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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Resurrection and Down Syndrome

Resurrection and Down Syndrome

Last week was Easter.

And in the Gospels course I teach, we spent time reading on the nature of the Resurrection.

As Scripture teaches, Jesus’ resurrected body was both like and unlike his prior one.

It bore deep scars of crucifixion, yet it no longer suffered, died, or was ravaged by disease.  His new body was “glorious” in a sense unlike the mortal one, and it did things—like passing through a locked door—that transcend normal limitations.

In other words, Christ’s resurrection life is physical sans fallenness. Or in the words of N.T. Wright, it is supra-physical.

This becomes even more relevant to us because, according to Paul, the same will happen to our bodies in the Age to Come.

Christ is the “first fruits” of resurrected humanity (1 Cor. 15.20), hence what happened to him will also happen to his people.  As Paul writes in Philippians:

the Lord Jesus Christ … will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Php. 3.20–21).

And in 1 Corinthians:

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15.42–44).

But what does any of this have to do with Down Syndrome?

WHAT WILL MY SIBLING BE LIKE IN THE RESURRECTION?

In our class discussion, I pointed students to an article written by my friend, Ryan (R.T.) Mullins. He is a PhD theologian from St. Andrews, and his sister (Kelli) has Down Syndrome.

In the article, he interacts with voices from the field of “Disability Theology,” and in particular the theologian Amos Yong.  Like Ryan, Yong’s sibling (Mark) also has Down Syndrome.

But despite a common desire for the church to be more inclusive toward those with disabilities, the two thinkers (Yong and Mullins) come to different views on how the resurrection may transform their loved ones with Down Syndrome.

First, for Yong:

  1. TO ELIMINATE THE DISABILITY IS TO ELIMINATE THE PERSON (YONG)

Following Stanley Hauerwas, Yong contends that to eliminate his brother’s disability would be to eliminate his brother’s unique personhood and personality.  As Yong asks:

If people with Down Syndrome are resurrected without it, in what sense can we say that it is they who are resurrected and embraced by their loved ones?

It would not be a “healing” but a kind of murder.

After all, Down Syndrome is not a “disease” (from which people are “suffer”) but a chromosomal condition that is constitutive of their unique and beautiful humanity.

An analogy might be the extent to which the “XY” chromosomes are constitutive to my identity as biologically male.  To take that away (say, by giving me the “XX” building blocks) would be to erase an important part of who I am—even if it is not the MOST important part.

One strength behind Yong’s point would seem to rest in the sense that many of us have when interacting with persons with Down Syndrome; this involves the feeling that maybe WE are the ones with a “disability” of a different kind—a loss of childlike wonder, a resistance to joy, and a tendency to misplace our pity in ways that dehumanize others.[1]

But I’ll come back to that…

  1. TO ERADICATE A DISABILITY NEED NOT ERASE THE PERSON (MULLINS)

On the other hand, Mullins takes issue with Yong’s extreme assertion (taken from Hauerwas) that “to eliminate the disability is to eliminate the subject.”

As Mullins writes:

I can imagine, perhaps as through a mirror dimly, my sister Kelli without Down Syndrome. This is because she is not identical to her disability. She has various character traits that are shaped by her Down Syndrome, but they are not causally determined by her Down Syndrome.

It is true … that her disability has shaped her personality, but why think that she would need to be continually disabled in order to retain that personality?

A RESURRECTED IMAGINIATION

While there is much more to Mullin’s argument, I want to focus on a single phrase within the quote above: “I can imagine…

Because while Yong’s treatment of disabilities in the Age to Come seems to spring from noble motives, it may also suffer (at least in my view) from a lack of biblical imagination.

Going back to Jesus, we saw that his resurrected body was both “like” and “unlike” his prior one in certain ways. The marks of wounds were there, but now scarred over. The physicality was real but amplified in power.

Perhaps even his appearance was altered. (Which might explain why some who knew him well apparently had trouble recognizing him [Jn. 20.15; Lk. 24.16].)

There is much we do not know about the life to come.

But that ought not quell our sense of hope and possibility.

EMILY WITHIN THE AGE TO COME 

After class, I brought some of these thoughts to the Dean of my department.

Dr. Weeter is himself a theologian, and the father of a daughter (Emily) with Down Syndrome.   Having known Mark and Emily for years, it was not difficult for my mind to wander to what she might be like ten thousand years from now.

After all, the hope of salvation is for everyone.

Is it possible to imagine Emily (and countless others) with all the beautiful aspects of Down Syndrome, without the accompanying trials? I think so.

Gone would be the heart defects, the vision challenges, and hearing loss that so often come with the condition.[2] Yet gone too would be my sense of misplaced pity or superiority when I and other (so-called) “able-bodied” persons sing next to her within the heavenly choir.

Gone might be certain mind-related limitations in both of us.  But who’s to say who might need more transformation. For Paul, the “darkened mind” had nothing to do with ACT scores; and Christ’s words were that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18.3).

With that as a pre-requisite for resurrected life, it seems possible that my own transformation from perishable to imperishable may be more dramatic than that of many image-bearers with Down Syndrome.

How recognizable will I be to my loved ones?

Whatever answer there may be to such speculative questions, the hope of Christ remains the same for all:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep [in death], but we shall all be changed (1 Cor. 15.51).

 

 


On the subject of Resurrection, I’ve been loving the new Andrew Peterson album (Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1):


[1] Credit to my student Sam Thomas for bringing up this point in class.

[2] Thanks to Rylee Kelly (a nursing major) for pointing out these accompanying aspects of trisomy-21 in class discussion.

For more on this subject, see:

Amos Yong, Theology and Down Syndrome: reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Waco, 2007).

R.T. Mullins, “Some Difficulties for Amos Yong’s Disability Theology of the Resurrection,” in Ars Disputandi, Vol. 11 (2011), 24–32.