scott bailey on acts 1:9-11 (astronaut jesus’ ascencion into heaven) and why it’s important

Scott Bailey recently had a good post on the ascension episode in Acts 1:9-11. Scott pointed out an aspect of this story that has been largely debunked by modern science, but has received less scrutiny as a story lacking any possible historical viability. Scott’s post is as follows:

For those not down with the liturgical calendar Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, forty days after Easter Sunday. Then, 10 days after Ascension Day is Pentecost, when the disciples were the first to be en fuego.

As James pointed out earlier this week, Ascension Day and the story which inspires it challenges the claims of any person to read the Bible literally.

And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)

There’s two aspects to this story I’d like to comment on. First, if we were to take the story literally then the two men in white clothing ask perhaps one of the silliest questions in the Bible. I can just imagine one of the disciples turning around and sarcastically replying, “Well, Jesus came back to life and started walking through walls and stuff, and now he just floated to heaven on a cloud… so yeah, I’m trying to get my head around this for a minute if you don’t mind.”

Second, and more importantly, we can’t really take this story literally for a variety of reasons. Literally, Jesus goes up to heaven in the story. This ‘perspective’ is built on the cosmology of first century persons:

However, as we all now know, heaven is not ‘up’, and if everyone on earth were to be raptured ‘up’ to heaven they would go in a variety of different directions in our solar system as we are on a planet orbiting the sun, while rotating at 23.5 degrees. Which one of these persons would fly ‘up’ to heaven?

So according to the story, astronaut Jesus flies his cloud up, and I assume we 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?

This is a picture of our galaxy:

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, via James McGrath].

On the one hand it surprises me looking back at my earlier cognitive categories for reading and understanding biblical narratives that I could hear and read this story with absolutely no skepticism whatsoever. Jesus flew to heaven. Check. Flip the page to the Upper Room story without even considering some of the problematic issues in the ascension narrative.

Now of course there are theological ‘explanations’ for the story, but what I am referring to in this post is the material difficulties, simply put: it cannot be read literally and made to cohere with what we now know about our planet, solar system, and galaxy.

Scott brings to mind something I have been kicking around in my mind for some time (and touched upon here at the FRDB).

Modern Christianity is presently crippled by the fact that in the first few centuries of the faith, those who allegorized many of the Bible’s claims lost out to the literalists and those who claimed textual (and therefore historical) inerrancy. (See Tatian’s attack on allegorizing Christianity’s stories in chapter 21 of his Address to the Greeks: “Believe me now, O Greeks, and do not resolve your myths and gods into allegory…”) Today, many Christians are attempting to return to allegorical explanations as solutions to the increasing number of textual discrepancies and refutations brought to light by literary criticism and modern science. Again, if heaven is a real, physical place, and Jesus physically ascended there (so say the two men in white in Acts 1:11) in a real, human, resurrected body, and not simply a spirit (cf. the Corinthian heresy in 1 Cor. 15 and the Apostles’ Creed), then even if Jesus were to travel at the speed of light (the physical maximum of our universe for a physical, fully-human body not in a Star Wars or Star Trek movie), given the size of our universe, he’d still be on his way there today! But, attempts to allegorize this and other stories are held hostage by the earliest of Christian authors, who condemned the practice. Early Christian apologists won out (Constantine and his armies may have had something to do with it) precisely because they argued for the historical accuracy and inerrancy of the text – the very two ideals (historical accuracy and textual inerrancy/infallibility) that are causing the majority of problems for fundamentalist Christians today.

So we are left with three options: 1) denying logic and science and adhering to Christian fundamentalism (which claims historical accuracy and textual inerrancy/infallibility), 2) abandoning Christianity altogether because of the belief that the stories must be factual/historical or else the entire Bible must be discarded, or 3) finding a middle ground that acknowledges that the earliest Christian writers (i.e., the “Church Fathers”) may have screwed up a thing or two, upon which later Christian scholars (with the benefit of the advent of modern science) can improve. Of course, this would lead to a rethinking of every sacred Christian doctrine, which in turn would make church leaders in every denomination very uncomfortable (not to mention would undermine their powerful positions of “keepers of the(ir particular brand of) faith”), but the alternative is to watch Christianity continue with obviously irreconcilable errors.

