So what happens to marriage when believers get to heaven? The passage we are discussing here seems to tell us that it will become superfluous. That may be of concern to many, especially those who have had a close, loving spouse for many decades. Does marriage really mean so little, at least in the eternal scheme of things?
To answer those questions, let me look at this passage in a bit more detail. It is found in all three Synoptic Gospels. The context is this: the Sadducees had asked Jesus about the resurrection – which they did not believe in – hoping to trip him up with a curly hypothetical question (see Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; and Luke 20:27-40).
They talked about a woman who had seven husbands in order to have children. They ask Jesus, when she dies, in the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be? Jesus replies in part by saying that marriage is not happening in heaven. Here are the three gospel versions of his reply:
Matthew 22:29-30 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”
Mark 12: 24-25 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”
Luke 20:34-36 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”
So what are we to make of all this? First let me quickly deal with the issue of a woman marrying the brothers of a husband who dies leaving her childless. In what we call Levirate marriage, the Old Testament law stipulated that when this happens, the women could marry the man’s surviving brother.
We read about this in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. A man is obligated to wed the woman if his brother dies childless. The importance of continuing the family line is a big part of this. It was this Jewish custom that the Sadducees had in mind as they tried to entrap Jesus, seeking to show the absurdity of the notion of the afterlife.
But our real concern here – at least for many – is this: how can something so important in this life seemingly disappear altogether in the next life? Let me offer a few short replies, then buttress my remarks by appealing to a number of New Testament scholars and their commentary on the three passages offered above.
Yes the institutions of marriage and family are one of God’s key social institutions, and in this life they are vitally important. They serve various functions, but two core reasons for marriage are procreation and companionship. Thus we speak of the procreative and unitive purposes of marriage.
In the next life procreation will no longer be needed, and companionship and intimacy will be incomparably superior in all dimensions to what we know here. So not everything found in this life necessarily extends into the next life. That is not to diminish marriage in this life, but to point to that which is superior coming in the next.
And of crucial importance here is that marriage certainly does not disappear altogether in the afterlife. In Scripture we read about the marriage of the Lamb and his Bride. All of God’s people – whether they were single or married in this life – will be part of that incredible, eternal marriage. That will indeed be a match made in heaven.
So human marriages, as important as they can be, are really just a foretaste of the real and more vital wedding to come. In this sense the temporal picture or type of marriage in this life is no longer needed in heaven, since the permanent reality will be there instead.
Transient earthly marriage points to the eternal union we will enjoy with Christ. And the biblical writers often made this very point. As Paul said in Ephesians 5:31-32: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
But let me bring in some expert commentary here. First let’s look at how Jesus dealt with the Sadducees and their sophistry – what we today call ‘trolls’. As Eckhard Schnabel reminds us, the reply of Jesus was “aggressive, matching the duplicitous purpose of the Sadducees’ question meant to ridicule Jesus.”
Or as David Turner puts it, “Jesus does not directly answer his interlocutors. Instead he strongly rebukes them, telling them that their ignorance of Scripture and God’s power has led to error.” Honest answers to honest questions is one thing, but that is not the situation we find here.
Consider the issue of how in the future life we become like the angels. As Michael Wilkins reminds us, “Jesus does not suggest that humans become angels; rather, in the same way that angelic beings do not marry or procreate, the resurrected state ends the practice of marriage and issues in entirely new relationships between resurrected humans.”
And just a bit more on the angels while we’re at it. As Schnabel notes, “Jesus’ argument does not require the implication that angels are genderless beings, but merely that angels do not need to reproduce, thus obviating the need to marry.”
Also, temporary beings do need to procreate. But eternal beings (which we will be in heaven) do not. God and the angels have no need of procreation. Says Robert Stein, “Since there is no longer death in the age to come, the need to procreate through marriage will have ceased (cf. Gen 1:28). Thus marriage as we know it will cease to exist.”
As John Nolland comments, “Presumably it will still not be good for man to be alone (Gn. 2:18), but the unitive function of marriage will not in the resurrection require the exclusivity that is proper for it in the present age.” As already mentioned, intimacy and close interpersonal relationships and fellowship will continue.
And we need not fear losing our close earthly relationships. D. A. Carson offers this thought: “Marriage as we know it will be no more. . . . Some have concluded from Jesus’ answer that in heaven there will be no memory of earlier existence and its relationships, but this is a gratuitous assumption.”
R. T. France concurs: “Note that what Jesus declares to be inappropriate in heaven is marriage, not love. So perhaps heavenly relationships are not something less than marriage, but something more. He does not say that the love between those who have been married on earth will vanish, but rather implies that it will be broadened so that no one is excluded.”
That is the good news about the next life: all relationships then will be closer, more intimate, and much more real. As Grant Osborne says, “There will be a new set of relationships in eternity, one in which husbands and wives will be closer to one another (and to all God’s people) than they were in this life!”
Everything will be better, greater and more wonderful in the next life. As James Edwards puts it:
The glorious realities of the life to come can no more be accommodated to the pedestrian routines of earthly life than can butterflies be compared to caterpillars. Present earthly experience is entirely insufficient to forecast divine heavenly realities: we can no more imagine heavenly existence than an infant in utero can imagine a Beethoven piano concerto or the Grand Canyon at sunset.
I like how R. C. Sproul puts it: “Even if marriage is no longer an institution in heaven, love will be.” Amen. He continues: “The only bride in heaven will be the church, the bride of Christ. All the people who are a part of the bride of Christ in their glorification will enjoy the communion of saints to such a degree of felicity and blessedness that marriage by contrast will be a very poor substitute or imitation.”
So there will be no disappointments in heaven. Sure, many questions remain as to how exactly things will be in the life to come. Both serious and lesser concerns cannot fully be dealt with now. For example, some wonder if their earthly joys will continue. Will artists still be able to make new sculptures?
Will book lovers find massive libraries awaiting them? Will poets still produce poetry? Will nature lovers still go for long walks? Will golf lovers still be able to do their 18 holes? We are not fully certain on all these matters, but when we get there the questions will likely disappear, or seem inappropriate.
Before concluding I better offer just one more word here – one that many people may have been eagerly anticipating! Will there be sexual activity in heaven? Again, we cannot say with 100 per cent certainty, but it would seem not. While human sexuality was of course part of God’s good creation, in the next life it may not be needed as such – certainly in terms of procreation. But will we then be missing out big time?
As is so often the case, the wise words of C. S. Lewis may suffice as we seek to address this issue. As he wrote in his book very important 1947 book Miracles:
The letter and spirit of Scripture, and of all Christianity, forbid us to suppose that life in the New Creation will be a sexual life; and this reduces our imagination to the withering alternatives either of bodies which are hardly recognizable as human bodies at all or else of a perpetual fast. As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.
Or as he put it in “The Weight of Glory”: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Whatever heaven actually turns out to be, and whatever exactly it includes or excludes, we know that it will be far beyond anything we can currently imagine – far better, far more glorious and far more wonderful. How can it be otherwise, when God himself will be there?
There will be no complaints in heaven.