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Why won’t there be marriage in the resurrection?

What are we to make of Jesus’ saying that in the resurrection people will not marry or be given in marriage? I’ve been looking at Robert Song’s argument for covenant partnerships for gay and lesbian people in his book Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships. Marriage is instituted, he says, “to deal with the problem that people die”. Resurrected people will not die, so the institution of marriage becomes redundant. “Where there is resurrection, there is no death; where there is no death, there is no need for birth; where there is no birth, there is no need for marriage.”1

Since the church is the “community of the resurrection”, the hope of having children is no longer “intrinsic to the community’s identity”. This is what makes celibacy meaningful for Christians: it is a sign of the transcendence of procreation; and Song argues that the contemporary church urgently needs to “recover the significance of authentic celibacy”.2 He also suggests that “certain other kinds of relationships” have been made possible by the coming of Christ, including childless ”covenant partnerships” between homosexual people. But that is not my concern here.

The question I want to address is: what did Jesus have in mind when he talked about the resurrection of the dead?

And Jesus said to them: The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those considered worthy to obtain that age and the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die again, for they are angel-like and they are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. And that the dead are raised, even Moses showed in (the passage about) the bush, as he calls Lord the God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob. And God is not of the dead but of the living, for all are living to/in him. (Lk. 20:34-36, my translation)

1. The argument presupposes a coming transition from the present age to the age to come: the “sons of this age” marry and are given in marriage, but in “that age” or the age to come (cf. Lk 18:30) the “sons of the resurrection” will not marry or be given in marriage. Matthew directly connects the end of the present age with the destruction of the temple (Matt. 24:3). Luke prefers to speak about “this generation” of Jews, which is unrighteous and which will be condemned when judgment comes upon Israel (Lk. 9:41; 11:29-32, 50-51). If this “evil generation” is to be judged, then obviously it will not pass away before the catastrophe of the war against Rome (Lk. 21:32). It is safe to say that Luke understood the “end of the age” in the same terms as Matthew.

2. The background to the politically controversial Pharisaical belief in the resurrection is found primarily in Daniel 12:1-3:

At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Dan. 12:1–3)

What is described here is the restoration of Israel following the crisis provoked by the blasphemous pagan king Antiochus Epiphanes in the early second century BC (“At that time…”). The righteous who are alive are delivered from their oppressors, but there is also a limited resurrection of some of Israel’s dead to participate in the life of the age to come.

3. Jesus has refocused the tradition on the coming crisis of the war against Rome. Josephus did the same, though less optimistically: “it appears to me, that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were” (Jos., War 1:12).

Jesus is not talking about an end-of-the-world event—the resurrection of all dead people described in Revelation 20:12-13. He is talking about the end-of-the-age of second temple Judaism, when Israel would be delivered and at least the righteous dead would be raised to share in the life of the age to come—a limited resurrection anticipated by the resurrection of the saints at the time of the crucifixion (Matt. 27:52-53).

4. Luke’s phrase “sons of the resurrection” is inclusive because “marry and are given in marriage” refers both to the man and to the woman. The men actively marry; the women “allow themselves to be given in marriage” (the verb is in the middle voice). Resurrection puts an end to the patriarchalism that made Levirate marriage a rational practice.

5. But more importantly, the “sons of the resurrection” are the righteous “saints” who have suffered at the hands either of the corrupt leadership of Israel or of Rome. They correspond to the “sons of God” or “saints” (hagiois) who, according to the Wisdom of Solomon, are persecuted and killed by the impious, but who “live for ever” and “will receive a glorious crown and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord” (Wis. 5:5, 15-16).

They are the martyrs who “alone are able to overcome the passions of the flesh, since they believe that they do not die to God, even as our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not die to God, but live to God”; who die for the sake of God but “for God now live, as do Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the patriarchs” (4 Macc. 7:18-19; 16:25).

Jesus appears to have shared the belief with the tradition reflected in 4 Maccabees that the righteous dead, who died for the sake of God, would be raised along with the patriarchs.

6. Those who are raised in Daniel 12:2-3 continue to live on earth. When Jesus says that the “sons of the resurrection” are “angel-like” (isangeloi) or “as (hōs) angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30; Mk. 12:25; cf. Matt. 13:43), he may have been influenced by Daniel 12:3 LXX: “And those who are intelligent will light up like (hōs) the luminaries of heaven, and those who strengthen my words will be as (hōsei) the stars of heaven forever and ever.” In that case, his point is not that the resurrected will be in heaven but that they will like angels, no longer subject to death, in the presence of restored Israel.


So where does this leave us? If marriage is primarily about procreation, then there is no need for it in the resurrection—whether in some sort of “first” resurrection of the martyrs (cf. Rev. 20:4-6) or in the final resurrection of all the dead. Of course, what we sentimental moderns want to know is whether we will still have marriage as companionship in the resurrection, but this is not what Jesus was asked about.

