He [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. (Luke 24:50-51)
I have often found this a most fascinating picture: the disciples are all gathered around, listening and watching while Jesus, with his arms raised to bless them, is lifted off the earth and rises into the clouds. The problem with this picture is obvious to anyone who is willing to ask the simple question: "where did Jesus go when he flew off into the sky?"
Let’s be skeptical for a few minutes and think about what St. Luke’s Gospel so vividly describes. Where was Jesus going when he was lifted off the surface of the Earth and sailed off into space? Is heaven really somewhere above the Earth? Perhaps heaven is somewhere up in Earth orbit? Is it on the Moon? Is it on Mars? How about on one of the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune? How about Pluto, or its tiny moon, Charon? Where is heaven if Jesus had to go "up" to get there? And, of course, if heaven is physically someplace within our solar system, then why, in all our interplanetary travels, have we not found it? We have sent probes to land on or fly by every planet in our solar system with the lone exception of Pluto, and on none of these have we even found life, not to mention anything about he Pearly Gates and the Kingdom of Heaven. So, if Jesus had to go "up" to get to heaven, then where up "there" is it? Do these questions seem absurd to you? Good.
The questions we should be asking ourselves have very little to do with these. Any person who has taken a moment or two to think, seriously, about the ascension of Jesus Christ must eventually come to the conclusion that what we are reading in St. Lukes gospel is not a literal account of the event.
Now, please dont get angry and stop reading. I have not, in any way, suggested that the ascension of Jesus did not occur. Quite the contrary, I am suggesting that any faithful reflection upon the event should produce more than just a simplistic understanding.
You see, I believe that heaven is not "up." Heaven cannot be found, in the physical sense, somewhere within our solar system, nor within our galaxy, nor anywhere in the known universe. Rather, heaven is much closer -- and much more real -- than any place we might care to imagine. Heaven is here. Heaven is eternally present, and we are blessed, as part of the Body of Christ, to be a part of heaven today.
Now, I have not said that heaven is not someplace. Quite the contrary; I have said that heaven is at least every place. Christ’s ascension should not be misunderstood -- he left his disciples, true, but he did not leave them alone. Ultimately, we all know that Christ is still with us in the world through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, when Christ ascended we might say that he went from being here as one of us, limited by a physical body, to being here through the Spirit, unlimited by human reality. He ascended into heaven as we all will ascend in our death--he transcended the boundaries of creation to enter the limitless realm of true reality, which we call heaven. Of this, we can be absolutely certain.
A final test. Try pointing to heaven. Pointing up does not help because, in all likelihood, youll either end up pointing at the Sun, the Moon, a few thousand stars, or an over-passing airplane. Trying pointing inward, toward your heart and the indwelling presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, and youll be far more correct.