I was out at Lakewood Manor this afternoon, preaching a sermon called “Will We Meet on That Beautiful Shore?” It was a sermon inspired by a conversation I once had with a man who had been told that he wouldn’t know his deceased wife in heaven, and the “proof” he was given was a passage from Luke 20 where the Sadducees (who don’t believe in the resurrection) come to Jesus with a hypothetical question:
“There were seven brothers,” the Sadducees began. “The first married a woman and died, childless; and then the second, and likewise the third married her; and so in the same way all seven died childless and finally the woman died, too. In the resurrection of the dead, therefore, whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Luke 20:29-35). And that’s what somebody had told this man: that he wouldn’t be married in heaven, that he might as well just get over that idea. He told me about it through tears. It was this idea—the idea that he would someday be reunited with his wife—that had kept him going. Now what was he supposed to do?
I sat with that man in his car for a long time, looking at that passage, and then I said, “Look, it doesn’t say that you won’t be married in heaven. It just says that in the resurrection people don’t get married, see? ‘They neither marry (present tense) nor are given in marriage.’ It’s another way of saying there are no weddings in Heaven.”
That seemed to help him. But I made the mistake of reading on to find out why there aren’t any weddings in heaven and the reason Jesus gives is because there won’t be any death there, as if the only reason to get married were to make babies, to replenish the population, and thus ensure the survival of the species. “I don’t know if that’s why you got married,” I said, “but when I got married the survival of the species was not really the first thing on my mind.” I had love on my mind, as I think most of us do these days. But if you read closely you will find that’s not really the biblical view of marriage. Marriage, in the Bible, seems to be little more than the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and reared.
So, when we talk about marriage in America these days we had better be careful not to embrace too quickly the biblical model of marriage in the same way we want to be careful not to embrace “biblical family values.” When people begin to talk to me about those values I say, “Which biblical family did you have in mind? Cain and Abel? Lot and his daughters? Jacob and Esau? David and Absalom?” Those biblical families had some terribly twisted values. And when it comes to marriage it’s true that if marriage is all about making babies then, yes, it has to be marriage between “a man and a woman.” We are human beings, after all; we reproduce sexually. But it wouldn’t necessarily have to be marriage between “one man and one woman.” Not in the Bible anyway. If making babies is the point then the more wives you have the more effective your efforts, right? Look at Jacob: he produced twelve sons and at least one daughter through his two wives and their two maidservants. Solomon—who set some kind of record—had 300 wives and 700 concubines (he practiced nation-building the old fashioned way!).
The problem comes for the Sadducees when they try to imagine one wife with seven husbands rather than the other way around. If wives were considered property, which they were, whose property would she be? The seven would be fighting over her in the resurrection, making the whole notion seem ridiculous. That’s just what the Sadducees wanted to do, they wanted to make the whole notion of resurrection seem ridiculous, but Jesus sees things another way. They don’t marry there, he says, neither are they given in marriage, because there isn’t any death there. Remember that child’s letter to God that says, “Dear God: Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you got now?” In the resurrection that’s just what God does—he keeps the ones he’s got. And so there isn’t any need for a social structure in which children can be born and reared just so the species can be preserved. And there isn’t any need to have children so you can secure your social status or achieve some small measure of immortality. And I’m going to bet my bottom dollar that those women who are considered worthy of the resurrection are not going to be treated as anyone’s property ever again. Things are different there, thank God.
And resurrection is real. Jesus proves it to the Sadducees be referring to a story from Exodus, one of the few books in the Bible they accepted as authoritative. It was that story from Exodus 3, the one about the burning bush, where God identifies himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He doesn’t say he was their God. He says he is, right now. For he is not the God of the dead, but of the living. “You want to know if there’s a resurrection?” Jesus asks. “Take that!”
It’s a good answer. At least it works for them. In the very next verse the Scribes who were listening burst into applause. And after that no one dared ask him any more questions. But I’ve got one: I accept the fact of the resurrection but what about reunion? Will we meet on that beautiful shore? Will that man who wept in his car that day be reunited with his wife? And in what way? Will they have a little cottage right there beside some golden street in heaven where they can sit on the front porch in their rocking chairs as they hold hands and watch the sun set over the crystal sea? And if so what about the second wife that same man later married? Where will she sit? And whose hand will she hold?
As far as reunion goes—I’m sure of it. Not only from this passage in which Jesus speaks of the eternal family reunion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also in that passage from John 14 where he tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them so that where he is there they may be also. If that’s not reunion I don’t know what is! And as far as the kind of relationship we might enjoy in that place? Is it possible that the most loving and intimate relationships we have known in this life are but a foretaste of the relationships we will enjoy in the life to come?
I can imagine that man seeing his first wife in heaven and embracing her with tears in his eyes, telling her how much he missed her and how glad he is to see her again. I can imagine that all the best memories of the life they lived together would be fresh and new for him there. But I can also imagine him introducing her to his second wife without any fear that she would be jealous or angry. All that small and fearful, greedy and grasping, love would be gone, replaced by the kind of love God has for us—abundant as the ocean and just as full of grace. Maybe the two of them would go strolling off hand in hand—those two wives—the first one saying to the other, “Boy, have I got some stories to tell you!” while he watched them walk away, shaking his head with wonder.
Who knows? Only God. The best we can do is speculate. But we can know this much at least, thanks to Jesus: that resurrection is real, that reunion is real, and that in that resurrection reunion things will be really . . . heavenly.