Afterlife? Will there be many mansions?
Hespeler, 23 April, 2017 © Scott McAndless
John 14:1-7, 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, Psalm 16
ver five hundred years ago, an English king by the name of James commissioned the translation of the greatest book ever written, the Bible, into English. The result was a translation that was so good, so poetic and so beautiful that, for hundreds of years, it was essentially the only English Bible that mattered. But five centuries is a very long time and in all of that time the text of the King James Version never changed but other things did and that may have caused a few issues.
For example, in the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John – in the King James Version of the passage that we read this morning – Jesus makes this rather stunning promise to his disciples. “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” It is the kind of promise that has a way of capturing people’s attention. What an afterlife to anticipate – a mansion for me in heaven after I die? Why, I’ll be just like the Beverley Hillbillies!
But when, eventually, newer and more modern English translations of the Bible finally began to appear, some people got extremely upset. You see, when they opened up their new Bibles and turned to the Gospel of John, they read this: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
“What? Dwelling places? Is God planning to put me up in a Motel 6 or something? The King James promised me a mansion and now these fancy new translations say I can only have a dwelling place? This is a raw deal. I want my mansion!” So said many critics; so some still say to this day. Of all the complaints against the newer translations (and there have been many) the complete lack of mansions has got to be one that comes up most often.
But is it a valid complaint? Did the more recent scholars really set out to shortchange us all in heaven with their new translations. Is it some great conspiracy to cool off some sort of heavenly real estate bubble? Is the Wynne government involved? Well, I can explain what happened for you if you like. As it turns out, both the King James Version and the modern translations were absolutely correct translations. What? How can that be? How can both be correct when they make quite different promises?
Well, the key word in what I just said was the word were. You see, in the original text of the Gospel, what Jesus promises is that there are many monh, in his Father’s house. And that Greek word, monh,, means rooms or dwelling places. And when the King James Version was translated, a common English word for a dwelling place was, in fact, the word mansion. That’s right, when the King James was first translated, the word mansion didn’t have the same meaning that it has today.
Five hundred years ago, rich people didn’t live in mansions. They lived in manor houses or estates or villas, but not in mansions. So the word didn’t have any of the meaning of luxury or size that we attach to it. It was only over time that the word became attached to a particular kind of dwelling. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the King James translation of this particular passage (and its suggestion that a mansion was a heavenly kind of abode) that prompted people over time to call big and fancy houses mansions.
But the mere fact that people get so worked up over the question of whether Jesus was promising us rooms or mansions after we die is rather telling. It seems as if the way that people think of or imagine the life that comes after this life is really important to us. In fact, it’s the kind of thing that people often are willing to fight over – even kill over.
In some ways, I suppose, that is not very surprising. For many of us, when we get discouraged by the ups and downs of this life or when we lose somebody that we love and miss them terribly, we take great comfort in the promise of an afterlife. But somehow it is not enough for us just to be reassured that there is another existence beyond this one. We need to be able to visualize something whether it be mansions or pearly gates or streets paved with gold or whatever.
But there is a problem with that. I believe in an afterlife. I think that there is good reason to believe that the identity that I call me will still persist even after I die. I base that belief on many things including and especially my Christian faith. But I do not believe that I or anyone else has the language to actually describe what that new life is like.
Whatever it is, the afterlife is an existence that is completely unlike life as we experience it right now. I mean if anyone has come close to being able to give a literal description of the kind of existence that I suspect we are talking about here, it is the theoretical physicists who can talk about things like multidimensional universes or quantum nonlocality and can produce some pretty remarkable mathematical equations, but they can’t draw a picture of any of it.
If you want a picture of the afterlife, therefore, you are limited to what is called metaphorical language. In other words, you cannot say what it is, but you can say what it is like. A metaphor is a way of describing something that is not literally true, but that is true in profoundly more important ways.
For example, when I say, “God is my Father,” that is a metaphor. I do not mean by that that God is my biological father or that he is the man who raised me and lives in Toronto. It is not literally true but it is true in far more important ways. The phrase, God is my Father, tells me very important and very true things about my relationship with God, about God’s care for me and about so much more. A good metaphor is like that, it’s not literally true, but it is able to speak truths that you cannot normally put into words.
