Friday, 22 May 2009

Ascension and Metaphor

Part of the trick of reading the Bible is knowing what to read literally. The ascension, if by that we mean Luke's picture of Jesus zooming off on a cloud and on this cloud reaching heaven, is a case in point. It is not necessary to believe this happened literally. Ascension, like resurrection, is on the edge of history as we usually think of it. The resurrection and ascension are history-like in the narratives, but are not of the same historical character as the crucifixion. This is not meant as a way to wriggle out of the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Rather, it is to recognise that resurrection (and ascension) is beyond our usual experience. Like the resurrection of Jesus, the account of the ascension tries to communicate what is beyond our usual experience with language and experiences within our grasp. Resurrection is like becoming alive again (the resuscitation of Lazarus as a symbol of resurrection); resurrection is not literally coming back to life, it is a new and transformed existence. So too the story in Luke-Acts of the ascension of Jesus. It is like he was lifted up, but not exactly. God is 'up there', but not literally. God is within us, but not literally. Jesus really is raised and ascended; he departed 'on a cloud' in the same way that he 'came back to life' like Lazarus.


  1. For a different 'literal' reading, I'm reminded of Robert Russell's question to Ted Peters: 'So, where did Jesus ascend to?' 'Into the future,' was Peters' reply.

  2. I'd also like to add that I think it was easier to explain to people the resurrection than the ascension. The disciples had more experiences of the risen Lord, him eating, teacher, turning up in rooms than they did of only one experience of Jesus being taken to Heaven.
    From a Historical point of view this actually means that the resurrection has more historical backing than the ascension.

  3. Since scripture is by nature tradition, rational exegesis must point to metaphor whilst inspirational exegesis is in the mind of the believer. Great.....
    This also works with virgin birth, but not the non biblical teachings of trans -subtatiation, bodily assuption into heaven and for that matter the trinity! Or are we at the end of the day saying MAN MADE GOD to suit man!

  4. I can't resist saying it, so I might as well get it off my chest, the Trinity is biblical. But you'd expect me to say that.

    But anyway, important here is how we approach the non-literal, the history like events of resurrection and ascension. Resurrection was new, and so the metaphor of resuscitation is used. This does not mean that nothing happened, or that it is only metaphor. The resurrection of Jesus must be come at through metaphor for it is unique, and the metaphors give us a way into the event. So too ascension. When it comes to a doctrine like trans-substantiation for example, we have left the domain of history-like events and are in the domain of theological reflection. However, again, this does not mean that the referent of the theology doesn't exist.