Matthew 22.30 – In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.
Jesus’ discussion with the Sadducees about marriage and the resurrection is one of the most oft-quoted texts when it comes to understanding sex and marriage from the perspective of eternity. In engaging the Sadducees with regards to a skeptical question about a woman who had seven husbands, inquiring who she would be married to in the resurrection in order to suggest the ridiculousness of the idea, Jesus has two rebuttals to the question: to suggest they don’t understand what the Scriptures speak and that they do not understand God’s power. The fundamental error of their question is to assume marriage is part of life after the resurrection. Jesus instead suggests that there will be no marriage, but that people will be like the angels in heaven.
The meaning of this seems quite obscure at first glance. What is it about angels that have to do with marriage? Some apocalyptic traditions believed that there were fallen angels who had sexual relations with women that they believed to be chronicled in Genesis 6.1-4, which would suggest that the righteous angels did not transgress this boundary. However, it seems unlikely that Jesus has this tradition about angels in mind. It is more likely that he understands the stars that those that lead many people to righteousness in Daniel 12.1-3 as a reference to angelic figures (cf. Dan. 8.10).
It is here that I am going to offer a bit of speculation: the reason that Jesus suggests there will be no marriage in heaven is that the numerical expansion of God’s kingdom in the resurrection is not going to occur through procreation, but by bringing people into righteousness. Whereas the creation mandate to humanity was to be fruitful and multiply in order to subdue the earth as being in the image of God, the vocation of God’s imagine in the new creation is going to go through a radical shift: in the resurrection of life, people will be like the angels who are agents of God’s word to the peoples that leads them to worship and faith in God. The reference is not to some gender-less nature of angels, at least not on the surface, but rather that the new creation will not be bound by the reproductive necessities of the original creation.
This idea of bringing many to righteousness in the new creation might sound foreign to many evangelical ears who are accustomed to a binary judgment of either heaven or hell, but the way Revelation 21 reads suggests that not all the world except the chosen few will continue to live, but rather that there are specific types of persons who will never enter into the New Jerusalem. Yet, there is a tree of life whose leaves will be the healing of the nations (Revelation 22.2), as if the resurrection does not immediately address all the problems: there is still an ongoing process of healing, perhaps for those who are not part of the bridge of Christ but are not the the despicable characters who will never enter. In this context, those who who are resurrected to life will be instrumental in bringing those others to righteousness in the world to come. Speculative perhaps, but not without reason.
However, there is something more to this story than just procreation. The reference to a woman who had seven husbands who died is actually an allusion to a story in the Old Testament apocrypha. In Tobit 3.7-9, a woman named Sarah has had seven husbands, each of whom were killed by a demon Asmodeus. Sarah decided in 3.10-15 she was going to take her own life because of her disastrous fate, but eventually deciding to plead with God to take her life. All this is based upon the implied assumption that the value of a woman was in her status in being married and bearing children.
So, when Jesus approaches this allusion to the Pharisees, Jesus is doing something more than just saying marriage, and implicitly procreation, is not part of the resurrection. He is going further to say that in the resurrection, a person’s status, especially a female, is not going to be determined based upon their marital status. This explains why Jesus talks about there not being “marriage” or being “given in marriage,” as Jesus language takes on both the places of the male and female. Jesus is concerned about the status of the woman alongside the man in the resurrection.
It is at this point that is relevant to point out that Jewish views of marriage are a bit different from our modern practice of marriage. Today, marriage is principally an interpersonal covenant between two persons, usually being a male and a female as in most Christian traditions. Marriage is about the relationship of the two persons to each and, should they bear any children, their relationship to their progeny. Marriage in Judaism was more of a social contract and status before the community as much as it was an interpersonal relationship. It was even a relationship that was joined together by God. So, to suggest that there is not marriage in the resurrection is not necessarily to reject the idea of close interpersonal relationships in God’s Kingdom, but rather to counter the notion that there is any fixed relationship between a specific male and a specific female in the resurrection. People are not bound to marital relations in the resurrection.
The implications of this is this: this text is not about sex, per se, as it is often used as much as it is about the social relations that bind men and women together. Certainly, we might suggest be implication that there is no sex in the resurrection as we can image there will be no need for procreation, but this begins to pull this text into a direction that it doesn’t quite have the evidence to support it, unless one assumes the apocalyptic traditions about the fallen angels as being in the background for Jesus.
What I think we can suggest is this, though: the relationship between people in the new creation and resurrection are not going to be determined by the urges of sexual activity and the necessities of procreation. While sex and procreation are one of the most prominent bases for relationships throughout the entire world, this basis of relationships will not be present in the resurrection. Instead, based upon the New Testament as a whole, we can say there will be a new orientation: that of genuine love.
To be clear, there is plenty of genuine love today. Many people, married or unmarried, can show a deep concern of love for one another. When love is most fully realized in people’s lives it can produce a persistent, ongoing feeling of satisfaction and peace that is in the long run more pleasurable than sex. Think of a couple who has just fallen in love but they have not engaged in any sort of sexual activity. Their love for each other lifts them up and brings them to a state of jubilation. Of course, one might argue that this feeling of love is a romantic feeling that is developed in order to sexually pair people in the future. Yet, there are many relationships of non-sexual nature where people are deeply joyed at the presence of other people. Love, genuine love, brings about a deep joy in many people. However, because such love does not necessarily provide the strong, intense experience of pleasure that sex does, it is often not as strongly pursued as sex is. Often times love is used as a justification for sex because sex is often times a way that genuine love does get expressed. Yet, genuine love has a long lasting staying power that no merely biological activity can provide.
What is the point of this? That in the resurrection, we can suggest that there is a new orientation that will guide us: one based upon a deep joy at the presence of others. No longer will we be taught that our sexual preferences for women or men is the fundamental expression of who we are, but relationships based upon a deep sharing of life together, also known as koinonia, will flourish. This idea of right relationships goes right to the heart of what righteousness and shalom was for the Hebrews.
So, if we inspect what Jesus is getting at more closely, he isn’t suggesting that there will be a gender-less or even sex-less nature of the resurrection. Perhaps that will be the case and may be an implication of what Jesus is saying, but that stretches and obscures the point Jesus is getting at. Rather, Jesus seems to be intimating that the fundamental nature of human relationships are going to be changing so that people will act and live more like the angels do. Filling in the gaps with the rest of the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, the bonds of deep, genuine love will be the orientation of God’s people in the new creation and perhaps we can say that it is this love that will help to heal and restore the nations of those who are not part of the Bride of Christ but yet not cast into the lake of fire.
Perhaps the leaves of the trees of the New Jerusalem are an echo to the leaves used by Adam and Eve to cover their shame of their nakedness, but this time in reverse where the life had from the trees will become a source of healing of relationships rather than a covering of the relational shame Adam and Eve experienced because of their sin. If so, how else would this be accomplished except as an offering of love from those in the New Jerusalem to those who have to be healed in a way that they were not in Christ in this present life? Speculation I know, but yet one I deeply hope for.