Contrary to popular belief, Jesus did not say that there’s no marriage in heaven. What he did say is that people who achieve eternal life don’t get married in the afterlife. There’s a big difference!
Further, marriage in Jesus’ day was very different from what many people think of as marriage today. It had nothing to do with “true love,” “soulmates,” or any inner connection at all. Believe it or not, the concept of marriage as a relationship based on love developed in human society only within the last two or three centuries, and it has become widespread only within the last half century or so.
For Jesus’ listeners, and throughout most of human history, marriage was what we today would call a contractual and business relationship. Its purpose was to provide financial advantages and social recognition to married couples and their clans, and to perpetuate the family’s lineage, property, and inheritance. And as Jesus said, that sort of marriage does not exist in heaven. There is no need for it there.
And yet, there is more to Jesus’ words than meets the eye. Jesus was a master of metaphor and parable. If we look at his words more deeply, we can learn a great deal about what kind of marriage does and doesn’t exist in heaven. And more importantly, we can learn a great deal about how to live here on earth so that we can experience real, eternal marriage in heaven.
Yes, there is marriage in heaven. We’ll get to that, and to the deeper message of Jesus’ words, in the next two articles.
In this article, we’ll look at exactly what Jesus did and didn’t say about marriage and the afterlife. Though it may get a little detailed and technical at times, that is necessary in order to dispel the myths and misunderstandings about marriage and the afterlife that have been rampant in Christianity for nearly two thousand years now.
If you don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty, but just want the basics about spiritual marriage and the afterlife, please read this article instead: “How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?”
However, if your minister or priest has told you there’s no marriage in heaven because Jesus said so, and you need something more solid and comprehensive to put your mind (and your heart) at rest, then this is the article for you.
I can’t be with my soulmate in heaven?!?
Throughout much of the history of Christianity, the idea that there was no marriage in heaven wasn’t particularly upsetting to most people. That’s because marriage as a deep spiritual connection of love between two people either didn’t exist at all or it was so rare that very few people ever experienced it. Yes, some people did love their marital partner. But that was considered a pleasant add-on, not something critical to the purpose or success of a marriage.
Today, however, millions of men and women do experience a deep inner connection with their partner. And for these people, the idea that their marriage relationship will come to an abrupt end at death can cause great pain.
After I had already written the first draft of this article to follow up on a conversation with a reader named Foster starting here, I received a Spiritual Conundrum from a reader named Nita, in which she said:
I am widow and a believer in Jesus Christ. . . . I am so lonely without my husband of 38 years, we did everything together, even in the ministry. Will we be together in heaven? Jesus told the religious leaders that there will be no marriage in heaven. I miss my husband so much, my life without him has been turned upside down. Many tell me move on with my life and find someone else. He was my soulmate. Please help me understand! Thank you. I still trust God and love him.
Very Sad Widow
Nita’s feelings reflect those of millions of widows and widowers who dearly and deeply love their deceased husband or wife. For people who have experienced true spiritual marriage—or who long for it—the common Christian belief that there is no marriage in the afterlife creates a deep wound in the heart. And Christianity is supposed to heal wounds, not inflict them.
Happily for those who hope for eternal marriage, traditional Christianity has been wrong on this issue all these centuries precisely because it, too, has thought of marriage as a merely earthly coupling for the purpose of reproduction and social stability in this world—just as the people of Jesus’ day did.
Besides, Jesus simply didn’t say that there’s no marriage in heaven.
Let’s take a closer look.
First, let’s read the story everyone’s talking about. It is told three times in the Bible: in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As you read it, please pay close attention to exactly what Jesus says, and to the wording of the question that he’s responding to.
Here is the fullest version of the story, which occurs in the Gospel of Luke:
Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother 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?”
Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 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. But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and 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.”
Some of the teachers of the law responded, “Well said, teacher!” And no one dared to ask him any more questions. (Luke 20:27–40)
“You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”
The Sadducees thought they were pretty smart!
Jesus had just silenced the rival Pharisees, with their trick question about paying taxes to Caesar (see Matthew 22:15–22; Mark 12:13–17; Luke 20:20–26). That didn’t slow down the Sadducees. They had formulated an even more elaborate word trap for Jesus.
They told an over-the-top hypothetical tale about one woman who married seven brothers in a row under the law of levirate marriage (more on that in a minute), none of whom fathered a child with her before they died one by one. She herself survived them all and died childless.
The Sadducees’ purpose in asking the question had nothing to do with marriage. It was meant to force Jesus into admitting that there is no afterlife.
