Heaven: Imagined and Real


Mark 12:18-27

We return to our interrupted series of sermons in the Gospel of Mark. Remember, we are considering one by one a series of exchanges the Lord had with various groups of Jewish clerics and religious leaders who were hoping to catch him out in something he said. Some Pharisees and Herodians first asked him about paying the bitterly resented Roman poll tax. Now some Sadducees take their crack at him in respect to a question of theology.

Text Comment

v.18

We have here another piece of evidence – of which there are a great many – that the historical information contained in the Gospels is accurate and reliable (whether information about first century Judaism, the geography of Palestine, Roman law and procedure, or anything else). The Gospels always give us accurate history in the ordinary sense of the term. They give us much more than that, but they do give us that. They are, in fact, an important source of information for life as it was lived in first century Judea and Galilee under Roman occupation. In this case Josephus also says about the Sadducees, “The Sadducees hold that the soul perishes along with the body.” [Ant. xviii 16] They did not believe in an afterlife for the soul or the body, in other words.

According to our categories, the Sadducees were the theological liberals of their day and, like liberals in many ages, they represented quite a small part of the whole population. The Pharisees on the other hand were the conservatives and much more popular. We might even say they were the fundamentalist Calvinists. They believed in the sovereignty of God while the Sadducees, like most liberals, believed in man’s free will alone. The Pharisees believed in angels and demons and in the supernatural world while the Sadducees did not. What is more, the Sadducees were, as theological liberals often are, drawn in largest numbers from the wealthy and the powerful of society. They were the aristocratic party in the Judaism of that day. It is often those who are most comfortable in this world who have the greatest difficulty believing in the next. The Sadducees were also the temple party because many of their prominent members belonged to the priesthood. It was for this reason that after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 they ceased to exercise any influence and Judaism subsequently was shaped by the Pharisaic not the Sadduceean mind.

v.19

This law, known as the practice of levirate marriage, from levir, the Latin word for brother-in-law, was for the purpose of protecting a man’s widow from poverty and preserving the line of inheritance in the dead man’s family. If there were no descendants the man’s property would be lost to the family line. In a world where land was the primary ingredient of wealth and security the loss of land to the family was a catastrophe.

v.23

The question that the Sadducees pose to Jesus was obviously not one they themselves took seriously. Not believing in the resurrection they had no real interest in what supposedly happened to people in the world to come. Rather this question amounted to a kind of reductio ad absurdum by which they sought to make faith of most Jews of their time appear ridiculous. If you believed in the resurrection, so they thought, the law of Moses – which all Jews believed in – would create this ridiculous situation in which a man would have many wives in the next life. They expected that Jesus would be flummoxed by their question – no doubt others had been – and that he would be publicly embarrassed trying to answer it. However, as before with the question about taxes put to Jesus by the Herodians and Pharisees, the Lord took the occasion of this trick question to offer the world some fabulously important information.

v.24

To say, as Jesus did, that the Sadducees did not know the Scriptures would have been startling and offensive. It would be like saying to Wall Street that it knows nothing about finance. [Edwards, 367] Though, to be sure, nowadays it seems easier and easier to say such a thing! The Sadducees considered themselves experts in the Scripture, especially the Torah, the Law of Moses. But as often in the Gospels, the Lord says that what the religious leadership thought they knew best, they knew least. And that, of course, through the centuries since has all too often been the case with religious leaders: what they claimed to be experts in they did not know at all. That they denied the power of God is clear: theirs was a secular perspective not one shaped by a living faith in a present God of unlimited power.

v.25

Interestingly among Jews who believed in the resurrection, certainly the vast majority of Jews – the Sadducees always represented a small minority – it was commonly believed that there would be marriage and the sexual life in heaven. So Jesus was contradicting a widely held belief at this point. The question of the Sadducees may have been cynical, but it is a real question and, no doubt, has often troubled godly people who have been married more than once. How will I relate to both my first and second husband in heaven or my first and second wife? How can I have a monogamous marriage as a Christian when I will have more than one spouse in heaven? Take note that all the Lord says is that there will be no marriage. He does not say that there will not be wonderfully fulfilling relationships of love in heaven. But in heaven, of course, there can be neither jealousy nor any sense of being excluded. Having addressed himself to the specific question, the Lord now takes on directly the Sadducees’ unbelief in the resurrection at the end of history.

v.27

It is interesting that the Lord cites Exodus 3:6. Though there is some debate about this in Jewish and biblical scholarship, it does seem that the Sadducees denied the scriptural authority of everything in the OT except the Pentateuch. They either did not regard the rest of the OT – the histories, the wisdom books, and especially the prophets – as holy writ or they attached a lesser authority to those writings. Their denial of the resurrection stemmed from their belief that it was nowhere taught in the Torah, the Pentateuch, the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy. Interestingly, the Samaritans, who also accepted only the first five books of the OT as Holy Scripture, likewise denied the resurrection. [Sanh. 90b] So Jesus cites a text from the Pentateuch to demonstrate that the resurrection is the teaching even of that part of the Bible that they accept as normative.

