Why Apologists Should Talk About the Ascension | Response to Matthew Hartke

Matthew Hartke’s video Why Apologists Don’t Talk About the Ascension has really taken off, lame pun intended. For his very first video, he’s already amassed nearly 60,000 views and counting. That’s impressive. Hartke asks the question “why don’t the big-league resurrection apologists like William Lane Craig, Mike Licona and Gary Habermas talk about the ascension?” And I think this is a good question. Let’s listen to Hartke:

Clip 1:  I’ve combed through several books and listened to dozens of talks by Gary Habermas on his minimal facts argument for the resurrection. And maybe I’ve just missed it, but I have yet to see or hear him talk about the ascension. Mike Licona has written one of the most comprehensive investigations of all the relevant evidence in his 700 page book the resurrection of Jesus and yet the ascension doesn’t even appear in the index. William Lane Craig in his 1989 book Assessing the Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection has a detailed discussion of all the other appearances of the risen Jesus. And yet this is what he says about the ascension: quote “Luke does refer to the ascension of Jesus in his gospel and this might be called a resurrection appearance. But an investigation of the ascension is a study all of its own and would not substantially affect the results of our discussion. therefore we will not cross the line to include it in this study.” That’s a really strange omission!

I have a pretty good idea why these apologists don’t talk about the ascension. Their methodology doesn’t have room for it. Licona and Habermas use a minimal set of facts — only those granted by the vast majority of scholars across the spectrum, including skeptical ones. You’re obviously not going to find many skeptical or liberal scholars publishing papers on the historicity of the ascension. In his big book on the resurrection, Licona says that we can’t “assign a verdict with much confidence” regarding the appearance to the Emmaus disciples, so it’s not a shocker he doesn’t mention the ascension.  

Craig doesn’t use minimal facts but a core facts approach that can be defended with the same criteria that third quest for the historical Jesus scholars use. Because the story of the ascension found in Luke doesn’t fit in the criteria of multiple attestation, embarrassment, and so forth, he doesn’t use it. 

There’s also the fact that all of these scholars put a lot more emphasis on Paul’s experience as proof for the resurrection than on the resurrection appearances in the Gospels. We’ll talk about that in a moment. Let’s look at Hartke’s first reason why he thinks apologists shy away from the ascension. 

Is the ascension not well-attested?

Clip 2. Hartke: I think apologists don’t talk about the ascension because as central and important as it is to the gospel theologically, from the perspective of the modern historian and from the perspective of modern cosmology, it’s just really really embarrassing. And it’s embarrassing for a few reasons. Looking at the ascension historically, it just doesn’t hold up very well. For one thing, it doesn’t carry the crucial indices of early or multiple attestation. While there seems to be a clear belief throughout the NT that Jesus ascended to heaven in fulfillment of Psalm 110, Luke is actually the only gospel writer in the New Testament at all who gives us an actual account of this event. And that account was written at least half a century after the fact. This suggests just by itself that Luke might be historicizing or putting into narrative form something the earliest Christians believe for…well…much less historical reasons. 

So why is Luke the only gospel writer who mentions this event? Well, I don’t think we can derive from the silence of Mark, Matthew and John that Luke is making up a story. This is merely an argument from silence, and those are notoriously unreliable. Marco Polo never mentioned the Great Wall of China or tea. General U.S. Grant never mentions the Emancipation Proclamation. Josephus never mentions Emperor Claudius expelling the Jews from Rome. We only learn about it in Acts and Seutonius. It’s always a risky business to speculate upon the motives of authors for including or leaving out certain facts.

Also, Luke is a ridiculously thorough historian in dozens of matters, so I think he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. For example, historian Colin Hemer outlines 84 very subtle, difficult details that Luke gets right. Most of which can’t be derived from Josephus. These are found in Acts 13 to the end of the book. These facts lend support to the idea that he was an eyewitness and interviewed eyewitnesses that knew what they were talking about. Luke’s presence in Jerusalem in Acts 21 and his demonstrated interaction with the Jerusalem apostles show that Luke was in a position to interview them regarding the nature of their encounters with the risen Jesus. Given these facts, why would he suddenly slip in a myth about Jesus’s ascension? Hartke has a few ideas why. Here’s Matthew again. 

Is the ascension a bit too convenient?

Clip 3: Hartke: It’s also embarrassing to historians ironically because it doesn’t pass the criteria of embarrassment. It just looks suspiciously convenient, a lot like the Mormon story about Joseph Smith returning the golden plates to the angel Moroni after translating the Book of Mormon. Luke’s narrative of the ascension looks a lot like an ad hoc explanation for why the appearances of the risen Jesus ceased with the apostles. It’s easy to see how a story like that could have helped reduce the dissonance caused by Jesus’s continued absence after the initial flurry of excitement following Easter. 

