Can We Still Believe in Life After Death?
January 28, 2009
Ever met a Sadducee? Me neither.
That’s not surprising considering that the last one died 2000 years ago. And even back then, there were never very many of them. It was always a very select group, like a club for the very wealthy. If you lived in Jericho, you were much more likely to run into a Pharisee than a Sadducee. They were a very select group with some very strange views.
And that’s part of what makes this story so interesting. It starts with a weird question and ends with a very surprising answer. If we just skim it on the surface, we might assume that it has nothing to say to us in the 21st-century. But we would be wrong about that.
This story presents us with an issue of profound importance. Can we still believe in life after death?
*The Sadducees said no.
*Jesus said yes.
A 2005 CBS News poll revealed that 78% of Americans believe in life after death.
The most religiously observant Americans are most likely to say there is an afterlife: about nine in 10 of those who attend religious services weekly or almost every week believe in it. This view is shared by seven in 10 of those who rarely or never attend services. Americans of all age groups believe in an afterlife. So do most men and most women.
The poll went a step further and asked if science will ever be able to prove there is life after death. Here the response was even more overwhelming. 8% said yes while 87% said no. That leaves us in a fascinating place.
*Most people believe in life after death.
*Most people believe it will never be proven by science.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this question. If there is no life after death . . .
*Death really is the end.
*There is no heaven or hell.
*There is no reward or punishment.
*There is no resurrection of the dead.
*There is no purpose to history.
And if there is no life after death, then those of us who believe in Jesus have been profoundly deceived. We are, to borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, of all men most to be pitied. If there is no life after death, then we have believed a fairy tale, a nice story that has no real meaning. If there is no life after death, why pray? Why believe? Why live for Jesus? Sometimes I hear well-meaning Christians say, “Even if it’s not true, Christianity is still the best way to live.” Count me out. If it’s not true, then I want no part of it. I know some people say that Christ is so wonderful that even without heaven, it’s good to be a Christian. Listen, if this life is all there is, then what you call “Christ” is just a figment of your imagination. To borrow some words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
If there is no life after death, then those of us who believe in Jesus have been profoundly deceived.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
So is there life after death? Thousands of years ago Job raised the same question. “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14). That is the question, isn’t it? We all die, but what then?
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Is that all there is?
And that brings us to our text, an encounter that took place two or three days before Jesus was crucified. It is Tuesday or perhaps Wednesday of Passion Week. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the final time. Pilgrims crowd the city in anticipation of Passover. Because of his rising popularity with the people, the Jewish leaders have already decided to find a way to put Jesus to death. Knowing that his time is short, Jesus takes every opportunity to confront evil and to present himself to the people so they can decide whether or not to follow him. Everywhere he goes, crowds gather to listen as he debates the religious leaders of that day. Mostly he deals with the Pharisees who were the largest religious group in Judea.
But on one occasion he faced off against the Sadducees who were very much unlike the Pharisees. Luke 20:27-40 tells us what happened when they came to him with an absurd question about a woman with seven husbands. From Jesus’ answer we learn a great deal about life after death.
I. The Sadducees’ Insincere Question
In order to get a handle on the strange question they asked, we need to know something about the Sadducees. They were not the Pharisees. In fact, the Sadducees and the Pharisees were two different groups of Jewish leaders who had no use for each other. The Sadducees came from a small group of aristocratic families that represented the “old money” of the Jewish nation. As such, they tended to congregate around the temple in Jerusalem. You could find the Sadducees in the priesthood and in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Because they were sticklers for law and order, the common people didn’t like them. And because they collaborated with Rome, they had power and influence.
When you think of the Sadducees, you need to know what they didn’t believe.
They didn’t believe in angels.
They didn’t believe in heaven or hell.
They didn’t believe in life after death.
They didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.
They didn’t believe in the immortality of the soul.
In 21st-century terms, the Sadducees would be like today’s religious liberals who don’t believe in the supernatural.
The Pharisees believed in all those things, which was a major reason why the two groups didn’t get along. In 21st-century terms, the Sadducees would be like today’s religious liberals who don’t believe in the supernatural. It was a rich man’s religion that offered power with no accountability to God. You live, you die, and that’s it.
