A few weeks ago I read a post over on the Think Theology blog called “When I grow up” by Andrew Wilson. I often enjoy his articles and this was no exception.
He quotes C.S. Lewis:
I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard the absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.
The traditional understanding is that marriage will cease in the new creation, largely based on Jesus’ words in the synoptic gospels (which we’ll look at a bit later on in this post). At the risk of being heretical – or at least controversial – I want to question the traditional understanding. I’m a firm believer that if you don’t ask questions, you don’t learn – and I hope this might be an interesting exercise. This question is important because it raises a lot of interesting questions about the future and the new creation.
Part 1: How life was supposed to be
Recently in our church we preached through Genesis 1-3 on Sunday mornings. These chapters are absolutely foundational to the Bible and deserve to be studied in some depth. One thing which struck me this time was the way the Garden of Eden is described as a temple – i.e. the place where God dwelt with mankind. In fact, Gordon Wenham makes the suggestion in his commentary that the Garden of Eden, although small to start with, was supposed to expand to fill the whole earth as Adam and Eve fulfilled God’s purposes (filling the earth and subduing it – Genesis 1:27, 28). Of course, sex is a perfectly natural part of mankind’s role of “filling the earth” – procreation is of course one major reason why sex difference exists in the first place.
Without going into all the details (you can listen to my sermon if you want some more background), the point is that all of life was supposed to be lived in the presence of God, walking with him. There was no “sacred / secular” distinction – everything was sacred. Human beings were to do all the good things which God had created for them (of course including sex), enjoying everything as gifts from a good Creator and giving thanks to him.
It was a perfect world, human life as it was (and is) supposed to be. A world of love and peace, a world where humans were in harmony with God, creation, and each other. Of course, the Fall spoiled all that. But Jesus came to redeem us and bring about God’s new creation.
Part 2: God’s new creation
Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’Revelation 21:1-4 NIV
When Jesus rose again, he ‘kick started’ the new creation – he began the process by which God is bringing about his new world, his new kingdom. This passage in Revelation is a beautiful poetic picture of what that world will be like: it doesn’t give any details, but it says there will be a ‘new heavens and a new earth’ – a new creation. It will be a place where God dwells – just as he did with Adam and Eve. In other words ‘heaven’ will not be sitting on a harp with a cloud, some kind of ‘super spiritual’ existence, but it will be solid, real, embodied. This is a point which N.T. Wright makes forcefully in his enormous book The Resurrection of the Son of God. I came away from that book with a resolve never to simply speak of ‘going to heaven when we die’ but rather to speak of the Christian hope – as the creeds put it – of the “resurrection of the body”.
Both my daughters like Kevin DeYoung’s book “The Biggest Story”, which is a book for children explaining the whole story of the Bible, how it fits together. The subtitle of that book is his one-sentence summary of the whole Bible – “How the snake crusher brings us back to the garden”. I think this is a good summary: the serpent crusher – that is, Jesus – brings us back to the Garden of Eden. The Fall excluded us from the Garden, but through the death and resurrection of Christ we may enter in.
It’s interesting that some of the imagery in Revelation makes an explicit link with the Garden of Eden, e.g. the tree of life from Genesis 2 appears again in Revelation (22:2 – compare with 2:7, ‘To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’) So the future creation is explicitly linked with the Garden of Eden.
Now at this point, you might be wondering what the new creation will be like. Let’s think about that.
Part 3: What we know about the new creation
As we’ve already seen, we know that the new creation will be embodied. Our bodies are not simply meat bags to be discarded, but will be transformed to be immortal (1 Corinthians 15:42). Although the Bible doesn’t go into specifics about what the new creation will be like, I think we can gain a picture from what Jesus says about it as well as what he was like and what he did post-resurrection.
