We are in Luke chapter 20 today where Jesus discusses life after death – one of His favourite subjects of course.
We know that life after death was one of Jesus’ favourite subjects because He spoke about it all the time in passages such as …
Well … there are the constant references to “eternal life” in John’s Gospel (eg. John 3:16) though ‘eternal life’, in the Gospel sense of the word, is different from “endless life” in the life-after-death sense of the word.
“Eternal life” in defined for us in John’s Gospel in chapter 17, verse 10 “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent”. It is a life defined by a relationship with God through Jesus and as such it is a complete life.
“I have come that they might have life and have it to the full” Jesus says in John 10:10 and the concept is the same. ‘Life eternal’ is ‘life to the full’, and indeed that life is based on a relationship that even death cannot destroy. Even so, we the concept of ‘eternal life’ is never simply a reference to life after death.
So where do we see Jesus speaking about life after death?
Well … there are those parabolic references in passages such as Matthew 25 where Jesus talks about the final judgment and the sheep and the goats and eternal rest and the hell of fire, but the story is full of symbols and it’s hard to know exactly how much of it should be taken literally.
Likewise the story of Lazurus and the rich man who both die and one is subsequently found resting in Abraham’s bosom while the other is in torment (Luke 16:19-31). Again it is hard to know how literally we should to take it all.
For the truth is that Jesus didn’t actually speak about life after death much at all, and it can be a bit of a shock to realise that if you were brought up in the church in the same way that I was.
In the religion of my youth, the Christian Gospel was basically all about what happened to you after you died, and hence, even in youth group, we were encouraged to challenge our friends “If you died tonight do you know where you’d be going?” For that was what the Christian religion was all about!
It all came as a bit of a shock then when I read the Bible for myself and found that Jesus Himself actually had very little to say on the subject. He spoke a lot about the ‘Kingdom of God’, of course (or the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ as it’s referred to in Matthew’s Gospel) but, again, there’s a lot more to the ‘Kingdom of God’ than life beyond the grave.
The ‘Kingdom of God’ is defined for us in the Lord’s Prayer– “Thy Kingdom come – Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” (Mathew 6:10). It’s the world as it should be and will be – where God’s will is done, but that’s not only about death or life beyond death.
Personally, I don’t think there’s any great mystery as to why so many of us were brought up believing that religion was all about securing for ourselves a spot in the afterlife. It’s because we had privileged upbringings where most of life’s necessities were taken care of and the only thing that was really left to worry about was what happened to us when we died.
As I so often say “the answers we get depend on the questions we ask” and if the only thing you really lack in this life is assurance about what comes next then religion can easily be relegated to dealing only with the subject of the afterlife – the one area of life that isn’t already under our control!
Let’s be clear here – “what happens to me when I die?” was not the major question on the lips of the first century Jews who came to listen to Jesus! What was the main question on their lips? “How do we get rid of the Romans?”
I do believe that our middle-class religious agenda does completely skew our reading of the New Testament and that this is also at the heart of the problem for the church in this country.
In a desperate attempt to remain relevant to 21st century Australian people we have truncated the Christian call to life and love into a formula for guaranteeing life after death. In the process we clergy become celestial insurance salesmen – helping people nail down the one thing on earth that money cannot buy!
This is not the Christian Gospel. This is not the teaching of Jesus. Jesus did not come into this world simply to make sure you don’t stay dead when you’re dead
Having said that, life after death is precisely the subject of Jesus’ dialogue in today’s Gospel reading as recorded in Luke chapter 20 and it is in fact the only place that I know of where Jesus goes into such detail on the subject, and the great detail that He gives us here about life after death is that on the other side of the grave no one is married!
Of course, this curious detail makes some sense in the context of the dialogue. As I say, the answers you get depend on the questions you ask and in this case Jesus is responding to a rather bizarre question!
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?” (Luke 20:27-33)
As I say, the answers you get depend on the questions you ask and, let’s be honest, of all the questions we might have asked Jesus had we been alive in the first century, this would NOT have been one of them!
It’s not a serious question, of course, any more than the woman is an actual case study taken from the pastoral archives of the Sadducees. Their real question – the question behind their question – was whether or not there is a resurrection of the body after death, and their story is what we call in logic a ‘reductio ad absurdum’
A reductio ad absurdum is a device used in philosophical arguments to prove the untenable nature of your opponents position by showing that if he or she were correct then it would lead to absurd consequences.
Time travel is not possible. Why not? Because if it were possible to travel back in time then it would be possible to go back and meet yourself at an earlier stage of your life, which would be rather embarrassing and is also a ridiculous concept! No. The absurdity of the idea that you could meet yourself in another time and still be yourself at the same time shows clearly that the whole idea of time travel is ludicrous. It’s a reductio ad absurdum, or so the argument goes.
