Unpacking more of Randal Rauser's book on Heaven: the ascension of Christ

I basically take Randal's deleting binge as a sign that the dude's not worth engaging on his own blog. If he's just going to censor all discussion when it doesn't go well for him, there's not much point in challenging him directly. Nonetheless, I paid a whole $9 for his book, which could have scored me a Royale With Cheese – one of my favorite burgers here in Tulsa courtesy of upscale-casual dining at R Bar on Brookside – and since I made such a tremendous and deeply personal sacrifice to read the book, I'm not quite done talking about it yet.

Today I was thinking about the first chapter in the book, which asks "Where is Heaven Now?" To us non-believers, this is a pretty easy one: "In your head." But for a believer like Randal, it's a bit more complex:
We can begin with the most important New Testament texts that refer to the ascension, which are found at the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts. Scholars generally consider Luke and Acts to together compose a unified work. This is significant because it means that Luke placed the ascension at the very heart of his great work.
[ 8] When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. (Luke 24: 50– 51)
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. (Acts 1: 9)
The doctrine of the ascension made sense in the first-century picture of the world in which heaven was understood to be located in or above the sky. But now that we know heaven is not in the sky, where is it?
To Randal's credit, this is the type of question Christians ought to be asking. Since we know that Heaven isn't up in the sky, why on earth would Jesus float into the clouds and disappear? At the same time though, the fact that this is even the kind of question that theologians spend time mulling over truly brings the absurdity of religion to the fore.

Occam's Razor isn't any sort of 'proof', but it's a principle of parsimony. It's often phrased as "the simplest explanation is usually the correct one," but I prefer the more accurate phrasing, "do not multiply assumptions beyond necessity". So when we're looking  at the ascension of Christ – since we're not dealing with claims that can be conclusively proved or disproved – I think a little parsimony goes a long way in establishing a plausible explanation.

I would say that the reason Jesus ascends into the sky in the gospel narrative is because it's a myth, and because the people who conjured it up really believed that Heaven was up in the sky. I think that's a pretty good explanation. Religious myths span the entirety of human history, and there's nothing particularly special about the Christian one. Modern astronomy and cosmology were still a long ways off, and for lots of cultures (including Jews and Greeks) the gods lived 'up there'. So we have an explanation which requires no extraordinary assumptions – just accepting some reasonably well-established historical facts.

Jesus and clouds may not be to scale
But since Randal, like most Christians, is committed to the idea that the gospel narratives are historical documents, he has to find a more... elaborate explanation.

First I just want to point out how silly Acts 1:9 is. Unless it was a magic cloud that was really low, even on a low-overcast day Jesus would have to be really high up before he'd be hidden by clouds. He'd just be a little dot. And frankly, the fact that it says "a cloud", in the singular form, suggests we're talking about a partly cloudy day, possibly with some pretty God rays, which suggests Jesus would have to be really, really high up to be hidden by a cloud. There's really no reason he couldn't ascend on a clear day, since at high enough altitudes no one would be able to see him anyway. But the way the ascension is described in Acts just sounds more majestic despite its dubious plausibility, which of course is an important feature of historical documentaries and definitely not of cultural myths.

Anyway, Randal explains the conundrum:
“God’s right hand” is a metaphor. But that doesn’t mean that spiritual heaven has no space at all. Indeed, it must have space by definition since Jesus is there. Remember that Jesus’s body has spatial extension (that is, it takes up space), and so it follows that heaven must take up space. As Wayne Grudem puts it, “The fact that Jesus had a resurrection body that was subject to spatial limitations (it could be at only one place at one time) means that Jesus went somewhere when he ascended into heaven.”[ 9] So we’re back to the question: If spiritual heaven must take up space, then where is that space?
In my previous write-up, I mentioned that for the Christian who believes in an omnipotent deity, this should be easy to resolve: it's magic. Elsewhere in the book Randal implies that our earthly concept of time could be tossed out the window in Heaven, so why should he care about holding on to our earthly idea of space? Why couldn't God put a physical thing in a non-physical space? That seems like the sort of thing an omnipotent disembodied transcendent mind should have no trouble pulling off, since he's the one who (presumably) wrote the rules of physics in the first place.

