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?
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.