, we must accept that heaven is not ‘above the clouds’ and that the idea of Jesus ‘ascending’ cannot be taken as a literal levitation from one physical place to the next level up.
We are left with three possible responses. One possibility is to reject all the scientific discoveries of modernity, and to double down on a fundamentalist reading of scripture. That’s the approach taken by young earth creationists. I have never regarded that as a viable option. I am committed to an ’empirical theology’ – to a understanding of the Christian faith that takes modern science (as well as literary criticism, history, archaeology and other disciplines of human study) seriously. If Christianity is true, then concepts like the resurrection or miracles might challenge how we see reality, but it cannot contain any doctrine that is directly incompatible with reality.
So that leaves two options. Either: (i) we must dismiss the veracity of the biblical accounts as mere legends, on a par with stories about Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus; or (ii) we accept them as symbolic or metaphorical – reflecting truth, but not necessarily in a literal, physical way.
There are parts of scripture – some of the tales of the Old Testament – that I am willing to accept are legendary. That’s not important, because the bible isn’t (unlike the Quran) pretending to be a dictated divine revelation; it is the archives of the community of God, and those archives contain legends that are meaningful in helping that community understand itself, understand God, and understand the relationship between them. However, I think it’s harder to dismiss the New Testament as legendary – it was written closer in time to the events described, and in the presence of people who were at most two generations distant from them. There might have been some exaggeration and embellishment (in fact, we can see that for example as we go from the earliest to the later gospels) but I think the authors were trying to communicate truth as they experienced it, not legends as they received them.
So I tend towards a more metaphorical understanding: the events described in the NT actually happened, the stories reflect real experiences – but filtered, often, through a metaphorical lens, as if the NT itself was a parable told by the early followers of Jesus to try and show what Jesus was actually like. It helps sometimes to see the gospel accounts as an attempt to express extraordinary events in a way that valued the communication of real meaning through metaphor rather than dispassionate facts. That’s not to deny that supernatural stuff happened (far from it), but it is to say that we need to ask what stories mean rather than getting too hung up about whether they are or are not factually true. Asking, “What was the Samaritan’s name then?” is to miss the point of the story of the Good Samaritan.
In the same way, perhaps asking “So where did Jesus actually go then?” is to miss the point of the story of the Ascension. What it means is that Jesus is in heaven – not a physical place at a measurable distance above a flat earth – but a metaphysical place, beyond and yet overlapping this physical universe. This must be seen in the context of the bible’s one big over-arching narrative: that the separation between heaven and earth is being overcome, and that all things are being restored and reunited in Christ. His physical departure is connected to his ‘preparing a place for us’ – not that we are going to raptured ‘up’ to heaven as some people mistakenly believe, but that – as related in the book of Revelation – that heaven is coming to earth. The important point about the ascension is not whether Jesus’ sandals were hanging in the air or whether people could peek up his tunic to laugh at his pink stripey loincloth; no, the point is that his ascension is a precursor to his return – that the kingdom he commenced, and of which we are a part and which we share in building, will one day be ultimately triumphant. Pain, suffering, war, exploitation and all that will cease. There’s going to be a new heaven and a new earth. That’s pretty exciting stuff.