It may surprise you to know, but even as late as Jesus’ lifetime the Jewish people were divided as to whether there was eternal life after death. The early books of the Old Testament say little about it, and even some of our most cherished texts are ambiguous: the last verse of Psalm 23 actually says: ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord for long days,’ which is shorthand for ‘the rest of my life’ – but Christian bible translators quickly started rendering it as ‘forever’. That’s true, of course: we now believe it is forever – but it’s not the literal meaning of what King David wrote, just our Christian tweak!
The group which represented those who still weren’t sure there was life after death were the Sadducees. They were largely wealthy and well-educated, and their objections were partly intellectual. The idea of eternity left them with awkward riddles they couldn’t solve, such as the one they posed to Jesus: if someone marries more than once, which spouse do they have in heaven for eternity?
Jesus’ reply is challenging on numerous levels. First, unlike the previous two posers, he does answer their question directly (which in itself indicates that he treated this as a genuine approach, and not just a trap): but the reply is not what they (or perhaps we) were expecting. There won’t be marriage in heaven, because there won’t need to be. Marriage is a gift for this world, a source of love, stability and blessing for humanity (at least it should be): but in heaven, when we are made perfect in love, security and are fully free to bless and be blessed, then marriage’s job is done. The only marriage described in heaven is between God and his people (Revelation 21:2).
For those of us who are fortunate to enjoy happy marriages, this should give us pause for thought as to how we imagine eternity. I do believe that we will still retain deep and ongoing relationships of love with those we hold dear on this earth: but we need to beware transplanting images of our ‘nuclear family’ straight into heaven. We talk often about being reunited with loved ones: but Jesus is clear in this passage that the glorious fabric of heaven will mean these relationships take on a different form. But this is not bad news, quite the reverse: our lives will be so complete that every relationship will be full of love and life.
Jesus goes further: he also reminds the Sadducees that God described his relationship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to Moses 400+ years later in the present tense. So, in fact, for those who looked closely at the Scriptures, the idea of eternal life was there all along. That’s why he chastised their lack of useful study and also their doubt in the life-giving power of God.
Today, you may want to think a bit about how you imagine heaven: it may be hard initially to get your head around what Jesus is teaching here. Pray for God to enlighten and encourage you, as well as for grace to accept the ‘unknowns’ of eternity. Either way, may this thought lift our hearts today: God is the God of the living! He is your God, now and forever – yes, forever!