Interestingly, Jesus directed most of his criticism against the Pharisees, but there were two groups of religious leaders during his time. The other group was known as the Sadducees. In one of the rare encounters with the Sadducees that we read in the Gospels, they asked Jesus about marriage in heaven. This is because the Pharisees believed in resurrection in bodily form (at the end of the age), but the Sadducees did not. In the biblical passage that inspires this blog post, the Sadducess pressed Jesus on the issue of resurrection.
They confronted Jesus with the hypothetical example of a woman married to the oldest of seven brothers. In Jewish culture and tradition, a brother had an obligation to marry the wife of a deceased brother. In the hypothetical, they asked Jesus, if each brother died in turn, with a surviving brother marrying the widow, who would be her husband after the resurrection? (Matthew 22:23-28)
Jesus, in typical fashion, responded that they should know the answer if they know the Scriptures. (Matthew 22:29) Imagine the upstart Jesus putting the respected leaders in their place like this!
But, Jesus didn’t leave them hanging. He answered that people neither marry nor are given in marriage after death because people are “like the angels in heaven”. (Matthew 22:30) And, then Jesus said,
“And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.’” (Matthew 22:31-32 ESV)
The statement that jumps out at me in this passage is the last one: God is not a God of the dead, but of the living!
Jesus made it clear when answering the Sadducees that there is a physical resurrection. Indeed, he had been talking about his own death and resurrection multiple times by this point in his ministry. Jesus came for the precise purpose of living and dying and rising from the dead.
And what this means for us is of the very most significance. God is a God of the living, not the dead.
What are the implications for us? While there are some obvious implications, I see some less obvious ones as well.
Think of the parable of the rich man and the beggar who the rich man ignored, stepping past him at the door to his mansion during life. When the beggar died, he was carried away to “Abraham’s side” (presumably “in heaven”), while the rich man found himself in Hades after he died where he was tormented. (Luke 16:19-31)
Notice that they were both “alive” and conscious. They could even see each other. One rested with Abraham “in heaven”, while the other was tormented in Hades. Though they could see each other, there was a “great chasm” between them such that Lazarus could not cross over to the rich man, and the rich man could not cross over to Lazarus.
While this story is clearly metaphor, it suggests that we all go on living after our physical deaths, both those who are “in heaven” and those who are in hell. Apparently, something like a “chasm” separates the “places” so one cannot cross between the peace in heaven and the torment in Hades. Are these places physical? Are people really separated from God in hell?
Jesus answered the Sadducees’ question about marriage before making the statement that inspires this post by saying that people are “like angels” and not married or given in marriage in heaven. I am not entirely sure what this means, but I recall in Genesis 2:24 that Adam and Eve became “one flesh”, Jesus referenced Genesis when he said men and women become one flesh in marriage. (Mark 10:8)
Paul says a man becomes one flesh with a prostitute if he has sex with her. (1 Corinthians 6:16) Most people view the “one flesh” idea (in marriage) as some combination of physical, emotional and spiritual union, but there is no doubt that one flesh means physical, even if it means more than that.
I am still not sure exactly what it means that people will not marry or be given in marriage in heaven. I am not convinced that there is no physical component to our resurrected “bodies”, but perhaps the physical component is different than what we know – like angels (whatever that means). Perhaps, the physical component of living becomes less prominent, and the spiritual component more. Whatever….
These thoughts arise in the context of discussions I have had with friends about what is hell. Without going into the details of our discussions, I come back to the point my friend made that hell cannot mean physical separation from God, as some people popularly suggest, because God is omnipresent. God is everywhere at the same time.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
(Psalm 139:7-8) The question of the Psalmist, of course, is rhetorical. We can’t go anywhere away from God’s presence. We can’t flee from God’s presence because He is everywhere – even in Sheol (hell).
Rather than a physical separation, then, “separation” from God must mean a spiritual separation.
Over and over again Jesus described hell as a “place” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. (See Luke 13:28; Matthew 8:12; 13:42; 22:13; 24:51; and 25:30) He variably described “that place” as a “furnace of fire” and more frequently as “outer darkness”.
What is this furnace of fire or outer darkness?
It must not be a physical “place” in which one is separated from God because God is everywhere. There isn’t a “place” a person can go that God’s presence is not there – not even Sheol (the Hebrew word for hell).
This “place” must be a spiritual, relational and/or emotional separation from God.
Whether the “separation” in hell is physical, or is spiritual, we end up “in hell” by our own choosing. Jesus said whoever is not with me is against me. (Luke 11:23 & Matthew 12:30) If we don’t choose to be “with God, we are choosing to be against Him. If we are against him, we have set ourselves in opposition to him.
When our physical lives end, we will either be with Him or against Him. We will either love Him or be set in opposition to Him. Those who are set in opposition against God will be in a place of “outer darkness” that Jesus spoke of where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
God is God of the living, not the dead, and He is God of us all, whether we are with Him or against Him.
It will not have been the result of any unfair judgment on God’s part that any person ends up in hell. It’s God’s desire that all be saved. (John 3:16) The difference lies in our choice because He leaves the choice to us.
He urges us over and over again to choose Him.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him….” (Rev. 3:20)
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts ….” (Hebrews 3:7, citing Psalm 95)
And, we are without excuse, even “those who haven’t heard” because God makes Himself plain to us. (Romans 1:19-20) How we respond to Him without knowing the Gospel or Jesus I don’t know, but that is God’s business, not ours. (For some thoughts on this concern, see How Were People Saved Before Jesus?)
God not only promises us that “He will come in to” us if we respond, He warns us over and over again what will happen if we don’t respond and choose Him. It won’t be pretty. It will be hell. And it will be the hell we have chosen because we didn’t choose God.
I am thinking that hell isn’t a physical separation, but a spiritual and emotional one. We will be set in opposition to God, by our choice, and there we will remain, not having exercised the choice to respond favorably to Him while we had the chance.
One thing is sure, though, God is God of the living, not the dead.
One might ask, why can’t God Just make us love Him? Why isn’t He more obvious to us? This blog is already long, so I won’t get into those things here. There are answers to these questions, though to some extent they are futile questions. God is God. He rules, and we don’t.
But, the good news is that there are “good” answers to these questions that are morally satisfying and make sense in the big picture. (See, for instance, Suffering Eternal Decisions; The Sun Shines on Everyone; God’s Invitation; The Problem of Evil and Mystery of Will; and Locked Out of Garden.)