Our cultural moment is obsessed with marriage, though in a paradoxical way. On the one hand, the “marriage equality” movement holds out marriage as an ultimate end for this life: happiness, acceptance, and legal benefits.
On the other hand, divorce or other non-marital relationships are increasingly normalized, while movies and shows double down on the failure of marriage by rehashing the same tired trope—immature husband, unhappy wife, keeping it together for the sake of the kids. The culture says simultaneously that marriage is the superlative aspiration of this life and the colossal failure of a bygone age.
The church is not immune to this tension, but the shape is different. Many circles within American evangelicalism have, over several decades, communicated a kind of neo-Judaizing message that “first class” citizenship in God’s kingdom is reserved for those who are married with kids. On the flip side, many have adopted a form of the cultural trope and wallow in the essential brokenness of marriage—such that it is almost a point of embarrassment to admit you are actually happily married.
In other words, the ultimate goodness of marriage stands in tension with its challenges. Jesus’s difficult words to the Sadducees (Luke 20:27–40; Matt. 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27) helpfully cut through all this.
Some Sadducees approach Jesus with an exaggerated marriage case study to test him about his doctrine of the resurrection, which they deny (Luke 20:27; corroborated in Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.4; War 2.8.14).
When they instigate by saying, “Did not Moses say to us,” these Sadducees make it clear that they are not interested in marriage itself but are trying to use an apparent scriptural contradiction to expose flaws in Jesus’s teaching. They cite the Torah’s stipulations regarding levirate marriage (Gen. 38:8; Deut. 25:5): the brother of a man dying childless must marry the widow and attempt to produce offspring, thus preserving the dead man’s lineage. They then postulate a “what if” in which this process occurs several times with a woman: if levirate marriage holds, then this woman would be married to seven men in the resurrection, in turn producing polyandry that contradicts Mosaic law.
They think this presses Jesus into a corner, pitting Scripture against Scripture: either levirate marriage is scriptural, or resurrection is scriptural, but not both, since (they think) a contradiction of Scripture arises.
Jesus deftly responds in two ways: questioning their presuppositions about resurrection, and reaffirming Scripture.
First, Jesus corrects how they have grossly misunderstood resurrection in assuming “that age” (20:35a) is merely an extension of “this age” (20:34). In this age, humans are subject to death. Thus, to fulfill Scripture’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:22), humans enter into marriage by which legitimate offspring can arise.
But in that age—in the “resurrection from the dead”—humans will no longer be subject to death (20:36a). The fullness of the people of God (both Jew and Gentile) will have been reached (Rom. 11:12, 25); the curse of death will have been removed; no more procreation will be needed; and, thus, we will neither “marry nor give in marriage” (20:35b). Indeed, we will be “equal to angels” (20:36b), whose existence is eternal and whose number is likewise fixed, thus obviating the need to marry and reproduce. Importantly, the redeemed will no longer be primarily defined as sons or daughters of human parents, nor as husband or wife, but as “sons of God” (20:36c; cf. Rev. 21:7). In short, the future age plays by very different rules than the present, surpassing it on every qualitative level.
Second, Jesus quotes the Pentateuch back at the Sadducees—who only accepted those books as authoritative—by proving resurrection from Moses himself (Ex. 3:15).
This summary exposes what’s really at stake. Jesus is not primarily making a grand pronouncement about the temporariness of marriage. He is, rather, reaffirming the witness of Scripture, and providing clear insight into how the resurrection age is substantially different from the present age.
These two aspects of his teachings should inform how we think about marriage and the tension introduced above.
That Age and This Age
We must follow the witness of Scripture in shaping our understanding of “that age.” Our culture and flesh scream to us that superlative joy must be found now, for that is all we know. But Scripture is clear that, for the people of God, that age will be better in every possible way. Our bodies will be transformed (1 Cor. 15:35–56); all pain and sorrow and death will be taken away (Rev. 21:4). We will no longer see dimly but will encounter the presence of God in the face of his Son forever. Our highest good is future, not now. All joys, pleasures, intimate relationships—or sorrows, hurts, and relational disarray—of this age are not ultimate.
Much like a neglected child may not at first sense the benevolence of God the Father, neither can we fully grasp how the resurrection age will be better. We do not have the mental apparatus to do so, for we are still in this age. The only option is to take God at his Word.
In light of this we must also follow Scripture in thinking about this present age. Earthly marriage is a shadow, a copy, a type of the ultimate marriage: that of Christ to his entire church (Eph. 5:32; cf. Mark 9:15). Indeed, that age’s defining reality is a marriage between the “bride” (the redeemed) and Christ (Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:7). Earthly marriage isn’t designed to last forever, then, but to give way to the marriage of the redeemed to the Lamb.
Unmarried Christians, your identity is not anchored in your marital status now, but in your marital status then.
For unmarried Christians—and the church called to love them—this is an encouraging reminder. Your identity is not anchored in your marital status now, but in your marital status then. For those who have not or cannot enter into marriage now, Scripture insists that celibate singleness is not missing out on ultimate joy and meaning. It’s not inferior; it’s not incompleteness (1 Cor. 7:32–35). It’s a posture of taking the Lord at his Word, confident he’s using this unmarried walk to prepare you for a greater relationship, a greater reality in the age to come.
For married Christians, there is also comfort in taking seriously “till death do us part.” Marriage between one man and one woman is a beautiful gift of God, but it cannot bear the weight of serving as your ultimate end. Attempting to make it do so will lead to frustration, bitterness, and dissolution—or the idolatry of spouse- or child-worship. Such is the misstep of our age.
Marriage in this age is not anchored in itself. It is anchored in that age, in a different marriage. It’s given by God to nurture new generations of worshipers. It’s given to modulate and satisfy sexual urges in this age so we might not harden ourselves and fall short of the eternal kingdom (1 Cor. 7:9; Matt. 5:27–30). And it’s given for sanctification unto that age.
In the marital relationship, the chief aim of both spouses is that submission, sacrificial love, respect, repentance, and comfort be directed toward that age—toward cultivating conformity to the image of Christ, our true (in the fullest sense) bridegroom. As Paul writes, Christ is sanctifying his bride so she might be presented to him, and “in the same way husbands should love their wives” (Eph. 5:25–28). By the Spirit, spouses love each other now to prepare for handing each other over to Christ then.
To the Married in This Age
To the unhappily married within the church, this may seem like a relief: your marriage will end. Yet Jesus’s teaching goes beyond that: in the brokenness of the present, your marriage—even a failed one—has a heavenward significance, where the wounds and conflicts of this age give way to the Lamb’s healing of his bride.
To the happily married, the fact that your marriage is temporary may be quite sad. How can that age possibly be better without the intimacy and friendship you enjoy? You must trust God at his Word: it will be better, even if you cannot comprehend it now.
But as a thought experiment, in that age—if God grants the joy of bumping into our earthly spouse, of recalling old inside jokes, of giving each other a knowing glance as we worship the Lamb—we won’t grieve what was lost. We’ll only rejoice in what was gained. And if given the opportunity, we might say to our earthly spouse: “Thank you for helping me prepare for this.”
For our marriages are built to end—to end in a better one.