I have concluded… that the Ascension represents my greatest struggle of faith – not whether it happened, but why. It challenges me more than the problem of pain, more than the difficulty of harmonizing science and the Bible, more than belief in the Resurrection and other miracles. It seems odd to admit such a notion – I have never read a book or article conceived to answer doubts about the Ascension – yet for me what has happened since Jesus’ departure strikes at the core of my faith. Would it not have been better if the Ascension had never happened? If Jesus had stayed on earth, he could answer our questions, solve our doubts, mediate our disputes of doctrine and policy.The primary story of the ascension is recorded in Acts 1, after the Jesus’ resurrection and 40 days of personal appearances. “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)Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), 229.
It is my contention that the story of the Ascension counts as historical evidence against the resurrection. Like Yancey, I am troubled by several issues related to the ascension. They pose a serious problem for building a historical case for the resurrection. Please keep in mind that I write this as a Christian who believes in the resurrection. Because I love the truth, I cannot simply shrug off difficult issues. Here is why I believe the story of the ascension counts as evidence against the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus.
There is one uncontested fact about the current state of Jesus: Jesus has not been seen publicly since the first century. Some individuals have seen him in visions. Some have claimed to have traveled to heaven and seen him there. Perhaps some even claim that he visited them on earth in the flesh. Even if we grant the veracity of all these experiences, it is clear that he is no longer a public figure. In considering the historical case for the resurrection, we must answer the question of where Jesus is now. There seem to be four possible answers:
1. Jesus rose bodily from the dead and ascended into heaven, according to Luke and Acts.
2. Jesus did not rise from the dead, and his body rotted away.
3. Jesus rose from the dead, and he is alive and well on planet Earth, living in obscurity.
4. Jesus rose from the dead, died a second time, and his body rotted away.
I am not aware of anyone who has seriously argued for the third or fourth options. As a living individual (option three), he would have less relevance than Elvis, who at least gets his picture on tabloids. If he died a second death (option four), his resurrection was practically irrelevant. Certainly Jesus would have no theological significance. The only plausible options, I believe, are the first two. Which option best explains the facts?
In Reasonable Faith (pp.295-8, also referred to in his debate with Gerd Lüdemann), William Lane Craig proposes C.B. McCullogh’s seven tests as a standard for accepting a historical hypothesis.
- The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data.
- The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope than rival hypotheses.
- They hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope than rival hypotheses.
- The hypothesis must be more plausible than rival hypotheses.
- The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than rival hypotheses.
- The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than rival hypotheses.
- The hypothesis must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)-(6) that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis exceeding it in meeting these conditions.
2. It lacks in explanatory scope. As Lüdemann suggested (Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment?, 155) it does not explain the contradiction between the ascension in Acts 1 and that of Luke 24, where the times and locations of the ascension differ from one another. It does not explain why other biblical writers do not record an ascension. If the Lukan writings were removed from the canon, the issue of what happened to Jesus after the resurrection would almost certainly be a hot topic in Christian theology. There are hints that Jesus is in heaven in John and the epistles, but we are still left with (the original version of) Mark and Matthew. When read in their own context (rather than Luke's), Jesus’ final words in Matthew 28.20 seem to have a very different meaning: “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
3. It lacks in explanatory power. The best apologetic for Jesus’ resurrection would be public appearances. Imagine if we could hear the resurrection story for the first time. “Wow,” we might say, “you’ve made a very strong case that Jesus rose from the dead. I would very much like to meet him. I have all sorts of questions about what it would be like to be dead for three days.” The essence of Craig's response? “Well, um, you, ahh… can’t. Yeah, that’s the ticket. See, he, ah, he went to heaven. Yeah, that’s it. He went to heaven and now no one can see him. You just have to take my word for it. Look, didn’t I present compelling evidence.” This explanation does not seem compelling.
4 & 5. It is either not plausible or it is ad hoc. Craig has spent a great deal of time and energy arguing for a physical resurrection. Therefore the ascension must be a physical ascension. If Jesus actually came out of the tomb, then he actually flew up into space. But if so, did he go to the moon? … to Mars? … to another galaxy? A modern view of the cosmos creates certain problems for belief in a physical ascension. Roy Hoover posits that,
the idea of the resurrection is… dependant on a certain view of the cosmos, namely that the cosmos has a three-level structure: the earth is the middle part; above the earth is heaven or the heavens, the space occupied by God and the angels; below the earth is Hades, the realm of death and the powers of evil. ("The Contest Between Orthodoxy and Veracity" in Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment?, 141)In the same volume, Steven Davis responds to the three-story-universe view by declaring that it is a metaphor, not a cosmology. (79) “The ascension of Jesus was primarily a change of state rather than a change of location, but it was visibly symbolized for the disciples by a change of location.” (80) But there is no indication in the text that Luke believed, or expected his readers to believe, that Jesus’ ascension was anything other than a literal ascension. Bringing modern science to bear on the story is a matter of eisegesis (reading into the text something that is not there) rather than exegesis (letting the text speak for itself). This view may be properly accused of being ad hoc and contrived.
6. It is not in accord with accepted beliefs. It is not our experience that anyone can ascend to heaven. If the ascension story was told about another historical figure, would Craig be inclined to accept it? I doubt it because, in McCullough’s language, such a story is not in accord with accepted beliefs.
7. It may or may not outstrip any of its rival theories in meeting conditions (2)-(6). Those who do not accept the ascension must explain the rise of the early church, which was based on their belief in the resurrection, which was in turn based on (a)finding Jesus' tomb empty, and (b)Jesus' resurrection appearances. But there are a lot of events in history (especially antiquity) for which we do not have good explanations. The resurrection/ascension hypothesis perhaps outstrips its rivals, but given the difficulties associated with the ascension, they all frankly seem like conjecture. There are some historical questions which we must answer by saying that we simply don't know.
It is my contention that the Ascension hypothesis fails tests (2); (3); either (4) or (5); and (6). In light of this, the case for the Resurrection is not as strong as Craig and others would like us to think. At best, we may say that, although the evidence is somewhat ambiguous, the Resurrection seems to be the best hypothesis. It is disturbing, to say the least, to build my faith on a relatively uncertain hypothesis for describing somewhat ambiguous evidence. If this is not fideism, I don't know what is.
I would accept the historical hypothesis in an overall cumulative case for Jesus' resurrection, but I do not know what other lines of reasoning to pursue. I assert that we are justified (we are within our epistemic rights) in either believing or disbelieving in the resurrection of Jesus. But this is the beginning of the road to religious relativism and normative pluralism, which seems absolutely contrary to Christian orthodoxy. Thus I can no longer feel totally comfortable with evangelical theology unless I can (a)find arguments that make the Ascension more plausible, or (b)buttress the case for the resurrection with different kinds of arguments than Craig and others present.