Here it is:
“When they rise from the dead, men and women do not marry but are like the angels in heaven.”
This reply was to a question designed to make nonsense of resurrection: if seven brothers had all been married to the same woman, and then died, who would be her husband in the after-life? Obviously Jesus recognised this as a fun story, “1 bride and 7 brothers” but his serious answer was that the resurrection life with God is not a replay of earthly life, but rather a transformation. We do not know how Jesus imagined the angels in heaven. Many have speculated that they are not distinguished by sex, but Jesus did not speculate, simply stating that the exclusive relationship of marriage was not an option in the new life.
That’s actually a bit of a bombshell. As a minister, I have offered bereavement comfort to many grieving families after the death of a beloved person. Often they have comforted themselves with the assumption that they will meet again in heaven, assuming that the earthly relationship – husband/ wife, parent/child, friend/ friend, will be resumed in that otherwise unimaginable life. Many of the common accompaniments of bereavement, from cards to brave stone inscriptions, make the same assumption. It is thought to be Christian.
The New Testament is a bit less starry- eyed about family than people think. Jesus is depicted as rejecting his family, and teaching that his true family were all those who did God’s will. But this verse from Mark’s gospel goes further in explicitly limiting family life to this earth. Many believers, I imagine, will think that resurrection life is not very desirable if it separates us from loved ones just as effectively as death. And yet, this truth is not a deduction made by theologians from inadequate evidence, but a word of Jesus.
Yes, I can argue that all he rules out is “marriage” and speculate that we may be able to relate to dear ones in a new way, beyond age and sex and exclusive belonging. But that might seem as foreign as not relating at all. I think I would prefer that Jesus had not said this, as I would like to think that earthly relationships have an eternal dimension, that the effort and joy of mutual understanding in any long-term relationship was not swallowed up in death. After all, I wonder, if Jesus was really human, did he know anything more about the resurrection than me?
Like his opponents, the Pharisees, Jesus believed in resurrection, and was wise enough to see it as a gift beyond death which is therefore beyond understanding. Death is a real horizon beyond which we cannot see. But he had faith in the God of the living, the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, the forefathers who were alive in him. No, we cannot understand, we must not sentimentalise, but we can trust in it as a mystery in which our individuality and our belonging are alike transformed into their fulfilment.