Wednesday, July 01, 2020

The ascension and the "objective vision" theory of the resurrection

The ascension and the "objective vision" theory of the resurrection

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

I am presently working on research for an article on history and theism for a projected Routledge Companion to Theism. A cause of slight psychological strain in doing the research is a ban on content notes--footnotes or endnotes--in the finished product. I'm not as dependent as some scholars on large numbers of content notes, but I usually have a few. (I just wrote to the editor today asking, in so many words, "Is the prohibition on content notes set in stone?" But it's hard to send the image of big, sad, appealing eyes over e-mail, and in any event, scholars are notably unamenable to the pure emotional appeal. So I kept it businesslike.)

One side issue that I would probably discuss briefly in a content note, if content notes were allowed, is the issue of the ascension as it relates to what has come to be known as the objective vision theory of the resurrection of Jesus. I'm a couple of months liturgically early in discussing the ascension, but hopefully my readers won't mind too much.

The objective vision theory, associated with the Jesuit scholar Gerald O'Collins (and I gather held by many others) is the theory that Jesus wasn't literally, physically present with his disciples after his resurrection. Therefore, a camera couldn't have taken a picture of him; he couldn't be seen by normal, physical processes. He couldn't, in fact, be seen by anybody at all without special help from God, which has come to be known as "graced seeing" or "grace-assisted seeing."

O'Collins discusses this idea as if it were simply obvious in his seminal 1967 article "Is the Resurrection an 'Historical' Event?" One thing he keeps saying over and over again in that article is that when Jesus rose from the dead he passed out of the realm of space and time and into the "other" world of God.

What I kept thinking as I read the article was, "Wasn't that the ascension?" After all, passing out of this space-time continuum and into the other world of God sounds an awful lot like what we ordinary folk call "going to heaven." And anybody who has been taught the Christian story knows that Jesus didn't go to heaven immediately when he rose from the dead. He stayed around for forty days showing himself to his disciples by many infallible proofs (says Luke) and then ascended into heaven. The ascension is even, you know, in the Apostles' Creed. It's supposed to be important. But the objective vision theory, based on the premise that Jesus left the space-time continuum at the moment of his resurrection, and even as part of the essence of his resurrection, makes the ascension extremely hard to fit in. The ascension becomes, in fact, an embarrassment, because it duplicates something that supposedly happened at the resurrection.

I vote we keep the resurrection and the ascension both. As did the early Church, of course. But to do that, we're going to have to admit that Jesus walked around on the earth in a visible, tangible, physical body after his resurrection. And a good thing, too.

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