About five years ago the Church flirted with a pilot program to put answers to about 50 challenging questions about the Church on its website. The issues were identified, and a couple of dozen respondents were assigned to write responses to two issues each. I was one such respondent, and I prepared a draft of my answers.
The project died and was never implemented. But I was just now searching for something else on my computer and stumbled upon my draft responses to my assigned questions. I thought some of you might be interested to read one of them. (The format and scope of the response was dictated by project managers.)
How does the Church explain the belief that husbands and wives can still be married after death in light of Matthew 22:30?
Jesus was responding to a trick question posed by the Sadducees. The real point of the question did not have to do with marriage, but with an argument against the resurrection. Jesus responded along three lines: (i) that they did not understand the scriptures, (ii) that they did not properly take into account the power of God, and (iii) that their assumptions about the resurrection being a simple continuation of mortal existence were not correct.
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Matthew 22:23-30 reads as follows:
“The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection, and asked him, Saying, Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother: Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her. Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.”
Comparable parallels are set forth at Mark 12:18-25 and Luke 20:27-36.
First, we must understand the background to the question posed by the Sadducees. Although the Pharisees accepted the idea of a resurrection, the Sadducees rejected it, as verse 23 states. The question itself is based on the law of levirate marriage (levir is Latin for “brother-in-law”) from Deut. 25:5-10. This law provided that if a married man were to die childless, his brother was to marry his widow, and the first child of this union would be deemed to be the child of the deceased husband, so that his seed would not die out after him.
The Sadducees portray this question as being based on an actual factual situation (“there were with us”), but it almost certainly was a hypothetical, the kind of question debated by religious scholars of the day. The most usual form of the question involved two husbands only, and the usual answer was that the woman would be the wife of the first husband in the hereafter. (See Yarn, Ensign, cited below.) But the Sadducees are not asking a genuine question they have an interest in, for they did not accept the underlying premise of the question that an afterlife exists. They expanded the number of husbands to seven to make the situation appear ridiculous and difficult for Jesus to answer. This was simply a trick question, a rhetorical attack on the idea of a hereafter.
Jesus gives a three-pronged response to the question posed by the Sadducees:
1. Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures. It is unclear to what scripture or scriptures Jesus alludes. There is no Old Testament passage to the effect that marriages do not continue in heaven, so that could not be Jesus’ meaning here. He may have been referring to the levirate law itself in Deut. 25, or to a more general passage, whether dealing with marriage (such as Gen. 2:23-24) or eternity (such as Eccl. 3:14).
One possibility is that he was referring to the apocryphal book of Tobit. (In Jesus’s day, many books were regarded as scriptural that would not ultimately be included in the Old Testament canon.) Tobit 6:10-8:9 contains a story in which a woman named Sara had been married to seven different husbands—all brothers—each of whom was killed on the wedding night by a demon. According to this story, Sara ultimately marries an eighth husband, Tobias, son of Tobit. The archangel Gabriel instructs Tobias how to chase the demon away, and he therefore is not killed as the others had been. Gabriel informs Tobias that his wife Sara had been appointed unto him “from the beginning,” which suggests that she had not been sealed to any of her prior husbands but was to Tobias. Jesus may have been accusing the Sadducees of basing their question on this story, but leaving out the critical information necessary to answer the question.
2. Ye do err, not knowing . . . the power of God. God, who gave the levirate law in the first place, cannot be considered as ignorant of the complications posed by the test case, and he has the power to deal with and rectify any perceived inequities that may arise in the resurrection. Severing the marriage ties of a husband and wife who had lived their lives together in love would not be a demonstration of the power of God.
3. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God. At this point Jesus corrects the mistaken understanding of the Sadducees to the effect that the resurrection is simply a continuation of mortal life as we know it. The time for entering into marriages is mortality; the nature of life in the hereafter will change from that which we are accustomed to here and now. The expressions “marry” [gamousin] and “given in marriage” [gamizontai] translate forms of the related Greek verbs gameō and gamizō, which have to do with the act of becoming married. The first verb is used here to refer to men and the second to women. If Matthew had wanted to report that Christ had said in effect “Neither are they now in a married state (because of previously performed weddings),” the Greek in which he wrote would have let him say so unambiguously. He would have used a perfect tense [gegamēkasin] or a participial form [gamēsas] of the verb. He did not, so that cannot be what he meant. Jesus said nothing about the married state of those who are in heaven. By using the present indicative form of the verb, Matthew reports Jesus as saying in effect “In the resurrection, there are no marriages performed.” Jesus goes on to compare those in the resurrection to the angels of God, for unlike mortals they will never die and, according to Jewish tradition, they do not need to eat. The key point is that, contrary to the misconceptions of the Sadducees, life in the resurrection will be different in many ways from life in mortality. (Jesus then goes on to make an additional argument in favor of the resurrection in the following verses.)
The potential continuation of the marriage state in the hereafter for those married in mortality is consistent with another statement of Jesus, as recorded in Matt. 19:6: “Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Additional Online Resources
• The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, CES Course Manual Religion 211-212, 21-8. (Quotes James Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 548 on this question.)
• Tvedtnes, John A., “A Much-Needed Book That Needs Much,” FARMS Review of Books 9/1 (1997), 33-42. (Explores the possible relevance of the apocryphal book of Tobit to the question as posed by the Sadducees.)
• Yarn, Jr., David H., “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Feb. 1986, ____. (Answers the question “Inasmuch as Latter-day Saints believe in marriage for eternity, how do we explain Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 22:29-30?”)