This is what critical biblical scholarship is trying to do.

Instead of relying on the thoughts of men who lived in a pre-scientific age and saw their purpose as one of an apologetic defense of the historicity of all biblical claims and the harmonization of these oft contradictory claims into what we today refer to as “systematic theology,” why not rethink Christianity from the formation of the text forward (that is, pre-canon), abandoning obviously incompatible claims of early Christian authors (even if they were influential for their time), and approach Christianity from a modern perspective of critical analysis. Why can’t Christianity be relevant to modern society and compatible with a modern scientific understanding of the universe? Why hold Christianity hostage to ancient, obviously errant opinions and doctrines?

Can we at least ask the questions?

Or, must Christian scholars continue to sign confessional statements of faith and/or attend particular denominations in their private lives  in order to get the jobs that allow them to teach and study religion? If you force scholars to sign confessional statements in order to teach at a university, don’t be surprised if the results of their “research” continue to perpetuate the errant doctrines of old. (And don’t be surprised if state universities and private colleges that do not require such confessional statements continue to outperform and outrank confessional schools.)

It is only a matter of time before many Americans (including many Christians) realize there is little difference between Islamic fundamentalists who believe that their “inerrant” religious text (the Qur’an) should be the law of the land, and fundamentalist Christians who believe that their “inerrant” religious text (the Bible) should determine and guide our secular laws. Until there comes a time when rational thought, removed from fundamentalist, literal interpretations of a so-thought “inerrant” text, comes to guide and inform our nation’s laws, our nation (and Christianity itself) will continue to suffer.

via: Ascension Day and Astronaut Jesus.

19 Responses

  1. […] I suggested recently that one of the most fundamental elements of Christianity is repentance – acknowledging we were wrong and making efforts to be less wrong in the future. And one can see a faithful expression of this core Christian conviction in the history of Liberal Protestantism and its role in developing and embracing the tools of critical study of the Bible, and the integration of new scientific knowledge. […]

  2. Good stuff Bob. Unfortunately when I see someone like David Barton influencing so many politicians on the right concerning their understanding of history and the Bible, and the relationship of those to the present and the politics of the US, I would have grave concerns for your country if they were to win a majority government in the current social and political environment.

  3. Nice post. I agree with your conclusions.

    What is your take on the Unitarian Church? Hasn’t it heeded the type of advice you have given here?

  4. I see a problem with this modern understanding and debunking in a number of areas.

    1) They are mixing up the ascension with the rapture. Both are two different scenarios and I don’t believe a lot of our understanding / teaching about the rapture is Biblically sound as in ala …”Left Behind” framework, .

    2.) The ascension was a local event. Within that framework its very correct to say that it appeared Jesus floated up into the clouds. In the same way we might release a party balloon which also appears to float straight up. We have no problems with the issue of Angels appearing to the shepherds in the sky… which again was a localised event.

  5. actually…
    this has nothing to do with the rapture. if jesus ascended into heaven, where did he go? are you arguing that heaven is local? just out of sight above the clouds?

  6. Bob. I’m not arguing that Heaven is in the clouds… however within the context of the OT / NT we read of people being transported from one place to another, Jesus walking on water, through walls, rebuking the wind etc.

    Raising up high and disappearing into the elements does not mean that is where heaven is….rather its an account of what happened. Jesus suddenly appeared from no where into a crowded room…does that mean heaven was in that room?

  7. This approach is for me far too materialist. True I do not accept the literal historicity of Jesus ascending into the clouds. However the experience of the ascension was quite probably historical. I would argue that Jesus’ disciples had a visionary experience, which was interpreted in light of their own sociocultural context. In other words, the elements of the vision follow the general patterns found in visionary experiences in the Hebrew Bible and ascension motifs found in the Greco-Roman world.
    The event itself may not have been historical but the experience I’m quite certain was. It can be argued that the experience is purely epiphenomenonal. In that case arguments about Jesus’ ascension then become purely theological and fideistic (and I use this word in the most positive sense). And yes, my critically informed Lutheranism is showing.


