The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses said, “If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.” Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.’ Jesus answered them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 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, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.’ And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.
Despite appearing to be a rather obscure theological debate between religious factions lost in the midst of time, this passage touches a nerve for every human being living in all times.
The Sadducees observed only the written Law and did not acknowledge any oral traditions or beliefs which could not be clearly evidenced in the Scriptures. This included belief in life after death which was not held by the Jews until after most of the Old Testament had been written. The Sadducees’ test case aimed to point out the absurdity of such a belief.
Jesus’ response is worthy of any seasoned Rabbi scholar. He turns the tables in showing that it is in fact the Sadducees who are absurd in their assumptions. First he says that when God calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob this indicates that they were, or would be, alive and so scripture does clearly pre-suppose belief in the resurrection.
Jesus’ second point is even more potent and damning. He says that they underestimate the power of God who will introduce a new form of life, in which there will be no marriage or birth, because there will be no death. It was naive and crass to assume the afterlife would be a mere continuance of the pattern of this life.
These are not just rarefied philosophic issues that pass us by. Each of us has the gift, some would say the curse, to be born as the only physical being able to contemplate our own mortality. All are faced with reflections about the afterlife and for Christians this is intimately bound up with the core of our faith and Jesus’ assurance: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
Dear God, when, in the dark night of my soul, I feel lost and forlorn, fearful of life and the uncertainty of death let me again hear the assuring words of my resurrected Lord Jesus who promises life, true life beyond death.
Professor Graham Handscomb Member of Christ Church URC Chelmsford