A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on November 7, 2010.
Even pastors have questions about heaven.
For example, I wonder what it will be like when my step-mother (Betty) first meets my mother (Ann) in heaven! Many of you know that after my mother died nine years ago my father (John) remarried a few years later. So, even though they’ll be in heaven I can’t help but wonder if there’ll be any awkwardness between Betty and Ann when they first cross paths. What do two spouses of the same husband talk about? Knowing my mother, she’ll ask Betty, “Well, did he still snore like a locomotive?”
We can’t help but wonder about heaven, can we? Of course, the most basic question is, Is there a heaven? But our questions don’t end there. What is heaven like? Who will be there and who won’t? Will our loved ones be there with us? If so, what kind of relationship will we have with them? And when we’re in heaven, will we have any connection with any loved ones on earth?
I love the story of the elderly woman who was planning her funeral with her pastor. She told her pastor she wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered around the local Wal-Mart. “That way,” she said, “I can count on my daughters visiting me twice a week.”
On this All Saints’ Day, when we celebrate the saints of our church and the Church universal who have passed on to the other side in the past year, questions about heaven couldn’t be more timely. For at least twelve hundred years now, the Church has been celebrating All Saints’ Day either on November 1 or on the first Sunday of November. Billions of Christ-followers have already died and gone before us. As one observer reminds us, the majority of the church is underground.
But are Christ followers also above ground in heaven?
John Lennon, who would have just recently celebrated his 70th birthday had he not been gunned down after leaving the Beatles, may have been speaking for many modern day people in his 1971 song Imagine when he wrote and sang these words:
“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try;
No hell below us, above us only sky;
Imagine all the people living for today.”
John Lennon probably had no idea he could have been writing on behalf of a group of Jews called Sadducees who lived 2000 years ago. The Sadducees belonged to the wealthy, aristocratic priestly class of ancient Judaism. They were theologically very conservative, and only approved the first five books of the Old Testament, or the Pentateuch, as authoritative. They rejected the Prophets and other Writings of the Old Testament, as well as the oral tradition so revered by the more “liberal” Pharisees.
Since the Sadducees could find no evidence for the reality of the resurrection in the Pentateuch, they argued that there was no heaven and no hell, and you might as well live for today because today was all you were going to get. The only way you lived on after death was through the genes of your descendants and their memories of you.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, had quite a colorful view of heaven. In their minds, heaven amounted to the finest pleasures on earth magnified a million times. Needless to say, carnal pleasures were a part of this picture, and Pharisees not only pictured marriage in heaven, but marriages so sexually active that mothers were giving birth to babies on a daily basis.
The Sadducees were both offended and amused by the Pharisees picture of heaven. And they loved verbally jousting with the Pharisees like our Democrats love jousting with our Republicans, and vice-versa. So the Sadducees’ rabbis would compose riddles for the Pharisees’ rabbis, heavenly hypotheticals that would make their beliefs in resurrection and heaven look absurd. For example, the Sadducees would ask if those resurrected from their dead bodies would be required, once they got to heaven, to ritually cleanse themselves since they had just been in contact with their own dead bodies.
But their favorite heavenly hypothetical—because it usually stumped the Pharisees—was the one they asked Jesus as recorded in Luke 20. Jesus has been challenged by the Pharisees in a variety of verbal jousts, and Jesus keeps beating the Pharisees at their own game. Now it’s the Sadducees turn to try toppling Jesus. The Sadducees have heard Jesus say that he will soon die and then be resurrected from the dead. So they set the same logical trap for Jesus that has worked so well with the Pharisees.
“Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died, too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
The Sadducees are a wily bunch. They know well the levirate law of the Old Testament. The word, “levirate” is the English rendering of the Hebrew word that means “brother-in-law.” The law, spelled out in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, says that if a wife’s husband dies and leaves her with no children, her husband’s next of kin—typically a brother—is obligated to take her as his wife and bear children with her. In fact, their first-born son is considered the legal heir of the dead brother. This is how ancient Judaism managed to protect its childless widows who would otherwise be left out in the cold, and its deceased childless men who would otherwise die leaving behind no family or family name.
In Moses’ day if for any reason a brother-in-law refused to take in his brother’s widow, that widow had the right to publicly spit in his eye, and the man was considered a disgrace. But apparently levirate law was no longer needed in Jesus’ day, and the practice was ignored. Of course, that doesn’t prevent the Sadducees from using it to spring their trap on Jesus.