But let's roll with Randal's dilemma. Here's his explanation:
If the Another Universe model is correct, then how did Jesus get to heaven? While it is beyond our purview to speak definitively on this matter, we can consider at least one rather exotic proposal: perhaps as he was rising into the Judean sky, Jesus entered a wormhole that transported him to this other universe we call heaven.
With this model in mind, we can envision two distinct universes like two separate pieces of paper that touch at a point. The point where they touch would be the wormhole through which Jesus passed from earth to heaven.
At this point, it behooves me to mention that this book is totally serious and not in any way an atheist parody of Christianity, although the two are starting to look almost indistinguishable. It bears emphasizing that wormholes are strictly conjectural, and that even if they exist and could be used to travel about, you could only use them to traverse space-time within our universe, not to travel to other universes. So Randal's not even really getting the physics right. He goes on to speculate about another possible explanation, in which Heaven is "a reality that overlaps the same space as the physical universe while existing at a higher dimension within it."
In order to unpack the implications of the Spiritual Dimension model, we can turn back to the realm of quantum physics from whence the concept of a wormhole is derived. Here we find another controversial and provocative scientific notion: hyperspace or extra-dimensionality. This concept arises within string theory, which posits several spatial dimensions in addition to width, length, and height.[ 14]
This is why theologians should not do physics. First of all, wormholes are derived from General Relativity, not quantum mechanics or string theory. Secondly, while it's true that string theory posits the idea that there are 10 spatial dimensions (plus the dimension of time, for 11 total), the extra dimensions are presumably so tiny that we'd need a particle accelerator roughly the circumference of the solar system to be able to detect them. So Jesus shrunk into these tiny, curled-up spatial dimensions? That's really Randal's hypothesis? Yes:
If this is a viable hypothesis, then it provides a fascinating possibility for the ascension.
I'm not sure if Randal understands what a "viable hypothesis" actually is, because that would suggest that the existence of Heaven – and by extension, God – could be tested scientifically. Is he really prepared to take his theology that far?

Randal also addresses the perfectly obvious question of why Jesus floated into the sky at all, if he's just zipping through a wormhole or something:
In this case, God wanted to communicate to the followers of Jesus that he was travelling [sic] to heaven. Since the early Christians accepted the three-storied universe, Jesus accommodated to their understanding by ascending into the sky. Then when he reached a certain point in altitude, he entered the wormhole that allowed him to pass through to heaven.
I swear I am not making this up. This is really in the book.

So, let's compare these two hypotheses:
  1. Jesus is described as ascending into the sky because it's a myth fabricated by relatively primitive people who literally believed Heaven was in the sky, and who had no concept of hyperspace or other universes. 
  2. Jesus only ascended because it looked majestic, and then he went into a wormhole or somehow entered into the curled-up Planck-scale hyperspace described by String Theory. 
I'm gonna go out on a limb and say mine at least wins on parsimony, by a country mile.

But on a larger note, Randal's musings are indicative of the kind of thinking that led me to deconvert. The simpler explanation is obvious and intuitive, but it's not desirable when you're committed to a certain dogma. So you sit around thinking up these elaborate rationalizations and telling yourself, "Hey, I guess that could have happened". And if anyone says you're an idiot because you're totally butchering science and logic, you can always just tell them that they can't disprove your bizarre conjectures. Checkmate, skeptics! Personally, I just got tired of devoting so much mental energy to rationalizing these ridiculous beliefs when the less desirable explanation was so much more plausible.  Randal's a professional theologian though, so to some degree he's getting paid to sit around and contemplate this stuff. Me, I was busy studying music and exercise science, and I figured that if Christianity were actually true, God should have done a better job explaining himself.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 1: The Bible is stupid

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 2: The Bible isn't true

There is no such thing as sophisticated theology