And that is why I would suggest that all of our language, everything we ever say about the afterlife, is metaphorical. And when I say that, I don’t mean that the afterlife isn’t real or that what we say about it isn’t true. I only mean that metaphors are the only way that we have to get at the deeper truth of the afterlife.
But one thing that means is that it is probably meaningless to fight over the particular metaphors that are used when talking about the afterlife. Does it matter, ultimately, whether I imagine that Jesus has prepared for me a room or a mansion in his Father’s house? After all, I hardly expect that things like architecture or interior design or, for that matter, space or time or dimensions have the same meaning in the afterlife that they do here. So, when Jesus calls it a dwelling place, how can we have even a clue what he is trying to describe? It is actually a little bit frustrating trying to understand what he means once you start to break it down.
And I think that some of the disciples (or at least one of them) felt that frustration because he spoke up right after Jesus said this. Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” In other words, Thomas is saying, we can’t really grasp the concepts you talking about here, how are we supposed to join you in this place where you say you are going. I think that there are many who struggle with that very issue. If they cannot have a description of what the afterlife looks like that corresponds to the physical realities of this world, how are they to take comfort in it?
But I think that Jesus’ response to Thomas shows a remarkable understanding of his frustration. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus says. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is telling him that it is not about the place or about what it looks like. “I am the way,” he is saying. If you trust me, I will get you to the destination. You don’t need to know what it looks like when you get there or how you’ll know when you have arrived. The afterlife is about trust more than it is about place.
All you really need to know is that, after you die, you will be in the hands of a gracious and loving God – the God revealed to us in and through Jesus. (That’s what he means when he says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”) When you know that you have a heavenly Father that you can trust, you really don’t need to worry about details like how many theoretical square feet you will have to live in. This, above all, is the message we need to keep in mind in all our thinking about the afterlife; it will help immensely when it comes to dealing with any worries or fears about death.
And, keeping that in mind, let us look a little closer at the promise Jesus gives his disciples (and us) at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. If we can assume that he is not actually describing the heavenly housing market and that he is using a metaphor to get some idea of the afterlife over to his disciples, what is he really saying?
The image he is using is actually would have been pretty clear to anyone listening to him in the first century. The first clue is when he uses the words “Father’s house.” I think that it is important to note that the phrase “Father’s house” or “God’s house” is never used anywhere else in the Bible as a term for heaven. In fact, the phrase “God’s house” always and only means one thing everywhere else in the Bible – it is another name for a very earthly temple in Jerusalem. And Jesus clearly wasn’t talking about that temple when he said this, so I think that people would have understood that he was using a different and very human metaphor to describe what the afterlife with God was really about.
Everyone would have had a picture in their mind of what a father’s house with many rooms would have looked like because, in that world, it was very common for large extended families to live together in a house under the leadership of one patriarch or father figure. The centre of these households was an open courtyard where much of the common family life was lived out. Around this courtyard various buildings and rooms would be built including a kitchen and dining room but also rooms for the various smaller units of the families.
When a young son of the family would get married, for example, he would go out into the world and find his bride in her father’s household. He would seek the permission of her father to marry her (given that this was, after all, a very patriarchal society) and then he would leave her there for a time while he returned to his father’s house. There he would build another room onto the courtyard of his family home and when it was finished he would return to his bride and take her home to live in that room in his father’s house. This was, in fact, the normal pattern in marriage in that world.
So when Jesus describes his Father’s house with many rooms (or dwelling places or what they called mansions back in the sixteenth century) that is the kind of image that everyone would have had in their minds. For that matter, when he says, “I go to prepare a place for you? And… I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” They also had a clear image in mind. Jesus is speaking as if he is a groom who is telling his bride that he is going to his father’s house to build a room onto it for her before he returns to take her home as his wife. It is a metaphor for marriage and that is actually the primary thing that we need to understand in this passage.
You see, it turns out that when, in this passage, Jesus is trying to comfort his disciples by talking about the afterlife, he is not talking about a place (at least not in the way that we usually talk about places in terms of space or dimension), he is talking about a marriage between himself and the believers. He is talking about relationship more than place which is why he can also say that he himself is the way to get there. So maybe, if we are going to try and imagine what the afterlife is like, that is where we should start too.
The promise of life beyond this present one is real. Even if our limited minds cannot comprehend it, we can still have a sense of the comfort that the promise gives us because of our relationship with the promiser. That is where it all starts. That is what it is all about.