Early in my work as a pastor, I learned to be wary of the hypothetical question. Usually they were posed by an overly bright teenager or a college sophomore who had just discovered new ways to make the adults around her squirm with uncomfortable questions. Sometimes they came from unbelieving adults, usually with a smug look of satisfaction on their faces, confident that once again they had stumped the pastor and didn’t have to worry about the God problem. Only rarely were they honest inquiries designed to build up and educate faith.
Hypothetical questions can be useful to test certain parameters. They are like thought experiments, little situational test tubes designed to push an idea to see how far it will fly. More often than not, however, they are traps designed to embarrass the person being asked with something that can’t be answered.
The Sadducees approached Jesus with a hypothetical question. A man with six brothers dies without any children. According to the OT, his brother was obligated to take his widow as his own wife and bear children on his brother’s behalf. He died too, as did the other brothers, all without children. After seven husbands, the woman died too. Understandably, I suppose, though after number three or four, you might have reasonably expected some sort of investigation.
The question at the end of it all is this: In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be, since all seven brothers had her as a wife.
The question is purely hypothetical. There is no such woman and there are no such brothers. In fact, the people who are asking the question don’t even believe the point of their question. The Sadducees didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection from the dead, and yet they ask Jesus whose wife she will be in the resurrection. It’s hardly sincere. The hypothetical is what we call an “argumentum ad absurdum,” an argument to the absurd. If there is a resurrection of the dead, then think of the absurd mess it will be for this woman who rises to greet seven men as her husband. Or we might think of some of our own serial marriages in the same way, even though those weren’t sanctioned by the law of Moses. Whose husband, whose wife will you be after a string of two or three or more? And what sort of “heaven” is it going to be when all these relationships are tangled up for an eternity and you wind up sharing a table with your ex-wife in a supper that never ends?
You can almost see the smirk on the faces of the Sadducees as they trot out their clever little hypothetical to Jesus. “Oh, we’ve got Him now. How will He answer without denying something? If He says there is no resurrection, then the talk of His own resurrection means nothing? Or will He deny marriage? Or Moses? This should be fun. Let’s watch Him squirm.”
Be careful with your hypotheticals. Jesus sees right through them to the unbelieving heart the creates them. Marriage is for this age, He says. “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage.” “Until death us do part.” Death marks the end of marriage. It belongs to this temporal, chronological life. Marriage celebrates and guards the sexual union of a man and a woman as one flesh for the rest for life. Anything added to it constitutes adultery. The woman in the hypothetical story is not an adulteress, but seven times married, one flesh with seven husbands, and that, by the law of Moses. Technically, I suppose, her first husband was her husband; the brothers were his surrogates or stand-ins. (Aren’t you glad you don’t live under the old covenant?)
Things are different in the resurrection. In the resurrection, those who rise are neither married nor given into marriage, but are like the angels, undying sons of God who have passed through death to life. They are sons of the resurrection. They cannot die anymore, and they do not marry. Marriage is for this temporal life. But eternal life, which is bound by neither clocks nor calendars, is life in the eternal present tense of the God who is I AM, for whom past, present, and future are all now. You might say that the lesser gives way to the greater. Marriage is a picture-type of the union of Christ with the Church. The conjugal union is of a man and a woman is the closest kind of union there is in this life. One flesh. That’s why God established marriage to protect it. What He joins together, we must not pull apart. But in the resurrection, a greater union is revealed, greater even than husband and wife, and that is our union with Christ in God. The lesser gives way to the greater.
Marriage is not a means of grace. The Lutheran churches were wise to set marriage apart from what could properly be called “sacraments.” Marriage is a gift from God, yes. Marriage blessed by God, even when those who use it are not believers. Marriage is not a Christian thing but a first article thing. Of a part with clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, husband, wife, children. For all the talk about “focus on the family,” the family is not the means by which we are saved. That comes to our being joined to Christ through Baptism, our being adopted as children of God, declared holy and righteous by His Word.
Does that mean we won’t remember who we were married to in eternity? Perhaps some would like to forget, but resurrection is not about forgetting. There’s every reason to believe that we will know and recognize one another, just as Moses and Elijah were recognizable on the mount of transfiguration, just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were known by name to God long after they were dead.
So whose wife will this woman married to seven brothers be in the resurrection? The best answer appears to be none of them and yet all of them. She and they are raised up never to die again. She has her entire life as she lived it now back in one eternal present, reconciled by the death of Jesus her Savior who reconciles all things to the Father including a messy marital life. We must believe that the reconciliation that brings us in communion with Christ also reconciles each of us to one another, so that no matter how messy our life has been, we will be given to see it as the good God has worked through it in the all-reconciling death of Jesus. The sheer tragedy of being widowed seven times without children will make supremely good sense to this woman in the resurrection, who will have the joy of her life as it is held by the Son of God who loved her and gave Himself up for her.
Let me float an illustration past you. Illustrations are almost as dangerous as hypothetical questions. This one works for me; your mileage may vary. Think of you as a computer – the “hardware” is your body, the “software” is your life, or what some would call “soul.” Your life consists not only of the “programs” that make you uniquely you, but also all the files you’ve generated your entire life – your works, your relationships, etc. Some the files are current, some corrupted, some have been erased or trashed. When you die the big blue screen of death, all those files and all that software that makes you uniquely you are held in trust in a divine hard drive, “in Christ.” Your life is held completely in Christ. In the resurrection, the same software that is your life is restored to a new, resurrected hardware that won’t crash or die. And all the files are restored, including the ones long erased and forgotten. You now have eternal access to your life in a way you could not have in this life. And in this eternal operating system, it’s all good, everything is good, because Jesus has cleaned up of all the viruses and conflicts and bugs and whatever got in the way of your life running right in this life.
When that poor hypothetical woman with the seven brothers for a husband wakes up on resurrection morning to greet a bright and shining Jesus, her whole hypothetical life will somehow work out good, by the cross that reconciles all things to God. And the question, “Who’s wife will she be” will be one, big non-starter.
That’s why I counsel everyone not to ex people out of their lives. We may have former wives and husbands, and we may be married to more than one but not at the same time. But they are not ex-wives or ex-husbands. There is ex-ing out with a God who reconciles all things by dying on a cross. And we certainly aren’t going to say, “I hope they rot in hell,” because that wouldn’t be a Christian hope for one who believes in the undeserved justification of the sinner. No ex-ing. Just forgiving, loving, trusting, and believing that God works all things for good to His baptized believers.
By the way, as long as we’re on the topic of the resurrection, God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not was but is. Every word counts, says Jesus. He is the God of the living, not the dead. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob are all alive and well as far as God is concerned. And He has, by His mercy, raised you up out of the death of sin to live forever. You already are in the resurrection as you are in Christ. In Christ, you are already “like the angels,” undying, living even though you die, sons of God, sons of the resurrection, in the crucified and risen Son of God who is your Savior.
Now if all this heady talk of resurrection and eternity and whose hypothetical wife will she be when the dead rise has your head spinning, don’t let it trouble you for one second of this life. And don’t start formulating more hypotheticals. Just be glad you are going from death to life and have a future that is as sure as Jesus risen from the dead is sure.
Luke tells us that the scribes loved Jesus’ smack down of the Sadducees and applauded Him. “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask Him any question. That’s how it will be in the resurrection for the sons of the resurrection. No more questions. Only praise and worship of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, who revealed Himself to be I AM to Moses, who revealed Himself to the world in His Son Jesus, and who made Himself known to you in your Baptism and in the Supper you are about to receive. No more questions. Simply gifts given and received by trusting hearts with grateful amens.
In the name of Jesus, Amen