A certain discussion between Jesus and the Sadducees has led to a widespread belief among Christians that there will be no marriage in the resurrection.1 But is that really what Jesus taught?
The account is nearly identical in all three Synoptic Gospels, so we’ll follow the passage in Mark, being most likely the earliest version.
There came to him Sadducees, who say that there is no resurrection. They asked him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote to us, ‘If a man’s brother dies, and leaves a wife behind him, and leaves no children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up offspring for his brother.’ There were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and dying left no offspring. The second took her, and died, leaving no children behind him. The third likewise; and the seven took her and left no children. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be of them? For the seven had her as a wife.”
Jesus answered them, “Isn’t this because you are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God? For when they will rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. But about the dead, that they are raised; haven’t you read in the book of Moses, about the Bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are therefore badly mistaken.” (Mark 12:18–27, WEB)
What is the context of this teaching?
If the Sadducees had asked Jesus, “Will there be marriage in the resurrection?” then the common interpretation of Jesus’ reply would be well justified. But that isn’t what happened.
The passage begins by explaining that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. So we know from the start that they were not asking Jesus a serious question. Rather, they were attempting to trap Jesus with a question they thought he could not answer.
They didn’t really care whose wife the hypothetical woman would be—they were trying to disprove the resurrection itself. Thus Jesus’ response must be considered in the context of affirming the resurrection.
What was the view of marriage being discussed?
In order to trap Jesus, the Sadducees describe a woman who had been married seven times to seven different brothers. And their story depends on an androcentric, patriarchal view of marriage, where the woman exists as the property of the man.
The Mosaic law they reference (found in Deuteronomy 25:5–10) was not given primarily as a way to care for the bereaved woman. It may have had this side effect, but the text is explicit that the intention was to preserve the name of the dead brother. The woman was used as a commodity to accomplish this purpose.The Sadducees’ story, then, is a sorrowful one, of a woman who has been passed from man to man, dutifully attempting to carry out the will of these men. And then they want to know, “Whose property will she be in the resurrection?”
What did Jesus actually say?
It is to this women-as-property view of marriage that Jesus responds. “For when they will rise from the dead,” he says, “they neither marry, nor are given in marriage” (verse 25).
Note carefully the two parts Jesus specifies. He does not say that people will no longer marry (though some translations unfortunately abbreviate it this way).
Rather, Jesus says, “they neither marry,” that is, “men will no longer take possession of women,” and then, “nor are given in marriage,” that is, “women will no longer be given as possessions to men.”
The ancient Syriac Peshitta version of the Bible makes this distinction even more apparent. “They do not take wives, nor are wives given to husbands” (Murdock’s translation).
Jesus does not say that marriage itself will be done away with; he says that there will be no more giving or taking of humans as property.
What are the angels in heaven like?
Jesus follows this up with the mysterious comparison, “but are like angels in heaven.” This phrase has led to no end of speculation. And if we’re honest, we really can’t be sure about what Jesus is referring to here.
But if I had to guess, based on the understanding of this passage we’ve come to so far, I’d say it probably has something to do with ownership. As far as we know, no angels are in possession of any other angels.2
Where does all this leave us?
Will there be marriage in the resurrection? That depends on what you mean by marriage. If by marriage you mean humans taking ownership of other humans, then no, there will be none of that.
Additionally, I don’t believe that marriage vows made for this lifetime are binding for the next life. Those who do not wish to continue their marriage will be under no obligation to do so.
However, if any individuals should mutually decide to pursue an egalitarian partnership throughout eternity, I see no reason to think that this would not be allowed. No doubt the dynamics of the relationship will be different on many levels, but I believe that God will honor such a commitment.
1 It is perhaps more commonly phrased as “no marriage in heaven.” But that just confuses the issue further, as heaven is an entirely different concept from the resurrection, and heaven is not the focus of this discussion.
2 The account in Luke also adds the phrase, “for they can’t die any more” (Luke 20:36). This may allude to the fact that with no more death, there is no more fear of one’s name being lost and thus no reason for men to use women as a means of obtaining an heir. Or it may refer to how it was the death of each brother that transferred the woman to the next. In either case, it still connects to the idea of women as property.