DID JESUS ASCEND?
THE story of the Ascension of Jesus Christ is as absurd as the story of his Resurrection. Both, in fact, are the products of an age prone to believe in the wonderful. So prevalent was the popular belief in the supernatural character of great men, that the comparatively cultivated Romans accepted a monstrous fable about Julius Caesar. "The enthusiasm of the multitude," says Mr. Froude, "refused to believe that he was dead. He was supposed to have ascended into heaven, not in adulatory metaphor, but in literal and prosaic fact."
Similarly the enthusiasm of the first followers of Jesus, and especially of hysterical ladies like Mary Magdalene, refused to believe that he was dead. The fable of his resurrection was gradually developed, and his ascension was devised to round off the story. Whoever will read St. Paul's epistles first, and the Gospels and the Acts afterwards, will see how the Christ myth grew from vagueness to precision under the shaping imagination of the Church of the first century after the age of the Apostles.
It is a significant fact that the appearances of Jesus after his Resurrection were all made to the faithful, and his ascension took place before them, without a single impartial person being allowed to witness an event of which it was of the utmost importance for the world to have positive assurance.
When we turn to the Gospels and the Acts, five documents whose authorship is absolutely unknown, we find the most contradictory accounts of what happened after the Resurrection. It may safely be affirmed that five such witnesses would damn any case in a legal court where the laws of evidence are respected.
These witnesses cannot even agree as to whether the risen Jesus was a man or a ghost. Now he comes through a closed door, and anon he eats broiled fish and honeycomb; now he vanishes, after walking and talking with his disciples, and anon he allows the sceptical Thomas to examine the wounds of his crucifixion as a proof that he was not a spirit, but solid flesh and blood.
According to Matthew's account, Jesus first appeared to the women -- as is very probable! Mark says his first appearance was to Mary Magdalene alone; Luke says it was two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
His subsequent appearances are recorded with the same harmony. While Matthew makes him appear but once, Mark makes him appear three times -- to the women, to the two disciples going to Emmaus, and to the eleven apostles. Luke makes him appear but twice, and John four times -- to Mary Magdalene alone, to the disciples in a room without Thomas, to the same again with Thomas, and to the same once more at Tiberias. John is the only one who tells the pretty story about Thomas, and John of course is the only one who mentions the spear-thrust in Christ's side at the crucifixion, because he wanted a hole for Thomas to put his hand into, and the other evangelists had no need of such a provision.
Matthew and Mark relate that the disciples were told by an angel to go to Galilee, while Luke keeps them in the Holy City, and Acts declares that Jesus expressly "commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem."
The ascension itself, which involved the last appearance of Jesus, as well as his disappearance, is not related by Matthew, nor is it related by John. Now Matthew and John are supposed to have been apostles. If the ascension happened they must have witnessed it; but both of them are silent, and the story of the ascension comes from three writers who were not present.
Nor do these three writers agree with each other. Luke informs us that Jesus ascended from Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem, on the very day of the Resurrection, or at the latest the next morning; while Mark, without any precision as to time, distinctly affirms that Jesus ascended from Galilee, which was at least sixty miles from Jerusalem. Now the ascension could not have occurred at two different places, and, in the absence of corroborative testimony, Mark and Luke destroy each other as witnesses.
The author of Acts agrees with Mark as to the place, but differs both from Mark and Luke as to the time. He declares that Jesus spent forty days (off and on) with his disciples before levitating. This constitutes another difficulty. Mark, Luke, and the author of Acts must all leave the court in disgrace, for it is too late for them to patch up a more harmonious story.
According to the detailed account in Acts, Jesus ascended in the presence of his apostles, including Matthew and John, who appear to have mistrusted their eyesight. After making a speech he was "taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight." He was in a cloud, and they were in a cloud, and the millions who believe them are in a cloud.
The time of the year is seasonable for an examination of the story of the Ascension. Would that the opportunity were taken by Christians, who believe what they have been taught with scarcely a moment's investigation, and read the Bible as lazily as they smoke their pipes. We do not ask them to take our word for anything. Let them examine for themselves. If they will do this, we have no fear as to the result. A belief in the New Testament story of the supernatural Christ is impossible to any man who candidly sifts and honestly weighs the evidence.
If Christians would pursue their investigations still further
they would soon satisfy themselves that the life, death,
resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ are largely, if not
entirely, mythical. Now, for instance, when they are preparing to
celebrate the ascension of Christ, they are welcoming the ascension
of the Sun. The great luminary is (apparently) rising higher and
higher in the heaven, shedding his warmer beams on the earth, and
gladdening the hearts of man. And there is more connection between
the Son and the Sun than ordinary Christians imagine.