No Marriage in Heaven?

I had the common “’till death do us part” phrase taken out of my wedding vows, replacing it with “’till God do us part.” The reason was partly because the phrase is odd in itself. Why would anyone, much less a Christian, give death power over one’s marriage? Death does not by itself dissolve a marriage, even if it makes a marriage soluble. But the other, more significant reason is that I am utterly unconvinced by the fundamental axiom of status quo Christianity that “there is no marriage in heaven.” This line is mindlessly parroted as if it were as obvious as the existence of the external world. The overbearing confidence derives from a naïve reading of the following passage:

That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matt 22:23-32)

The encounter is recorded in the other synoptics as well (Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-38). I want to ask two questions: Does this passage give us good reason to think that there will be no marriage in heaven? and Are there any reasons to think there will be marriage in heaven? Taking them in order, then:

I. Does this passage give us good reason to think that there will be no marriage in heaven?

The answer is no. The following points have been made before, but apparently they cannot be made enough.

1. The passage is not about angels or heaven. This is the first thing that needs to be said. I can’t say how many times I’ve heard it said that there is no marriage in heaven because we will be like the angels in that either (a) the angels are genderless (whereas marriage is between a man and a woman), or (b) the angels are immaterial, bodiless beings (whereas marriage, founded on the command to procreate, is rendered obsolete sans the possibility of physical intercourse).

This is a ridiculous interpretation, not least because it misses precisely what the passage is about; namely the status of the resurrected. The resurrected will have physical bodies. That’s what it means to be resurrected. Because it forgets this, it misidentifies the relevant respect in which the resurrected are like angels; i.e., being immortal (more on this below). The fact that the question on the minds of status quo Christians is always framed in terms of whether there will be marriage in heaven, as opposed to in the resurrection, is telling: the status quo interpretation is unduly influenced by a non-Christian, Platonic pie in the sky bye and bye idea of heaven. As such, the interpretation is also absurd because it makes grand, unwarranted assumptions about the nature of angels and “heaven.”

1.1. Nothing in the Bible compels us to think of angels as genderless or bodiless. If anything, angels always appear to be male. But more interestingly, the characteristics ascribed to angels in the Bible bear an uncanny resemblance to the characteristics of the resurrected body: (i) angels can appear and disappear similar to how the resurrected Christ is said to; (ii) on at least one occasion, Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance inspired fear and terror in the minds of the disciples, just as an angelophany might (Cf. Luke 24:1-5); (iii) angles, like Paul’s description of the resurrected body, are radiant with glory, powerful, and immortal; (iv) Jesus, when he ascended to heaven, didn’t slough off his acquired human nature. This means that heaven, even now, must be compatible with having a physical body, at least a supernatural one like Christ’s resurrected body (taking Christ’s resurrected body as paradigmatic, it might also suggest gender is retained). So, the fact that Jesus says the angels are in heaven does not mean the angels are in an immaterial, bodiless state. (It hardly needs to be added that this is not to say one becomes an angel upon being resurrected; no, just that but how the resurrected are said to be like angels may well include having a supernatural body.)

1.2. “Heaven,” in fact, is mentioned merely en passant and bears no rhetorical weight for the point Jesus is making. N. T. Wright comments on the passage:

This last phrase does not mean ‘they, like angels, are in heaven’. It does not refer, that is, to the location of the resurrected ones, however easy it is for late western minds to assume that it should. After all, had first-century Jews believed that people ‘went to heaven when they died’, they might well have supposed that marriage continued in that sphere; mentioning the location of the departed would not have made Jesus’ point. Rather, as some later scribes tried to make clear, it means ‘they are like the angels who are in heaven’, or, if you prefer, ‘they are like the angels (who happen to be in heaven)’, as I might say to my nephew in London, ‘You are just like your cousin (who happens to be in Vancouver).’ (Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 421-422)

It could be that the only reason Jesus mentioned angles and heaven at all was to take an additional swipe at the Sadducees, as it is thought that they also denied the existence of angels and any notion of a lively afterlife. You could delete the entire “like the angels in heaven” clause from all three accounts and no part of Jesus’ point would be lost. Pointing out that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the living is sufficient for making the point about immortality. This consideration alone exposes just how flaccid this status quo Christian axiom is, based solely as it is on an afterthought clause of eight words.

