Listening to Jesus About Life After Death

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 12:24-27

Jesus said to them, “Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, `I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.

Mark 12:24-27 rsv

We Christians believe that in Jesus, God has made Himself fully and finally known. That’s what He said, isn’t it? “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus is God come to dwell among us, sharing our humanity, living our life, speaking our language. He is the word of the Eternal now made flesh.

We would expect then that this Jesus when He dwelt among us would tell us things about God and His purpose that we could not otherwise know, that He would provide answers for our deepest questions. He who came from the glory would understand the ways of God with us. He would know about our origins, about the meaning of our life, and about our ultimate destiny.

Today I want to think with you about what Jesus taught on a subject of great interest to everyone: life after death. Listen. I’m reading from the Gospel according to Mark, chapter 12, beginning at verse 18: “And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the wife, and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no children; and the second took her, and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise, and the seven left no children. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.” Jesus said to them, “Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry not are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, `I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”

A SURE THING

Note first how Jesus assured people that there is a life to come. There is life beyond death. The religious group in Israel known as the Sadducees apparently did not believe this. They held that when the body dies, the soul dies. Everything dies.

Curiously, they supported their view by appealing to the Old Testament Scriptures. The Sadducees, however, accepted as authoritative only the five books of Moses – what we call the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. For them, these books alone had special, unique authority. The Sadducees would not accept any teaching that was not clearly set forth in these. Since they contained, it was believed, no clear reference to life after death, the Sadducees were skeptical about any such doctrine.

The question they asked of Jesus was clearly designed to poke fun at the teaching of a future life, to make resurrection hope appear as ridiculous. They pointed out that in the law of Moses, the brother of a man who had died leaving his wife childless was to marry the widow and raise up children who would be the legal progeny of his brother. The Sadducees proposed this hypothetical case in which this kept on happening in a family of seven brothers. They all married the same woman and successively died before she did. Now, in the Resurrection, the Sadducees asked, with a scorn they made little attempt to disguise, “Whose wife will this woman be?”

The Sadducees have their modern counterparts, don’t they? All of us know people who believe that death ends everything. To them it’s a purely natural process. When breathing ceases, when your heart stops, when brain functioning is no more, you’re dead and that’s the end of you. Children may die of disease or starvation in their early years. Others may be cut down in mid course. Some may survive to a ripe old age. But at the moment of death, the same non-existence awaits them all. That’s the doctrine. For people who see things this way, the sequel to all life in this world is simply oblivion. People may live on for a generation or so in the memory of their loved ones. The names of the exceptionally famous may be recorded in the history books or become household words. But for each of them, the essential person has forever ceased to be.

Listen to Bertrand Russell for an eloquent expression of this view. “That man is the product of causes which had no pre-vision of the end they were achieving, that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms, that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual life beyond the grave . . . all these things, if not quite beyond dispute are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths,” he writes, “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” There you have it, unyielding despair, because, on his view, there is no possibility of a life beyond death.

And that view does produce despair. No doubt about that. If all our individual selves at the moment of death come to nothingness, what difference does it make finally how we have lived, what causes we’ve supported, what values we’ve embraced? What significance ultimately, do those relationships have which have warmed and nurtured us all our days? They are nothing now, according to this view, null and void. Do you see why people who believe things like that lose hope? Or even more ominously, why they sometimes lose all concern for others?

Archaeologists investigating some of the ancient Roman cemeteries have come across a common inscription on pagan tombs, consisting of the seven letters: NFF NS NC. They stand for a Latin saying which can be translated like this: I was not. I was. I am not. I do not care.

But Jesus says that people who hold that view are wrong, terribly, tragically wrong. They are wrong, He says, because they do not “know the scriptures or the power of God.” According to Jesus, the Scriptures clearly teach that God’s people, even after they die, continue to live. We’ll see in a moment the passage that He especially appeals to. But He talks also about the power of God. That, for Jesus, is the basis of hope. We will not survive death because we are naturally immortal, because we can sustain our own lives or because we deserve to continue eternally. It’s because the God who made us is able, when everything about us has died, to recreate us, to raise us from death to endless life.