  8. @Craig, you’re using cultural memory and philosophical speculation as interpreters of natural phenomenon? Ok… Local or not the events are physically impossible, as in Jesus could not continue ‘up’ and at some point you must speculate without any means to demonstrate or prove how Jesus went to heaven. Another dimension? Wormhole? Mystery? Magic?

    @Lynn, “This approach is for me far too materialist” that’s really kind of the point isn’t it? Ironically from this statement you offer an interpretation that does not *materially* describe what happened in the sense that a human body actually rode a cloud into the sky and was physically witnessed by persons.

  9. Maybe heaven is contained in string theoretical higher dimensions curled up too tiny to see? ;^)

  10. ” if jesus ascended into heaven, where did he go? are you arguing that heaven is local? just out of sight above the clouds?”

    Technically, he would have ascended until they lost sight of him, which wouldn’t have taken very long, or required that he travel very far, even in cloudless skies. Probably would have been hard to see at a couple thousand feet.

    What occurred after that is undefined. That’d include how he went from mid-air to ‘heaven’, if he did so.

  11. “Instead of relying on the thoughts of men who lived in a pre-scientific age and saw their purpose as one of an apologetic defense of the historicity of all biblical claims”

    –I agree with the focus of your piece about how to deal with the thoughts and explanations of “men who lived in a pre-scientific age”, but I can’t let the rest of this sentence go by. These men did not see “their purpose as one of an apologetic defense of the historicity of all biblical claims.” There are numerous problems with this remark, the main one is that it is anachronistic. The idea of history as a discipline with standards and methods, and indeed as a field to which the new word “historicity” applies, was not developed until the early 19th century. Our notion of what history differs radically from what they meant by the concept. Also, the writers of the gospels and Acts were not primarily interested in apologetics or in defending biblical claims. They were interested in interpreting divine prophecy. They were trying to show that the prophecy foretold Jesus in some way. That the prophecies came from the TaNaK was secondary, as Paul demonstrates when he cites Enoch.

    Nice piece!

  12. Bob, you’re doing the same thing the denominations have been doing for centuries. You’re trying to establish acceptable doctrine and enforce particular rules about how to interpret the text. You’re also playing the elitist game of setting boundaries. Now, I hear your passion coming through loud and clear. You want to “save” christianity. And good for you. But so did all those other reformers.

    Honestly, I only wish you were truly liberal. Maybe Jesus didn’t do what Acts says he did, or maybe he did, but there’s a fatal flaw of an assumption in Scott’s argument, as with James’ last week. In truly historical logic, the historicity of that story doesn’t necessarily depend on the veracity of the ancient cosmology/worldview. It could plausibly depend on Jesus’ having been willing to play to that ancient cosmology/worldview, at the time. It could even have been that Jesus himself believed heaven was “up”, but that God then took Jesus from space once safely out of the disciples’ view. That’s not special pleading because I’m not claiming those options prove historicity, you understand. But I’m saying the argument Bailey puts forth doesn’t really hold water.

    Again, tell me you don’t believe it for some other reason, and I’ll listen. Tell me you want to reform fundamentalism, and I’m sympathetic. But I honesty think that assaults like this make you (& James & Scott) look every bit as dogmatic and controlling as the denominational fundamentalists I compared you to up above. Honest feedback, fwiw.

