Are there marriages in heaven? The most obvious answer would seem to be no, based on Jesus’ words to the Sadducees as recorded in Luke 20:27-38, Matthew 22:23-32, and Mark 12:18-27. Here’s the Luke account:
But certain of the Sadducees, who deny that there is any resurrection, came to Him and asked Him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote to us that if someone’s brother die having a wife, and he die childless, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed to his brother. There were therefore seven brothers, and the first took a wife, and died childless. And the second took the wife, and he died childless. And the third took her, and likewise the seven also, and they left no children, and died. And last of all the woman died also. In the resurrection therefore, whose wife of them is she? for the seven had her to wife.” And Jesus answering said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but they who shall be accounted worthy to obtain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage; for they cannot any more die; for they are equal to the angels, and are the sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”
It seems fairly straightforward – Jesus clearly said that there was no marriage in the resurrection. But Emanuel Swedenborg, whose works inspired the founding of the New Church, claims to have seen married couples in heaven. Because of the apparent contradiction, some people have labelled the New Church teachings on eternal marriage as anti-scriptural.
At first glance the charge seems justified. But looking closer at Jesus’ response, it becomes clear that this isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as it first appears. Some of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is puzzling – He says those in the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage “for they cannot any more die.” Why would the possibility of living forever have anything to do with whether or not they marry or are given in marriage?
It’s not just New Church scholars who have asked that question. And taking a step back, it becomes clear that Jesus is here addressing a very specific question about a specific kind of marriage – namely, a marriage as a legal contract under the law of Moses.
To understand this, it’s necessary to understand why the Sadducees were asking Him this question in the first place. The Sadducees “deny that there is any resurrection.” They were asking Jesus a question about marriage in the resurrection not because they were curious, but because they wanted to prove that there could not possibly be a resurrection at all.
According to the law of Moses, if a married man died before having children, his wife would marry the man’s brother – and any children they bore would bear the name and lineage of the original husband. The “marriage” in this case was a legal contract establishing heritage, and ensuring that the original husband’s name would be carried on into the next generation – that his life would be carried on through “his” children, even though they were born from his brother.
The trap that the Sadducees laid, then, was that the law of Moses required the woman to marry multiple men – but the same law forbade a woman from marrying several men while all were still living. If there was a resurrection, then the woman could not help but break the law of Moses; and to the Sadducees, this implied that the very idea of a resurrection was contrary to Scripture, and so was not possible.
But Jesus responded that “they who shall be accounted worthy to obtain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage; for they cannot any more die.” What does not dying have to do with not being married? If we’re talking about marriage as a union of souls – two becoming one flesh – then not much. You could live forever and still be in union of souls. But if marriage is a legal contract to ensure that a family name is carried on through children, then suddenly it does become relevant whether a person will die again. If they no longer die, then a marriage to carry on the family name is no longer necessary. Marriage as that kind of legal contract is no longer a reality.Jesus’ response addresses marriage as a legal contract – which is what the Sadducees were asking about – but it says nothing about marriage as the union of two souls. If that’s what the Sadducees had been asking about, the answer would have been easy: the woman would be married to the man she’s truly become one with. But that’s not what the Sadducees were asking about. Note that they could just as easily have asked, “Which of his wives is Jacob married to?” but they didn’t, because according to the law of Moses it was fine for Jacob to have had multiple wives. Their question specifically rested on the idea of the Mosaic law continuing to be in effect in the resurrection, and specifically about the Levirate marriage.
The kind of marriage that Jesus spoke of in contrast to the Mosaic marriage was a different thing entirely. He said, “On this account shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall be into one flesh. Wherefore they are no longer two, but one flesh. What, therefore, God has joined together, let not man put asunder,” and “Moses, because of your hard heartedness, permitted you to send away your wives; but from the beginning it was not so.” The ideal of marriage was that of Adam and Eve – not a legal contract but a union of souls. It is marriage, but in a sense so different from the idea of the Sadducees as to not even be deserving of the same name.
And so when Swedenborg wrote about marriages in heaven, he clearly stated that they were something different from marriages as a legal contract or marriages for the purpose of having children in this world:
Marriages in heaven differ from marriages on the earth in that the procreation of offspring is another purpose of marriages on the earth, but not of marriages in heaven, since in heaven the procreation of good and truth takes the place of procreation of offspring….All this makes clear that marriages in heaven are not like marriages on earth. In heaven marryings are spiritual, and cannot properly be called marryings, but conjunctions of minds from the conjunction of good and truth. But on earth there are marryings, because these are not of the spirit alone but also of the flesh. And as there are no marryings in heaven, consorts there are not called husband and wife; but from the angelic idea of the joining of two minds into one, each consort designates the other by a name signifying one’s own, mutually and reciprocally. This shows how the Lord’s words in regard to marrying and giving in marriage (Luke 20:35, 36), are to be understood. (Heaven and Hell 382)
Swedenborg does elsewhere describe those heavenly relationships as “marriages” because that is the best way to describe them in “this world” terminology, but he continues to distinguish between merely natural marriages and spiritual marriages, or the union of two souls.
One final note: it is not only Swedenborgians (and Mormons) who entertain the possibility of marriage (or something spiritually analogous) continuing in the resurrection. Eastern Orthodoxy allows for that possibility; several Protestant Bible scholars have made similar arguments to the one I make above (e.g. Ben Witherington in Women in the Ministry of Jesus); and even some staunch Calvinists hold it out as a possibility. So although it’s a different interpretation of scripture than many Christians are used to, it’s by no means unheard of, and it is not anti-scriptural. In fact, to me it seems more in line with the core teachings of scripture about what happens in a true marriage: the two become one.