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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.