The citation in context affirms the point that the Lord is making. To be the God of someone presupposes a living relationship. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were long dead when the Lord said to Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He did not tell Moses that he once had been their God, but that he was then, at that moment, their God. But that could only be if the existence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not come to an end at their deaths. Even the Sadducees didn’t say that Yahweh had been the God of Abraham, which they should have said if, in fact, there is no afterlife.

Heaven is often presented as a somewhat boring place. I’ve never thought sitting on a cloud and playing a harp was much to look forward to. But, then the Bible never says and never remotely suggests that in heaven people will sit on clouds playing harps. The Bible is not all that forthcoming about what heaven will be like, but we are told enough to know that our lives there will be the truest fulfillment of all that is best in our lives in this world and that we will be engaged in useful and satisfying work of high purpose as well as basking in the presence and glory of God.

However, here is a piece of teaching about heaven that has seemed, at least to many Christians, to make heaven, if not boring, at least less than one might have hoped. I suspect for many Christians through the ages this paragraph has been one of the most disappointing in the Bible. They don’t deny that what the Lord says is true. He is the Lord! But they wish it were not. Most of the teaching they find in Holy Scripture – teaching about life in this world and life in the next – they happily agree with. They believe that it is true and they are glad it istrue. Even the more difficult parts they accept as good and necessary. But I have spoken with many Christians through the years who accept this teaching about there being no marriage in heaven with a sigh. They don’t want to be like the angels when they get to heaven, at least not in this respect. The a-sexual life does not appeal to them. They want to be married. They want to be in love in the way in which husbands and wives alone can be in love. I confess to being one of those who thinks this way.

My marriage has been the source of great happiness to me and it is hard for me to accept that, for eternity to come, this happiness will not be part of my life. It would make me very happy to know that I would be married to Florence for ever. Now, for honesty’s sake, I should tell you that this paragraph about there being no marriage in heaven is Florence’s favorite text in the whole Bible. But for me, and I know for others, it comes as more than something of a disappointment. Happily married Christians find it strange to think that they will not be married in heaven. I’ve heard a great many say precisely that. But, nevertheless, that is what the Lord says. We shall be like the angels in this respect, that we will not marry or be married. Our life in heaven, true and authentic human life though it will be, will not be precisely like our human life in this world and this is one grand difference. It will not be a sexual and romantic life as it has been here.

Now in all seriousness, it must be said that there are many others, including many devout Christian men and women, who find this text a great comfort. Their marriage has been for them the principal trial of their lives and the thought that they will soon be free of it does not come as a blow or a disappointment to them. The news is frankly a relief. In the case of others who have never been married and who have been hard put not to think of themselves as second-class citizens in the church as a result, this is likewise no hardship for them to hear. For the Lord to say that there will be no marriage in heaven is for some Christians almost a manifesto of their full rights in the kingdom of God.

But what is more important, I think, is that this fact – that there is something about life in heaven that startles and even disappoints faithful Christians when they hear about it – teaches something about heaven’s reality. For most people, belief in life after death is nothing but instinct reinforced by sentiment. The instinct comes from their being made in the image of an eternal God. They can’t help but think of their existence in eternal terms, much as that thinking is corrupted by sinful patterns of thought, by worldliness, by selfishness, and by unbelief. The sentimentality is also typical of human beings: this tendency to believe what one wishes to be true. For most people – and make no mistake, virtually all human beings believe in some form of life after death – these beliefs are little more than wishful thinking. They want it to be so, they want death not to be the end, and so they indulge themselves in the belief that it is so. There are many proofs of this but one of the most striking is that among the vast majority of people who believe in existence after death hardly anyone worries that things might not go well for him or her in the world to come. After all, existence here is both good and bad; people here in this world are punished for their sins. Why do they so cavalierly assume that all will be well in the next life? If there is a next life there is a God; but if there is a God, why do they not worry more about what God thinks about their lives here and now and what he might do in consequence when they reach the next world? People are, in vast numbers, content with a vague, unexamined, and undemonstrated confidence that things will be fine on the other side no matter how one has lived his or her life in this world, no matter how he or she has related to the God who makes life in the next world possible. Surely this is sentimentality of the purest kind!

