Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Christian Images of Heaven

Recently on the Rush message board, there was a thread posted by a very traditionally-leaning, evangelical Christian discussing his image of what heaven will be like. It basically consisted of a winter mansion scene with pristine snow, ski slopes, and the like.

I responded to his initial post by pointing out that this sort of common image of heaven -- that is, one of pure bliss and material comforts -- developed in part as a result of the fact that most early Christians came from the poor and outcasts of society. Jesus, the one who said blessed are the poor and the meek, brought them hope of better things to come.

The poster responded to this comment with the following:

i do not think Jesus would lie and i am not implying that that is what you are talking about Schmoo but " if it were not so, i would not have told you" "In my house are many mansions". not "everything" is a contradiction.

and Paul, paraphrasing "if we only have hope in "this" life, we are of all men most miserable"

Before getting to the first part of his response, I want to address his second comment -- the one about Paul.

Paul was an apocalypticist, living in a time when his homeland was under imperial rule by foreigners (the Romans). He believed Jesus's resurrection was the start of the end of the world. He believed that not only was the general resurrection of the dead coming soon, he believed it had already started with Jesus -- thus his description in 1 Corinthians of Jesus's resurrection being the "first fruits" of the general resurrection to come.

Considering the time period that he lived, when the Jews were under deep oppression, it's little wonder he looked to the end of the world as a hope, rather than to place hope in "this life," which was otherwise so utterly hopeless. And, of course, he was right on one count -- it was hopeless for the Jews. Just 5 or so years after Paul's death, Rome took control of all of the Jewish homeland and the Temple was destroyed. And, of course, the Jews didn't get their homeland back until the 20th century. Where Paul was wrong, obviously, was in believing that the end of the world had started with Jesus.

Now, for the poster's comments about his image of heaven and mansions. A bit of background first, before I make my point:

Psalm 49:13-15a -- This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave, far from their princely mansions. But God will redeem my life from the grave...

Isaiah 5:8-9 -- Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: "Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants."

Amos 3:15 -- I will tear down the winter house along with the summer house; the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed and the mansions will be demolished, declares the Lord.

As is evidenced by these three passages, it would seem that Old Testament writers -- those who documented the history of the Jewish people and their relationship with God -- viewed the mansions of the rich as being symbolic of abused power, oppression, and sin.

With that in mind, is it likely that Jesus -- a practicing Jew who was well-versed and highly familiar with Jewish theology -- would have suggested that heaven contained mansions, those very symbols of treachery, sin, and oppression in the Jewish mindset?

This is an example of the familiar verses of the King James Version coming back to haunt concepts of what Jesus actually said.

The passage the poster quoted is John 14:2, which the KJV translates as "In my father's house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you."

In my research, there is only one version that translates the original Greek word used in this passage as "mansions." That version is the King James. Every single other translation uses either "dwelling places" or "rooms." "Mansions," it would appear, is a misleading word, because it implies that Jesus was talking about enormous, palatial houses in which the faithful will live in heaven. In fact, he was just saying that there are a lot of places to live in his father's house. What this means is that God has a place for all people; there's a spot for everyone. That's what John's Jesus meant in this passage. He wasn't suggesting that heaven is lined with 5,000-square foot suburban homes.

Furthermore, what was Jesus actually referring to when he said, "In my Father's house"? Was he talking about heaven? In fact, a reference to God's house was a reference to the Temple, not heaven. He was using the Jewish Temple as a symbol of what the Kingdom of God would be like. And just as there were a lot of rooms, and a lot of space, inside the Temple -- enough to hold all the Jews who came to the Temple to worship -- so the Kingdom of God will have plenty of space to contain all those who wish to come.

This is what John's Jesus meant when he said those words. He was not promising that every Christian will live in the heavenly equivalent of the Biltmore House or Buckingham Palace.

According to John's Gospel, Jesus said these words right after he revealed to his disciples that he was leaving them, and that he would be betrayed, and that Peter would deny him. These were dark, difficult things to discuss. So after discussing these things, John's Gospel has Jesus attempt to comfort his disciples by assuring them that, despite all the bad that was to come, there was still a place for everyone, because, after all, the Kingdom of God has plenty of room.

It's funny, because I actually grew up with the same concept of heaven that this person implied -- that is, that heaven would be full of mansions where we would all live in pure bliss and comfort. And my concept of a heaven like this came directly from this very passage that he quoted in response to my first remarks. I can remember meditating on this as a kid, and trying to imagine what heaven would look like, with all the golden streets lined with enormous mansions, and everyone living in a kind of Utopian bliss.

But I believe that is a surface-level interpretation, based on misleading translations, and does not get anywhere near the heart of what Jesus is actually saying in that passage.

The Kingdom of God is not about mansions and earthly creature comforts. It's about love, peace, kindness, and abundant life. And there is room for everyone. That was the message of Jesus.


Anonymous said...

That may actually be one of the first religious musings you've done that I agree with. Amazing.

Kitten Bitch said...

Oh, Mrs. Peacock......

Scott said...

Oh Mrs. Peacock...the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Mike, the reason you agree with me is because there was nothing I said in there that necessarily requires you to rethink your basic theology :) (that's just a friendly jab, by the way)

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