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.
Yet another attack! This time over an issue of theology. It came from the Sadducees, a very powerful, wealthy and well-connected group who wielded considerable religious and social authority. Most of the leading priests were Sadducees. They, as distinct from the Pharisees, did not believe in resurrection.
To show how ridiculous an idea resurrection was, they came up with an extreme scenario: a woman who, because of the death of each spouse, ended up being married to each of seven brothers.
The background to their scenario was the law stating that if the first husband died before an heir was produced, then the deceased’s brother was required to marry the widow. If he then died without an heir, the next brother (if there was one) was required to marry the widow and so on either until an heir was produced or there were no more brothers. As far as the Sadducees were concerned, that law could not have had resurrection in mind because if there were such a thing as resurrection, whose wife would the woman be in the next world?
It is possible that the Sadducees just wanted to beat Jesus in a theological argument. But I suspect there is much more to it than that. The issue is resurrection. If the Sadducees were right, and there is no resurrection, then there is no resurrection of Christ. Which means there is no world beyond the grave, there is no return of Jesus as King, there is no being raised to new life, there is no eternal forgiveness, the cross is meaningless. In short there is no Christianity!
The Sadducees’ objection to resurrection was based on two false presuppositions. First, that life in the world to come is simply a continuation from this one and that relationships entered into in this life will simply continue unchanged in the next. That is not the case. Those who enter that world through resurrection will be like angels in two ways: they will not die and they will not marry.
(NB. This is not the only thing the New Testament says about resurrection life! Some have been deeply disturbed by reading this statement about marriage, jumping to the conclusion that in the world to come there will be no meaningful relationships and that all that is dear to us in this world will be gone, to be replaced by some kind of impersonal existence. That is not the case. Jesus’ point was to refute the Sadducees disbelief in resurrection, and not to tell us everything there is to know about how people will relate to each another in the world to come.)
The second false presupposition is that all relationships between human beings and God in this life are temporary, and end at death. That is also not the case. Jesus quotes Moses’s description of God as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’. Moses said this hundreds of years after the death of all three of those men. Christ comments: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” It is not that God was Abraham’s God, when Abraham was alive. God IS the God of Abraham. He is the God of the living for to him all are alive.
This answer brought some delighted support from one of the teachers of the law (a Pharisee), “Well said,” he commented. It also ended the ‘trick’ questions. Christ’s opponents now understood that a different approach would be necessary.