Jesus was a direct threat to all they believed.
This passage is notable because it records their only direct run-in with Jesus. By definition a Sadducee couldn’t become a follower of Jesus without giving up what he believed. So that’s why they came with a question that seemed absurd in that day and sounds ridiculous in our day.
“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 have children 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?” (vv. 28-33).
This is not a sincere question. It’s obviously a made-up situation designed to trap the Lord and discredit him in front of the crowds that followed him during his final days in Jerusalem. The Sadducees intended to ridicule the doctrine of the resurrection. They often used questions like this to tie the Pharisees in knots.
In order to understand the question, we need to go back to Deuteronomy 25:5-10 which describes the law of levirate marriage. Because of the importance of preserving the family name, the law provided for the brother of a man who died childless to marry the widow and have children in the name of the deceased brother. It was a sacred obligation.
So the question is, after she marries seven brothers, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? In her case, Jesus’ answer was reassuring. Besides saying in essence, “That’s a stupid question,” Jesus says there is no marriage in the resurrection. She was probably happy about that. Seven husbands is plenty-and probably a few too many. The good news is, she won’t be married to seven men at the same time. The Sadducees framed the question precisely so we would laugh about it.
“Maybe she’ll be married to the first one.”
“Or the last one.
“Or the best-looking one.”
“Or the one with the most money.”
You could imagine the snickers in the crowd. The point is, you can’t say for sure whose wife she will be. The Sadducees used questions like this to show what they considered to be the absurdity of believing in life after death.
But behind the question lay an important (and wrong) assumption that the afterlife is only a continuation of this life. People often wrongly assume that eternity is nothing but the extrapolation of time into the future. They think the conditions in the age to come are the same as the conditions here. But that is not the case. In this life things are so messed up that we can’t imagine how God can straighten them out. But as someone said, “God has an eternity to make right what has gone wrong in this life.”
So the question, though insincere, does raise some important issues regarding what heaven will be like. And the answer is, it won’t be exactly the same as life on earth.
That’s good news-even if we don’t totally understand it all.
II. Jesus’ Surprising Answer
In Matthew’s version of this encounter, he includes a sentence that is not found in Luke’s version. It summarizes Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees. “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). Let’s take those in reverse order.
A. “You do not know the power of God.”
By asking this trick question, the Sadducees showed that they underestimated God’s power. They started with life as we know it now and simply extrapolated into the future. But Jesus says that the resurrection is not a continuation of this life but a transformation of all that we have known. Note these two key phrases:
“This age” (v. 34).
“That age” (v. 35).
Just as angels never die, in the resurrection we will never die either.
Marriage is a natural part of “this age,” the world in which we now live. It is necessary for the fundamental continuation of the human race. In a dying world, you need marriage and children to replace those who are gone. But where there are no funerals, there are no weddings.
Remember that he is not giving a seminar on marriage. He is answering the Sadducees on their own terms. To be “like angels” doesn’t mean sexless. It means one thing and one thing only. Just as angels never die, in the resurrection we will never die either. Jesus answers this way because the question involved the Hebrew law regarding levirate marriage. And behind that law was the legitimate concern that the family name be continued after death. By definition levirate marriage could only take place when a husband died. If there is no more death, there is no need for marriage itself. Marriage as we understand is thus a temporary condition for “this age.”
To the Sadducees marriage was primarily for maintaining the family name on earth. Jesus is saying, “Your question does not apply to the life to come.” We must not think of the next life in terms of this one. Life there will be quite different because we will be quite different.
This leads to a mystery that has caused some anxiety. We think, “I want to be with my husband or my wife for eternity.” This passage makes it appear as if life in heaven is somehow less than life on earth. But that is precisely backwards. We will not love less in heaven but far more. On earth our love is inevitably mixed with all the baggage that comes from living in a sad, fallen, mixed up, messed up world. And it’s not just the world that’s messed up. We’re messed up too. On earth even our noblest moments are tainted with self-interest. In heaven with our selfishness removed and our bad habits and irritating mannerisms removed, our love will be deeper than anything we have known on earth.
