One wonders if Bishop Spong has ever even heard of it; he seems to
know nothing about it. This author believes he finds his 'three tiers' in Biblical passages such as Acts 1:9:
- "Luke, writing in the Acts of the Apostles (1:1ff.), give us the only account of the event called
the ascension. It is not an easy narrative to comprehend. The literal details of the ascension are nonsensical to modern ears: Jesus
rising off the ground and disappearing into the sky like a space rocket in slow motion. This account assumed that we lived in a universe
of three tiers in which heaven was the upper tier. No space-age man or woman can possibly believe this. Literally it did not happen! It
could not happen! If a literal cosmic ascension is an important part of the Christian story, then the whole Christian enterprise is called
into serious question, for such an anti-intellectual religion will not long survive in this technical, scientific age."
- (This Hebrew Lord, John Shelby Spong, p. 90.)
This author seems to believe that the space program has produced new information
as to the disposition and locale of near-by heavenly bodies, which is
hardly the case. Is he really that ignorant? Can he possibly really believe Sir
Isaac Newton would have learned new things about where the planets are
at by watching space launches on TV? Although he does not ever actually
explain it, Bishop Spong's 'three-tier' universe must be an astronomical construct,
if it can be disconfirmed by astronomical ("space-age") observation.
How can any thinking reader find a 'three-tier universe' in Luke's words?:
"Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken
up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight."
Certainly there is no difficulty in understanding Luke's account. No artist
who wished to portray the scene has ever found difficulty in so doing.
Perhaps the way to find Bishop Spong's 'three tiers' in this passage is
to make Luke's "up" ['ep' of 'epairo'] absolute rather than relative to local observers, in this case the eye-witnesses
observing the event. To Bishop Spong, who denies the physical resurrection,
the bodily ascension of the Lord presents a contradiction to his ideas,
but it is unclear what "space-age" observation ever led him to
deny the Lord's physical rising from the tomb.
The Bible teaches, "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must
worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24). Extension in space characterizes
matter not spirit. But becoming incarnate was the Lord's own choice and
cannot be understood to mean God can no longer be God. The Lord's nail-scarred
body does demand some locale; but as tenants huddled upon a small patch
of a vast domain, it is presumptuous of us to demand all parts of the whole
to be either open to our inspection or available for our comprehension. Which way heaven? One is tempted to respond with the old saw, "No
itinerary to the heavenly city is simpler or fuller than the ready
answer made by an English prelate to a scoffer who asked him the way to
heaven; 'First turn to the right, and keep straight on.'" (Charles
Spurgeon, Treasury of David, Kindle location location 69263). When Luke
describes the Lord's ascension into heaven, nothing could be clearer.
Who could not visualize the event, or even draw a comic strip, based on
his account? Was the event laughable or absurd? It is difficult to see
how. 'But he can't do that.' Why not? He can walk on water. 'But that
isn't the way.' It would have been more edifying if He had dived down
the shaft of the deepest silver mine? One must concede to the scoffers
that heaven isn't a place amongst other places; things work differently
there. The roses never fade, and we never grow old; that is not the way
it works in this place, so it isn't just around the corner. The
itinerary to get there cannot therefore be straightforward and
If the triple decker system is indeed a flat earth,— and what disposes me toward
thinking it is meant to be that is the common experience you will find
in talking to atheists, of 'learning' that everybody prior to Christopher Columbus believed
in a flat earth,— can such a construct be found in the Bible? They say
so. A common way atheists have of finding 'errors' in the Bible is to understand
directional signals as if they related to an observer stationed outside
the word system. The observer is visualized standing outside, looking upon
the world as if he were holding a snow-globe in his hand. In fact modern
speakers only rarely take this view, and ancient ones almost never; it
is thus an anachronism. By this means common-place things modern speakers
also say: 'the sun rose at 6:10 a.m.,' 'what a pretty sunset,' are taken
as descriptions offered by the observer standing outside the world system,
in which case they are false, because the sun does not rise at the same
time in China as in Canada, nor is it the sun which is setting but the
earth which is rotating. However, from the actually existent observer's
frame of reference, the language is perfectly accurate and would not be
spoken differently by an astronomer.
To find 'three tiers' in what Luke says, you might reason like so: a
newspaper reader in Sydney, Australia objects when he reads, 'The space-shuttle
Challenger went up into the sky and then disintegrated.' 'Shouldn't that
read, went down!' he thunders, reasoning that the direction in which the space-shuttle
Challenger actually went approximates to a straight line from his sternum
down between his feet. However, no actual reader of the Sydney papers would
absolutize in this way his own frame of reference, nor would he demand
the passage be rephrased from the perspective of our asphyxiated outside
observer of the world system. When the newspaper reporter said that the
space-shuttle went "up," he meant local observers were obliged
to crane their necks back to keep it in sight. Was this not also what Luke
meant when he said "up"? Without absolutizing Luke's "up,"
there are no 'three tiers' in view.
If the author assumes Luke is visualizing the Lord as hopping on the bus
and going home, this is his assumption, not the assumption of the author
who quotes Stephen repeating, "Heaven is My throne, and earth is My
footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the LORD, or what is
the place of My rest?" (Acts 7:49). Bishop Spong does not need to
teach Luke and Stephen, if indeed he even knows, that God is
omnipresent and spiritual. But denying a historic fact lest any draw an
invalid inference from that fact is as nonsensical as anything else in
Bishop Spong's topsy-turvy world. The visible heavens are a special
revelation of God's glory owing as much to their beauty as to their locale:
"And since the glory of his power and wisdom shine more brightly above,
heaven is often called his palace. Yet in the first place, wherever you
cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern
at least some sparks of his glory. You cannot in one glance survey this
most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without
being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness...this
skillful ordering of the universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we
can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible."
(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter V, 1).
What was new in the incarnation was God's taking on flesh. Jesus
is "He who came down from heaven" (John 3:13), as God. He returned
as the God-man. Here indeed was a new thing, a man gone up to heaven:
"In one sense, Christ's return to heaven was to be
expected. He Himself said, 'I came forth from the Father, and am
come into the world again, I leave the world, and go to the Father'
(John 16:28). As the Son of God, He had every right to reside in His
eternal glory. What made the ascension theologically special was the
entering into glory of the Son of Man. The inspired apostle
recognized the significance of this when he applied Psalm 8 directly
and uniquely to Christ: 'What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little
lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honor'. .
.In the person of Jesus Christ, man achieved heaven. His entrance
prepared the way for all His followers. Speaking of Christ's
entering within the veil, the most holy place of heaven itself,
Hebrews plainly says, 'whither the forerunner is for us entered,
even Jesus' (6:20). Christ is the pioneer who has blazed the trail
for His people to enter fully into His glory. Heaven is ours because
Heaven is Christ's." (Michael P. V. Barrett, Beginning at Moses,
Kindle location 1698).
Revelation Chapter 4 describes this holy convocation. How is it possible
for wayward, ungodly, recalcitrant men, the twenty-four elders, to live
in the presence of God? Or how will we dwell with Him in the new
heavens and the new earth? Because we have been washed in the blood of
the lamb. How living together is possible for such unlike things as our
unwieldy, material selves and God is difficult to say, but God would
have it so. If Bishop Spong, having put his thinking cap on, has discovered
that it is impossible, he had best keep his discovery to himself.