Can the passage be used to explain celibacy? Perhaps, indirectly. But we should be aware that Paul’s argument for staying single during the “distress” of the transition between the ages was a very pragmatic one: the saints in Corinth were in for a rough ride, and he would rather they didn’t have the added burden of marriage and family (1 Cor. 7:25-31).

What is the most important thing to grasp from the passage? That Jesus was a first century Jew with an eschatological outlook similar to that of the Pharisees.

  • 1. R. Song, Covenant and Calling (2014), Kindle Loc. 418-419.
  • 2. Ibid., Kindle loc. 520.

Comments

Andrew,

I have a hunch that something here would tie in with the ethiopian enuch. The ability for faithfull offspring to come from one who cannot produce children. Something about dead trees now producing?

Hmm. I see what you’re saying, but I think your congregation would be a lot bigger if, instead, you used this text as a basis for the new heavens and earth being an eternal free-love commune.

God creating Eve for Adam to cure loneliness, so marriage won’t exist in the the renewed creation because of how many people there are now, is inconsistent. If simply being more aware of God’s presence and love makes marriage unnecessary, than God would have had no reason to create gender and sex to fulfil a different kind of intimate desire to begin with, because God and Adam had exactly that kind of relationship we’ll have with him in the renewed creation, before Eve was made. God still made the marriage union and different genders and the ability to reproduce from sexual attraction. Death being the reason for reproduction contradicts us having that ability during conditions when death wasn’t a factor. At the beginning God said for us to be fruitful and multiply, giving no indication it was to ever stop. Sexual desire for someone your married to isn’t even sin, so there’s another reason it doesn’t need to be destroyed. Food isn’t necessary for an immortal life either, but the only creation of God that isn’t renewed is the intimate marriage relationship with couples, which produces much greater joy and pleasure than food? That makes no sense. Just because some people manage to not care if they can continue having a sinless sexually intimate relationship with someone for eternity, doesn’t make it fair to teach that those who do care should just get over it somehow.
Jesus was only referring to the act of marrying and being given in levirate marriage anyway, not the actual state of being married. Being married to Jesus is meant metaphorically, and is supposed to be how believers relate to him now, so being married to him contradicts the prudish interpretation of people neither marrying or being given in marriage at the resurrection. We couldn’t be married to Jesus then either. The description is given of God as a husband to his people in parts of the old testament, like Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. That wasn’t meant to sever marriages of male and female couples anymore than being described as married to Jesus is. We see that the creation account of Genesis and old testament descriptions of God being married to his people contradict the prudish interpretation of what Jesus taught about the future fate of marriage. Bible scholars N. T. Wright and Ben Witherington have studied the context of what Jesus said about marriage to the sadducees. http://tinyurl.com/y6gqnhfa http://tinyurl.com/y2w6o3we

Obviously, God intended man and woman to live forever together as husband and wife. It was not to be “until death”. God actually meant for men and women to experience sexual desire and pleasure in the pristine environment of Eden. Everyone would have been united with the opposite sex forever. There would have been no homosexuals in spite of there being no written prohibitions or laws concerning such. If God created paradise with humanity ordered in pairs, then paradise restored must also include this fundamental unit. A female for a male, and a male for a female. All created in the image and likeness of God.

@ German

What do you make of this …

For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. (Matthew 22:30; cp. Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35-36)

… then?

The use of the terms [marry] and [given in marriage] is important, for these terms refer to the gender-specific roles played in early Jewish society by the man and the woman in the process of getting married. The discussion is about levirate marriage, not all marriages.

The resurrected people will not die, so the levirate marriages to a brother in-law performed after the resurrection becomes redundant. Where there is resurrection, there is no death; where there is no death, there is no need for birth; where there is no birth, there is no need for levirate marriage. Marriage as companionship in the resurrection is not what Jesus was asked about. The discussion It’s not about the relationship between two people

[1] ” God actually meant for men and women to experience sexual desire and pleasure in the pristine environment of Eden. (…) If God created paradise with humanity ordered in pairs, then paradise restored must also include this fundamental unit. A female for a male, and a male for a female. All created in the image and likeness of God.”

[2] “Marriage as companionship in the resurrection is not what Jesus was asked about. The discussion It’s not about the relationship between two people.”

Marriage as “companionship”? I don’t see ho you can harmonize your [2] above with the “paradise restored”, including “sexual desire”, in your [1] above.

The discussion is about levirate marriage, not all marriages.

No, not at all, you have completely missed the point. The Sadducees resorted to the example of the levirate marriage for 7 brothers to the same woman as an extreme case of the general question of the relationship between marriage in the present age, and what will happen “in the resurrection”. And we know that they did NOT believe in the resurrection. They wanted to see how Jesus would sort himself out of the paradox they proposed to him.

Jesus’ reply …

“For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30; cp. Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35-36)

… seems to suggest that EITHER there is not going to be “sexual desire and pleasure” at all, in the resurrection, OR angels have … free sex.

Do you see a third way?