    Thanks for the space here. Please consider these thoughts…

  13. bill,

    thanx for your comments.

    re: ‘establish acceptable doctrine and enforce particular rules about how to interpret the text’ – actually, you’re correct. and here are my ‘rules’:
    1) be consistent. if you apply a form of logic to one text, be prepared to apply it to all texts. this guards against fundamentalism.
    2) back up your claims with evidence. if you can’t, say so and be content that you are making a faith claim.
    3) ‘anything goes’ or ‘this is what it means to me’ are not acceptable interpretative tools (not just in a scholarly context, but in any context, especially if it violates one of the two above rules). 1+1 doesn’t equal 14, even if that’s how you really feel about it.
    4) if the bible made a claim, and that claim is proven to have been false hundreds of years later, admit it. the bible need not be perfect on inerrant to convey preserved truths. don’t worship a text as an idol. there are several claims in the bible that are factually untrue and socially abhorrent. admit it and move on. don’t try to apologize for the error by making more.

    re: ‘I only wish you were truly liberal’ – again, i am a moderate. everything in moderation. not a great campaign slogan, but great words to live by. i evaluate everything and make the best judgment on the merits of each individual case. no party lines for me.

    re: ‘It could plausibly depend on Jesus’ having been willing to play to that ancient cosmology/worldview, at the time.’ – no, it couldn’t. i don’t buy the ‘dumb jesus’ who ’emptied himself’ of knowledge and essentially lied to the people at the time for their own benefit. jesus mentions adam, the flood, and a flat earth/heaven in the nt. why would he preach a radical new kingdom worldview and maintain a flat earth?

    re: ‘It could even have been that Jesus himself believed heaven was “up”, but that God then took Jesus from space once safely out of the disciples’ view.’ – now you’re just being silly. it could be that the spaghetti monster ate him and jesus entered into the wormhole that is its intestines and he traveled to china too.

    re: ‘I’m saying the argument Bailey puts forth doesn’t really hold water.’ – but you’ve given no evidence of this (except the completely speculative disappearing jesus/spaghetti monster scenario above).

    re: ‘Tell me you want to reform fundamentalism, and I’m sympathetic’ – as i do and as you should be. fundamentalism has been and will continue to be the death of all of us.

    re: ‘I honesty think that assaults like this make you (& James & Scott) look every bit as dogmatic and controlling as the denominational fundamentalists. – dogmatic? no. possessing a persistent and ruthless affinity for evidence and facts, and arguing logically upon facts while leaving room for not yet disproved scenarios? yes. dogmatism treats opinions as facts. i like to treat facts like facts, and test the possible interpretations of these facts. the bible says he was taken up into heaven. in like a few seconds. again, even at the speed of light, this is impossible. let’s concede it’s an error and move on.

    cheers, bc

  14. Bob,

    I’ve started reading through more of your posts, beyond the Neofiti one, and have enjoyed several of them. After reading this one I noticed a trend of discounting events which in the Bible are miraculous. Although it’s physically impossible for the feeding of the thousands, the gospels recount that this happened. Although its impossible physically for Jesus to be born of a virgin, this is recounted. Although its physically impossible for Jesus to turn water into wine, raise people from the dead, spit in mud, rub it on someone’s face, and give them sight — all these things are recounted. Time and time again the Bible asks its readers (both pre-modern and modern) to believe things that were always considered physically impossible.

    The ascension of Jesus would have been just as impossible for the the disciples to comprehend as it is for us, who understand more comprehensively the impossibility of the physics behind it. For them, nothing could fly except birds. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In the Bible, God seems to be in the business of doing things that couldn’t physically happen. If God cannot do these miraculous things, then what kind of Christianity is left? Jesus was born a bastard of a lying mother and father and died on the cross as a common criminal. He never rose from the dead, he never ascended to heaven, and he’s not sitting at the right hand of the Father awaiting his return to judge the living and the dead. What are we left with – a few pithy sapiential teachings? Or are we saying – Jesus rose from dead, but not in the way the Bible describes it? Or, Jesus is in heaven with the Father, but the way Acts 1 talks about how he got completely missed the boat?

    I’m just trying to understand what angle you are coming from here. Thanks for raising good questions!

  15. I don’t have a Phd in religious studies, but I have been a student of True Theology for over 30 years and I can truly say that this is another case of an unregenerate (unsaved) person trying to understand or explain away scientifically something that cannot be explained scientifically. Science cannot prove or disprove the super natural!

