Hypothetical questions. The “what if” question. Every teacher knows about these. The impossible scenario. The argument taken to the absurd. The question is a trap. It doesn’t come out of curiosity or a desire to be taught, but it’s designed to knock the teacher off balance and trap him. College sophomores are notorious for posing them. The question usually comes with the smug look of “Gotcha!” written all over the face of the questioner. Let’s see how the teacher handles this one! Let’s watch him wiggle his way out of this. Let’s lay the trip wire and see if we can catch him. It’s mostly for entertainment or for discrediting the person by posing something he can’t answer. Most hypothetical questions need to be challenged rather than answered.
The Sadducees came to Jesus with a hypothetical question. They were the aristocrats of Jesus’ day, the upper echelon of society. They controlled the temple and much of the politics of the region. They were “fundamentalists” of a sort, who considered only the Torah, Genesis through Deuteronomy, to be authoritative and to be interpreted and applied with strict literalism. That’s why they didn’t believe in an afterlife or the resurrection. They could find no chapter and verse in the books of Moses to support that belief. That was the basis of their hypothetical question to Jesus.
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.” True enough. It’s called the “levirate,” the obligation of a brother to marry his brother’s widow if he has no heirs. There’s much that could be discussed about that too. The practice strikes us a bit strange, this notion of marrying your brother’s widow in order to produce children in his name. But lineage and family trees and offspring are important in the OT, all going back to the promised seed of Abraham. It also ensured the proper care of young widows who had no children. Kept things “in the family,” so to speak.
The Sadducees weren’t interested in Jesus’ opinions regarding marriage and the levirate laws. They were interested in Jesus’ position on the resurrection of the dead, something they denied because of their strict literalism and adherence solely to the Torah of Moses. This was a point of contention between them and the Pharisees, who believed in a resurrection. The contention often led to sharp conflict, something the apostle Paul exploited when he was called in for a hearing. Get your accusers to argue among themselves, and you can pretty much sit out the day in silence. It was a good move.
So what do you think Jesus? There were seven brothers, each of whom was married to this woman, doing their obligatory duty for their brother, until all were dead. And then she died. The scenario, of course, is purely hypothetical. You’d be hard pressed to find such a case in the entire history of Israel. And you can almost see that smug sophomoric look on the faces of the Sadducees who posed the question. How on earth will he answer this one? How can He possibly answer without denying something? “The two become one flesh,” right? So what about seven brothers who are all one flesh with the same woman? If there’s a resurrection, whose wife is she? Oh, you can be sure they thought they were clever to cook up this hypothetical. Jesus will have to deny the resurrection or marriage or Moses or something.
There’s something more going on here too. The Sadducees had a dog in this hunt. The protection of property rights through marriage was a hot button issue with them, since that was how they justified their claims to the priesthood. And so how Jesus would answer the question of whose wife she will be had some serious political implications.
Jesus sees right through all this. He has a knack for going past the question to the heart of the questioner. He shoots straight through this question to the hardened, unbelieving hearts of the people asking. Marriage is for this age and the sons of this age marry and are given in marriage. Marriage is, as we say, “until death us do part.” Death marks the end of marriage. It belongs to the temporal kingdom, not the eternal kingdom, Mormon beliefs notwithstanding. Marriage is for this temporal life and for the sons and daughters of this age. It is the context in which children are conceived and raised. It is the foundation of family and home. It is the building block of civilization and society. It is a picture of Christ and the Church. It is a fence built around the one-flesh union between husband and wife, the closest and most intimate union there is in this life. But in the end, marriage is for this life. In the resurrection, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
“They are like the angels,” those sons of the resurrection. That doesn’t mean we become angels, it just means that like the angels we rise never to die again. And we rise in such a way that our whole life with all its twists and turns and deaths and disasters will somehow be raised up in a fully reconciled good in Christ. If God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, making good out of all things in the death of His Son, then that tragic hypothetical woman with her seven hypothetical brothers for husbands will rise up on resurrection morning to a whole hypothetical life worked out for actual good by the cross and death of Jesus that reconciles all things to God. And the hypothetical question of “Whose wife will she be” will be becomes one, big non-starter in the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom where the only marriage that counts is the marriage of Christ and His Church.
Then Jesus uncorks the clincher straight out of the Torah. But that the dead are raised even Moses showed in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to Him. When Moses encountered Christ in the burning bush, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were long dead. Nevertheless, God reveals Himself in the present tense I AM, and declares, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” They are alive to Him as He is to them.
Jesus said, “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me never dies forever.” It’s much more than a hypothetical interest, a curious question, a theological tidbit. It’s about our destiny, our lives, everything that we are, our past and present. It’s about our hope for the future, our hope in the face of death, the very understanding of who we are and where we are heading and why. To be sure, there are a lot of questions when it comes to the resurrection. Most of them can’t be answered. What will we be like? What age will we be? What kind of bodies will we have? Will we know each other? What about our loved ones, those who have died in the Lord before us? Will we recognize them? What does it mean that we will be a new creation with a new heavens and a new earth?
The answer to all of that is we don’t know. We will know one day soon, but not one day sooner. And we don’t need to know these things now. They would only serve as a distraction to what lies in front of us. We have work to do and vocations to fulfill. What we need to know is that Christ has died and risen, and in His dying and rising conquered Sin, Death, and the grave for us. Death is not some hypothetical question to tickle our idle curiosity. Death is the enemy of our existence, and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the only thing that conquers Death. In Adam all die, in Christ all are made alive. He is Death’s undoing.
If the Sadducees had believed Jesus, they wouldn’t have looked for ways to trap him in his own words and ensnare him with hypothetical questions about some fictitious women married to seven brothers. Instead, they would have asked how they might be found worthy to attain the age to come and the resurrection of the righteous. They might have repented of their actual lives that fell far short of the glory of God rather than construct hypothetical lives to see what Jesus would say.
That goes for our own curiosities and skepticisms as well. I’ll be the first to admit that the whole idea of a resurrection of the body leaves a lot more questions than it provides concrete answers. It may at times even sound to our own ears like some fairy tale cooked up to make us feel better about death and dying with the hope of “going to some better place.” Christ has risen from the dead. His grave is empty. His body is glorified. He is fully human as we are, and He has taken our humanity through death to resurrection to glory. That’s our destiny in Christ. That’s the destiny of all who have gone before us, who have run the race of faith, who now rest from their labors.
Death is the end of temporal life with all its structures and orders and institutions. Home and state and even what we call “church” in the visible sense all end with death. But death is not the end. It is also the beginning, the prelude to resurrection and life eternal in a greater and more fulfilled way than can ever be had in this temporal life. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven. Our humanity is hopelessly corrupted by Sin. We need to trade out this old hardware for a new creation. We need to become a new creation, not by renovating the old but by rebirth and the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in Baptism.
If anyone is in Christ, and you are in Christ through baptismal faith, you are already a new creation. The old has gone, as far as God and faith are concerned. The new has already come. Now you are a new creature in Christ. Soon you will be a new creature in your self, with a body fit for eternity, as surely as Jesus is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity.
In the end, there will be no questions, hypothetical or otherwise. Only Amens and Alleluias.
In the name of Jesus,