Jesus and the Sadducees: Is resurrection just “pie in the sky when you die”?

Wright spends a good deal of discussion in his book establishing the early Christian church’s belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the bodily nature of the final resurrection. He points out that the biblical view of the resurrection is actually at odds with the modern understanding of many Christians of what happens when you die. Many believe that the point of life is to “go to heaven when you die,” and that after death, we will live a disembodied existence forever in heaven. In some versions of this view, we become angels in heaven.

In one chapter of his book, Wright tackles one passage that has been read to support this modern Christian notion of post-mortem life. The passage, Mark 12:18-27, describes Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees who try to trap him with a hypothetical question regarding the Mosaic law, marriage, and the resurrection. Wright calls Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees’ question in this passage “far and away the most important passage about resurrection in the whole gospel tradition.” Wright points out that this reading of what Jesus says reflects a “classic case of anachronistic reader-assumptions.”

Wright points out that when Jesus says that the resurrected dead “are like angels in heaven,” this does not refer to the heavenly location of the resurrected ones, as modern western minds would read this. Instead, it means that they are, in some sense, like the angels, who happen to be in heaven. Further, this likeness is not in a locational sense in that they are sharing the same space, nor is it in an ontological sense in that they are the same sort of creatures. Jesus is not saying that we become angels when we are resurrected. Rather, the likeness is in a functional sense, in that the angels do not marry.

Interestingly, Wright suggests that the implied reason that angels do not marry is because they are immortal, and marriage was instituted to deal with the problem of death by providing a way to continue a family line. In Luke’s account in Luke 20:34-36, Jesus’ response supports this reasoning by distinguishing two ages: “this age” in which marriage is appropriate, and “that age” in which marriage is not necessary because that age is characterized by immortality. This supports Wright’s conclusion that the resurrected dead’s likeness to the angels is in their immortality.

Moreover, Jesus’ subsequent quotation of God to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and his comment that “He is not God of the dead, but of the living,” has often been misunderstood as teaching that the resurrection is a spiritual resurrection, where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are long dead but spoken of as still alive by God’s creative power to transform physical human life into spiritual form, like the angels.

However, Wright argues that such an understanding misunderstands the argument that Jesus is making. First, if Jesus indeed meant that the dead are not raised, but only live on in some disembodied state, then what he says would seem to be unresponsive to the Sadducees’ question and to affirm their disbelief in a bodily resurrection.

Second, Wright explains that Jesus, in typical rabbinic fashion here, is omitting the final conclusion and punchline of what he is saying. The Jewish view of the resurrection during the time of Jesus was one that involved two stages: an intermediate state in which the dead were in some way still alive, and a final state in which they would experience bodily physical resurrection. So when Jesus says that the patriarchs are still alive in God’s presence, since God is the God of the living, the unstated conclusion of the argument is that they will also be raised in the final resurrection.

Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, then, points us to a future resurrection hope of immortal life in which “the normal parameters of mortal (i.e. deathbound) life, including procreative marriage, are no longer relevant,” and to God’s past word to Moses, which indicates the present reality that the patriarchs are still alive and affirms the future hope that they will be raised to new physical life.