Jesus on Marriage and the Afterlife

by William E. Phipps

Dr. Phipps is professor of religion and philosophy at Davis and Elkins College, Elkins, West Virginia.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 3, 1985, pp. 327-328. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The nature of life after death, like the nature of God, transcends all of our conceptions. But New Testament theology assures us that it is not less than the happiest life of communal caring and sharing that we can now experience or conceive.

Jesus eschatological assertion was a response to a skeptical question raised by Sadducees during his last week in Jerusalem. They found no basis for a doctrine of resurrection in the "books of Moses," the only scriptures they recognized as authoritative. Quite accurately, that priestly party recognized that the concept of an individual afterlife arose long after the Pentateuch was written.

Apocalyptic Judaism introduced into the Palestinian culture the idea of a postmortem revival of the body. The Book of Daniel contains this forecast: "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (12:2). That late Hebrew outlook was developed during the era when Persia dominated Western Asia. The Persian prophet Zoroaster taught that there would be a life after death, its pleasures and pains similar to those experienced in this life. An eternity of happy marriage and sensuous pleasures would reward the righteous. Apocalyptic Judaism may also have been influenced by ideas from the opposite end of the fertile crescent. Egyptians believed in an afterlife in which wives and lands would bear abundantly.

Baruch’s Apocalypse is a good example of the materialistic ideas about the afterlife that were popular during Jesus’ time: "The earth shall then assuredly restore the dead which it now receives, in order to preserve them. It shall make no change in their form" (50:1-4). Some Pharisaic rabbis assumed that marriage and propagation would continue unchanged in the life after death. Their party tended to believe that there would be a reanimation of relics at the time of divine judgment.

The conservative Sadducees scorned the newfangled notions that apocalyptic Judaism had imported from alien cultures. To ridicule the doctrines of the rival Pharisaic party, they added a stinging question to an old Jewish tale. Tobit had told a story about seven husbands who died in succession shortly after marrying the same bride. The Sadducees asked Jesus which one of them would be married to the widow in the afterlife. Rather than seeking information, they were trying to trap Jesus into advocating an idea that was both nontraditional and absurd. Enraged by his denunciation of the temple commercialization in which they were engaged, these priests struck back in this and other ways.

Since through most of its history the church has championed a doctrine of physical resurrection similar to that of apocalyptic Judaism. Christians have found the Sadducees’ question difficult and Jesus’ answer baffling. Several quite different attempts have been made to solve this interpretive puzzle.

The feminist interpretation is the most recent. Ruth Barnhouse thinks Jesus is saying that the patriarchal marriage system is obsolete in heaven (Male and Female: Christian Approaches to Sexuality [Seabury, 1976] pp. 233-34). In that ideal realm a woman has autonomy and is not treated as a possession to be "given in marriage" to groom after groom. Sexism is intrinsic to the Sadducees’ story, for there would have been no dilemma had matriarchal polyandry rather than patriarchal polygyny been sanctioned in ancient Israel. Under polyandry the woman could have been married eternally to all seven men at once!

Though Jesus treated women as the equals of men, the thrust of his criticism of the Sadducees’ position lies elsewhere. The case they presented involves the levirate custom, a means for elevating a widow’s low status. To relieve social shame and economic deprivation, a brother was obliged to provide offspring for a childless, widowed sister-in-law. This surrogate-father system strengthened the possibility of family continuity. The Book of Ruth demonstrates that a woman’s dignity in ancient Israel was enhanced by the levirate custom.

In the course of church history, Jesus response to the Sadducees has most often been interpreted as favoring celibacy. From the third-century church father Cyprian, through Vatican II, the prevailing Roman Catholic interpretation has been that those who preserve their virginal chastity are vanguards of a realm where people will be like sexless, pure angels. Max Thurian, a Protestant monk, has stated: "Celibacy is related to the resurrection of the dead: it is a sign of eternity, of incorruptibility and of life" Marriage and Celibacy [Allenson, 1959]. p.115).

In one of the earliest comments on Mark 12:25, Clement of Alexandria rejected this interpretation. He recognized that, since the marital state had been blessed by Jesus, his words here should not be read as a denigration of marriage. Clement discerned that Jesus’ criticism was directed not against marriage but against a carnal interpretation of the resurrection. By a reductio ad absurdum, Clement reasoned that monks who reject marriage because it involves physical intercourse, which is not a part of the everlasting life, should also abstain from eating or drinking.

In recent years a growing consensus has maintained that what Jesus is saying about resurrection is distinctively different from either the feminist or the celibate interpretations. According to this emerging viewpoint, in contrast to the Sadducees, Jesus is asserting that there is a life after death and, in contrast to the Pharisees, he is saying that it is not a carbon copy of earthly life. As generally institutionalized, marriage bonds a man and a woman from unrelated families in order to provide the genetic diversity and lengthy nurture needed by their anticipated offspring. Sidney Callahan suggests that in contrast to this exclusive sexual union, the resurrected life is inclusive. This Catholic writer expresses her heavenly ideal in this way: "The ecstasy of male-female coupling could be expanded to all human relationships" (Beyond Birth Control [Sheed & Ward, 1968]. p. 6).

The life of the earliest Christian community, in Jerusalem. may afford a clue to this more inclusive life. These Christians were able, at least temporarily, to expand the communal bond of ideal family life by sharing their possessions, transcending a mine-thine dichotomy, they received from members according to their abilities and gave to them according to their needs. Similarly, in the resurrected community, the harmonious give and take of a happy family will be expanded to all so that all will be in perfect concord.

One of Paul’s letters to the Christians at Corinth provides help in understanding Jesus’ resurrection doctrine. Although raised a Pharisee, the apostle did not accept the idea of a "flesh and blood" resurrection. To him, the afterlife was not a mere continuation of the physical life of eating and reproducing, he believed that humans cannot fully imagine what has been prepared for those who love God. Since love abides forever as an attribute of God, in the deathless life with Christ personal relationships will be more loving than they are in this life.

Sentiments similar to Paul’s have occasionally been expressed by other Christians. In the famous sonnet beginning "How do I love thee?" Elizabeth Barrett Browning ponders the profundity of her love for Robert. and then concludes: "If God chooses. I shall but love thee better after death." In his Bottom Line Catechism for Contemporary Catholics, Father Andrew Greeley likewise asserts: "We will love one another in the resurrected life even more intensely, even more joyfully than we do in the present life. . . . It is utterly unthinkable that there would not be between those who work close to one another on earth an even more powerful and more rewarding intimacy in the life of the resurrection" (Thomas More, 1982. pp. 105-106). Thus the best way to gain insight into the hereafter is to extrapolate on the deepest earthly love. Marital loves will become something wonderfully inclusive and intense as persons move from the provisional material sphere to the permanent spiritual one.

Our earthbound imaginations pale at intuiting the nonsensory, thus limiting our understanding of both science and religion. Astronomer Carl Sagan has observed that when they try to imagine extraterrestrial life, scientists are often quite mundane, for they rely heavily on forms already known. Similarly, Christians often are no more able to envisage what is beyond space and time than fetuses, living in darkness and fluid, are able to imagine what it is like to smell stimulating aromas, see colorful sights and savor tasty foods. Imagining antimatter in the nucleus of an atom or conceiving of fleshless selves among whom there is personal communication requires a radically new way of seeing.

The nature of life after death, like the nature of God, transcends all of our conceptions. But New Testament theology assures us that it is not less than the happiest life of communal caring and sharing that we can now experience or conceive.