I was recently asked about my view of Marriage carrying forward into the New Earth. Today I want to briefly explain my exegetical and theological case.
Before I get started, I want to offer a bit of a disclaimer.
I realize full well that my view is an outlier in the tradition of the Church. I would never teach this as a solid doctrine that ought to be believed, although I do believe it to be true. Additionally, I am VERY open to being corrected about this, and hold the position loosely. I don’t think any major doctrine is connected or affected by this position, and if I became convinced that it did damage to a more significant doctrine, I would move to divest myself of this position post haste.
The Traditional View
The locus of this discussion tends to center around Matthew 22:23-33. The Sadducees approach Jesus, and in an attempt to trip Jesus up regarding the Resurrection propose a theoretical situation to him. They point to a passage which explains the Levirate Marriage command in which the wife of a man who dies before producing an heir would be given to that man’s brother, who would in turn impregnate the wife to produce an heir for his dead brother. In this theoretical scenario, a family with particularly bad luck has 6 brothers who die prior to producing a child, and the 7th presumably dies in the same state. They ask Jesus then to whom the woman would be married upon the resurrection of the dead.
Christ responds in two primary ways. First he chastises them for not understanding the Scripture. They ask an erroneous and fallacious question because they do not know the Scriptures. Second, he says that when the dead are raised, they will be “like the Angels” who do not marry nor are given into marriage.
Traditionally, this is understood to mean that in the resurrection of the dead, human kind will no longer be in marital and sexual relationships. Marriages that were effected prior to death are dissolved, and no new marriages will take place. The clause “like the Angels” is sometimes interpreted to mean that we will become non-sexual entities, and in some extreme cases non-gendered entities.
Now, I as I admitted before, my position is somewhat idiosyncratic. I recognize this, however I don’t believe that I am on terribly shaky ground.
First, there are a few basic issues that need to be addressed.
Like the Angels
It is important to know that when Jesus says that we will be like the Angels, that he does not mean we will be exactly like the Angels. This is manifestly obvious in that we have physical human bodies, which we will be reunited with in the resurrection. We know that these bodies will be both similar and dissimilar to our current bodies, and that although they will be glorified they will be in some sense the same bodies. I think it is safe to dismiss the idea that we will lack gender without much explanation. However, we must do a little exegetical work in order to understand in what way we will be like the Angels.
The good news is that Luke helps us out. His account provides a substantial clarification on what Jesus means here.
The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. (Luke 20:34-36, ESV)
What we see is that there are two distinct ways that we are like the Angels. The first is that we “neither marry nor are given in marriage.” I will address this in a moment. The second is that we “cannot die anymore.”
Jesus is saying specifically that their question is malformed because of the nature of those who have attained to the resurrection of the dead. Their question is faulty because it presupposes permanent death. Rather, when one assumes eternal life, their position makes no sense.
Neither marry nor are given in marriage
Now, this may seem superficial. But the passage no where says that marriages that begin in this age do not persist into the next. That conclusion is based on the understanding that we are no longer the kind of entities to which marriage is proper. As I have demonstrated above, that conclusion simply does not bear out in the text. We are like the Angels in that we do not die, and for some reason this not dying is linked to not marrying or being given in marriage.
It is important to not here that marrying and being given into marriage is simply the language used to describe what happens when a new marriage takes place. The former (marrying – γαμοῦσιν) is the active masculine component, and the latter (being given into marriage – γαμίζονται) is the feminine passive component. Both of these verbs appear in the present indicative, meaning that in reference to the time period in question (the resurrection age) they are happening presently. On a flat surface reading, this text is simply saying that during the time period “resurrection age” no one is getting married.
How Does this Answer the Sadducees
Now, none of this really matters if I cannot this answer to the Sadducees question. This is where it gets interesting.
Like his response in a similar encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus’ answer is to point out that they simply don’t actually understand Scripture. Their improper understanding of Scripture is what is causing the confusion. So what is their improper understanding of Scripture you say? I’m glad you asked.
The key is found within the very words of the Sadducees.
Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. (Luke 20:28, ESV)
The woman is still the wife of the first brother. The man is standing in as a substitute for the first brother, which is clear in the fact that legally the produced offspring is the heir of the first brother, not the substitute brother who sired him. This is because this heir is considered the offspring of the first brother, not the second, and the wife is still considered the wife of the first brother, not the second.
When we look at the original Levirate law, it is almost explicit.
If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:5-6, ESV, emphasis added)
What the text is indicating, which also bears out when you look in Hebrew, is that the second husband ought to commit the sexual act (here referred to as “taking her as a wife”) and produce offspring until the first son is born. That first son would be considered the son of the original husband. Note that the substitute brother is not “performing the duty of a husband” but of “a husband’s brother.” Throughout the whole process, he is still considered the brother of this woman’s husband, not the woman’s husband herself.
This tradition and understanding goes all the way back to the account of Tamar and Judah’s children in Genesis 38
Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. (Genesis 38:8-9, ESV, emphasis added)
We see three significant points. First, Judah is saying to Onan that the woman he is about to have sex with is still the wife of the brother, and in relation to her he is still her brother-in-law. Second, the offspring produced (presumably just the first born son, but that is not made explicit here) would belong to the Onan’s dead brother. Third, Onan knew and recognized this.
So what we see in reference to Jesus’ answer here is that, just as the Pharisees when they attempted to trap Jesus in a discussion surrounding marriage laws, that their question presupposes a faulty understanding of the Levirate law. They were under the impression that the woman became the wife of the second brother, then the third, then the fourth, and so on down to the seventh. However, in reality, the woman remained the wife of the original brother until the birth of the first born son (at which point, presumably, the substitute brother could claim her as his own and have his own children with her, or allow her to be a widow who now has an heir).
Now, what is interesting is that Jesus’ parting blow is not a statement about marriage, but about the resurrection. An interesting observation I have made when I have discussed this in the past is that most readers look at Jesus’ answer to them as an answer which is related to marriage. They go here to answer the same question that the Sadducees put to Jesus. What is the nature of marriage in the resurrection? However, they fail to notice that instead of answering that question, Jesus discerns that this is really a question about the resurrection itself.
Now, as you’ve noticed, I’ve drawn a parallel between this and Christ’s encounter with the Pharisees. Just like the Pharisees, the Sadducees fundamentally misunderstand something about the original intention of marriage. For the Pharisees, they fail to notice that divorce was given as a concession because of sinfulness, not as a matter of original design. I would content that something similar is happening in regards to the Sadducees. The original design of marriage was that it would be a permanent union of two persons, rooted in the very natural complementarity. This much we agree on. However, death was never a part of the original design. The only biblical evidence that I can see which would somehow indicate that Adam and Eve’s union would somehow have ended upon the completion of the Edenic probation… is an appeal to the very passage we are disputing. Had Adam (and by extension Eve) succeeded in their task and obtained immutable immortality, their marriage would continue until this day. The escape clause we include in our vows is “Till death do us part.” This is a mercy that was given to us by God, and I think it is legitimate. However, it was not part of the design.
Now, there is more I could say, but this is already growing past the length I intended. Allow me to summarize
1) We are like the angels primarily because we do not die
2) For some reason, which is unexplained by the text, this new status as immortal precludes new marriages from taking place
3) The Sadducees fundamentally misunderstood the Levarite custom, and this lead them to a malformed question intended to undercut the idea of the resurrection
4) Jesus identified this malformed question, and instead responded directly to their objection to the resurrection, dismissing the scaffolding of their question out of hand
5) The original intention of marriage was to be permanent, and thus the dissolution of marriage upon death is a concession
Now, of course, this leaves the question of “Whose wife is she?” on the table. What actually is the status of a woman or man who remarries after the death of their spouse? Honestly, I don’t know. I’m inclined to believe that because of the concession that has been given, that the person in question actually has two spouses. None of the polygamous relationships seen in the Bible were directed to dissolve their marriages, so we see that when human disobedience has resulted in a polygamous situation that the multiple marriages stand. I don’t believe that remarriage after death constitutes disobedience, but I see no reason why they would necessarily be dissolved.