Many hymns and southern gospel songs speak of a heavenly mansion, or a humble cabin in the corner of glory where the saved will live forever with the angels and with Jesus. The imagery this evokes can be comforting, but it is not especially faithful to scripture.
N.T. Wright (1) and Richard Middleton (2) have reminded us that the “blessed hope” of the Christian faith is not a disembodied, ethereal existence in heaven, but a bodily participation in a new heaven and new earth. So, how did we get to the place where we treasure the idea of living forever in heaven? I think much of it comes from a particular interpretation of Jesus’ words in John 14 where he says,
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. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also. John 14:2-3 NKJV
Several assumptions underlie thinking that this passage is about heaven, and the life of believers after death:
1. That “My Father’s House” means heaven
2. That the “place” Jesus is going to prepare is some kind of heavenly dwelling
3. That the “coming again” mentioned here is either the rapture or the second coming of Jesus
4. That being where Jesus is means being with him in heaven
But, are these assumptions reasonable? Would the disciples to whom Jesus was saying these things have held these same assumptions? And if not, how else might we understand these words?
First, I confess with the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. I’m just proposing that in this passage, Jesus may not be talking about heaven and his second coming, but something much more “here and now”.
Let’s examine these four assumptions that underlie thinking this passage is about heaven and the afterlife.
First Assumption: Is “My Father’s House” referring to heaven?
Jesus uses the phrase, “my Father’s house” four times in the New Testament:
1. In Luke 16:27 Jesus uses the phrase in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, referring to the house of the rich man’s father – clearly not a reference to heaven.
2. In Luke 2:49 a young Jesus in the temple says, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
3. In John 2:16, during the incident where Jesus turned over the tables and drove the moneychangers out of the temple Jesus says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
4. And in the text we’re considering where Jesus says, “In My Father’s house are many mansions” John 14:2
The Luke 16 usage of my father’s house is not relevant to this discussion, and the Luke 2 and John 2 passages clearly identify my Father’s house as the temple.
So, is Jesus, in John 14 continuing to use my Father’s house in reference to the temple? Yes, but with a twist. After Jesus had turned over the tables and drove out the sacrificial animals from the temple, Jesus said,
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. John 2:19-21
The physical temple was where the Jews believed the presence of God dwelt. But the physical temple was soon to be destroyed. Jesus was saying, “don’t look for the presence of God to dwell in a physical building”. Rather, my Father’s house…the dwelling place of God is in me. Paul would later identify believers as members of Christ’s body; the church,(3) and those believers are the new temple of God.
So, my Father’s house is not a reference to heaven, and it’s not a reference to the temple in Jerusalem. My Father’s house, the place where God dwells, is us, as members of Christ’s body. We are the many mansions, the cabins in the corner of glory, the dwelling places of God. We are the living stones(4) that make up the new temple of God – my Father’s house.
The Second Assumption: Is the place Jesus was going to prepare, a heavenly dwelling?
The Greek word that is translated here as place, is “topos” from which we get the word, topography. It can mean a physical location, but it also can be used metaphorically. For instance, it is common to say something like, “I have come to the place in my life where possessions don’t mean as much to me.” When we say things like this, we’re not using the word, place to mean a physical location, but an understanding, a realization, or a change in priorities.
If we consider that Jesus might have been speaking metaphorically here of preparing a place of understanding, a place where his disciples could come to the realization of some things that had been unimaginable before, it opens up some fascinating possibilities.
For instance, where was it that Jesus was about to go to prepare this metaphoric place? Jesus is speaking here to his disciples on the night he was to be betrayed. He was about to go to his death on a Roman cross. The disciples believed that Jesus was their Messiah, the new King of Israel, so the first thing – the first place Jesus was about to go prepare for them was a realization that God’s Messiah would not be like King David, slaying the Roman Goliath with his slingshot.
The first place Jesus went to prepare, which would have been a place of massive cognitive dissonance for his disciples, was the understanding that God’s Messiah came to die at the hands of his enemies, not to kill them. Of course this place – this understanding, would never have occurred to the disciples if Jesus had stayed in the grave.
It was Jesus’ resurrection that prepared a place for his disciples that no amount of teaching, and no number of miracles could have prepared them for. The place that Jesus prepared through his death and subsequent resurrection, was the opening up of the disciples imaginations that because death had been defeated, they could now live as Jesus lived - without fear of death – and without an orientation toward the idea that they would cease to be.
By going to his death, Jesus was preparing a place in his disciples to begin telling a new story about life! This is a place that the disciples could not have come to apart from Jesus going to and through death.
Instead of going to heaven to prepare a little cabin in the corner of glory for the afterlife, Jesus went through death to prepare his disciples to live without fear of death which is nothing less than an entirely new way to be human. This place was entirely unimaginable before the resurrection.
The Third Assumption: That the “coming again” mentioned here is either the rapture or the second coming of Jesus.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also. John 14:3 NKJV
If going to the cross and being raised from the dead prepared a revolutionary new place of understanding in the disciples, we need not think that “coming again” here has to do with Jesus’ second coming. It simply can mean the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples – the very same disciples Jesus is here speaking to. This is the most obvious, contextual understanding of coming again.
The Fourth Assumption: That being where Jesus is means being with him in heaven.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also. John 14:3
In the same way that we can understand Jesus preparing a place metaphorically, we can also understand being where Jesus is metaphorically. In fact, Jesus often used the word, where in this way. For instance, none of the following references use “where” in a literal way, but pedagogically, metaphorically or parabolically:
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:21
The baptism of John – where was it from? From heaven or from men? Matthew 21:25
Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; Mark 4:5
A popular motivational meme is, “I may not be there yet, but I’m closer than I was yesterday.” This is not speaking of being in a particular geographic location, but of being in a certain state of physical fitness, or of comprehending something new. When we are learning something new, and only partially understand it, we might say, “I’m not there yet”. But when we “get it”, we say, “I’m there now” or “I’m with you now.”
We can understand Jesus in this same way when he says, “I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
This is Jesus describing how that, after his death and resurrection as the forgiving victim of our violence, his disciples would be able to be taken to where Jesus was.
“Taken to himself”, not physically, but spiritually and cognitively. The disciples would finally “get Jesus”. They would at long last be “where Jesus was” all along.
So, was Jesus speaking about being some kind of super-general contractor in heaven, constructing dwelling places for believers to reside in after death? Maybe. The Bible doesn’t say much about the intermediate state – that time between physical death and the general resurrection, but we do know that ultimately, we’re not destined for life in a cabin in the corner of glory. Our hope is as resurrected citizens of a new Kingdom, a new heaven and a new earth where all things have been restored.(5)
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus already prepared for us a place where we can be with him, where we finally get what Jesus is all about. Where death has no more power over us than it did over Jesus. And that’s a pretty cool place to be.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” Revelation 21:1-4
(1) Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright
(2) A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology by Richard Middleton
(3) 1 Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 5:23, 1 Corinthians 3:16
(4) 1 Peter 2:5
(5) Acts 3:21