What, then, of our loved ones? Our children . . . our family . . . our wives and husbands? Will all that be gone? No, but it won’t be the same or even similar. All that we have known will be lifted to a higher plane. We will know then even as we are known now by the Lord.
It will not be less than what my family is to me, but in “that age” my family will be bigger than I can imagine. I will not love my children less but far more. And I will love Marlene with a love that goes beyond anything I have known in this life. It is not less than marriage, it is something deeper and better and beyond our current comprehension.
All the relationships that are sacred to me on earth will be sacred to me in heaven. But we will all go far beyond that.
In that day we will love each other . . .
With perfect understanding,
With perfect communication,
With perfect acceptance,
Free from everything that holds us back in this life. All the relationships that are sacred to me on earth will be sacred to me in heaven. But we will all go far beyond that. I do not know what that will be like, but I know with certainty that it cannot be less than what we know on earth. It must be much more.
B. “You do not know the Scriptures.”
Jesus quotes a passage that the Sadducees would have known, one that at first glance seems irrelevant.
But in the account of the 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 (vv. 37-38).
Every Jewish Bible student knew the story of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3. Why did Jesus quote it here? If you go back and read that passage, God identifies himself this way: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). Jesus is arguing from the tense of the verse.
Not, “I was the God of your father,”
But, “I am the God of your father.”
“Was” vs. “Am.”
If God “was” the father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it means they died and are no more. But that’s not what God said. He said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” meaning, “They are still alive!” That’s the difference between the past tense and the present tense. We talk the same way when we go to a funeral.
“He was a great friend.”
“She was a wonderful wife.”
“He was such a funny man.”
“She was a great cook.”
It’s all past tense to us because death cuts people off from the land of the living.
Or so we think.
We can’t help talking like that when someone dies. Death moves our loved ones into the past tense. We can’t see them, feel them, touch them, and most of all, we can talk to them, hear them laugh, and share life with them. To us death breaks all the human connections, which is why we sometimes go so far as to say, “That’s not Uncle Charlie,” meaning, “The real person is dead and gone.” We can hardly help speaking like that.
Let’s go back to the example of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Remember that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection or the afterlife. To them, death ended everything. But when God said, “I am” instead of “I was,” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been dead for hundreds of years. He should have said “I was” if death is the end. If there is no resurrection, then he is the God of the dead, a grotesque thought. But God promised to be their God forever.
Death cannot break that promise.
God will raise the dead because he cannot fail to keep his promise.
That’s the meaning of verse 38. “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” I love that last phrase. What hope it gives to grieving parents who lay their children to rest in the grave. “To him all are alive.”
They are alive with him now.
They will be with him in the resurrection.
Note that the text repeats “God of” three times. It means that even after death, the Lord knew them and loved individually. Abraham was still Abraham, Isaac was still Isaac, and Jacob was still Jacob. Here we have the truth underlying the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. God will raise the dead because he cannot fail to keep his promise. He who calls himself “the God of the living” will not leave his people in the grave. Our hope for the future rests not in science, not in speculation, not in some proof text, but in the character of God himself!
The question is not, ‘Can we still believe in life after death?” but “Can we still believe in God?” If he is our God and we are his people, death is not the end of the story. A better day, a brighter day, a glorious day of resurrection awaits all the people of God. In the meantime, between now and then, we go to be with the Lord. This is what Paul meant when he said, “To die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
III. Two Contemporary Applications
As we survey this monumental encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees, we are left with two great certainties.
The Lord who has been with us throughout our earthly journey will not abandon us when we need him most.
1. If God has cared for us in this life, we may sure he will care for us in the next life.
Because we have his word on it, we have nothing to fear. I do not mean to suggest that death will necessarily be an easy experience for us. We don’t know how we will die, or when, or where. It may be that death comes so suddenly that we have no time to react. Or we may simply die in our sleep. But we may die of a wasting disease. The passage from this life to the next may be easy or difficult, brief or prolonged, and it may come when we are young or middle-aged or perhaps we will live to be 90.
