Can Married Christians Go to Heaven?

WeddingRings

Christians today are known for obsessively policing people’s sexual behavior. But hard as it is to believe, their ancient predecessors were even more strict. To see how this can be so, let’s examine a surprising, little-known Bible verse.

In this New Testament passage, Jesus is being interrogated by the Sadducees, a Jewish sect skeptical of resurrection. They ask, if a woman’s husband dies and she remarries, which one’s husband will she be in heaven? Jesus’ astonishing response is that the question is based on a bad assumption, because only people who never got married will go to heaven:

There came to him some Sadducees, those who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the wife and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and died without children; and the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”

And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”

—Luke 20:27-36

Needless to say, this verse implies that a huge number of Christians are in serious afterlife trouble. But if Christians did follow this teaching, the whole religion would have died out long ago.

My attention was drawn to this verse by a post by Stewart James Felker on Patheos’ Atheology blog. He observes:

…there are clearly profound theological implications to this interpretation of these Lukan verses — and they go far beyond the long-standing orthodox position that celibacy is a virtue for Christians. In fact, in many ways, it even goes beyond the suggestion that celibacy is an ideal, instead suggesting that Christian celibacy is practically a requirement for being deemed truly worthy to inherit the age to come (in sharp distinction to the other things that are more commonly understood to render one worthy of salvation).

Felker notes that this verse fits in context with “the extreme ascetic dimension of several of Jesus’ teachings” – not just to refrain from sex, but to give away your possessions, abandon your family, and live as wandering mendicants with no thought for what you’ll eat or where you’ll sleep. I’d also add that this pro-celibacy verse is echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:29: “From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none.”

Modern Christians might argue that this can’t be what the verse means, because following teachings like this would make it impossible to lead a normal life. But that’s precisely the point. The first generation of Christians wrongly believed the world would end in their lifetimes, so they had no concern for a normal life. Their only goal was to remain pure until the apocalypse, even if that meant engaging in fanatical behavior that would be impossible to sustain in the long run.

According to another site, Is That in the Bible?, biblical scholars mostly deal with this absurd verse by ignoring it: “the majority of biblical scholars until recently have ignored or simply failed to notice Luke’s implications”. However, the author argues that Luke’s mandatory-celibacy position was no error. It fits well into the theological milieu of early Christianity:

Luke’s position on marriage and resurrection is by no means unusual. In fact, there were numerous early Christian movements with similar views and practices.

As evidence, he cites several passages in early Christian apocrypha that urge abstinence for everyone. Some went so far as to encourage married couples to split up and men to castrate themselves. A few went even farther:

In the Acts of Peter, Peter repeatedly causes concubines and wives to leave their husbands, and he makes his own daughter suffer from crippling paralysis so she will not be sexually desirable to men. As part of a cruel object lesson, he actually heals her and then restores her infirmity in front of an audience!

In the Acts of Thomas, the apostle Thomas travels to India where he similarly convinces wives to leave their husbands. On one occasion, Jesus himself appears to a couple in their bedroom on their wedding night, to explain that sex is foul and that they should never consummate their marriage.

Talk about a buzzkill! That must have been even worse than imagining your mother. As far as Peter’s poor daughter, it just goes to show how misogyny was baked into Christian thinking from the beginning: she was the one who was punished, merely for being so beautiful she’d be tempting. Meanwhile, no punishment was given to the men who were unable to restrain their urges.

Verses like these come in handy against sex-policing evangelicals who urge abstinence until marriage for everyone. When someone makes that claim in your presence, you should say to them that, if they really wanted to follow the Bible and Jesus, they’d engage in abstinence for life – period.

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