For forty days after his death, Jesus appeared to them many times in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive. … After saying this, he was taken up to heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Acts 1, vv 3 and 9
The discovery of his empty tomb about twelve hours after the end of the Sabbath had caused the frightened disciples of the crucified Jesus to begin to wonder whether he was somehow not dead. Then, according to the gospel, they experienced the not-dead Jesus in their midst as they lay low behind locked doors. Looked at from the point of view of an uninvolved observer, the sense of having met the not-dead Jesus in these circumstances unavoidably gave rise to some puzzlement. One explanation might be that the disciples had seen a ghost, a visible but non-material presence that could appear in a room that was secured against intruders. If you believed in ghosts, you might think that would be entirely possible. But seeing someone’s ghost would in no way imply that they were not dead; the usual assumption about a ghost was exactly that it appeared after the death of a dead person. No-one would claim to have seen the ghost of someone who was alive but somewhere else. The appearance of a ghost could therefore not explain the empty tomb, and it certainly would not imply that the dead person was no longer dead. If what the disciples had seen was the ghost of Jesus, they would now have two mysteries to think about: not only the one about what had happened to Jesus’s body, but also one about what the appearance of his ghost might mean.
One way to resolve the matter, our observer might imagine, would be for the disciples to think that what they had seen was not a ghost but the real, solid, flesh-and-blood body of Jesus which had disappeared from the empty tomb and was not, or was no longer, dead. This would clear up the mystery of the empty tomb and explain the powerfully-felt experience of the presence of Jesus. But it obviously created two further mysteries: how did this solid body manage to appear in a locked room, and the much bigger mystery of how Jesus came to be alive when he was known to have been publicly killed by experienced executioners. Paradoxically, it was the bigger of these mysteries that proved easier to rationalise: the tomb had been empty for the simple reason that Jesus had risen from the dead; what the disciples had seen was not a ghost but the risen flesh-and-blood Jesus.
But that rationalisation would bring its own difficulties. If Jesus had risen from the dead and could now carry on as before, what would he do? Would he resume teaching in public? If he did, would the authorities try to kill him all over again? Or would he grow older and die a natural death in the usual way? Indeed, could he die for a second time? The first two of these questions were not an issue: no-one claimed that the risen Jesus appeared to anyone except those devoted to him, either as a teacher or as a wanted man; the only people said to have seen him had been devoted to him before his crucifixion. And the need to dispose of the risen body was neatly taken care of by claiming that, just as in the Old Testament the prophet Elijah had been taken up into a heaven above the clouds, so Jesus’s body was taken from his disciples into heaven, not noticeably older than he had been when he was killed, and without having to die again. Thought of in this way, the Ascension resolves the difficulties created by believing in the Resurrection; they are an inseparable pair, neither being believable independently of the other.
And believable they certainly are: millions of people have believed and do believe in them, and many thousands have literally gone to the stake because they believed in them. The power and importance of this belief over nearly two thousand years is not to be underestimated. But there’s often a circular argument here. Because the belief has underlain successful institutions, their success can be understood as demonstrating the truth of the belief; surely, it has been suggested, the church could only have been as successful as it has been because its belief in the Resurrection and its twin the Ascension is well-founded. But I’m not sure that everyone who thinks that would also think, for example, that the success of Islam confirms the truth of the belief that Muhammad was taken up from Jerusalem for a visit to heaven, or that the success of Mormonism in the United States confirms the truth of the belief that Joseph Smith discovered the Book of Moroni in the 1820s.
The truth, I think, is that the reason all these beliefs are powerful in the lives of many people is that they speak to very deep human understandings and express them in what, speaking very strictly, are myths. Whatever the truth about what happened to Jesus’s body, or about the details of Muhammad’s visit to Jerusalem, or about how Joseph Smith came to produce the Book of Moroni, the fact is that we do sense that what is best of us is not subject to death, that the powers and abilities available to us are not wholly within our understanding or control, and that what we call inspiration will never run out while humankind lives. I hope that we shall not be so foolish as to suppose that coming to think that a myth – any myth – is not literally true is a reason to stop believing that what it reminds us of and helps each new generation take seriously is something we can comfortably forget about, ignore or do without. And if some particular myths are not to your taste, be grounded enough to know that you need to find other ways of pointing to and passing on the great spiritual truths that underlie and enhance human experience. And that, I guess, is why I am not greatly interested in what really happened to the disciples of Jesus as they sat, demoralised and frightened, in that locked room in Jerusalem wondering what to do now that Jesus had been killed. I don’t believe they saw the flesh-and-blood body of a resurrected Jesus; I’m inclined to think their danger, their despair and their desperation acted on their discovery of the empty tomb to produce the conviction that Jesus was alive again. But I don’t think that should be what ultimately matters to us.