WHAT WILL IT BE LIKE?

What kind of life will that be? On that subject we are given few details in Scripture. One thing we know from this passage is that in the life to come there will be no marrying or giving in marriage. In other words, the question of the Sadducees was simply irrelevant: “Whose wife shall this woman be?” She will not be any man’s wife in heaven. Not that relationships between persons will cease to exist, not that love will have been done away. No, real love will be one of the things that forever abides. We’ll be closer to our loved ones than we’ve ever been. But it will be different. It will transcend anything we now know within the ties of family.

We shall be, Jesus says, like the angels of God. How so? We aren’t told. But don’t think of this as though the life of the angels were more limited than ours, as though they were necessarily sexless, loveless, or joyless. Jesus surely meant that being like the angels of God had to do with being in God’s presence, sharing in His worship, celebrating His love and doing His will. Human life in the coming age is not to be diminished but enlarged, not impoverished but enriched. The things which God has prepared for those who love Him are unimaginably wonderful. The highest joys of this present life are but a hint and foretaste of what is to come.

RESURRECTION LIFE

What we know with assurance is that the life to come will be a life of resurrection. Notice how Jesus said to His questioners, “when they rise from the dead”: not if, but when. There is no doubt in the mind of the Lord that the resurrection is a real, coming event. Further, Jesus argues that the Scriptures make this plain. He appeals to a passage in the Pentateuch, the very portion of Scripture which the Sadducees claimed to accept. Listen to these words from Exodus, chapter 3, verse 6. God is speaking to Moses at the burning bush: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” In commenting on this, Jesus points out that God’s people, though they have died, are yet spoken of by Him as living. They are apparently alive in His mind, heart, and purpose, alive to God. For God to call Himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is clear evidence to Jesus that these Old Testament saints have a continuing existence because God is the God of the living. He is not the God of non-existent persons, of mere names from the past.

When God calls Himself as here “the God” of such and such a person, He means that He is the helper, the Savior, the hope of that person. He keeps His people and provides redemption for them. How could God, who has life in Himself, who is supremely the living One, be the God of extinct phantoms? If He can protect His people, as He does throughout all the perils of life, but loses them to the last great enemy death, where is His power? Where is His protection? Where is His faithfulness? Why would He grant them partial tokens of deliverance only to give them over finally to oblivion?

Death is the final word of which all the misfortunes and sufferings of life here are only a hint. If the death of the patriarchs were the last word in their history, this would be a breach of God’s covenant, a denial of His revealed name as the living One. The salvation promised to the patriarchs and their descendants in the covenant contains at heart this assurance of resurrection. God’s faithfulness and resurrection are linked together. The failure of the Sadducees to grasp this was at the root of their error. They forgot that God is the God of the living, that He keeps His promises to His people, that not even death can separate them from His great love.

What Jesus said on this subject was underlined in the most powerful way imaginable by what He did. Look at His teaching now in the light of His subsequent death and resurrection. The hope of resurrection has become through Jesus’ victory over death immeasurably more sure. Now it’s not only promise of something out ahead, but present reality in His person. Christ Himself risen from the dead is the firstfruits of the resurrection life. We can look at Him and see the reality of it.

If we thought it was marvelous in the resurrection to be like the angels of God, here is something far more thrilling: we are to be like Christ. We are to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. As He lives, we shall live also. We shall be like Him, John writes, for we shall see Him as He is. Of all the aspects of the Christian hope, this seems to me the most meaningful and precious of all to those who believe. The heart of our salvation, the luminous center of our hope, is that we shall be with Christ at last, and be like Him forever. O friends, I commend that hope to you with the prayer that you personally will enter into it by a living faith in Jesus Christ. Oh, as you hear the gospel today, as you know of this Savior who died for you and rose again, believe in Him and live. Trust in Jesus and life eternal is yours – beginning now!

Prayer: Father, we thank You that in Jesus Christ You have answered our yearning questions and satisfied our hearts and anchored our hope. May every person sharing this program so trust in the risen Jesus as to have the sure hope of life eternal. In His name. Amen.