A question from a reader on the literal understanding of Christ's Ascension:
How would you respond to someone who argued like the following. "To ancient people, God lived in the sky above the clouds, and therefore, the story of Christ's Ascension depends on this pre-scientific view of the heavens." If we were to say that heaven is some kind of alternative dimension, why did the disciples see our Lord moving physically up?
This is a common question posed by skeptics who attempt to cast our Lord's Ascension in mythic terms. It seems daunting until we realize that it actually confounds two separate factors; once we distinguish these two from each other, there is really no difficulty answering this challenge.
To begin with we must admit two points right off that the orthodox Catholic must adhere to: First, that Christ truly, literally and physically rose into heaven in the sight of His disciples. Second, that heaven is not a physical place within the confines of this universe; i.e., you can't get to heaven by moving far enough in a certain direction, just like you can't get to hell by digging under the earth.
These two truths seem to be in opposition, however. We must admit that Christ physically ascended, but we also must admit that one cannot get to heaven by ascending. What is the answer?
The answer of the skeptics is that the Ascension didn't really happen, because to say Christ "ascended" into "heaven" is to canonize a pre-scientific and unture view of the world - heaven as "up in the clouds" and hell as under the earth. These skeptics will usually say the Ascension is the final hallucination to the farce they call the "Easter Event" which is nothing other than mass delusion on the part of the disciples.
Obviously this cannot be so; but, if we admit that one cannot just literally fly up into heaven, then why did the disciples see Christ going up?
We have to disentangle two things here: the physical lifting up from the earth and the going "into heaven" to sit down at the right hand of the Father. It is true that, in the ancient world, most persons viewed the heavens in the sky as the abode of the gods. Even though the Jews of the Old Testament would not have had a theology that viewed God as literally living in any one place (if they did, it would have been in the Temple, not in the sky), nevertheless there is a strong association in the Old Testament of the sky with God's dwelling, inasmuch as the all the good things God sends (rain, snow, sunlight, etc.) come from the sky, and so the sky, but also the mountaintop, are seen to be "closer" to God than the ground or the depths. In fact, in the Old Testament the "depths" signify distance from God (Psalm 130: De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine..)
So, yes, we can admit that for the Israelites at least, God-heaven would have been associated with the sky, even if they knew He did not "live" there - just as the depths or the deep places of the earth were associated with distance from Him. And it's not unthinkable that persons would associate the sky with heaven; this is a common assumption that we still make today, even if only in a symbolic manner.
What about Christ's "going into heaven"? All of the pivotal moments of Christs's earthly life are hidden, and this is no exception. His Incarnation, hidden from the eyes of men and so mysterious and profound that we cannot fathom what it "looked like" for Him to suddenly be there in the womb of the Virgin with no act of fertilization by a sperm. Think of His Resurrection - returning to life alone in the tomb; what did it look like? Certainly more than just Him getting up, for it was also a glorification and a transformation, something witnessed by nobody. Likewise, His Ascension is secret and hidden. C.S. Lewis says the Transfiguration is an "anticipatory glance" at what will occur with the Resurrection and Ascension. We could also think of the mystery of Mary's Assumption.
How can I say this when it was very publicly done in front of the disciples? Christ's physical lifting off of the ground and going up into the air was witnessed by many, but this lifting up was not in itself the fundamental act of the Ascension; the Ascension properly is what happened after Christ was parted from them by a cloud, when He "entered heaven" and sat down at the right hand of the Father. The first part of the Ascension was witnessed by many, but fundamental act Ascension itself was hidden from their sight.
And why was it hidden? Because just as His birth, Resurrection or other things like the creation of the world out of nothing, we cannot fathom what it would have looked like. It is not a movement from one place to another or a simple qualitative change but something miraculous, wonderful and mysterious: the translation of Christ from this world and its laws and restrictions to the state of glory that is rightfully His.
So we must not confuse the lifting of Christ off the ground with totality of the Ascension itself - it is part of the Ascension, but not the essence of the Ascension, just as the essence of Christ's sacrifice is not the nails or the scourge but the unblemished offering of Himself to the Father.
When Christ physically ascended into the air, He did it because He knew that His disciples (and all persons who would later hear their preaching) would understood what He meant by this act. He knew that all people would understand that this act meant that He was leaving the world and returning to the Father - but we must not confuse the physical act of rising with the act if returning to the Father. This second act occurred hidden from human eyes, after He was taken from sight by a cloud - and we can have no inkling of what this looked like. He Ascended bodily into the air before men to manifest His power and demonstrate that He was leaving the world, but how He actually left the confines of this world is something mysterious and hidden that we cannot understand.
What sort of confusion could there have been had Christ said, "I am returning to my Father now" and then disappeared into a cave, walked down into a river or vanished into a forest? When He Ascended, He knew that this was a undeniable sign of His exaltation - and that all men would know what He meant by this act.
This really is no different than Elijah's being taken into heaven. Every Christian believes Elijah was assumed into heaven; no Christian really believes one needs a physical vehicle like a chariot in order to get there. Of course, nobody brings this up as much with Elijah since there is more of a predisposition against historical-literal interpretation when it comes to the Old Testament.
So, as long as we don't think the essence of the Ascension is restricted to the physical lifting off the ground, but understand that the rising, like Christ's walking on water, was a sign that pointed to a more profound truth (Christ "sitting down at the right hand of the Father") then we should have no problem affirming the literal truth of the Ascension without having to make it dependent upon a pre-scientific view of the world. Certainly Christ took this pre-scientific view into account when He ascended, but the Ascension does not depend upon a pre-scientific view, nor does a modern, scientific cosmology preclude us from believing in the literal Ascension.
I hope this helps. But in case it doesn't, here is what C.S. Lewis said about it:
All the accounts suggest that the appearances of the Risen Body came to an end; some describe an abrupt end about six weeks after the death. And they present this abrupt end in a way which presents greater difficulties to the modern mind than any other part of Scripture...it is true that if we wish to get rid of these embarrassing passages we have the means to do so...Can we simply drop the Ascension story? The answer is that we can only do so if we regard the Resurrection appearances as those of a ghost or hallucination. For a phantom can just fade away, but an objective entity must go somewhere - something must happen to it.
"The records represent Christ as passing after death (as no man had ever passed before) neither into a purely, that is negatively, 'spiritual' mode of existence nor into a 'natural' life such as we now know, but into a life which has its own new Nature. It represents Him as withdrawing six weeks later, into some different mode of existence. It says - He says - that He goes 'to prepare a place for us.' This presumably means that He is about to create that whole new Nature which will provide the environment or conditions for His glorified humanity and, in Him, for ours. The picture is not what we expected - though whether it is less or more probable and philosophical on that account is another question. It is not the picture of an escape from any and every kind of Nature into some unconditioned and utterly transcendent life. It is the picture of a new human nature, and a new Nature in general, being brought into existence. We must, indeed, believe the risen body to be extremely different from the mortal body: but the existence, in the new state, of anything that could in any sense be described as 'body' at all, involves some sort of spatial relations and in the long run a whole new universe. That is the picture - not of unmaking but of remaking. The old field of space, time, matter and the sense is to be weeded, dug and sown for a new crop. We may be tired of that old field: God is not.
If you click here, you read the rest of this important chapter from Miracles in Google Books; it's actually better than the stuff I quoted above. Or, if you have a copy of Miracles, check out Chapter 16 ("Miracles of the New Creation", pgs. 253-260 in the Harper Collins edition.