Heaven, Marriage & Resurrection – Sadducees & the Widow

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Will there be marriage in heaven? Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees about the widow married to seven deceased husbands needs to be understood in light of some important truths about the resurrection and the afterlife.

Given their history, it seems rather strange.  After all, for hundreds of years the Jews lived alongside a race that was totally preoccupied with life after death.  The Egyptians built pyramids that were wonders of the ancient world.  But their sole purpose was to launch their leaders into the next world.

Yet the Jews really had no concept of eternal life in heaven.  Oh, they believed in Sheol (aka Hades) but the shadowy, underworld existence of departed souls could not properly be called “life.”  For the Jews, unlike the Greeks and Egyptians, the soul really could not have true existence apart from the body.  A human being, in their understanding, did not just have a body.  It was not just a vehicle that the soul drove around town.  No, the body is part of the person.  The body is the person.

Sadducees & Marriage in Heaven

So finally, when about 150 years before Christ a group of pious Jews, later called Pharisees, came to believe in life after death, they instinctively knew that the body had to be involved.  Salvation was not to finally be free of the body and enjoy bliss as angelic souls, but rather the resurrection of the body.

The religious establishment of Judaism never bought this.  To this day, most Jews don’t have a definite belief in life after death.  In Jesus’ time, the conservatives, including the priests, were called the Sadducees.  In Luke 20: 27-38 a group of them presented to Jesus a scenario designed to publicly discredit this silly belief in the resurrection.  In this world, death of a spouse frees a woman to marry another.  What if she is made a widow six times and marries a seventh?  In the resurrection, all will be alive at the same time–who’s wife will this widow be?

As they snicker, the Lord Jesus exposes the problem.  These Sadducees assume the resurrection will be a mere resuscitation, a return to bodily life as we currently experience it.  But Jesus points out our risen bodies will be different than they are now.  Our bodies now are mortal, vulnerable, actually rather fragile.  A lifetime of great nutrition and disciplined exercise can be instantaneously ruined by a sudden rendezvous with an 18-wheeler.

In the resurrection, we’ll become like the angels in this way–our bodies will no longer be mortal or vulnerable.  I don’t know about you, but for me, that will make quite a difference in my lifestyle and daily routine.

Eternal Relationships

Marriage is a love relationship for sure.  But it is also an institution that is bound up with realities of mortal life. Reproduction is necessary because we someday will die and need to raise up replacements to carry on.  In heaven, we won’t need to worry about the survival of the species or the family name.  Paying the bills and balancing the budget is a big part of the institution of marriage and family as we know them.  But keep in mind we’ve got to go to work to pay bills that we just won’t need to worry about in the afterlife.   Medical insurance is just not necessary when you are immortal.

marriage photo loving elderly couple

But there are things about marriage that will last forever.  Marriage points beyond itself to eternal realities.  God  is a community of persons who ceaselessly give themselves one to another in love.  We are made in the image of this triune God which means that we are made for self-giving love.  Marriage is a realization of this vocation as well as a symbol of an even greater love relationship–the marriage between God and His people, Christ and His Church.

So there are things about this life, and about marriage, that will last forever.  And things that will pass away.  Heaven will be not just more of the same, but a transformation of life, a launching into a new realm of life, a life of eternal love of God and one another that will be more exciting than we can possibly imagine.

This post on the Sadducees opposition to the resurrection examines their discussion with Jesus about the widow of seven husbands.  This post on marriage and heaven is offered as a reflection on the scripture readings for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle C (2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14 2 Thes. 2:16-3:5 Luke 20:27-40).

Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio
From a colorful and varied background as a professor of theology, a father of five, business owner, and professional performer Marcellino D’Ambrosio (aka “Dr. Italy”) crafts talks, blog posts, books, and videos that are always fascinating, practical, and easy to understand.  He is a TV and radio personality, New York Times best-selling author, speaker, and pilgrimage host who has been leading people on a journey of discovery for over thirty years.  For complete bio and video, visit the Dr. Italy page.
  • Delphi Programmer

    Why do you paint such a mundane picture of marriage? If marriage is just paying bills and buying medical insurance then of course no one would miss it. But what about falling in love, that first kiss, splashing through the waves or running through fields of flowers together? If you’ve ever watched a Filipino love story you’d know what I’m talking about. When God created Eve for Adam he said, “This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”. In modern language he probably would have said, “Wow!”. Why is all of this so frivolously tossed aside as being “worldly” or “fleshly”, and we’re constantly beat over the head with this idea that it’s not in Heaven because it’s “not needed”… because there’s no “need” for reproduction, because we’ll be with Jesus and there’s no “need” to fall in love or have human companionship. I just find it hard to accept that God will abolish a relationship that He created in the beginning as a core part of our expeirence, and we would have enjoyed forever had we never fallen into sin in the first place, because sin “ruined” it.

    There are other possible beliefs about why Jesus said what he did to the Sadducees. One scenario is that the woman in their story did not willfully marry seven brothers, she was required to by Jewish law. The trick the Sadducees played on Jesus is that the law required her to marry multiple men, but the same law forbade a woman from marrying multiple men who are living. If there was a resurrection then she breaks the law no matter what she does… if she doesn’t marry the brothers she breaks her marriage vow, if she does then she’s a polygamist. God wouldn’t create a law that forces people to sin, therefore there’s no resurrection. That was their argument. If that’s true, then Jesus may only be addressing the “law of Moses” kind of marriage, not the original relationship that God created in the Garden of Eden. We will still have love relationships between men and women in Heaven, just not “marriage” as the Sadducees knew it, with all of the contractual restrictions that it entailed.

    I’m just laying that out as one possible belief that some people hold, albiet a minority one. The “no marriage in Heaven” doctrine as it’s taught by the mainstream church has been a greater source of backsliding and falling away from God than you realize. I personally know victims of that teaching, both in person and in my online encounters.

  • Marcellino D’Ambrosio

    This post does not reduce marriage to the mundane; the word mundane comes from the word “world.” The point is that here are mundane and this-worldly dimensions of marriage that won’t last in heaven, like chores, bills, and reproduction. Marriage between one man and one woman is not just a love relationship. It is an institution and a sacrament. The same is true of the Church. In the new heavens and the new earth of the resurrection, there will be no need for institutions or sacraments. These things on earth facilitate intimate communion with God and with one another which is the real point of it all. Heaven is about total fulfillment in perfect communion with God and others, including our best friend in earthly life, our spouse.