Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Difficult Passages: Marriage in heaven

I was talking to a friend the other day, and he mentioned that he has always struggled with the passage in Matthew 22:23-33. In it, Jesus says that when we all get to heaven, we are neither married nor given in marriage, just like the angels.

For those who have good marriages, this passage can cause a lot of anxiety. Do we not rejoin with our spouses and kids when we get to heaven? Considering the Bible's frequent focus on familial relationships, something just doesn't feel right about that interpretation.

Hopefully I can shed some light on this passage. But keep in mind - I am no theologian. This is something that "I think I think", not something I know. If you don't find it helpful, just throw it out.

1. The context of the passage is key
First, let's begin by reading the passage (link above). What is the scenario here? Jesus is being questioned by the Sadducees. The Sadducees were a sect of Jews who did not believe that there was a resurrection; as you can imagine, Jesus walking around talking about eternal life was a bit of a problem to their theological system. So they were trying to come up with a scenario where they could trap Him into saying something that they could disprove.

So, they pull out the Law. According to the Law, if a man died childless then his brother would marry his wife. While this may seem odd to us today, you must understand the time to see how brilliantly graceful this law was to the ancient Jews. In the ancient Near Eastern cultures in which the Jews of the Old Testament arose, a woman was a second-class citizen, incapable of owning property. Their primary role in the family was to provide heirs to inherit the property of the father. This consequently also meant that they were much less valuable if they were not virgins; for otherwise, they could potentially have other children, and thus complicate the inheritance issue.

So, if a man died without children in the ancient world, his widow would be left in a very dangerous situation: the property rights would pass to his nearest male relative (his brother), and his wife would be a non-virgin woman with no property. The brother-marriage Law protects the widow, by ensuring that the man who inherits her husband's property (the brother) also marries her, and therefore has the responsibility to take care of her.

Keep in mind that the primary reason for the Law is clear: to ensure the security of the widow. It ensures that the person who owns her home also is responsible for being her husband.

Returning to our story, then, the Sadducees try to use this law to trip up Jesus. They create a scenario where a woman goes through this process seven times, being married to all seven brothers in her life. So, when they go to the afterlife, who is her husband?

It is critical that you understand the context of this question.

When we read this passage today, we tend to read it with our modern context in mind. So we read we project our happy marriages and interpret it as though the Sadducees were asking Jesus if our relationships continue into heaven. In light of that reading, Jesus' answer is shocking and seems strange.

But in light of the context of the time, it makes much more sense. Remember, the primary question is - who will take care of the widow, and who will ensure that she gets appropriate property rights and protection?

So to be more clear, let's paraphrase this in light of the context. What the Sadducees were essentially saying is this: "Jesus, a woman was passed down in seven marriages per the Law. When she gets to heaven, who is going to take care of her? Which brother is responsible for being her leader? To whom is she bound?"

Now in light of the context of what ancient Near Eastern marriages were, do you see that Jesus' answer is actually not at all surprising to us (though certainly was to them). Jesus says that marriage (as they know it) does not exist in heaven. The widow will not be bound to a husband, or get her value through her husband's reputation. She will not be subserviant to him. Why? Because that isn't how heaven works. We are all the brides of Christ - subserviant only to Him, provided for by Him, taken care of by Him.

We tend to read this passage as Jesus saying that our loving relationships end when we get to heaven. And maybe that's what He is saying, but that isn't how I read it. In light of the context, Jesus is making the point that the Law relating to which brother 'owns' the widow is not relevant to heaven. Notice what He says as proof: "You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God." How are they wrong? Because they are missing the reason for the Scriptures, and that God is powerful enough that heaven is a completely different concept than what the Sadducees were picturing - a sort of eternal ancient Near East.

2. The Bible overwhelming demonstrates that we will reunite with our families and friends in heaven.
In 2 Samuel, David was mourning while his infant son was deathly sick. But when David's infant son dies, he does something really interesting - he stops mourning. When he is asked why, David says that he cannot bring his son back--"but I can go to him." David fully anticipated, based on his knowledge of God and Scripture, that he would be reunited in heaven with him. When someone in the Old Testament died, they were said to be "gathered to his people"--that is, reunited with his family (Gen 25:8; 35:29; 49:29; Num 20:24; Jud 2:10). Luke 22 implies that Jesus and His disciples would sit around and share a glass of wine in heaven together. In 1 Thessalonians 4:17, the apostle Paul writes to comfort those who feared their dead loved ones would miss the return of Christ; Paul says that those in the grave would be raised and meet together with us in the air to meet the Lord.

Will our relationships be different? Of course. We will all have bodies free from our sin nature. We will all be one giant family - bonded together by our faith, adopted into heaven.

But do not fear that when your life ends, you will melt away like a drop of water into an ocean. Your love for your wife, or husband, or kids, will still be there, and you can be together for all eternity.

3. New relationships do not destroy old ones.
Consider the way the relationships you have experienced actually work. When we gain a new relationship, it does not destroy the others. Take my wife for example. She was Jessica, daughter of Michael Z and Margie Z. Then she married me. She now became Jessica, daughter of Michael Z and Margie Z, AND wife of Michael B. Marrying me did not end her relationship as their daughter - it was an addition, not a subtraction.

Then she had two sons. Now she is Jessica, daughter of Michael Z and Margie Z, wife of Michael B, AND mother of Alex and Ryan. When she became a mother, we were no longer "just a husband and wife". Our lives and marriage changed dramatically. But she didn't become a mother instead of a wife...she became both.

That is how I have always pictured heaven. We do not stop being married to those to whom we were married per se...but marriage is different. It's not the same. Because now our primary relationship is our relationship with God directly - but just as getting married on earth does not mean your parents disown you, I think that so too does your 'marriage' to God not result in a 'divorce' from your existing spouse.

Jessica may be married, but she is still the daughter of her parents. She may be a mother, but she is still my wife. The new relationships did not destroy the old, but added to them. I think the same is true of heaven.

4. Relax and trust.
I have heard faith described as a trust transfer with God, and I think that is an apt description. If you are a Christ-follower, then you believe that God is good, and that He loves you, and that He has the power to do anything.

So, to some extent...relax and try not to worry. If you start to feel anxiety, then pray to God. Be honest with Him. Tell Him what you hope will happen. Tell Him what you fear about that passage. He may give you peace about it; He may not. But there is nothing wrong with being honest with God that you don't understand without being unfaithful.

Faith means that you trust that God is good and will do the right thing. Trust in Him. I have complete confidence that when we get to heaven, we will be thrilled with what He chose - He will give us what we need. Trust in that--this is the heart of faith.