There have been a lot of images of the afterlife offered over the course of human history. Billy Collins wrote a poem about it, appropriately titled, “The Afterlife,” in which he imagines the fate of different people according to each person’s own beliefs. Some are reincarnated as animals, some become bits of energy, some await judgment. It’s an interesting thought experiment, the idea that we each get exactly what we want, for better or worse. In some ways, it is similar to the way that we sometimes imagine heaven and it might be just as problematic.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that God’s house has many rooms, but I think most of us cling to the King James version that tells us that God’s house has many mansions. We like mansions. Not only that, but because English translations obscure the plural you we imagine that Jesus is talking directly to each of us. There are many mansions because we all get a big house. God is like Oprah, but even moreso!
Since heaven is the place where there are no more tears, each mansion is exactly what the recipient wants. After all, it makes us sad when we don’t get what we want. So I imagine each mansion to be what a drawing of a kid’s dream house looks like, with water slides and free candy and no bedtime. Or maybe it looks like a Pottery Barn catalog. Or a hobbit hole. Or a deluxe apartment in the sky of the sky. Whatever. Literally, whatever.
The best part is that, because every mansion is exactly what we want it to be, fulfilling every need we have, we never have to leave. Why go to your neighbor’s hobbit hole? He doesn’t have a waterslide. And why would he come over to your place filled with sugar-fueled, sleep-deprived children? As an introvert experienced in cocoon-building, I can certainly see the beauty of having everything I want in one place, not needing to leave for anything.
But even I think this would be hell. I wonder what the streets of heaven, the famous “streets of gold,” look like. What is life like? With everyone holed up in their mansions, there’s no need to talk to anyone or be with each other. There’s no reason to care for one another. There’s nothing to want and nothing to need because everything is there for you all the time.
The thing that I like most about Billy Collins’s poem is the end, where the dead reflect on the living and wish they could try again. The truth that Collins tells us, and that too many Christians have forgotten, is that our image of heaven is our image of ourselves and our world. I don’t know if there is an afterlife, but I do know that the way we talk about it shapes who we are. If we want mansions in the sky that hold our every desire, we will want that here as well. We will do everything we can to avoid needing someone else or having someone else need us. We will build our wealth and hoard our possessions and never see one another. Somehow, I think that God has something else in mind.
If you’d like to talk about what that might be, please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center. We’ll talk houses, households, the way, the truth, and the life. Hope to see you!
Grace & Peace,