So is the ascension simply a convenient yet clumsy, ad hoc explanation for why the apostles’ appearances of the risen Jesus ended? I don’t think so at all. The ascension is merely what happened between the appearances to the apostles and his appearance to Paul. And I think it explains a lot. As I said in an earlier video, apologists make a huge mistake when they make too strong of an analogy between Jesus’ appearance to Paul on the Road to Damascus and the apostles’ appearances.  In short, when they do this, they water down the appearances. Paul never claimed to have touched Jesus, or to have eaten fish with him, or converse with him over a period of 40 days as the apostles did. Why not? Because Jesus had already ascended. And Paul knew it.

Jesus wasn’t making himself “available” in that same way to Paul. Paul even seems to distinguish his appearance from the apostles’. (1 Cor 15:8) Every time Jesus appears to anyone in the early church after the ascension, it’s always through a vision. We see that with Stephen before he’s stoned to death. I think these appearances were veridical, but they’re not as evidentially strong as the appearances we see in the Gospels. Because of its brief, inter-subjective nature, Hartke will actually use Paul’s experience to argue against the resurrection. 

If the apostles were having a mix of grief hallucinations, religious experiences, or some other pyschological phenomena, why were they suddenly so certain that Jesus wouldn’t suddenly show up again and seem to have a meal with them? The apostles simply are not still trying to figure out 40 days later what has happened and whether they’re going to see Jesus again in the same way. The ascension explains why. To say that they were having a mix of grief hallucinations, group religious experiences, pareidolia, cognitive dissonance and so forth does not. Furthermore, the switch from a physical kind of experience to a visionary experience isn’t explained by Hartke at all. Why shouldn’t they have reported the same type of experience all along if this was just some kind of natural phenomenon?

If pressed, my guess is Hartke would punt to an alternative version of church history not found in Acts. In this version, perhaps he’d say that the apostles’ experiences were more uncertain, the experiences did taper off more slowly, and then Luke entirely fabricates the confidence of what they were experiencing, even though it is part of a subtle point that Luke is making. But this would attribute to Luke an anachronistic anticipation of a very specific kind of later skeptical objection.

Is the ascension unscientific?

But Hartke has one more reason why the ascension is something apologists would rather avoid. And that’s because it’s awkwardly unscientific. Here’s Hartke again:

Clip 4: Hartke: But probably the most embarrassing aspect of the ascension is how obviously mythological it is. Because when we read Luke’s narrative without any harmonistic or concordist agenda, it seems like it uncritically reflects the three-tiered universe of ancient near eastern cosmology. That is the view that heaven is literally above our heads and the underworld is literally below our feet. This was the accepted view of the cosmos throughout the ancient near east. And it’s the view of the Old Testament  traditions that Luke is drawing on, such as the ascension of Elijah in 2 Kings 2. When Jesus goes to heaven in Acts 1, Luke doesn’t picture him just disappearing into another dimension like Narnia. No matter how much NT Wright or William Lane Craig wish he had rather we see him ascending up into the clouds. Because for Luke, heaven is literally up there above the circle of the earth.

OK, so question: Is there a better way that Jesus could convey the message that an appearance was His last and to not expect any more like the earlier ones? As Christians, we can’t let skeptical scoffing of ancient views throw us. This is a form of chronological snobbery. Would it have been better for Jesus to disappear by moving east? Shrink down like Ant-Man and then disappear into the Quantum Realm? Explode into the rising sun? Perhaps merely vanish? If Jesus did disappear, it wouldn’t be distinct from the disappearance at Emmaus. 

Jesus’ leaving by ascending makes obvious his return to the Father, which is in line with his reference to “ascending and descending,” (John 1:51) and being “the bread that has come down from heaven” mentioned in John. (John 6:51) And when Jesus returns physically, he has to come from somewhere, and nearly anywhere will have some kind of symbolism! 

Plus, I am sure the correspondence between Jesus’ own teachings and those of the ancient Jews was on purpose. Jesus also looked up to pray, and referred to God as “our Father in heaven.” And the Father spoke to him in a voice from above at his baptism. For us goofy meatbags to have any concept of a transcendent God, he must always be viewed in some sort of spatial context. I just don’t find this all that embarrassing.

Apologists shouldn’t shy away from the ascension

Clip 5. Hartke: Christians who want to hold on to the early church’s belief that God literally raised Jesus from the dead can’t discard the ascension without calling the resurrection itself into question. In the traditional christian story the death, resurrection, ascension, and the second coming of Jesus all fit together in a very clear sequence, each one implying the others. And so you can’t take one of them out of the sequence without calling the rest of the sequence into question. And this I think is why apologists prefer to simply not talk about it. They’re just doing what we all tend to do, counting the hits and ignoring the misses. And by all accounts the ascension is a pretty big miss.

I think Matthew’s right in some respects. Apologists shouldn’t shy away from the ascension. They all do fit together cohesively in a clear sequence. One event not being historical does call the rest into question. But if you take a more maximal approach like I do, you’re not afraid to talk about it at all! Bring it on! Let’s talk about the reliability of Luke-Acts, or the other Gospels. This is yet another reason why I’m not a fan of the minimal facts approach. Because I’m ready to say up front that the Gospels are what the apostles reported and argue for it, I just don’t think this has to be the miss that Hartke thinks it is. But the minimalist approach can’t support it, and so it has to shy away from it. 

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