    1. I do believe, by faith, the bible to be inerrant. and while there have been a few copying typos, the sheer number of manuscripts available leave no doubt that in comparison to each other, the Bible we have today is reliable, but not only because of this, but also because 1 Timothy 3:16 says that all Scripture is inspired (breathed out) by God himself through Human Writers.
    2. The reason for the Bible is the story of fall and redemption, the life and work of Jesus Christ in making atonement for sin (his work on the cross) This is why logically, Christianity and Islam, are opposing faiths, not similar. When you have two different faiths saying two opposite things about how to get to heaven, there are only two logical conclusions: One is wrong and the Other is right, or they are both wrong, but they cannot both be right. I choose Christianity by faith, but also because so many accounts, such as this one, have been proven to be accurate and true, again and again, and it has also been around thousands of years before Islam. If God wanted to communicate His plan for redemption, why would he wait until the 7th Century after the death of Jesus to start communicating with people?
    3. As to the story, it only not makes sense if you are looking at it purely scientifically; however, scientific observation does not take into account that Jesus is God, has a glorified body, and is not subject to the laws of science and physics as we know it here. We have discovered what may be 10 dimensions in the known universe; however, we live in 4.
    3a. “He was lifted up”: Simple enough
    3b. and a cloud took Him out of their sight: The clouds could have been at 200ft or 500ft, does not say. I can be taken out of sight in Fog after 100ft
    3c. The Greek word ouranos can mean “sky, and by extension heavens”
    3d. as to the silliest question, it can be a matter of asking “Why are you STILL standing here looking into the heavens?” or in my words “OK Show’s over move on, he’s coming back, but now you have work to do”
    4. As to the Rapture (which is not in Biblically Based, but the Second Coming) this is something we will have to see to understand fully, as Christ will return in the clouds to collect his saints, and since he has believers all over the world, this seems physically impossible to us, but with God All Things Are Possible.
    5. If there is even one error in the Bible, then it is good for nothing other than a historical document, if it could be trusted at all. I hear people all the time say there are errors in the bible, but they could not tell you what or where they are. (A copying Typo, is not a factual error, but a copying mistake, which due to the number of manuscripts, is easily corrected.)
    6. Lastly, considering there are 10 dimensions, it is not unscientific to believe that “Heaven” is right above us, but in a dimension we cannot see or touch. This makes it highly likely that as soon as Christ was taken into the cloud, he entered a new dimension. There is a war going on “For we wrestle not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers.” These battles take place all around us and they affect us, but we cannot see or feel them. Since science cannot prove or disprove them, you would be unwise to dismiss them or this story as fact, because they wrote it exactly as it happened.

  16. Dr. Cargill,

    When one consistently applies a doctrine or a logical analysis throughout Scripture, I would think that is the essence of being fundamental, versus being a way to “guard against fundamentalism”.


    As for your arguments about what is scientifically possible or impossible, one must remember that — if Jesus is truly divine (and, I believe that He is) — then: 1) He knows things about the natural laws that we might not know; and, 2) He has the authority to bypass even those natural laws, which He wrote. Therefore, I do not see any logical conflict between “science” and the Ascencion.

    Here is an example from my second book, Tribulation: 2008. (Laugh if you’d like, but I believe the Tribulation is almost halfway finished. It started three years ago.) In the book, I show that there were two statements made in the Book of Job that defied all of the “science” of Job’s time … and of all cultures since, until the second half of the 20th Century.

    Specifically, Job 26:7 makes two back-to-back statements: “He stretches out the north over empty space And hangs the earth on nothing.” Some translations say the “northern skies”, but I believe that is incorrect. I think that it means the polar ice cap, which seems to stretch out endlessly because it goes beyond the horizon (depending, of course, upon where one is standing). It would boggle the known “science” of someone living in Mesopotamia to contemplate a sheet of ice as big as a continent, and strong enough to hold up metal buildings and vehicles, yet floating upon vast expanses of “empty” ocean. Yet, that is exactly what was scientifically proven when the nuclear submarine Nautilus traveled beneath the polar ice cap from one side to the other.

