Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Walk for the President

Saturday, June 07, 2014

"He ascended into heaven..."

[Because every time Ascension Day rolls around, I read stories like this one, where someone tries to get value out of the Jesus' Ascension while denying that it actually happened, I am reprinting this piece I wrote in 2005.]
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.  They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky?  This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:9-10).
Where is heaven?  Do you ever stop to think about it?  The Book of Acts tells us that Jesus ascended into heaven.  But where is heaven?

A friend of mine recently reminded me of a little chapel in Walsingham, England, that depicts the Ascension of Christ.  The ceiling of the chapel is painted like the sky with clouds, and sticking out of one of the clouds on the ceiling you can see a pair of feet!

However much we may believe in the Ascension of Christ, illustrations like this chapel ceiling seem quaint and make us laugh.  Skeptics, however, respond to such depictions by dismissing the reality of the Ascension altogether.  Liberal Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, in his article, “A Call for a New Reformation,” says, “The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.”

Similarly, the late Church of England Bishop, John A.T. Robinson said that because of astronomy and space travel we know that heaven and God aren’t “out there;” the place to look for God and heaven is “within.”  Robinson even cites Luke 17:21, “the kingdom of God is within you," in support of his view.  Well, of course, in context, the kingdom of God is at work in us and through us.  But the tendency of Robinson’s view is toward a pantheism which says that the only place God and heaven are to be found is within the creation and within us.

Cardinal John Henry Newman had a different view, which, to my mind, captures the truth quite well.  Commenting on the biblical passages where Jesus says the kingdom of God is “at hand,” Newman says that the kingdom runs alongside our world and is ever near it, and that someday, when we least expect it, our world will resolve itself into the kingdom of God.

Remember that Newman wrote this 100 years before scientists (and science fiction writers) started telling us about “parallel universes.”  Is the kingdom of God a parallel dimension to our own existence?  Perhaps it is.  That is why there may well be unseen angels hovering around us at this very moment.

Of course it entirely sensible that, for the disciples sake and for ours, Jesus is seen ascending into heaven.  For Jesus simply to have disappeared or faded away would have represented dissolution or annihilation.  Jesus ascends to show us he is going to a place—a place from which he will return—a place that is higher, better than where we are.

So where is heaven?  Is it “out there, somewhere?”  Is it above, below, within, or along side us?  The best answer we have concerning heaven is the promise of Jesus:
In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:2-3).
Heaven is God the Father’s house—the place where Jesus is and where we will someday be with him.  And if heaven is the place where Jesus is, then—wherever it may be—it will be perfect.