You see, the Sadducees were the biblical literalists of their day. They didn’t believe anything unless they could read it in the plain, literal meaning of the Bible—which for them was the Hebrew Bible that Christians call the Old Testament. And since the Hebrew Bible says virtually nothing about any afterlife, the Sadducees didn’t believe in an afterlife.
According to the Law of Moses, every one of that woman’s seven marriages, to seven brothers in a row, was a legal and valid marriage. And yet, unlike men, who could have multiple wives under the law, a woman could not have multiple husbands at the same time. So—the Sadducees’ reasoning went—if all eight of them were resurrected and lived on in an afterlife, they would be in the illegal and impossible situation of one woman having seven husbands.
Obviously, there can’t be an afterlife!
Jesus didn’t bat an eye.
He told the Sadducees, who believed they were the supreme experts on the Scriptures, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). And he referred them to the words of God speaking to Moses himself at the burning bush:
I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. (Exodus 3:6)
God, Jesus calmly said, “is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”
The Sadducees, too, were silenced.
The law of levirate marriage
What were the Sadducees talking about, with all those brothers marrying the first brother’s wife one after another?
It’s what is known as the law of levirate marriage. This law was not unique to the ancient Hebrews. It was fairly common in the cultures of that time—and continues to be practiced to this day in some tribal cultures around the world.
Here’s how it is expressed in the Law of Moses:
If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.
However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled. (Deuteronomy 25:5–10)
Many present-day commentaries on the law of levirate marriage emphasize that it was to protect the widowed woman, so that she would have a son to take care of her in her old age. And while that may be true, that is not the reason stated in the Hebrew Bible for the practice.
Rather, as you can see in the above passage, its purpose was to produce a son for the deceased man so that his name and lineage would not end, but would continue. In fact, in the law as delineated here in Deuteronomy, even the widow is to speak of a refusal of her deceased husband’s brother to marry her as a refusal to “build up his brother’s family line.”
And it goes without saying that the first son born from a levirate marriage was also entitled to the deceased brother’s share of the family inheritance along with his name and position in the clan.
What is “marriage”?
With the biblical background under our belt, we can now look at one of the major reasons that Jesus did not actually say what traditional Christians think he said about marriage and the afterlife.
How would you define “marriage”?
Here are some definitions from standard dictionaries:
(1) : the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage> (Merriam-Webster)
1 The legally or formally recognized union of two people as partners in a personal relationship (historically and in some jurisdictions specifically a union between a man and a woman): ‘a happy marriage’ ‘the children from his first marriage’ [as modifier] ‘marriage vows’ (Oxford Dictionary)
1. (broadly) any of the diverse forms of interpersonal union established in various parts of the world to form a familial bond that is recognized legally, religiously, or socially, granting the participating partners mutual conjugal rights and responsibilities and including, for example, opposite-sex marriage, same-sex marriage, plural marriage, and arranged marriage: Anthropologists say that some type of marriage has been found in every known human society since ancient times. (Dictionary.com)
Though there is some mention of a “personal relationship,” the common threads running through all of these definitions are that marriage is a consensual, contractual relationship that is legally or socially recognized and that grants the partners various mutual, social, and legal rights. Historically, those rights have included sexual rights, property rights, rights to children born of the union, rights of inheritance granted to those children, and so on.
This general form and view of marriage has, as pointed out in the third definition, existed in every known human society since ancient times. Including the ancient Jewish society in which Jesus lived.
Based on the hypothetical situation they presented and its social context, what was the Sadducees’ view of marriage? What was their society’s view of marriage?
Evidently, they saw marriage as a contractual-type relationship whose primary purpose was to produce offspring that would carry on the husband’s name and role in the clan, and that would inherit his property. The whole point of the law of levirate marriage was to ensure that this function of marriage, seen as essential in that society, would be carried out.
When a man married a woman, and a woman was given in marriage to a man, he and she were entering into that formally recognized, contractual-type relationship, in which they secured various legal and property rights, and their children were given rights of inheritance and property as well.
Jesus told his listeners that in the resurrection, this type of legal “marrying” and “being given in marriage” does not happen.
“And they can no longer die”
The language Jesus uses in his response to the Sadducees’ question has prompted even some traditional Christian theologians to question whether Jesus really meant that marriage does not exist in heaven. (See, for example, this commentary by Ben Witherington.)