    The second half of the verse seemed equally “unscientific” to the cultures of the ancient world. As your diagram above shows, ancient peoples believed that the world rested upon giant pillars. (Upon what did the pillars rest? Alas, another question.) But, Job wrote that God hung the Earth upon nothing. And, that is exactly what science proved when the Earth was photographed from outer space.

    So, the fact that the Bible seems “unscientific” at some point in time does not mean that the Bible is wrong. It only means that our science has not yet advanced to the point of understanding the events. I believe that it is no coincidence that God “sealed up the knowledge until the time of the end”, and then allowed Job’s “outlandish” claims to be proven true. It thus showed God’s sovereignty and His eternal nature.

    Your thoughts, sir?

  17. Tom,

    Consistency is key. Pick a hermeneutic and stick to it. Some choose literal fundamentalism, but I argue that it is unsustainable. I choose critical method. It examines every claim against the evidence.

    Once you argue that Jesus performed supernaturally, then you are making a faith claim and there is little more to discuss. Once we suspend the laws of physics, anything is possible. My point is that the text referred to Jesus as ascending into heaven. Regardless of the supernatural means by which he did so, it is impossible – even at the speed of light – to exit the known universe. Thus, the text was referring to an ancient and now discredited cosmology of heaven being above the firmament.

    1) the ocean isn’t empty. 2) צפון means ‘north’, not ‘polar ice caps.’ ‘stretching out the north over the תהו (“formlessness”/”empty”) is in perfect keeping with the ane cosmology of a dome over a flat disc. think snow globe. the bible consistently depicts creation as a snow globe, with the north stretched over the void, and waters above and below.

    job also speaks of unicorns and behemoths and leviathans. 26:11 also says heaven has pillars too. please point those out to me. the bible is not scientific. it is a theological document that assumes an non-scientific, ancient near eastern worldview, which has been disproved.

  18. I’ve been away a long while. Hi, Bob. Thanks for the worthy reply(ies) up above, and I appreciate most of your points very much.

    One very unfortunate slip of my keyboard was my use of the word ‘space’. I beg you to trust that I honestly meant ‘airspace’ or ‘physical space’. I was speaking in terms of raw physics, but failed to edit for clarity. My apologies.

    What I meant by “space” is to suggest that, if God’s true “heaven” is a spriitual realm, then perhaps Jesus got behind a cloud and God immediately took him from out of the physical realm. That’s what I propose *could* very well be a reasonable account of the passage in question.

    My point is that we can agree Jesus didn’t ascend past a reasonable altitude, but I think Scott’s argument puts too much emphasis on the single word ‘heaven’ and ignores the “out of their sight”.

    That is all.

  19. Andy,

    Yes, I tend to discount the miraculous stories. The virgin birth was written long after Jesus came and went to help make Jesus divine and to remove him from original sin. (It’s the same reason a tradition later rose around Mary that argued SHE was born of a virgin as well.) The miracles are consistent with other stories of healers who use ‘miracles’ (or followers attribute miracles to them) to attract followers.

    The Bible says that Jesus ascended into the clouds and into heaven because they still lived in a geocentric world where heaven was still up above the firmament (see Gen 1). Platonic philosophy moved it further out, but they had no idea that the universe was as big as it was. It was an ascension story that differed even form the end of the first gospel, Mark, which originally ended with an empty tomb.

    If you’re asking me, the way you described it is fairly accurate, but the tradition grew up around him. His disciples elaborated the tradition, and the authors took their liberties. Later redactors attempted to edit the documents to make them more harmonious. It’s not his fault. He was a Jewish prophet/reformer. He said some profound things. And like most prophets, the people despised him and killed him.
    Some of it is historical, some of it is not. Some of it is also not factual, even if it is historical. But, the fact that it’s not all historical doesn’t mean what he taught isn’t worthwhile.


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