We’ve all lost loved ones, or know someone who has. Needing comfort, we point to heaven, telling ourselves and others that one day we will see our loved ones again. I believe that’s a legitimate hope.
But at the risk of offending the bereaved, I would counsel Christians to exercise caution when thinking that way. The idea of being reunited with those we’ve lost is comforting–but it can also slide so easily, so imperceptibly, into the idea that we will simply pick up our relationships where we left off, only better, with couples and families together again for eternity.
As far as I can tell, that’s not a biblical concept.
Matthew tells of an encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees (Matt 22:23-33), which occurred in the short space between his Triumphal Entry and his arrest and crucifixion. Not much is known for certain about the Sadducees, a religious and political party thought to have ties to the high priesthood. In Matthew’s story, their defining characteristic is that they don’t believe in the resurrection–the idea that one day, in an age that God would bring, faithful Jews who had already died would be raised together as one. It’s the belief Martha clung to after the death of her brother Lazarus (John 11:24), and the belief which the Sadducees denied.
Looking to entrap Jesus, they came to him with a trick question. They told the sad tale of a man, one of seven brothers, who died without an heir to carry on his name. In accordance with the law of Moses (Deut 25:5-6), one of the brothers married the widow, in an attempt to produce an heir. Alas, he died too–and the cycle repeated until there were seven dead brothers, one dead wife who had been married to all of them, and still no heir. “So, teacher,” they asked, no doubt a bit smugly, “at the resurrection, whose wife will she be?”
Was it a true story? Possibly, though that beggars the imagination. I take it as a deliberate exaggeration (the logic of the trap only requires two brothers, not seven), intended to make the whole notion of resurrection sound ridiculous. The tone of it might be something like this: “Here’s a family that’s trying to follow Moses’ instructions to the letter. And look what happens! Seven resurrected men with claims on one resurrected woman. Isn’t it obvious how ludicrous that would be?”
Jesus, however, retorts that resurrected people “will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30, NIV). He is not, of course, giving them a completely worked out doctrine of anything–whether of resurrection, heaven, marriage, or angels. But he is responding to what seems to be a mistaken notion of resurrection, in which people still married and worried about having an heir.
Is this really such a big deal? Here’s my concern. Paul seems to think that resurrection is central to Christian hope, beginning with Jesus himself as the “firstborn from among the dead” (Col 1:18, NIV), or “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20, NIV). Without that guarantee, there is no gospel and we have no hope:
…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:17-19, NIV)
Hope in Christ is hope for a life that transcends death. But that life is not simply a matter of picking up where we left off or finding again what we’ve lost. Resurrection isn’t merely to continued life, but to new life:
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. (Rom 6:5-10, NIV)
The old is being made new; life, even in the present, is being transformed, and that transformation in turn is a witness to our future hope.
I don’t want to take away anybody’s hope; I want us to have the right hope, the hope of a life lived to God. I believe, for example, that my father is in heaven, and though I have no specific biblical guarantee, I expect that I will see him and know him. But my hope is not that we will again be father and son.
My hope is to have the opportunity to rejoice in seeing him whole, freed of incipient dementia, able to walk–to run!–without fear of falling.
My hope is to have the privilege of seeing the person God made him to be–and to rejoice as God would in that handiwork.
And my hope is to rejoice in all of God’s handiwork–to en-joy the new heaven and the new earth (Isa 65:17; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1) that is our future home.
It’s not about getting back what I’ve lost personally, but celebrating the restoration of all that was lost to a good creation through sin. May that glorious future be the resurrection hope we encourage in each other.