Thursday, November 20, 2008

Family life in the afterlife

I’ve been reading Stein’s treatment of Mk 12:18-27 in his new commentary. It doesn’t seem to me that his interpretation is quite satisfactory. For example, some scholars (e.g. Green, Kilgallen, Witherington) think the type of marriage which is excluded in the afterlife is levirate marriage, and not marriage in general. Stein objects to that on the grounds that “this does not resolve the problem of the Sadducees’ illustration. How can the marriage state of the woman continue simultaneously with all seven brothers,” R. Stein, Mark (Baker 2008), 554n8.

But there are two problems with this objection:

i) In the OT, you could be married to more than one person at a time. While the OT frowns on polygamy, it doesn’t take the position that polygamous marriages are invalid. And the OT supplies the immediate frame of reference.

Insofar as a polygamous marriage is sinful, you couldn’t contract a polygamous marriage in the world to come. But that doesn’t mean the afterlife dissolves all previous relationships which were initiated in sin. For example, a child conceived through rape, adultery, fornication, or incest was conceived in sin, but he doesn’t thereby cease to be the child of his sinful parent or parents in the world to come.

ii) A more immediate difficulty with Stein’s objection is that it doesn’t cohere with something else he says. He earlier said, “The question of the Sadducees involves not just the specific doctrine of the resurrection but also the general doctrine of life after death. The resurrection from the dead, in the technical sense of the resurrection of the body, was seen as a future event occurring at the end of history (12:23: ‘in the resurrection, when they rise’). The fact that Jesus argues that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive (12:27) deals more with the doctrine of life after death. Since the Sadducees denied both, the demonstration of either would refute their denial of life after death,” ibid. 549n2.

But if that is true, then Jesus’ reply isn’t targeting their specific rejection of the resurrection, but their general rejection of the afterlife, whether it be the intermediate state or the final state. Their rejection of the afterlife in toto is what underwrites their specific rejection of either phase of postmortem survival.

On that interpretation, Jesus isn’t trying to resolve the specific problem they pose, but to challenge their underlying denial of the afterlife, which their specific example was intended to illustrate. So Stein fails to apply his own explanation to the case at hand.

Stein also says that “Whereas marriage on earth is for the purpose of procreation (Gen 1:28) and companionship (Gen 2:18-23), in the resurrection there is no longer a need for procreation…for there is no more death” (cf. Luke 20:36), ibid. 554.

i) But a basic problem with this interpretation is that the institution of marriage was never predicated on mortality. It’s a creation mandate, given to Adam and Eve in their unfallen state. It’s not a lapsarian ordinance.

The implication of Stein’s interpretation is that if Adam and Eve had never fallen, they would have remained childless. That’s good Mormon theology, but bad Biblical theology.

By contrast, mortality was a specific presupposition of levirate marriage. Therefore, the identification of marriage with levirate marriage in this pericope is more coherent with the overall teaching of Scripture.

ii) In addition, Scripture doesn’t say our companionship with the saints will compensate for the loss of marital or familial companionship.

And different forms of companionship are not interchangeable. The companionship of a husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, grandmother, grandfather, granddaughter, or friend are not equivalent. Likewise, a relationship with God is no substitute for human relationships, or vice versa. Different relationships have distinctive virtues. And, of course, your mother isn’t my mother. Your son isn’t my son.

No doubt heaven has its compensations. Unexpected compensations. But we need to avoid facile explanations. Some things remain mysterious. We won’t know till we get there.

Finally, what is the relevance of the angels to this debate? On the face of it, the status of angels, as discarnate spirits, is more analogous to the intermediate state than it is to the final state.

But as Bock points out, “by comparing the resurrection to angels, Jesus strikes at another doctrine that the Sadducees denied—the reality of angels,” D. Bock, Luke 2:1623.

In that event, Jesus introduces angels into the discussion to take a swipe at another Sadducean error: their denial of angels. And this ties into the general discussion of the afterlife inasmuch as immortality presupposes existence. Nonentities can’t be immortal. Jesus is using their question as a pretext to turn it against another one of their errors. The audience would no doubt appreciate the irony of his reference to angels in responding to the Sadducees.


  1. That was some of the best investigative work that I've seen on this passage. I've held to your position theologically, but haven't been able to piece together some of Jesus' words here deeply enough to get down to the real meaning. It's very easy to get side-tracked on this passage. Bravo.


  2. However, Jesus' point was that our marital state will be similar or identical (depending on how you press the simile) to angels. Not that angels exist, but that our marital situation will be like theirs. Which appears to be non-existent.

  3. Jack,

    Is that Jesus' point? All you've done is to blow past my detailed argumentation and reassert the conventional interpretation. Feel free to engage my actual argumentation with suitable counterarguments.

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  5. I just completed my seance with Thomas Aquinas and he was very disappointed to learn that he will play second fiddle to your wife.

  6. Forgive me for being dense Steve, but given the Sadducees question then, which of the seven brothers had her to wife?



    “Forgive me for being dense Steve, but given the Sadducees question then, which of the seven brothers had her to wife?”

    You seem to be assuming that Jesus answered that question. Keep in mind that Jesus doesn’t always answer the questions that people ask. That’s because people don’t always ask the right question. So he sometimes answers the question they should have asked. This is especially so in the case of a trick question.

    Indeed, his reply to the Sadducees is a case in point. They ask a question about the resurrection, and he replies by claiming that the patriarchs are still alive.

    Yet that wouldn’t refer to the resurrection, which is a future event—but to the intermediate state. So, in that respect, his reply is unresponsive to their question.

    He also refers to the angels, and says the saints are like the angels with respect to their common immortality (in the Lucan parallel). But mortality is not a biblical presupposition of marriage qua marriage. By contrast, mortality is a biblical presupposition of levirate marriage. Mortality was the specific rationale for levirate marriage. By contrast, the institution of marriage is a prelapsarian ordinance.

    Hence, there would be no need for levirate marriage in the world to come. But that doesn’t address the larger question of marriage in general. And, indeed, the original question singled out levirate marriage, not marriage in general. It does, however, address the larger issue of the afterlife.

    From what I can tell, Jesus gives a very qualified answer to their question—an answer which reformulates the question in certain key respects.

    Put another way, I think he gives a two-part answer. He challenges the relevance of a question about levirate marriage in afterlife, and he goes on to challenge their denial of the afterlife, which is the seminal error that gave rise to their original question. In so doing, he explodes the false dilemma.

  8. So you're inviting me to analyze your post for any exegetical, logical, or theological flaws?

    I might reply over on my blog, so that my reply doesn't disappear down here in the commbox.

  9. Jack,

    I didn't invite you or disinvite you to respond. I merely made the observation that you completely ignored my supporting arguments and simply reasserted the conventional interpretation. You are free to respond, or not, when and where you please.

  10. Steve, I know you spend a great deal of time interacting with unreasonable, argumentative, anti-Christian, anti-Calvinistic people -- which probably isn't the most enjoyable way for any man to spend his time. But I'm not one of those people. Your response was needlessly tense, and hostile. Although the topic holds some mild interest to me, I've never met anyone in the 38 years I've been a believer for whom it's been an actual issue of concern.

  11. Jack,

    I didn't say a single thing to characterize you as an individual. I did say something to characterize your initial response, and I stand by that.

    When I work out a detailed argument for my interpretation, and someone skips over the supporting arguments as if they didn't exist, then asserts his own interpretation as self-evidently true, what sort of reply do you think his curt response calls for?