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Gospel Disproofs #4 & #5: Heaven and the Ascension

One of the oldest myths in the Bible is the idea of heaven, the abode of God, as a physical place up in the sky over Palestine. Genesis 1 kicks off the myth by describing the creation of the heavens along with the creation of the earth, with a “firmament” between the two. The fact that this heaven was intended as a physical place is seen in the fact that it holds water and has doors in it, which can be shut to stop any of the water from falling as rain, or opened to make it rain, or opened really wide to make it flood. And if He’s in a good mood, God can even open these doors and drop a little food down for his hungry followers. Not metaphorical food, either—real food you can gather and eat and live on for forty years (or so Exodus claims).

Numerous passages attest to heaven’s physical location as being up above the earth. From heaven, God looks down on men, and when men want to turn to God (usually to ask Him for something) they turn their attention up to heaven. Up there is where the angels are too, and when God sends one or more of them, He sends them down to the earth. In fact, Jacob (aka Israel) happened to stumble upon the very spot where the gateway to heaven was, and in a dream he saw the actual ladder between earth and heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. A very few lucky people even made the trip up to heaven.

The only trouble is, of course, that it’s not really up there.

Christians today know that there is no real heaven in the clouds (since jetliners fly through them routinely), so they anachronistically assume the writers of the Bible intended only to use a metaphor or figure of speech, or some other spiritualized reference that would not conflict with physical reality. Granted, if it were any other ethno-religious tradition, Christians would have no problem acknowledging such ideas as myth. They have no problem believing that the ancient Greeks mistakenly thought there really was a divine abode atop Mount Olympus, or that the Norse thought of Valhalla as a real realm. Only the Judeo-Christian tradition gets special treatment.

And yet, for all the easy dismissal of “heaven above the clouds” as mere metaphor, the original myth still persists in Christian thought and speech. Christians still look up, just like Jesus did, when they want to face God to talk to him. If you want to point at God, you point up. Bowing your head and folding your hands for prayer is a medieval custom—in New Testament times you raised your hands towards heaven when you wanted to pray, and in many churches today people still do. Heaven has been a real place up in the sky for literally thousands of years. You can’t expect people to change that perception overnight just because they now know it’s not true.

But the worst problem with a heavenly home in the sky is not this curious dislocation of perception and practice. The worst problem with heaven in the sky is that oh my gosh you guys Jesus is still up there!!! Somehow, between the time he “ascended” majestically into the clouds and the time he was supposed to return in glory, heaven changed from being a real place that he could hang out for a few millennia, into a mere metaphor. And nobody warned him!! What if he fell? Or turned into a metaphor himself? Gee, do you suppose…?

You can rationalize it, of course. You can imagine that, for example, it’s all a big hoax. God knows there’s not really a “heaven” up in the clouds, He’s just indulging in an elaborate charade in order to make Himself look more like the pagan sky gods people idolize so much. Zeus-envy or some such. Or you could suppose that, for some reason, heaven is attached to some physical point located above Palestine, and that as the world rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun (as the latter rotates along with the rest of the Milky Way galaxy, which is flying thru space as part of a galactic cluster, and so on), the complicated, swooping, spiraling pattern heaven follows just happens to locate it with its doors situated precisely over Beth-el. What luck for the Jews, eh?

But the rationalizations are just an attempt to gloss over the problem. God should have known all along that heaven wasn’t really up there (and that the earth was not flat and was not at the center of the universe). There’s no reason why, if He were starting from what we know today, He would have had all His patriarchs and prophets and apostles teaching and reinforcing the notion that pagan cosmologies were right about the abodes of the gods. And He especially would not have wanted to tie the idea of the Resurrection to an Ascension that sounds like a literal, physical trajectory, but with nothing real at the destination.

In Acts 1, we read the story of how Jesus allegedly appeared to his disciples, and spoke with them, and then was “lifted up” into the sky, until a cloud “received him out of their sight,” all presented as matter-of-factly and non-metaphorically as the resurrection accounts themselves. Despite this, we know today that at least part of the story was, at best, metaphorical, because there was no physical heaven up there for him to go to. If the destination was a metaphor, can we really be sure that the journey to the skies was not also a metaphor? And if the journey, why not the appearance and final admonitions as well? Not to mention the Second Coming, of course.

What Acts 1 establishes is that there is a Christian standard of “truth” that can claim to be “true” without necessarily requiring that everything matches what we actually find in the real world. If it’s “true” that Jesus ascended into a heaven that’s not really up there, then perhaps the “truth” of the Resurrection doesn’t require any living, breathing Jesus either.

So the two disproofs are linked together: the obviously mythical cosmology of a pagan-ish divine abode in the clouds, and the Ascension that ends up dumping Jesus in a place that’s not really there. You can twist your mind around and avoid the implications if you want to, but you’d only be fooling yourself.

Comments

  1. Freebird says

    Dang! That was awesome! I always wondered where Jesus went when I went to church on Easter and they said he had risen. I always had this image of zombie Jesus zooming around outer space like a fly near a window.

  2. says

    Where gods once dwelled on mountaintops, they moved over time into the clouds and then into some other dimension. What do these places have in common? They were all inaccessible to people at the time the ideas were concocted.
    And yes, athletes still point to the sky after touchdowns and so forth, either to give glory to God or to some dead relatives “up there watching.” Of course, when they talk about relatives “up there watching” my first thought is always “Up where? In the mezzanine?”
    And I didn’t see a mention of the Tower of Babel story, where people actually built a structure tall enough to threaten God. I’m guessing their engineering techniques may have allowed them to reach the utterly dizzying height of 100 feet above sea level.
    It makes me wonder how Tim Tebow can play football in a city like Denver.

