This passage from John 14 is one of the most beloved in Scripture, particularly in times of loss. It’s also one of those rare biblical passages that have become so deeply embedded in Christian imagination that even people who like me have never opened a King James Bible in our lives somehow intuitively recall it with the distinctive King James language: “in my Father’s house are many mansions.”
Depending on your generation, you might be familiar with one of the many prominent iterations of this imagery in song. There’s “Watching and Waiting.” The soaring military hymn “Mansions of the Lord,” performed at the funeral of Ronald Reagan. Or perhaps you recall a little tune recorded by a guy named Elvis:
I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver lined
I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold
Songs like this one, following the lead of the King James translation, picture a heaven a little bit like a Beverly Hills subdivision. We might, by choice or circumstance, live in simplicity now. But eternity’s another story. There we dare to imagine being chauffeured down a golden road and up a golden driveway to our own personal mansion, customized to spec. (For the record, mine would have a spiral staircase leading to a giant library, and absolutely no exercise room or cleaning closets). This, we’re taught, is our reward for being good and sacrificial while on earth. We secure for ourselves a private heavenly estate next to Elvis or Bono, complete with our own infinity pool and/or polo grounds.
At least, this is all how I used to imagine heaven, hearing these songs sung at funerals as a child.
But then I read C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Great Divorce. In this novel, Lewis tells the story of a tourist on an imaginary bus tour of the afterlife. And to my surprise, I discovered that my idea of heaven as a kind of “mansions row” actually had a great deal more in common with Lewis’ vision of hell. Lewis imagines hell as a place where neighbors, in perpetual conflict with each other, keep moving their houses farther and farther away from all the rest, until eventually they find themselves living on vast estates lightyears from their nearest neighbors, rattling around in echoing, empty mansions, talking to themselves.
The truth is, for all its wonderful poetry, the King James gets one crucial translational detail wrong — in Jesus’ description of heaven, there is only one mansion. That mansion belongs to God. What Jesus is actually saying is something more like this:
Imagine heaven as a vast house of God’s, where everyone belongs and feels perfectly at home. I’m not going away to build you a mansion to live in all alone; I’m going to prepare a room for you with a connecting door to mine. I’m going to prepare a place for you where you will wake up and sleep next to me, where the halls will be filled with the laughter of your siblings in faith, and none of you will ever have to cry alone again.
I’m going to prepare a place for you at my dining room table, where the feast is always going on and no one ever hungers or thirsts. And all you hard-working wives and mothers, don’t start to worry about the kitchen. Just sit down and be at rest. I’ll be the one making dinner, and tying the apron on to serve. It’s my joy to keep you fed.
Jesus promises us, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” But he won’t fulfill this promise by sending an angelic chauffeur to deliver us each to a private estate. He will come himself to get us. He will take us to his Father’s house. He will carry us over the threshold like a bride who, for the very first time, is truly coming home. We will move into his mansion, a place bursting with love and light, where music is always playing, and every hallway and pathway leads to Christ.
When Jesus said to the criminal dying next to him on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he didn’t mean, “Today I’ll hook you up with a decent four-bedroom a few miles down the road.” He meant, “Today you’re moving in with me, because I can’t bear to live without you.” He meant, “I may have Peter and James and Mary, but our family won’t be complete until we have you.”
The good news is better than private mansions. We have been offered life in the household of God, where wounds are bound and songs are shared and the feasting never stops. Heaven is nothing more and nothing less than being given to God and to each other to dwell together in perfect communion for the rest of eternity.
Jesus is preparing a place, and it won’t be complete without you.
Meghan Larissa Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church. She writes at MudPieGod.com, where this first appeared.