We know there will be eating and drinking. Jesus often describes the kingdom of God as a ‘banquet’ (e.g. the parable of the wedding banquet – Luke 14:15-24). At the Last Supper, Jesus says to his disciples: “I will not eat it (the Passover meal) again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.” And then he says: “I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Both quotes from Luke 22). In Acts 1:4 we are told “On one occasion, while he was eating with them“ – so Jesus did eat after the resurrection. In fact, according to John’s gospel one of the first things that Jesus does for his disciples after his resurrection is cook breakfast for them (John 21:12).
So, eating and drinking – more than that, feasting – will be part of the Kingdom of God.
We could also say that there will be relationships – the disciples all knew Jesus, talked with him – he wasn’t some kind of ghost.
And we know that, whatever else we can say about it, the resurrection life will be more glorious than anything we can even imagine at the moment:
What no eye has seen,1 Corinthians 2:9 NIV
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived’ –
the things God has prepared for those who love him
Let’s pause a moment to consider. If we were only considering all these verses and themes – without thinking about Jesus’ comments about marriage – do you think sex would be more naturally included, or excluded? It seems to me that sex is (a) part of God’s good, unspoiled, creation in Genesis 1-2; (b) a natural part of the human body (it is one of the things our bodies are designed to do). I don’t think there is any indication from the limited amount here that the resurrection body will be so radically different that sex will no longer be possible / desirable etc.
Part 4: Obedience to God
One of the things I’ve been learning over the last few years is that God’s laws are best – in other words, we find life to the full (John 10:10) when we submit to Jesus and his ways. This is why David can say in Psalm 19: “The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes … they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.” He can say that because it is good to obey God. It is not simply morally right but actually best for us in every way.
God designed us to love him and love others. We are actually happiest when we are doing what we are created to do. Enjoying God is not simply about sitting in a room somewhere enjoying him quietly, but enjoying him by walking with him in his ways.
Sometimes I think people view ‘heaven’ as about enjoying God in some other way. You can see something of that in what C.S. Lewis said at the start – Heaven ‘will leave no room for [sex]’. But I’m not sure this is a Biblical way of looking at enjoying God, if we take the creation picture of Genesis 1-2 seriously.
Genesis 1-2 is about life to the full, life lived with God, in full enjoyment of all that God has created, giving thanks to him for everything. Sometimes Christians make out that God’s ways are ‘austerity ways’ – we have to reign back everything in order to obey God. There is a degree of truth in this, in that we have to take up our cross to follow Jesus – but this is about saying no to wrong desires, while at the same time saying yes to right ones.
Jesus calls all of us to give up everything for the sake of the kingdom, but what we receive back is a hundred times better (Matthew 19:29). I will deal later on with the objection about people who are single in this life. The point that I am trying to make here is that God doesn’t simply want us to ‘enjoy him’ in a sense which is divorced from our ordinary lives. I simply don’t think the Biblical picture is to enjoy God in some sort of disembodied spiritual way which is superior to the ‘creational’ ways that God gave to Adam and Eve.
Part 5: Jesus’ comments about marriage
Jesus deals with the question of marriage and the resurrection in the gospels – in fact, it is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). This is often seen as the clincher, and it needs to be taken seriously.
All of the accounts in the gospels basically match up, so let’s look at Luke’s account from Luke 20.
27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came up and questioned Him: 28 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother has a wife, and dies childless, his brother should take the wife and produce offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife and died without children. 30 Also the second 31 and the third took her. In the same way, all seven died and left no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For all seven had married her.”
34 Jesus told them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are counted worthy to take part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 For they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are sons of God, since they are sons of the resurrection. 37 Moses even indicated in the passage about the burning bush that the dead are raised, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 He is not God of the dead but of the living, because all are living to Him.”Luke 20:27-38, HCSB
I have highlighted the key verse – Jesus says at the resurrection people “neither marry nor are given in marriage”. Doesn’t that answer the question and settle the matter?
Let me make a few observations about this passage.
