Is there marriage in heaven?
It seems that most Christians will tell you “no” based on Jesus words in Matthew 22:23-33 and it’s parallel account in Luke 20:27-40. I’ll copy both here for the sake of convenience.
According to Matthew:
The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.
But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.
According to Luke:
There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “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. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward, the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”
And Jesus said to them, “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 the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage abou the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him. Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask him any question.
Now, it’s easy to see why so many conclude that there will not be marriage in heaven based on Jesus’ words here. For one, it would provide a clear rebuttal of the Sadducees–their riddle being pointless in an afterlife without marriage. For another, if you lift Jesus words and set them apart from the story, “no marriage in the resurrection” is precisely what it sounds like.
But as I wrote a few weeks ago, I’m skeptical of that take. The more I looked at these texts, the less convinced I became that the common interpretation is the correct one.
First, I have to be honest. I’m looking at these verses so closely because I don’t like the idea that marriage won’t exist in heaven. God’s Word taught me the value of marriage and its centrality to human nature. Accordingly, I find it odd that it also says this very good thing will pass away in the next life–especially when you consider how many people have been deprived of it altogether in this fallen world. God said that in the new heavens and new earth, he would make all things new–not phase out literally the first thing he ever told us to do that lies at the heart of our being made in the image of God.
But I must also remember that sometimes God does things that don’t make sense to fallen mortals like myself. His thoughts are higher than my thoughts, and his ways are higher than my ways. I’ve written before that saying “God would never do X” without Scriptural warrant really just means “I would never do X if I were God.” And since we’re not God, that’s not a terribly meaningful judgment. I see other people make that mistake all the time, so I can hardly consider myself immune to it. When God tells us things we don’t want to hear, our response should be faith seeking understanding. We know what He said and we know He is Good. We need to pray for wisdom to understand the ‘why’.
All that said, attempting to understand why involves meditating on His Word. In doing so, I found a number of textual problems with the usual interpretation that marriage will no longer exist in Paradise:
- If you read Jesus’ words in Luke that way, the implication is that we won’t marry in heaven because we won’t die anymore in heaven. In other words, it argues that marriage is not needed where there is no death. (Usually, people add in the speculation that because no one’s dying, we no longer need children to keep the population going.) But marriage very clearly did exist before death in the Garden. It was even commanded, and thus necessary in that sense. So that explanation would put Jesus’ argument at odds with the rest of Scripture.
- It doesn’t explain why Jesus changed verb tenses. The Sadducees asked whose wife will the widow be. But Jesus answers in the present tense: they “marry and are given in marriage” and they “neither marry nor are given in marriage”. He also doesn’t talk about the people after the resurrection, but Luke specifies people considered (present tense) worthy to attain to the resurrection. The implication is that they haven’t been resurrected yet. In short, grammatically, Jesus is not talking about a future reality like the Sadducees were, but a present one.
- It really makes the angel comparison senseless. It’s worth noting that the Sadducees didn’t believe in angels anymore than they did in the resurrection, so Jesus is apparently trolling them to some extent here. But many have speculated that the comparison works because angels are sexless. Jesus, however, specifies in Luke that the similarity to angels is a matter of immortality and status (“equal to angels,” “sons of God”) rather than a hypothetical sexless nature. What’s more, angels are another subject we don’t know much about Scripturally, and this would be the only statement we have suggesting that they are sexless. With that in mind, Jesus’ comparison would mean practically nothing. That doesn’t sit right, especially when Jesus tells them in Matthew’s account that they’re wrong because they don’t know the Scriptures or God’s power.
- This explanation has Jesus answering the Sadducees by giving them a glimpse into a heretofore unknown detail about life in the hereafter. As the Son of God, Jesus certainly has access to insider knowledge and has shown himself willing to share it as he sees fit. But again, that isn’t exactly congruent with his condemnation of the Sadducees in Matthew–that they’re wrong because they don’t know the Scriptures. Wouldn’t his answer to them therefore be in reference to something either stated by Scripture or reasonably deduced from it?
When an explanation doesn’t fit the facts very well, it’s generally not a good explanation. Seeking to understand Christ’s words means finding a better one. So let’s look closely at those words and get a better idea of what he’s saying to us.