Here is Jesus’ response again, from the Gospel of Luke:
The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 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. (Luke 20:34–36)
If Jesus’ main point here is taken to be that there is no marriage in the afterlife, some of the things he said don’t seem to fit in. Why does he say, “and they can no longer die”? And why does say that they are “God’s children”? What do these things have to do with marriage?
It is important to recognize that Jesus is talking to the people of “this age” (specifically, 2,000 years ago) according to their view of marriage. Marriage, as they saw it—and as many people even today still see it—is a legal and social contract whose purpose has to do with offspring, property rights, and certain other legal and social rights and privileges.
Notice that the Sadducees’ story is all about the woman having children for her husband. The whole point of this particular law of Moses was to provide offspring for a man, to continue his name and inherit his property after he died.
But what if there were no such thing as death? What if a man (or woman) never died? What would be the purpose of all of these marriage laws whose purpose was to carry on a man’s name and lineage, provide for the future ownership of his property, and ensure that his land is tended to and his business continued after died?
In a world in which there is no death, all of the laws about providing for offspring for a family’s lineage and inheritance would serve no purpose whatsoever.
So that odd-sounding statement, “and they can no longer die,” is actually right on target. In the resurrection, Jesus is saying, there is no death. This means that all of your marriage laws (such as the law of levirate marriage), whose purpose was to provide for children, property, and inheritance, have no purpose in the afterlife.
He then deals specifically with the issue of children—one of the primary functions of marriage as traditionally understood—by saying, “They are God’s children.”
With these words Jesus is saying that in the afterlife there are no human parents, children, and family lines. There is no inheritance of the father’s property, no carrying on of the father’s name and lineage. All people who achieve the resurrection and the age to come will be God’s children, not children of Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or any other human being.
In short, Jesus is saying: All of your laws and ideas about marriage, family, children, inheritance of property, family lineage, and so on, simply don’t exist in the afterlife! “You are badly mistaken!” (Mark 12:27).
And that, my friends, is why the Sadducees were so wrong.
Of course, they were wrong about there being no resurrection and no afterlife.
But more specifically, their concept of “marriage,” and the purposes for which people “married and were given in marriage” in their culture, were wildly inappropriate to the state that people live in after death. Their earthly, human, legal, property-based ideas about marriage betrayed a complete ignorance of the realities of the afterlife, and of spiritual life in general.
And the reality is that vast numbers of people even today still think about marriage in these same earthly, materialistic, and legalistic terms. Just look at the dictionary definitions of “marriage” given above. Even today, people who live together long-term without getting a legal marriage complete with a marriage license (which is a legal contract), or at least having a clergy-officiated wedding ceremony, are considered “not married.” Even in our day and age, vast numbers of people still think of marriage primarily as a legal and social contract.
Jesus is also telling present-day people who think this way: Marriage as you understand it does not exist in heaven. In heaven, men don’t “marry,” and women aren’t “given in marriage” the way they are here on earth. In the afterlife, there is no need for all of the legal and social rights and privileges conferred by marriage contracts and ceremonies. Your earthly “marriage” doesn’t exist in the afterlife.
The history of marriage
Believe it or not, marrying for love is a fairly recent concept. Even a few hundred years ago, the idea of marrying for love would have sounded strange and ridiculous, if not dangerous to society.
I invite you to read the excellent 2006 book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. In this book, Ms. Coontz looks at the institution of marriage throughout history. As surprising as it may sound to many people today, up until less than a century ago marriage was almost entirely about property, inheritance, business, and procreation—and in the nobility, about preserving royal bloodlines. Love had very little to do with it. If a married couple were lucky enough to actually love one another, that was just an added bonus. Divorcing because there was no love in the relationship would have been seen as downright silly.
The simple fact of the matter is that throughout most of human history, people did not seek love in marriage. Instead, they sought out marital partnerships that would be advantageous for childbearing to continue and strengthen the lineage of the family and clan, for increasing and solidifying the family wealth, property, and business, and for establishing social status and privilege.
Even today, in many parts of the world and in much of human society, marriage is still primarily a social, legal, and business matter.
That is the sort of marriage Jesus was talking about. That is the sort of “marrying and giving in marriage” he said does not happen in the afterlife. Because that’s the only kind of marriage his listeners knew about.
Jesus couldn’t possibly have been talking about today’s idea of marriage as a relationship of love and inner connectedness, because that idea didn’t exist in his day. If he had tried to talk about what many people today have come to think of as marriage—as a relationship based on love, an inner connection, and shared moral and spiritual values—his audience would have been totally confused.
