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?
We don't know how literally the author took this "three-story" language. I am convinced that there were literalists and non-literalists in early Christianity as well as now. The author of Luke-Acts was very sophisticated, and my hunch is that he or she intended some stories to be understood non-literally.
What we do know, of course, is that heaven is not literally "up." Therefore, we legitimately cannot imagine Jesus literally moving upward into the sky on his way to heaven. Something else must be meant.
And so I turn to the rich metaphorical or symbolic meanings of the story of Jesus' ascension. For Christians in the past and now, it meant and means that Jesus is now with God, indeed "at God's right hand" and "one with God." These affirmations have two primary dimensions of meaning. Like the traditions of ancient Israel and Judaism, they are religious and political, spiritual and social.
First, Ascension Day proclaims the lordship of Christ. To say that the risen and ascended Jesus is "at God's right hand," a position of honor and authority, means "Jesus is Lord." In the first century, when kings and emperors claimed to be lords, this claim had not only religious but also political meaning. To say "Jesus is Lord" meant, and means, that the Herods and Caesars of this world were not, and are not.
Second, because the risen and ascended Jesus is "one with God," he (like God) can be experienced anywhere. Jesus is no longer restricted or confined to time and space, as he was during his historical lifetime. Rather, like the God whom he knew in his own experience, he continues to be known in the experience of his followers.
To use language from Matthew's Gospel, for Christians the risen and ascended Christ is Immanuel--"God with us."