What Will the Resurrection Be Like?

The Sadducees try to embarrass Jesus in Luke 20:27-38, the Gospel text for Drew’s sermon November 10th.

What Will the Resurrection Be Like?

It is the question of the child who just buried her dog in the backyard, and can no longer sleep for wondering what will happen to her?

It is the question of an older gentleman, whose body is failing, and who wonders what we mean, when we proclaim “the resurrection of the body” in the Apostle’s Creed each week. Is it how my body is now? Or how my body once was?

It is the question for all of us. When we go to funerals, we proclaim together even in the face of death that this end is not the end, that eternal life awaits those who wait on the Lord. But what will the resurrection be like? Our children tug at our pants legs with the question. And the questions tug at us as well.

The answer, of course, is we don’t know. But that makes for a very short sermon. Or a terribly uninteresting book, if it happens to be your job to write books about things like that. The result is that we get a lot of speculation.

And sometimes that speculation turns out wonderful. Some of the greatest works of all time were largely speculation on the question. Milton, in his Paradise Lost, and Dante, in his epic poem Inferno wrote magnificent pieces of literature that we read to this day. The problem of course is that they’ve become so familiar to us that we know Dante’s visions of heaven and hell better than the Bible. We should take care when listening to literature and cultural interpretations of the afterlife, lest we end up with a society that believes in All Dogs Go To Heaven more than it believes the Gospel of Luke.

Because the challenge about speculation, is that it usually devolves very quickly into our vision of what will be, instead of God’s vision of what will be. I can remember a certain young man (point to self) who believed that in the resurrection everyone would have their own Nintendo game system, and nobody would ever have to worry about their brother hogging it all the time.

Now the Sadducees were all too happy to indulge this sort of speculation. See, they didn’t believe in the afterlife. Instead, they held to the old Deuteronomistic understanding of the world. According to that understanding, there was no afterlife, and everyone was rewarded and punished in this life for their behavior. This is obviously false to anyone who has seen someone with a good heart go through a terrible illness, or someone lose their retirement because of someone else’s mistakes. But when you are as rich as the Sadducees were, it was pretty easy to believe, and it made you feel good about yourself too. They were on top because they were good and pure and righteous, not because they were selling their own people to the Romans to protect their comfortable lives.

My point is, that the Sadducees loved all the speculation about the afterlife, because it gave them a chance to show everyone how ridiculous they thought the afterlife was. In fact, they had a question that they liked to ask people who believed in the Resurrection, people like Jesus and the Pharisees who shared this belief.

It’s based on the old Judaic law of levirate marriage. See, when the only way for someone to live on is through their children, it becomes very important that everyone’s line, and their name continues on. So if a married man died without having children, his brother would be obligated to take her as his wife and through their children, the man’s name would live on. The question the Sadducees asked was this: Let’s say there was a man who died, leaving no children, and his brother took her as his wife. And then he died, leaving no children as well. And then another brother, and another, until by the time that she dies, she has been the wife of seven men, all brothers. It makes you wonder what the Thanksgiving table was like for that family, doesn’t it?

The point of the story was to make the concept of resurrection look ridiculous. No doubt the Sadducees had used this question before, and laughed with glee as some Pharisee tried to puzzle out all of the legal implications as he stuttered out his response.

When they ask this question of Jesus, everyone leans in. The Sadducees lean in because they expect Jesus to be caught in their trap. Others lean in because the things Jesus has been doing and saying have threatened them, and they are hoping that he’ll fail. But I would wager that many more are listening because they simply want an answer. They want to know for themselves perhaps. Or maybe they’ve lost someone. A friend, a brother, a mother, a child. And the question that the Sadducees ask comes awful close to the question that they’ve been asking themselves.

What Jesus tells the Sadducees (and everyone else listening) is that they’ve missed the point. The Sadducees have made the same mistake that I did, thinking that Nintendo would be the highlight of the resurrection. They have assumed that the nature of the resurrection will fundamentally be the same as the present life. They expect that people will marry; it’s the basis of their argument.

But, Jesus tells them: those in the resurrection of the dead “neither marry nor are given in marriage.” (Lk. 20:35). And he goes on, saying that God is not God of the dead, but God of the living. At first this seems a terrifying statement.  If God is only God of the living, does death separate us from God? But when you see it in context, you understand. He mentions Moses, encountering God through the burning bush, and God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” As if they are still alive. What Jesus is telling us is that just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive to God in the time of Moses, so all who participate in his resurrection are alive to God even in death.

What Jesus suggests, is that if we think the heavenly resurrection will be limited to our earthly understanding, we will be sorely mistaken.

So what should we believe about the resurrection?   The best answer is still “we don’t know.” We can speculate all we want, but our speculations will probably say more about us than they will about what is to come. None have come back to tell us about it, save perhaps one, and He was much more interested in teaching us to love, forgive, and live for each other than he was in telling us of what was to come.

I want to close with a story. It’s not my story, but parts of it ring so true with me that it probably could have been. Andrew Prior is a pastor in Australia, and he’s sort of an empiricist, he likes testable hypotheses, and provable theses.[1] And he talks about how at one point he gave up on all of the speculative stuff, all of the metaphysical stuff of faith that he couldn’t believe because he couldn’t prove. He said there was only one thing left he could do, and that was “to try and live as Jesus lived.”

So he did his experiments with compassion, and forgiveness. He tested out love, and service, and generosity. And what he found was that living a life like Jesus is profoundly not speculative. It is deeply grounded, distinctly fleshly, and profoundly incarnate. It is real, powerful, and transformative, he says. And the strange thing about it, he says, is that the more he dove in to the practical, observable side of faith, those other things, the metaphysical, the speculative, the things we can’t test but have to take on trust, those things gained in authority and authenticity for him.

William Loader, another preacher, talks of belief in the resurrection as a way of “putting flesh on hope.”[2] It’s a beautiful way of talking about the development of the belief in the resurrection. And I would suggest that learning to live with faith in the resurrection is about putting our hope in flesh. Not in our own flesh, we all know too well our own weaknesses and flaws. But in the flesh of the one Jesus Christ, Emanuel, God-with-us.

But the best way to experience the resurrection is through getting to know the Resurrected one. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. To get to know Christ is to be changed, to be transformed by Christ’s love flowing into you and Christ’s love flowing out of you. And the experience of that transformation, of being made holy through Christ’s grace, of being sanctified, may be the best testimony about resurrection that we will ever experience.

[1] Andrew Prior, “A Missionary Meets a Cannibal,” Onemansweb.org, accessed November 9, 2013, http://onemansweb.org/a-missionary-meets-a-cannibal-luke-20-27-38.html.

[2] William Loader, “First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary,” accessed November 9, 2013, http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost25.htm.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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