But for Christians belief in life after death, in the continuing existence of human beings after they have left this world is no mere sentiment. We believe – as most people did then and most people do now – in the existence of life after death. But we have reasons for our confidence in the life to come and, what is more, we take the prospect seriously. We understand that, just as there is justice here in this world there will be justice – and much more perfect justice – in the next. We accept that there are moral consequences to be faced in the next world for one’s life in this world. We believe that God will not be mocked and that whatever a man sows he shall also reap. We do not believe that it will go well for all people no matter how they have lived, no matter whether or not they embraced God’s offer of salvation through his Son Jesus Christ. We do not believe that heaven is the only destination. But we most certainly do believe in heaven. And, as I said, we have reasons. As Christians our belief is not sheer sentiment as it is in the case of so many people. We do not believe that life continues after death because we want it to continue after death or because we hope it will. We believe in life after death because God has promised it to us; because Jesus Christ himself, our Savior, rose from the dead, the first fruits of those that sleep; because he has taught us that mortality must put on immortality; and because he promised that he was going to prepare a place for us so that where he is we might be also, and then added those words: “if it were not so, I would have told you.” We are the furthest thing from the Sadducees. We have a well grounded hope in the reality of life after death.

In other words, we know about heaven because God has told us about it and Christ has revealed his power to raise the dead. Heaven is a fact of divine revelation and its reality has been demonstrated in human history. But, and this is my point, some additional proof of its reality is furnished by the fact that we are told certain things about heaven that we did not expect; there are some features of heavenly life that surprise us and even, from our present vantage point, may disappoint us. Our belief in life after death is not simply our projecting our wishes into the future; it is a matter of believing what God has said. Christ Jesus tells us that there will be no marriage in heaven. I was surprised to learn that. Important as marriage is to God’s plan for human life, I wouldn’t have thought it so. Important as marriage is in this life to the happiness and fulfillment of human life, I would have thought it would be a feature of our lives in the next world. As pure and magnificent as is the love of man and woman in a faithful marriage – and God himself has made it so – I would have thought this a part of human life certain to be continued on the other side. Why it is God himself and Jesus Christ his son who liken their relationship to us to a marriage. That is how holy marriage is! No wonder most Jews in Jesus’ day thought there would be marriage in heaven.

As much as marriage has figured in my happiness as God’s child, as large a part of the goodness of life as it has been for me I would have assumed that it would continue in heaven, the place of perfect goodness. But it is not to be. Heaven is not our invention it is God’s home. He alone can tell us what life will be like there and he has. How inevitable, then, that in certain respects it should not be as we imagined. A made-up heaven would not be an asexual place, I guarantee you. It isn’t in Islam! It isn’t in Mormonism! But the real heaven is not a place of our invention. Christians know this because Christ said something about heaven that requires us to adjust our thinking about it.

The Lord made short shrift of the question the Sadducees thought was so clever. After all, where was it written and who should have thought that life in heaven would be little different than life on earth; that perfect life, eternal life, sinless life, life in the immediate presence of God would be little different from the life we live here by faith? But that was not the Lord’s main point. And we must be careful not to allow his statement about marriage in heaven to be the main point for us. The Lord’s problem with the Sadducees was not first their quibbles about the manner of life in the world to come but their denial of the reality of life in the world to come. The remark about there being no marriage in heaven is what arrests our attention, but the Lord’s interest lies primarily elsewhere. He strikes at the main issue by citing Exodus 3:6 and proving from that text that God is the God of those who live on, that those who are his people ascend to higher life even after they have died.

C.S. Lewis once criticized Rudyard Kipling for lacking what he called a “doctrine of ends.” That is, he did not look at this life – nor did he write about this life in his books – from the vantage point of the ultimate issue of things. He had no doctrine of the end of the world, of the world to come, of the connection between this world and the next. That was the Sadducees’ problem. They had no doctrine of ends, or, better, they had a false doctrine of ends and that false doctrine prevented them from a true understanding of this life and this world.

This is, in fact, the problem of our world. It explains Europe’s declining birthrate, it explains abortion and euthanasia in the modern Western world, it explains so much about crime and divorce and pornography, and modern relationships, and television and the internet and the worldliness of ordinary human life; it explains so much about how ordinary people live their ordinary lives every ordinary day in our world. They have no doctrine of ends. They do not see the present in terms of an eternal future. They measure the present by the present only and that changes everything, distorts everything, corrupts everything because the meaning of the present cannot be known in terms of the present alone. You cannot know the truth about today, about your life today, unless you connect today to the future, the eternal future. You cannot rightly measure the meaning of life, of anyone’s life unless you measure it by eternity, your life after death, your existence that continues forever in either heaven or hell.

We do not disbelieve, you and I, not in the sense of embracing the Sadducees naked unbelief in life after death. But you know and I know that, nevertheless, we make their mistake every day we live. Too often we also live as if we had no doctrine of ends. Too often we live as if there were no world to come, as if we were not to continue our lives after we died, as if heaven and hell were not real, or, as if heaven were not to be as glorious as Holy Scripture says it will be. We rightly reject the Sadducees unbelief, but, alas, there is still so much of the Sadducee in every one of us, however heartily and sincerely we reject their secularism and their unbelief.

