In 1st Century Palestine (and throughout the Western World), the Earth was believed to be flat. Heaven, where God lived, was above the clouds and hell below ground. So when two of the gospels, ‘Mark’ and ‘Luke’, said that the risen Master was carried up to heaven and placed at the right hand of God, this accorded with the worldview of their readers, as did Acts when the author (the same man who wrote the Gospel of Luke) wrote that the disciples watched as Yeshua was ‘lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.’ Interestingly, the other two gospels have nothing to say on the subject.
Now we know there’s nothing unusual about New Testament books contradicting each other, but here something even more remarkable happens: the same author, the man who wrote both ‘Luke’ and Acts, contradicts himself. In ‘Luke’s’ Gospel he says the Ascension happened soon after the post-resurrection appearances, probably the same day; in Acts he says the Christ figure appeared for forty days before a cloud took him away.
Of course, very few people – apart from a handful of nutters willing to disregard 500 years of scientific knowledge – still believe in a three-storey world with hell below and a heaven above. The prospect of a man being physically lifted up into the sky on a cloud is ludicrous now we know the Earth is a globe and there’s only space above the clouds; but, if you are to take Christianity literally and the Bible as factual truth, you are required to believe that this actually happened!
The early Christians believed that their prophet, Yeshua bar Yehosef, would soon return to Earth to establish the Kingdom of God and save those who believed in him from eternal annihilation. Many modern day Christians still believe this and it is regularly expounded from church pulpits on Sundays. Most do not specify a timescale. The Gospel writers clearly thought it would happen in their own time since Yeshua has promised it within a generation.
Most do not feel the need to explain why it has not yet happened, nor do they explain how he will return. If he really is ‘up there’ somewhere, can we expect him to float down on another cloud or strap on a parachute, or what? If so it would be worth seeing!
Two Gospels end with Yeshua’s ascension; ‘Acts of the Apostles’ begins with the events of Pentecost.
At Pentecost, Acts says the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem when a sound came from heaven, tongues of fire rested on each of them and they were filled with the ‘Holy Spirit’. They began to speak in other languages and onlookers thought they were drunk. Cephas (Peter) then delivered a speech aimed only at Jews announcing Yeshua as the Messiah and urging them to repent and be baptised.
Thus began a chapter in the life of the early church in which the disciples (now called ‘apostles’) travelled widely spreading their message, not always to receptive audiences. Resistance among Jews who did not believe in Yeshua as the Messiah grew. There were many reports of riots among sceptical Romans and Jews. Some apostles died horrible deaths; some were executed. But somehow the religion spread, and much of the credit is due to the tent maker, mystic, man of letters, former Pharisee and religious fanatic, Paul of Tarsus.
Whether you believe the Ascension and Pentecost stories are literally true is, of course, a matter for you. But looked at through 21st Century eyes, there are plenty of reasons to doubt!
©David Lawrence Preston, 3.5.2017
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Balboa Press, 2015
 Mark 16:19 (in the coda); Luke 24:51
 Acts 1:9