  3. Tige Gibson says

    I imagine that Jesus’ physical body floated up to the sky a certain height and just stopped, and while Jesus spiritually went to heaven, his body stayed there in the sky frozen like a crashed game sprite. When you die, your physical body stays on earth and decays while your spirit goes to heaven.

    The basic question of the idea of ascension is actually where does your physical body come from when you return to earth? Where is Jesus’ body right now? The transporter’s buffer?

    If heaven is a physical place, then where does your body come from when you are over there? Your real body is here covered with dirt.

  4. sailor1031 says

    I’m confused. If angels can fly (and they do have those enormous wings) why do they need a ladder? As for the late JC – if he didn’t have an oxygen supply when he ascended then I reckon he’s dead (again). Same goes for his mom (ascending seems to have run in the bar Yussef family)…

  5. freebird says

    Dang! Great post! As a kid in Sunday school I always imagined Jesus orbiting earth with other satellites or buzzing around space like a fly near a window.

    But seriously, if Christian apologists claim heaven is real like an idea or emotion is real (for instance love is real even though it’s not a tangible thing or place), I still don’t understand how they can go from having real tangible Jesus defying real gravity from real tangible earth into an intangible heaven. That mechanism has got to violate one of those pesky laws of thermodynamics.

  6. says

    So according to the Acts myth-story, astronaut Jesus flies his cloud up to heaven, and I assume modern persons are to believe that he no longer needs oxygen in his resurrected body and that he is impervious to the vacuum of space. But where would Jesus be traveling to if we know that it’s not just a short trip ‘up’ to get to heaven?

    Our galaxy is 100,000 light years across, so that means if traveling at the speed of light “We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed). ~ Keith Ward (The Big Questions in Science and Religion p.107).

    Science ruins everything!

  7. CJO says

    The basic question of the idea of ascension is actually where does your physical body come from when you return to earth? Where is Jesus’ body right now? The transporter’s buffer?

    If heaven is a physical place, then where does your body come from when you are over there? Your real body is here covered with dirt.

    Yes, it’s all an incoherent mess. The origin of the difficulty was the opposed views of Jews and Greco-Roman pagans as to the nature of the soul and its interaction with the body. Paul’s solution was that one would inherit eternal life clothed in a “spiritual body”.

    Is hell given the same treatment in the Bible? Did Jesus talk about it being literally under the ground, and etc?

    The term used in the synoptic gospels is Gehenna, and anglicisation of the Greek transliteration of “The Valley of Hinnon” (or “of the sons of Hinnon”), which was a valley outside Jerusalem that apparently was the city’s garbage dump. The only characterization given is “the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die,” a quotation from Isaiah 66. The later rabbinical literature contains numerous and contradictory speculations as to the nature and location of Gehenna, which seem mostly to assimilate it to the Greek Hades, which was certainly conceived of as a realm of the dead far beneath the surface of the earth. But in the NT and the intertestamental literature, there isn’t much to go on. Gehenna can be just the worst of unpleasant earthly places to have one’s unburied corpse disposed of, an underground Hell like Hades, or an eschatological concept without clear location in place and time.

    One last note on the general idea of the disproof here: The famous exhortation in John 3:3, “truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” from which Christians get “born again”, is ambiguous in the Greek. It can be translated as and was probably meant to be read “born from above”. (anothen means both “again” and “from above”.) So one of the core confessional concepts in evangelicalism partakes of the same archaic understanding of the heavens.

  8. mastmaker says

    You guys should read the Hindu Mythology. There was this king (Thrishanku) who wanted to go to heaven bodily (i.e. not just his soul) and a sage (Vishwamitra) who knew how to accomplish that. He managed to do just that and the king was ‘ascending’ to heaven. The King of Gods (Indra) though had other plans and knew better than to admit any ‘bodies’ into heaven. As the king neared the heaven, the King kicked him so bad that he was falling head over heels, appealing for help. The miraculous sage held out his hand (not two hands, a la Moses, or rather, Charlton Heston) and stopped him mid-air and built a new heaven at that place, thereby fulfilling his promise……

    No question of metaphor or allegory in the story. The heaven is described as ‘up above beyond clouds’ and the new heaven ‘somewhere below it’ (unlike New Haven which is in Connecticut)

  9. sunsangnim says

    It’s simple: spiritual bodies are made out of neutrinos. That’s how ghosts can move through walls and Jesus can go faster than light. Unless the CERN experiment turns out to be wrong, in which case I’ll have to generate another nonsensical ad hoc hypothesis.

    Who said religion is incompatible with science?

  10. F says

    Not only is the post awesome, but so is the comment thread.

    It’s funny – I never thought of heaven as a place in geostationary orbit, probably tidally-locked to keep the ladder aligned with the door. I never really considered all those descriptions of heaven in one thought before.

    Of course, when I was a good little Catholic, only the Biblical descriptions (and whatever I might hear someone spew) were metaphorical – heaven was just a vague afterlife where things would be kind of OK. Aside from the liberal Catholicism I grew up in, understanding sciencey things from an early age before I even really understood the religion probably helped me to take little of the whole thing literally.

    Is hell given the same treatment in the Bible? Did Jesus talk about it being literally under the ground, and etc?

    The cartoonish concepts of Christian Hell come, in good part, from medieval entertainments. The Hellmouth was the perennial guest-star of the theater. Dante. Synthesizing various ancient and classical bits and pieces along with the author’s own illustrative or entertaining ideas. But whenever it was that hell started becoming religiously important, if you were using hell as a threat, you have to make something up to explain why going to hell would be such a bad thing. Ya gotta have a sceerry story.

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