We’ve spent all this time on what “marriage” meant back then compared to what it means to many people today because without understanding what “marriage” meant in the culture in which Jesus lived, we cannot understand the meaning of his words about marriage and the resurrection.
To round out this article we’ll deal much more briefly with two more reasons traditional Christianity hasn’t understood what Jesus taught about marriage. We’ll take both of them up more fully in the next article.
“They will neither marry nor be given in marriage”
A second major reason traditional Christianity has misunderstood Jesus’ words is that they have read into those words something that Jesus didn’t actually say.
If you read Jesus words’ carefully you will see that he simply didn’t say, “There is no marriage in heaven.” Here is what he did say, once again:
Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 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.” (Luke 20:34–35, italics added)
It’s important to understand that the Greek words used here for “marry” and “given in marriage” are verbs, not nouns or adjectives. They are talking about the act of getting married, not the state of being married.
So Jesus simply didn’t say, “In the resurrection they are not married.” Rather, he said, “In the resurrection they don’t get married.”
That’s why Mormons believe that it is important to get married here on earth in a properly blessed wedding so that the couple can be eternally married in heaven. They read Jesus’ words as saying that weddings must take place on earth for marriages to continue in heaven. And that is a perfectly valid, though somewhat limited, interpretation of what Jesus said.
But he was saying much more than that. He was saying that spiritual marriages—the kind that do exist in heaven—are made on earth, not in heaven.
No, this does not mean that if you don’t get married here on earth, you’ll never get married in heaven. For what it does mean, please see the next article, which will be about the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words on marriage and the afterlife.
For now, the main point is that Jesus did not say that there’s no marriage in heaven. He said people don’t get married in heaven. Traditional Christian theologians, priests, and ministers are jumping to conclusions when they say that there will be no marriage in heaven based on Jesus’ reply to the Sadducees’ question. That just isn’t what Jesus said.
The Bible presents marriage as made by God
A third major reason traditional Christianity has misunderstood Jesus’ words and believed that there is no marriage in heaven is that it has not paid sufficient attention to the fact that the Bible presents marriage as something created by God.
In fact, the Bible compares heaven itself to a marriage, and says that God’s people are married to God like a bride to a bridegroom. See, for example, Jeremiah 3:14; Isaiah 62:5; Hosea 2:16; Matthew 22:1–2; Matthew 25:1; Revelation 19:6–9. (We’ll return to these passages in the next article.) So it would be very strange if there were no marriage in heaven, and if angels were sexless beings, as traditional Christian churches commonly teach.
Jesus himself said:
At the beginning of creation God “made them male and female.” “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. (Mark 10:6–9)
Interpreting Jesus’ words to the Sadducees to mean that there is no marriage in heaven would cause Jesus to contradict both himself and the Bible as a whole. God created male and female to be joined together as one. And just as God is not the God of the dead but of the living, so everything God does is not temporary, but eternal:
I know that everything God does will endure forever. (Ecclesiastes 3:14)
God will not violate God’s own commandment by separating at death what God has joined together. If God—and not merely a member of the clergy or a justice of the peace—has joined together two people in marriage, then that marriage will endure forever.
What Jesus said about marriage and the afterlife
Once again, Jesus simply did not say that there is no marriage in heaven.
Here is a summary of everything we’ve discussed above about what he did say:
- Marriage as understood at the time Jesus lived on earth, and throughout most of human history, does not exist in heaven. There is no need for such marriage in heaven because in heaven there is no death, there are no parents and children (all are brothers and sisters there, with God as their parent), and there is no need to provide for the legal, property, and inheritance rights that legal marriages here on earth are designed to provide.
- Getting married is something that happens here on earth, not in heaven. But on this point, Jesus was talking about real, spiritual marriage. (And no, this doesn’t mean you have to find a partner here on earth and get legally or ceremonially married or you’ll never be married in heaven. We’ll cover that in the next article.)
- Real, spiritual marriage is created by God. And what God creates and joins together cannot be separated. It is eternal.
In the next article, we’ll look at the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words about marriage and the resurrection. As it turns out, his words tell us a great deal about how to live our life here on earth so that we can be in a loving marriage to all eternity. You can read all about it here: Marriage in the Resurrection: The Deeper Meaning.
This article is a response to various comments and questions by readers here on the blog, and to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
For further reading:
- Real Marriage vs. Legal Marriage
- How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?
- Can you Fall in Love in Heaven if you Haven’t Found Someone on Earth?
- If You’ve been Married More than Once, Which One will you be With in the Afterlife?
- Viktor Frankl on Meaning through Relationship: It’s All About Love and Understanding