It’s the same scenario here. The Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection of the body after death. It is an absurd idea – that the body can somehow be reconstituted on the other side of the grave. If that were so, what would happen to those who have been cremated? How would they get their bodies back? And what about those unfortunate souls who met their demise through being devoured by cannibals (considered a real problem a generation or so ago)? And what about the woman with seven husbands? Whose wife would she be? No. The whole idea of a bodily resurrection is ridiculous!
And let’s be honest – it is ridiculous! The idea that the body can somehow be reconstituted after death seems like a crazy idea, which is probably why in the religion of my youth nobody believed in the resurrection of the body. We believed in the immortality of the soul!
That’s a very different concept – the immortality of the soul. That was a Greek concept – something that Socrates (amongst others) taught. The Greek teaching was that when the body died, the body and soul were separated and the body went down while the soul went up! That’s what the Greeks believed and that’s what the Sadducees believed and that’s what I grew up believing too!
The curious thing is that while the Greeks believed it and the Sadducees believed it and so many in the church believe it, it’s absolutely clear that Jesus did not!
Jesus did not teach the immortality of the soul. Jesus taught the resurrection of the body and, yes, it is an absurd idea, just as the idea that Jesus could have been resurrected in body seems absurd and yet I personally believe that that’s exactly what did happen to Jesus and what will happen for all of us. The only bit I personally find hard to understand is why our marriages should all suddenly be nullified!
Of course, if you understand the nature of Old Testament marriages, you’ll realise that the question about the woman is technically one about property rights. This woman had been the property of seven different men. Whose property will she be at the resurrection of the dead?
Jesus says she won’t be anybody’s property! Why not? Because things are going to be very different when that time comes, and I think that’s the key to understanding Jesus’ whole teaching regarding life after death. Life in the age to come will be very different!
People have always found it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, and for the same reason that the Sadducees found it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, and that’s because we naturally assume that what is to come will surely be some sort of continuation of what is now. That, I would suggest, is the essence of the problem, and the key to understanding Jesus’ teaching on life after death is to grasp the fact that Jesus sees the future as being a radical departure from things as they are now!
Most religious beliefs about the after-life see some sort of continuity between what is now and what will be. If you’ve seen the tombs of any of the Pharaohs, you’ll know that Pharaoh’s household and servants were buried with him when he died so that when life started up again on the other side everybody would be able to resume their respective roles as cooks and cleaners and concubines. For what was, is now, and shall be evermore!
If you are king in this life you can expect to be a king in the next. If a slave, then a slave, or perhaps, if you lived well in this life, you may move up a station. That’s what makes the whole idea of reincarnation such an attractive concept. Everything is logically connected. What you do in this life determines the role you assume in the next, and if you owned property in this life – be it a cow or a house or a woman – then with any luck you’ll find that property waiting for you (in some form or another) on the other side.
Jesus challenges all of this. The new world coming, He tells us, is not like this world at all. It’s not just a continuation of life as we know it, with all its structures and traditions intact. On the contrary, in the coming Kingdom, everything is turned upside-down! The first are last and the last are first, pain and injustice are wiped away and even death itself is abolished! All the things that degrade and demean human life are gone though, notably, some of our most precious God-given institutions, such as marriage, go right out along with them!
Surely this is not necessary, Jesus! Surely just a few cosmetic changes to the human personality and a bit of fine-tuning in our governments should be enough to bring our society up to scratch? Surely, if we can vote out the current Prime Minister and put someone decent in his place, the poor and the voiceless will start to get a fair deal and things will get a whole lot better.
So speaks the well-healed church of the middle-class, untouched by the ravages of war and shielded from the level of human misery experienced by so many in our world!
No! Look around you! Look at the underside of our own society! Jesus sees what we refuse to see – that there are injustices in our world that are so massive and heartaches that run so deep – that nothing short of an entire recreation of the cosmos is required in order to fix them!
And so Jesus’ teaching about life after death turns out to be about a lot more than just our individual ongoing survival. It is a part of His larger proclamation of the coming of a new world where everything is going to be transformed. Yes, we are going to be caught up in that transformation – and caught up in body and not just in some ephemeral, spiritual way – but there’s more to the resurrection of the body than just the resurrection of my body. My future and your future are all a part of a much bigger future that the entire cosmos is getting caught up in!
This is the proclamation of Jesus. This is the Good News of the coming of the Kingdom of God. And this might not have been the religion of your upbringing but it is the religion of Jesus! Thanks be to God!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 10th of November.
- Click here for the video.
- Click here for the audio.