The remark about there being no marriage in heaven has this great benefit. It forces us to think about heaven as a real place, not an imagined place, but a real place, a place where we are going, where we will soon be, where we will soon live if we have living faith in Jesus Christ. We can indulge vague illusions about heaven, too vague to leave their mark on our daily lives, but here we are confronted with the real thing, the real place, the real life – a life different in some ways that we expected, even than we may have hoped. That is how real heaven is.

The first time I ever preached on this text in Mark 12 was in November of 1987. What made that date significant was that it was the first anniversary of the death of Jack Paist, a spiritual father to me, a beloved elder of this congregation, a man I believe that God sent to us from Philadelphia after his retirement, and a man who made an immensely important contribution to the rebirth of this congregation. Only a few of you can remember Mr. Paist, or even his saintly wife, Marion, who lives on in Lacey, Washington. But I remember him very well and love him still for all he meant to me and to this church.

But Mr. Paist has been in heaven these 20 years and more and his body lies in the Willamette National Cemetery in Portland awaiting the resurrection. There was no National Cemetery in nearby Auburn in those days. I remember accompanying Mr. Paist in the hearse from here to Portland for his burial. I have often thought of Mr. Paist, and my father, and my sister, and some of the choice saints who have left us and gone to glory. Thought of their souls in heaven and wondered what that must be like. What will it be like to meet them again? What an absolutely inexpressible difference it makes, it must make, to believe that we shall meet them again. Really to believe that! How can your life or mine remain the same, how can the daily round of our existence not be supercharged with meaning, with purpose, with gladness, with expectation, with living hope, and with great strength when we know, really know that heaven awaits and that when we come there we will be there forever.

O think!
To step on shore
And that shore heaven!
To take hold of a Hand,
And that, God’s Hand!
To breathe a new air,
And feel it celestial air;
To feel invigorated,
And know it immortality!
O think!
To pass from storm and tempest
To one unbroken calm!
To wake up,
And find it – GLORY.

As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, for the Christian joy is the central thing and sorrow – and there is a great deal of sorrow in this world of sin and death, and must be – sorrow is the peripheral thing. Why? Because joy is what will last and sorrow is what will soon pass away. Is that not what Christians know? Is that not what heaven means? Is that not what Christ has made a certainty for us. How solemn is life because of what is to come; but how wonderful if Christ has given us hope of a life to come that is wonderful beyond words!

No one can live this life as it ought to be lived, live it as the great adventure that it is, who is not convinced that when it is over he or she will be in heaven. Any sorrow can be borne, any difficulty faced, any sacrifice made, when heaven awaits and when that soon-coming reality is firmly fixed in our mind’s eye. Lose that prospect, however, and the purpose and meaning of everything begins to fade. Imagine Pilgrim’s Progress without the Celestial City. It becomes the insipid story of a pointless journey to nowhere.

It was but a few days before he was so cruelly put to death that Jesus began to teach us in a concentrated way about the reality of existence after death, about the last judgment, about heaven and hell. Just as he was leaving the world, as his life’s ministry came to its fateful climax, over and over again in those last few days he turned to people and said to them, “Remember, this is not the end. It is not the end for anyone. Human existence continues beyond the grave for good or for ill. And that fact determines everything about your life. It is that fact that sent me into the world to save sinners; that fact that made me willing to bear the cross for my people’s salvation; that fact that kept me going in the teeth of so much opposition, so much hatred, so much blind misunderstanding. There is a world to come. And unless you reckon with that world to come, it will be a world of woe for you instead of a world of joy.” That is what Jesus said over and over again in the last few days of his early ministry. At the end it was the most important thing to say; it was the thing that mattered most to say when he was down to his very last words. We will come again and again to this teaching in the paragraphs that follow this one in the Gospel of Mark.

Heaven is a real place, not a place of human imagination. It is a real destiny. Some proof of that is furnished by the fact that it isn’t, as it turns out, everything we thought it might be; even everything, in our limited and earthly viewpoint, we hoped it might be. We will be like the angels even in ways that many of us may not now find altogether attractive to contemplate.

But then I know, as every Christian knows, that when I am in heaven, and my heart is perfectly pure, and I am with the Lord and with his saints, and I see an eternity of sinless joy stretching before me, when I feel a perfect and powerful love in my heart for everyone else and feel theirs for me in return, then I know that I will miss nothing, regret nothing, wish for nothing else but what the Lord Christ has given me. If there is not marriage, life will be better for it, not worse; however difficult it may be for us to understand that now. Heaven is a real place!