The Sadducees also know that polygamy is not permitted according to the Law of Moses, and therefore the potentially polygamous situation they diagram for Jesus—a woman with seven simultaneous husbands in heaven—is highly problematic for any righteous Jew. In other words, they have Jesus right where they want him!
There is just one small problem with the Sadducees’ approach. They aren’t dealing with the run-of-the mill Pharisee. They are dealing with Jesus. And Jesus doesn’t have the same view of resurrection as the Pharisees.
“The people of this age marry and are given in marriage,” Jesus replied. “But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”
The Pharisees assumed heaven would be a lot like earth, only a lot better. All the bad stuff of this life would be missing, and all the good stuff would be multiplied to the infinite degree. Men would have all their desires satisfied in heaven—in spades. Women who loved a house-full of children would have all the children they could ever want. Heaven would be the good life on earth—on steroids!
That might sound unbeatable, until you hear what Jesus’ has in mind. For Jesus, heaven is not a different life in degree—it’s a different life in kind. Life in heaven is so unbelievably good that it represents a radical break from what we know here. Our physical bodies, so important here, are no longer an issue since we are living in what the Apostle Paul calls “spiritual bodies.” Our need for marriage and procreation comes to an end because we have no need to assure our survival through descendants.
Will the woman know her seven spouses in heaven? Jesus doesn’t address this question directly, but it’s hard to imagine that these relationships so intimate on earth come to an end. God’s desire for community on earth is so strong that it is only logical to assume that God will provide an even more magnificent community for us, our friends and loved ones in heaven.
Will my dad know my mother in heaven? Yes. Will he also know Betty? Yes. Will there be any awkwardness between them? Believe it or not, no.
Here’s where our minds can only go so far because the only relationships we know are bounded by flesh and blood. Jesus is hinting at a dimension of relationships where the spiritual rather than the physical reigns, where intimacy abounds in ways we cannot imagine here, where entire communities of people in heaven enjoy even deeper levels of intimacy than that shared between married people on earth.
By the way, you could read this passage to say only those worthy are resurrected from the dead. And that’s the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists interpret this passage. But Jesus is very clear in John 5:28-29, and Paul is very clear in Acts 24:15 that all people—believers and unbelievers, righteous and unrighteous—will rise from their graves to either live in heaven or hell, with Jesus as their judge.
Now despite everything Jesus has said so far he knows the Sadducees will not be convinced. The fact that the prophet Daniel (in Daniel 12:2) attests to the resurrection from the dead means nothing because book of Daniel is not in the first five books of the Old Testament. So Jesus makes a brilliant tactical move at this point in his argument.
“In the account of the burning bush,” which the Sadducees know is described in the book of Exodus, “even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘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, for to him all are alive.”
Now Jesus is arguing like a rabbi on steroids! He is noting that the text in Exodus does not say God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, implying that in some way, shape, or form, these three patriarchs, and by implication, all Old Testament Israelites are alive.
And then there’s another subtle argument at work here. Inanimate, lifeless objects like rocks and cadavers don’t have a God. They have a creator. Only living, breathing beings have a God. And our God, says Jesus, “is not a God of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
Now, when our loved ones die and come back to life, do they become angels? No! Notice that Jesus says they are like angels. After we are resurrected we become like angels in that we are now beyond death. But angels are in a special category, distinct from human beings, and describing those differences would require another sermon.
When Christ-followers die, do their souls automatically live forever as the concept of the immortality of the soul suggests? No! Immortality of the soul is a Greek, not a biblical idea. If our souls are immortal by nature then God is not necessary to prolong our existence. But resurrection says God and only God can rescue us from the extinction of death. As powerful as Jesus was, he didn’t raise himself from the dead. God did. And God and only God will raise us to newness of life, to become not just an isolated, free floating soul, but a spiritual body interwoven with other spiritual bodies in the most amazing community we could imagine.
On this All Saints’ Day, as we ponder the destiny of our friends and loved ones who have died, here is what we need to take away from this passage. All matter, including these physical bodies, eventually melts down and dies. But relationships remain, especially our relationships with God and God’s children. Jesus says, “When it comes to your friends and loved ones who are my followers, let not your heart be troubled. Because my Father and your loved ones are friends forever. And nothing will ever interrupt that friendship.
To quote the Apostle Paul: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or nakedness or peril or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 35, 37-39).