The Ascension of our Master Yeshua is one of the strangest things we believe. People of faith have a lot of strange beliefs including the existence of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, miracles in general, the second coming, the kingdom, and the World to Come.
But the Ascension, it seems to me, for whatever reason, is near the top of the list of things that are hard to get the mind around. Rational and even cynical objections to the story spring to mind. Despite those objections, the Ascension is an essential part of our faith in Yeshua of Nazareth.
The anniversary of our Master’s Ascension on the fortieth day of the Omer falls on Thursday, May 30 this year (2019). What is it that makes the Ascension so difficult for the modern mind? I think it’s the astronaut view, which imagines Yeshua ascending like an astronaut rocketing into space and arriving at a physical location, such as orbit around the earth or the moon. In his case, the physical location we try to imagine is called “the right hand of HaShem.” Picturing Yeshua physically seated at the right hand of God, floating out there somewhere in heaven, feels like a primitive idea. It would be easier for us to believe that, when Yeshua left his disciples forty days after the resurrection, he underwent some type of spiritual transformation, fading into an ethereal and insubstantial form rather than literally ascending from earth into the sky as a physical body. That’s the temptation. The mind wants to spiritualize the event and remove the corporeality from it.
In his book, Miracles, C. S. Lewis objects to any spiritualization of the ascension of the ascended Messiah. He insists that we see Yeshua, even after the Ascension, as a physical being and not merely a spiritual entity:
We can [spiritualize the Ascension] only if we regard the Resurrection appearances as those of a ghost or hallucination. For a phantom can just fade away; but an objective entity must go somewhere-something must happen to it. And if the Risen Body were not objective, then all of us (Christian or not) must invent some explanation for the disappearance of the corpse. And all Christians must explain why God sent or permitted a “vision” or a “ghost,” whose behaviour seems almost exclusively directed to convincing the disciples that it was not a vision or a ghost but a really corporeal being. If it were a vision then it was the most systematically deceptive and lying on record. But if it were real, then something happened to it after it ceased to appear. You cannot take away the Ascension without putting something else in its place. (Miracles)
We tend to get hung up trying to picture heaven, or the right hand of HaShem, as a physical place in the sense that we know and understand physicality, but that’s a mistake. The physicality of Yeshua’s resurrection is a real one, but it transcends the corporeality and materialism with which we are familiar.
First-century writers were not as simpleminded as the modern person might imagine. Jewish writers especially understood that, when speaking of spiritual worlds, they could speak only in the language of metaphor and simile to describe something that existed outside of our three dimensions of length, height, and width, and outside of our concept of linear time. One should be careful not to trip over the anthropomorphisms or stumble over the metaphors, but we also need to resist the urge to dismiss the state of the resurrected as mere symbolism for spiritual abstractions.
Lewis goes on to point out that physical laws that transcend our own limited experience with the fabric of reality are not less real for it, and neither is the resurrection and ascension of Yeshua less substantial just because the substance of it has undergone a transformation. Instead, this transformation is a first step toward a new creation that is yet to come—the new nature of the World to Come:
The records represent Christ as passing after death (as no man had ever passed before) neither into a purely, that is negatively, “spiritual” mode of existence nor into a “natural” life such as we now know, but into a life which has its own new Nature. It represents Him as withdrawing six weeks later, into some different mode of existence. It says—He says—that He goes “to prepare a place for us.” This presumably means that He is about to create that whole new Nature which will provide the environment or conditions for His glorified humanity and, in Him, for ours. The picture is not what we expected-though whether it is less or more probable and philosophical on that account is another question. It is not the picture of an escape from any and every kind of Nature into some unconditioned and utterly transcendent life. It is the picture of a new human nature, and a new Nature in general, being brought into existence. (Miracles)
From that perspective, we should understand the Ascension as much more than simply a change in elevation and altitude. Rather, it represents a passage from one type of natural world to another one, a precursor of the World to Come. From that hidden future reality, the voice of the One who sits on the throne says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).