So who exactly is Jesus talking about here? “Those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead” according to Luke’s more detailed account. Notice that he’s not talking about people after the resurrection, but people who are (present tense) considered worthy of it. These are not current citizens of the new heaven and the new earth which will come after the old heaven and earth pass away, but those who will be there. He contrasts them with “sons of this age” who marry and are given in marriage (present tense), so we know he’s not referring to those of us on earth. They are people who are now alive, but they are not living on this earth among those who marry, and they are not yet living in the new heaven and the new earth after the resurrection.
Accordingly, we can conclude that Jesus is talking about those who have already died in Christ and now live with Him in heaven awaiting the Second Coming, the Resurrection of the dead, the final judgement, and the new heavens and the new earth. What exactly is this interim state like? We don’t know too much, but they are at rest, they are in paradise, and their state is temporary.
This interpretation is bolstered by Jesus’ follow-up comment to the Sadducees. They only accepted the five books of Moses, so Jesus proved the Resurrection from those alone by pointing out that God told Moses that He is (present tense) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not only is Jesus also being very sensitive to Scripture’s verb tenses, he speaks of three men who are in that same intermediate state. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob live with the rest of the saints awaiting the resurrection. So that is a category he’s already using in this same conversation.
What does Jesus say about them? “They neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Again, notice the present tense on these verbs, and notice that Jesus is deliberately using a different tense than the one used in the Sadducees’ riddle. He does not say that they will not marry. He says that right now, they do not.
I believe we can also conclude that the saints in glory are not currently married either. First, because the natural understanding of Christ’s words as a rebuttal of the Sadducees’ dilemma is that the woman isn’t wife to any of the seven brothers at the moment. Second, it fits with Paul’s testimony in Romans 7 that death severs the bond between husband and wife. Third, it fits with Scripture’s description of the nature of marriage as a one-flesh union: There can be no one-flesh union when that flesh has been destroyed, and Scripture says nothing of the saints in heaven possessing any kind of intermediate bodies before the resurrection.
Therefore, if we read Jesus’ words carefully, he does not say that the resurrected men and women in the new heavens and new earth will never again marry–that marriage will be phased out of human nature. Rather, he says the saints in glory awaiting the final judgment are not married or marrying right now.
With that understanding, the angel comparison makes a lot more sense. In Acts, Luke says that the Sadducees don’t believe in angels or spiritual beings. But Jesus is telling them that the saints in heaven they don’t believe in are just like these other spiritual creatures they don’t believe in. They are immortal just like angels. They are equal in status to angels as well–sons of God. It’s quite irreverent to the Sadducees, of course, but it answers their objection by referring precisely to the qualities they don’t like about spiritual beings. Plus, it doesn’t require adding extra-biblical concepts like angels being sexless.
So what then does Jesus say here about marriage in the new heaven and the new earth? Nothing! I believe he is deliberately speaking only of the intermediate state after death and before the resurrection. And it is quite natural that marriage is irrelevant to that spiritual state. But none of that suggests that there will be no marriage after the resurrection when we will once again be embodied. Our bodies will be glorified and imperishable, but will still be human, still be male or female, and still possess the perfect nature God designed in Eden–a nature that included a man and a woman uniting as one flesh. Man being alone in that respect was the only thing in Eden that God said was not good.
Is this the only possible understanding of Jesus’ words? No. It is, however, better than the common one. It fits with the immediate context. It fits with the rest of Scripture. It makes sense of Jesus’ change in verb tense. It makes the angel comparison sensible. It could be deduced from Old Testament teachings about one-flesh unions and bodily death. And as far as I know, it doesn’t introduce any new problems.
There is a lot about the next world we don’t know, and we are very limited in our attempts to metaphysically categorize the afterlife. But whatever the details are–and whatever form marriage does (or even doesn’t) take, we know that world will be perfect. We don’t know that because we’ve figured out enough about it to approve. We know it because of who God is. So if my understanding is in error, I’m not particularly worried. God’s got me either way. Nevertheless, I will continue to make sense of his words as best I can according to the wisdom given to me thus far.