Till death?

Till death?

On marriage and the resurrection.

As Jonathan Edwards lay dying from a corrupted smallpox serum in 1758, his final words were for his wife.

Near the end, he asked the physician to tell Sarah Pierpont Edwards that their “uncommon union” was of such a “spiritual nature” that he hoped it would “continue forever.”

Edwards is, undoubtedly, the greatest theologian to ever hail from North America.  His sermons helped to launch The Great Awakening.  And with names like Wesley and Whitefield, he helped create the movement later known as evangelicalism (till its meaning was corrupted by a political “serum”).

To some, however, Edwards’ hope for his “forever” union might seem to clash with something Jesus said.

“WHOSE WIFE WILL SHE BE?”

On one occasion, Christ was asked a loaded question by the Sadducees about a hypothetical widow who had lost not one but seven husbands (speaking of potential poisonings!).

The last six of these marriages were done in fulfillment of an Old Testament law of “Levirate marriage,” a command meant to preserve a husband’s name by having his brother marry the widow (Deut 25:5–10; Matt 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–40).

At the end of this imagined narrative, the religious leaders ask the Lord:

“At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” (Mark 12:23)

To be clear, the Sadducees’ concern was not with marriage at all; their desire was to trap Jesus into admitting one of two unsavory realities. Either:

  1. There is no embodied afterlife at all (the Sadducee position), or
  2. Resurrection entails some Jerry Springer-like disputes.

Not surprisingly, Jesus opts for “Neither, dumb-dumbs.”

“Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:24–25). 

The response proved effective (see Luke 20:40)

But to those of us, like Edwards, who deeply love our spouses and our Lord, the statement raises questions.

Why must marriage end completely at the border of this life?

Or, is there another way to understand Christ’s statement?

ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATIONS

Alternatives have been suggested.

One option sees Christ not as denying the eternality of all married unions, but only the kind described by the Sadducees: namely, the “Levirate” arrangements that would force an arbitration in the Eschaton about who “gets her” (Oh, the chivalry!).

A second (though related) suggestion sees Jesus as objecting primarily to the “taking” and “being given” part of the scenario, since it might seem to treat women especially like a kind of heavenly property rather than as full-fledged persons (see again the chivalry).

Are these possibilities convincing?

For those of us (myself included) who would love to think of our marriages as lasting forever, both alternatives seem appealing. Which might be the problem. After all, one should usually be wary of adopting an interpretation of an ancient text simply because it “looks nice” and “fits” our modern tastes.

Exegesis isn’t dress shopping.

Or suit shopping.

Or… shopping.

LIKE ANGELS?

A crucial bit of Jesus’ reasoning seems to connect our resurrected life to the current habits of angelic beings, since we “will … be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).

The idea seems to be that since Gabriel’s crew aren’t planning heavenly bridal showers and jockeying for spouses, neither will we.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Yet all this still leaves questions:

Was Edwards wrong (biblically speaking) to expect that his “uncommon union” was of such a “spiritual nature” that it might “continue forever”?

What about us?

And what about the many wonderful persons who have lost spouses to death and remarried later (a decision Scripture clearly sees as honorable)?

Are such questions merely an engagement in unhelpful speculation (like the Sadducees), or might they be the kind of thoughtful use of biblical imagination that demonstrates a belief that both marriage and the resurrection matter?

I’m interested in your thoughts.

What do you make of Jesus’ words on marriage in the “resurrection”?

(And why does Brianna keep memorizing this one passage from the Gospels?)

Leave a comment below (however tentative or undeveloped).

I may write a second installment to this post in the future, but for now I simply haven’t done the necessary homework.


* Please don’t be a “Sadducee” / Jesus-jerk by critiquing the comments of others.  As you might guess, issues concerning death and marriage are deeply personal.


 

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On spiders

On spiders

“Of all insects, no one is more wonderful than the spider.”

That, at least, was the opinion of America’s greatest ever theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758).

I’ve been reading Edwards over Christmas break (since “Puritans for Christmas” seemed as good an oxymoron as any); and I came across a passage today in which he links God’s goodness to the pleasure He delights to give to even the most “despicable” of creatures.

As a boy in colonial New England, Edwards marveled at how spiders could sail at will upon the wind by releasing filament in just the right amount to catch the breeze.

“And without doubt, they do it with a great deal of … pleasure.”

He wrote a scientific paper on the subject at the youthful age of sixteen, but Edwards’ true focus was always theological.  As he watched the spiders sail magnificently overhead, he mused that

We hence see the exuberant goodness of the Creator, who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, and even the insects and those that are most despicable (WJE 6:154–62).

This is, it seems to me, a beautiful portrait of divine love (however accurate it is of “insects” [sic.]).

SPIDERS IN THE HANDS OFGOD

Yet Edwards is more famous for another spider reference.

In his famous sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” he piled lurid image upon image to frighten congregants with the idea of God’s hateful wrath.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors [hates/loathes] you, and is dreadfully provoked…

The sermon proved effective. But at key points (and despite good intentions), Edwards’ imagery went a good bit further than the Scriptures.

For this reason, it might be good to balance one “spider passage” with another.

The idea here is that the same Creator who judges evil in accordance with his holy love, is also the God who (according to Edwards) takes delight in granting “unnecessary” pleasures “to even the most despicable” of creatures.

Speaking of which… the view from my laptop:

beach

 


 

My most recent book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements, is now available at Seedbed.com.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.