Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"In my Father's house": some reflections on John 14

...We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

- Nicene Creed

A while ago, I posted a series on why I think that the Christian hope has very little to do with going to heaven when you die. During that series I argued that resurrection on a renewed earth is a more scriptural understanding than an individual post-mortem departure to another place, despite what many of our hymns say. I also looked at various passages often (mis)used to prop up such a platonic view, showing how each either directly teaches or can naturally be understood to be affirming a resurrection hope: Philippians 3.20-21 ("our citizenship is in heaven"); 1 Peter 2.11 (being aliens and strangers); 1 Peter 1.3-5 (a heavenly hope); Matthew (the kingdom of heaven); 2 Peter 3 (a new heavens and new earth).

However, there was one commonly cited passage I didn't address:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.                      - John 14.1-4
A heaven-as-destination-of-Christian-hope reading of this passage is probably so familiar that I barely need to sketch it out. Jesus is about to go back to being with his Father in heaven ("my Father's house"), where he is preparing rooms for the disciples (taking almost two millennia and counting to do so) such that one day when he comes back, he will take all believers to be with him. And the way into this heavenly mansion is Jesus himself ("I am the way, the truth and the life", two verses later). Notice, however, that even if this reading correctly identifies "my Father's house" with heaven, this is still not "heaven when you die" - it is heaven at Jesus' return.

N. T. Wright, vocal critic of "heaven when you die" eschatology (and owner of numerous large birds), has suggested a reading of this passage in The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) that tried to emphasize the rooms (or "dwelling-places") were an image of a "temporary resting-place, a way-station where a traveller would be refreshed during a journey" (p. 446). He pointed out that "my Father's house" is a common way of referring to the Temple (John 2.16-17; cf. Luke 2.49; Matthew 21.13; Mark 2.26). Putting this together with some parallels in Jewish apocalyptic writing that speak of "the chambers where the souls are kept against the day of eventual resurrection", he concludes:
"The 'dwelling-places' of this passage are thus best understood as safe places where those who have died may lodge and rest, like pilgrims in the Temple, not so much in the course of an onward pilgrimage within the life of a disembodied 'heaven', but while awaiting the resurrection which is still to come." (p. 446)
Thus, for Wright this passage becomes a reassurance about the intermediate state. God is able to accommodate all those awaiting resurrection. He will not turn any away; those who have died in Christ are not lost.

In his very brief treatment of the same passage in John for Everyone (2004), he seems to have changed his mind. Rather than being about an intermediate state, he now thinks Jesus is referring to our ultimate hope, not going to heaven, but the renewal of all creation to become the dwelling place of God. After again making the point about "my Father's house" as the Temple, he goes on to explain:
"The point about the Temple, within the life of the people of Israel, was that it was the place where heaven and earth met. Now Jesus hints at a new city, a new world, a new 'house'. Heaven and earth will meet again when God renews the whole world. At that time there will be room for everyone." (p. 58)
So where does God dwell? Where is his "house"? Although the idea of God dwelling in heaven is a common scriptural image, I think Wright is correct to point to John 2.16-17 as an important earlier reference to God's house. However, even the equation of God's house with the Temple in Jerusalem is problematised in that very passage, which declares that Jesus, in speaking of the Temple, was speaking of his own body (2.19-21). The temple, or house, of God is an image of God's dwelling place. In one sense, God dwells in heaven. In another sense, he dwells in Christ. In a third sense, he will dwell in the new heavens and earth. And yet in John 14 there is a fourth location, a fourth sense of God's dwelling place:
Jesus replied, "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them."

- John 14.23

More to come on this...
Twenty points for correctly naming the building. Ten for the city. Five for the country. No more than one set of points per person.


Unknown said...

What do you make of the book of Revelation where John is caught up to heaven? It would seem that there is a whole host of witnesses (Past Christians)watching over the last days. Not to mention Christ.
You also have the problem with Elijah and Moses whom Jesus is speaking to on the mount of transfiguration - both whom God took!
Then there is the story Jesus tells of Lazarus and the rich man - one in heaven - the other in hell.

John 14:23 is to do with the promise of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit - and is a Trinitarian promise name of Father, Son and Spirit. So the promise of Christ is his promise for us now - your kingdom come...

I think we need to look at these Scriptures though in a more holistic way. That is they are to reassure us that God is with us now, and continues to be with us into all of eternity and that our life is in him and not in our fleshly bodies...therefore we don't fear death and destruction because we already have eternal life.

byron smith said...

Craig - I am not denying that those who have died in Christ are "with him". I just do not think that this is the focus of the New Testament expectation in the way that common devotional language (our hymnody in particular) has made it in the last couple of centuries.

I have quite a bit more to say on John 14.23 (and the rest of the chapter). This was intended as an introductory post linking back to an old series. Make sure you read at least some of that series to get an idea of where I'm coming from.

Steven Carr said...

'In the Temple are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.'

Wright's version does put a whole new slant upon it.... A nonsensical slant....

Jesus claims the Temple is a safe place where pilgrims may rest.

Pity Wright also claims Jesus prophesied the Temple as the most dangerous place on Earth - what with it about to be destroyed.

Why did Jesus prophesy that God would destroy his Father's house?

If God cannot even keep his own house safe, then how safe are these rooms in the Temple?

byron smith said...

Steven - indeed, I think this is a point where Wright gets his images a little confused.

Nonetheless, the Temple was intended to be a haven, the place where heaven and earth meet, where God dwelt with his people. Jesus' critique of the Temple was that it was failing to be these things, but instead had become a symbolic (and perhaps actual) heart of a violent nationalist movement and so was facing the consequences of an impending imperial crackdown. At least, that's the picture in the synoptics. John's take on the Temple seems to emphasise different things.

In any case, I think there is more to say on this passage in the light of the rest of chapter 14. I intend to post some more thoughts when I get a chance to put some things down. This was intended as just an introductory post.

One of Freedom said...

I'm interested in your thinking here. I've shifted over the years from a otherworldly reading of this text to an imminant reading. Who is doing the dwelling? If it is God then it makes sense that there are many dwelling places. If it is us then it places a materiality on "heaven" that is odd in Johannine thought. I'll have to dig out my Greek NT and follow along.

Matthew Moffitt said...

"When Jesus declares that there are many dwelling-places in his father's house, the word for 'dwelling-places' is mone, which denotes a temporary lodging."

Wright, Surprised by Hope, pg. 52, 2008.

byron smith said...

Thanks for these comments - I haven't given up on the second post. I will get to it soon. I hope.

Matthew Moffitt said...

The UK?

byron smith said...


Matthew Moffitt said...


byron smith said...

Yep - five points. No more for you on this post.

Matthew Moffitt said...

Happy to take the points and run.

Anonymous said...

In a slack moment I thought I'd join this game. Is it San Miniato al Monte in Florence? I much appreciate your blog, posted once before and visit often. Maybe now you're in UK, we might even meet up sometime. let me know if you're ever visiting Birmingham.

byron smith said...

It is indeed! Well done and welcome to the scoreboard. However, I said no more than one set of points per person, so I'll give you twenty for the building but will have to let the ten lapse now that you've given the answer.

Thanks - I'll let you know if I'm heading down to Birmingham.

Anonymous said...

Oops - sorry - I should read the rules more carefully next time.

JC Lowry said...

Great post. I’m considerable late to the game and suppose you may have moved on.

It’s interesting the the word for house used is oikos, which is at least as relational as it is physical. A translation could read something like “in my father’s household there is plenty of room...” It seems to me the invitation is into a familial relationship with the father, clarified by 17:3 that eternal life is to know the father as opposed to a destination.