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) [this statement is wrong; see Matthew Colvin’s comment below]. 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.