The Ascension of Jesus

The Luke-Acts narrative isn't a 'beam me up' story. Rather, it conveys Jesus' lordship and freedom from space-time limitations

Forty days after Easter, Christians commemorate Jesus' ascension into heaven. Ascension Day is more important in some Christian traditions, and in some countries, than in others. In Germany, for example (where it is called

Christi Himmelfahrt

--"Christ's journey into heaven"), it is an official school holiday. In North American culture, despite the much larger percentage of practicing Christians, the day passes relatively unnoticed, especially among many Protestants.

Yet the ascension of Jesus is a central element in the Christian tradition. It is included in the two classic Christian creeds. Both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed affirm that Jesus "ascended into heaven."

In the New Testament, the story of Jesus' ascension is found in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, both written by the same author. The classic text is Acts 1:9-11. After the risen Christ had spoken his final words to his followers, we are told:

"As they were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight." The text then refers to them "gazing up toward heaven while he was going."


What is this story about? Its meanings are rich and important, even as it is one of the stories in the New Testament that most obviously requires a non-literal reading. For reasons I will now cite, it is manifestly a symbolic or metaphorical narrative.

The specific claim that the risen Jesus appeared for "40 days" after the resurrection (the basis for the traditional dating of the ascension) is found only in the first chapter of Acts (1:3). This is the first clue to the nature of the narrative: The number 40 often has a non-literal meaning in the Bible. It is a number that means a relatively long period of time, just as "three" is a number signifying a relatively short period of time.

A second clue that the author of Luke-Acts does not intend this number literally is also suggested by a curious feature of this two-volume work. Namely, the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke ends with a story of Jesus ascending into heaven (Luke 24:50-51). If we follow the chronology of that chapter carefully, the ascension apparently happened on the night following Easter day. What is going on here? Is the author unaware of the contradiction of "40 days"? Or is this an indicator that the author does not intend this story to be understood literally?

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