The point of the Sadducees asking the question was to logically debunk the idea of the resurrection – they are trying to trap Jesus. They do this by drawing on the Law, which required a man to marry his late brother’s widow if she was childless. In their (very contrived) scenario, a woman was married by seven men. They say: “at the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?” – they are making the point, “how ridiculous, Jesus! The resurrection is a stupid idea!”
So the first important thing to observe about this question is that it is a question about the resurrection – not about marriage. Marriage is simply their way of exposing their problem with the resurrection.
As such, Jesus’ answer is primarily about the resurrection – not about marriage per se.
The second thing to note here is about death. The Sadducees seemed to assume that a marriage would last beyond death, and used that to ‘prove’ the resurrection was a silly idea. But marriage does not last beyond death, as w know from Romans 7:2 (“by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him.”)
And, more pertinent to the matter at hand, death is integral to the definition of marriage: “Till death us do part”. Marriage is a “life-long union of a man and a woman”. What would happen to marriage if death was taken out of the picture? Marriage can no longer exist without death – because it can no longer be ‘life-long’.
I think this is why Jesus moves directly from saying people in the resurrection will not marry to “they can no longer die” – they are logically connected. Marriage, in its current definition, needs death to exist. Then Jesus says “They are like the angels” – which I think is a confirmation of eternal life. At the resurrection we will be like the angels inasmuchas we will have a life which is not limited by death.
So, here’s the thing: Jesus says that marriage will not exist at the resurrection. I think what he is saying to the Sadducees is, “you haven’t considered what eternal life will be like.” He is not saying that sex will not exist, or any of the other things which go with it (children, for example). I don’t think he is making that point specifically – rather, just answering the Sadducees’ rather contrived point about marriage and the resurrection.
Part 6: What could the new creation be like?
I don’t like speculation, because there are many things we are simply not told in the Bible! But sometimes I think that people talk about the new creation in a wistful way, almost as if it will be less than what we have now. This is not the case, as I hope I’ve already shown.
But let’s consider the matter at hand in the context of life which is unending. Part of the problem is that none of us can really imagine what it would be like to live eternally, to watch a million years go by without having to worry about time running away!
I wonder if sex and relationships might still exist, even with children. At the moment a marriage is life-long, and that is about the length of time it takes to bear and raise a family. But what if a million years passes? Can we even imagine life extending that long? Could it ever be plausible, for example, in life which exists eternally, to raise a family with someone, have a long time with them, and then remain friends but part ways? Is marriage in its current format a temporary arrangement largely because we are short-lived?
Part of the majesty and glory and infinity of God is displayed through the relationships that we have with each other. There is so much diversity among people. I have a different relationship with everyone – C.S. Lewis made the point in friendship that each friend brings out something different in us. I think this is true, and I wonder if this is part of what the new creation will be like.
I don’t want to speculate too much here: God hasn’t given us much detail about the resurrection life for a reason. Still, I think it’s important to have some kind of vision.
Part 7: What about remaining celibate / single?
When I discussed this issue a few weeks ago, one of the points that someone made to me was about singleness: isn’t this over-emphasizing sex, while denying the fact that Paul says it is better to be single? I’d like to deal with that question, although with the caveat that I won’t be able to say everything you would want to say. (One of the problems with this whole area is that it touches on some very big issues to do with the Christian life!)
One of the most important things to understand about the Christian life is that it is a life of sacrifice. It’s not a life of ease – if Jesus wore a crown of thorns, why should we expect a bed of roses? This isn’t to say that we need to all practice self-flagellation, but rather that it should be the normal practice for Christians to give things up for Jesus. He says in Luke 14:33, “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” The path of following Jesus is the path of denying ourselves and taking up our cross (Mark 8:34).
Saying this – I think it’s important to remember that Christian self-denial is not simply denying ourselves for the sake of it. Here’s an exchange from a bit later in Luke’s gospel:
Peter said to him, ‘We have left all we had to follow you!’
‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’Luke 18:38-20
Peter says that they have left everything to follow Jesus, and Jesus replies no-one who has left anything “for the sake of the kingdom of God”. This is the first important thing to note: self-denial is not self-denial for its own sake. Its supreme purpose is for the sake of the kingdom of God – to better love God, to better love others, to be able to bring others into his kingdom. Perhaps we give up the idea of a relationship we know is wrong out of obedience to Christ. Perhaps we stay single in order to preach the gospel – there are many throughout history who have remained celibate to devote themselves to the Lord’s service.
A single man or woman may be in a better position to preach the gospel – would Paul have been able to go on all his missionary journeys if he had a wife and family to look after? I was struck reading Billy Graham’s autobiography how there was a big tension between his ministry and his family. He spent months away from his family at times – it wasn’t easy for any of them. John Stott and Dick Lucas are just two names who remained single for their whole lives (as I write, Dick Lucas is still around – but I doubt he’ll be getting married any time soon!) – and yet think about how God used them to bless many others.
Jesus goes on to say no-one who gives up anything “will fail to receive many times as much in this age” – so the second thing to note is that there is a blessing received in obedience to God, whatever we may have to give up. God is generous, not measly. God is not a God of austerity! I think this is vitally important to grasp – sometimes we think that God calls us to deny ourselves just because he doesn’t want us to be happy. But the truth is that God’s ways, as we’ve already seen, are always better and always lead to more happiness in the long run.
C.S. Lewis said this in the introduction to his sermon The Weight of Glory:
The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.
I think he’s right: self-denial is not an end in itself. It carries a purpose, a purpose which is actually more fulfilling. And, of course, everyone is called to practice it – those who are married and those who are single.
Finally, Jesus finishes “in the age to come eternal life” – there is eternal life to look forward to. No-one who misses out in this momentary lifetime will miss out on anything, because there is something so infinitely greater coming that it’s not even worth comparing with our lives now. I find it easier to believe that forsaking marriage now (for the sake of the kingdom of God) doesn’t mean that you’ve missed the only chance you’ll ever have.
And this goes back to the way that we see eternal life: if eternal life is something radically different to our lives now, then if we can’t do something in this life then we’ve missed the chance forever (even if eternal life is much better!) If, on the other hand, life now is a sort of ‘dress rehearsal’ for the way that things are going to be in eternity, then no-one is going to miss out on anything.
And – let’s be honest – those who do get married in the here-and-now also have something to look forward to. As a married man, and a father, I can say with certainty that marriage and fatherhood are not everything! Sin spoils everything – every marriage or parent/child relationship is marred by sin. There are moments I wish I wasn’t married or didn’t have children. I, too, don’t believe I have everything in this life – I am longing for the day when faith will be sight and sin will be no more. Can you imagine how wonderful it would be to have a relationship which wasn’t marred by sin?
It’s the same with everything good in this world: every relationship, every friendship, even our hobbies and pleasures – every good thing is marred by sin. Even as we enjoy them we experience the effects of the fall, and we long for the new creation!
I appreciate that this has been a long post and I’ve covered a lot of ground. Let me try to draw things together.
I don’t think that sex is ultimate – far from it! I do think it is a good gift of God, which he has given us to enjoy. From the evidence I see through the Bible, I don’t see any reason why our lives in the new creation should be so radically different that there is no place for sex. I believe Jesus’ comments in the gospels – the only place in the Bible where it is specifically mentioned – do not necessitate the understanding that sex will be absent in the new creation. I believe he was talking about the institution of marriage in its current, “till death us do part” form – a form which will pass away with death. And those who forsake marriage in this life for the sake of the kingdom do a good, holy and noble thing.
Could I be wrong about all this? Of course! I am not wishing to be dogmatic about anything here – simply to ask questions and probe into the mystery of the new creation.
The good news is that, for all who believe and trust in Jesus, there is eternal life to look forward to – whatever we believe about it now!