But when death comes to us, we can know this much for certain. The Lord who has been with us throughout our earthly journey will not abandon us when we need him most.
What will our experience of heaven be like? I think we can only answer that question by analogy because on this side of the veil, we know so little. Consider a child in his mother’s womb in the last stages of pregnancy. Even before birth, he learns to recognize the voice of his father and mother. Marlene has told me that when she was pregnant and sitting in church, when I started to preach, each one of our three boys would recognize my muffled voice from inside the womb and begin to move around as soon as I started my sermon. This happened so regularly that it could not have been by chance. They knew my voice even though they did not know me. But my voice-that they recognized!
If you could ask an unborn child how much he understands, he could discourse on all he knows. But let him be born-come sliding through the birth canal, surely a terrifying experience, and then be caught by some stranger who slaps him on his behind until he cries, and all those lights and sounds and that sudden movement. What’s going on? What does it mean? Where am I? What are they doing to me? After a few seconds that must seem like an eternity, he is placed in his mother’s arms. That voice-he knows that voice. Nothing makes sense, but her voice he knows. And soon he stops crying and goes to sleep. He has begun a life beyond anything he knew before, but he knows the voice of those who love him. That, I think, is a picture of what heaven will be like to us. We think we know so much about heaven, but soon we will be born into a brand-new life with God where we will discover how little we understood.
About ten years ago Marlene and I made a hospital visit together. We went to visit Eugenie Longinow who was not long for this world. She was then in her eighties, her husband having died sometime earlier. Eugenie was ready to go home to heaven. I don’t remember much about the visit except that when we read Psalm 23, Eugenie lifted her hands, feeble and trembling, and tried to recite the words with us. When we got home, I called John Sergey, one of our elders, and told him I thought Eugenie was going to die that night. I’ll never forget his prayer at the end of our conversation. “We thank thee, Lord, for the death of the saints of God. Some go before and some after, but one by one your children pass from this life directly into your presence.” I don’t think I had ever heard anyone give thanks for the death of God’s saints, but it is entirely biblical and John’s prayer lifted my heart.
A thing is not lost if you know where it is.
Several weeks ago John died at the age of 91. When I heard the news, I remembered his prayer. My only response was to say, “Thank God.” And then, “The battle is over, the victory won.” “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). So the Bible says and so we believe. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Sometimes when people die, we say, “I lost so-and-so.” But a thing is not lost if you know where it is. Jesus said to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). We like to debate the meaning of certain words, and we want to know what “paradise” is like. We could speculate but our guesses would be only that. Just guesses. The most important part of that phrase is in the two little words–”with me.” Today you will be “with me,” Jesus said. Going to heaven is not simply going to a place, like going to Chicago or St. Louis. Going to heaven is going to a person. Heaven is where Jesus is. Everything else is just details.
2. Those who refuse the words of Jesus have nowhere else to go.
This is the end of the story. “And no one dared to ask him any more questions” (v. 40). If you want to know the truth about life after death, there are only two ways to be sure.
1) See for yourself. All of us will do that eventually.
2) Take the testimony of someone who knows.
Because of Jesus, we are not left in the dark to wonder what happens when we die.
This is where the words of Jesus take on life-changing power. He’s been there, he entered the realm of death, he experienced it fully, he was as dead as anyone has ever been. On the third day he came back from the dead, never to die again. We have the authoritative word of the Son of God who emerged from the grave with the keys of death and Hades in his hand. Because of Jesus, we are not left in the dark to wonder what happens when we die. Death cannot change our relationship with God because he is not the God of the dead but of the living.
All that we believe about life after death rests on the faithfulness of God. We do not trust in what our eyes can see because all that we see testifies to the overwhelming power of death. But thanks be to God, a day is coming-and is not far off-when death will be no more. Those who know Jesus have entered into a relationship that even death cannot sever. Our hope for the future is as secure as the promises of God. For the Christian, death is not the end but the beginning of life forever with the Lord. Amen.