2. The passage is about Levirate marriage, not necessarily marriage generally. The problem the Sadducees present is premised on the Levirate practice where a man takes his childless widowed sister-in-law as his wife to ensure that his deceased brother’s bloodline will not die with him. Once this is understood, the relevant sense in which the resurrected will be like angels, as Luke’s account makes clear, is clear: they will be immortal (Luke 20:36). What could be more obvious: if you are immortal, there is no need to beget children to carry on your lineage. Wright explains:

The Levirate law, quite explicitly, had to do with continuing the family line when faced with death … A key point, often unnoticed, is that the Sadducees’ question is not about the mutual affection and companionship of husband and wife, but about how to fulfill the command to have a child, that is, how in the future life the family line will be kept going. This is presumably based on the belief, going back to Genesis 1.28, that the main purpose of marriage was to be fruitful and multiply. …[T]he question about the Levirate law is irrelevant to the question of the resurrection, because in the new world that the creator god will make there will be no death, and hence no need for procreation. Jesus has addressed the question’s presupposition, undermining the need to ask it in the first place. (Ibid., p. 423)

Similarly, Ben Witherington:

Where there is no death, there is no need or purpose either to begin or to continue a Levirate marriage. The question the Sadducees raise is inapplicable to the conditions in the new age. On this interpretation Jesus is answering specifically the case in point without necessarily saying anything about marriage apart from Levarite marriage. (Women in the Teaching of Jesus, p. 34)

So, Jesus is at least saying that the resurrected will not participate in Levirate marriage. Witherington further suggests two reasons to think Jesus’ response did in fact concern only Levirate marriage. “Perhaps, like many of the rabbis,” Witherington muses, “Jesus distinguished between marriage contracted purely for propagation and name preservation, and the normal form of marriage” (p. 34). This is more likely than not given that “Jesus recognized that non-Levarite marriage had a more substantial origin, purpose and nature than merely the desire to propagate and maintain a family name” (ibid.). Second, Witherington senses “a negative evaluation of Levirate marriage” in Jesus’ response to the Sadducees’ question, which “would further support His attempts to give a woman greater security and dignity in a normal marriage, and give her the freedom to feel that raising up a seed through Levirate marriage was not a necessity” (p. 35). Levirate marriage, like other Deuteronomic laws, fell out of use once the conditions for its institution became less common. By Jesus’ day, life expectancy was higher and clan identity was less palpable.

3. But even supposing Jesus is making a point about marriage generally, it is a point of limited scope. If marriage in general is in view, we can at most infer that the act of getting married will not occur in the resurrection. Witherington points out that the terms for “marry” (γαμοῦσιν) and “be given in marriage” (γαμίζονται) “reveal that the act of marrying, not necessarily the state of marriage, is under discussion. Thus, the text is saying, no more marriages will be made, but this is not the same as saying that all existing marriages will disappear in the eschatological state” (p. 34).

To summarize our answer to the first question: It’s not clear from this passage that Jesus had marriage in general in mind, as opposed to just Levirate marriage, and even if he did, it does not amount to unrestricted abolition of marriage in the resurrection.

II. Are there any reasons to think there will be marriage in heaven the Resurrection?

We should agree that there is no marriage in the resurrection insofar as its purpose is to procreate in the face of death. But it is hardly insignificant that marriage was instituted prior to the fall; i.e., before death had entered the world. The institution of marriage forms a union grounded in God and the created order He calls good. We cannot equate, then, a deathless world with either a marriageless world or a world without procreation. If God is about re-storation and re-creation, undoing what sin and death has done, there may well be other purposes for marriage and/or procreation in heaven, such as a sui generis form of companionship. If you’re tempted to rejoin, “but the resurrected will have no need for companionship other than God!” I will agree, but note that God saw that it was good to give Adam a companion despite the fact that He was already with Adam in the garden. And it’s not that Adam needs a companion; it’s rather that God showers upon Adam blessings well beyond necessity. Indeed, God didn’t need to create. But he did. God’s act of creation, and His command for us to be fruitful and multiply, illustrates well the Medieval dictum that bonum est diffusivum sui: it is the nature of goodness to spread itself out. The unity of marriage is not only good, but very good. And if the Genesis narrative tells us anything, it’s that disrupting unity is not good.

I’m not saying this is a decisive reason to think there will be marriage in the resurrection. But the possibility is worth taking seriously. At any rate, we can safely conclude with Witherington that

Nowhere in the Synoptic accounts of this debate are we told that we become sexless, without gender distinctions like the angels, or that all marital bonds created in this age are dissolved in the next. The concept of bodily resurrection indicates that there is some continuity between this age and the next which leaves the door open for continuity in the existence of marriage (p. 35).

More can and has been said. See excellent discussions here and here and here and here.