Is there life after death? Most people want to believe there is. But do we have due cause? The number one nonfiction book on the market is Proof of Heaven, no doubt because it supposedly offers proof that we will go on living and it will be a nice life. The proof comes from personal experience. That kind of evidence is what we think we need. Jesus was challenged with this very issue. Interestingly enough, the one who could have spoken from personal experience chose instead to turn to what Scripture says about God. For him, God – not man – needed to be the starting point.
And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection.
The Sadducees do not receive much mention in the gospels, but they are present and powerful. Indeed, they are the aristocracy of Jerusalem. Most of the chief priests are Sadducees; they make up the majority of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Jews. They are the political power in corroboration with the Romans.
They also are not popular. The Pharisees are the popular leaders. The biggest contrast between the Sadducees and the Pharisees involves religion. Whereas the Pharisees devote themselves to the oral traditions of the elders and to a broader canon of scriptures, only the Torah (the five books of Moses) has divine authority for the Sadducees. They disagree over the doctrine of the resurrection. The Pharisees believe in a final resurrection; the Sadducees not only reject such a belief, they deny the concept of life after death altogether.
So now, the Sadducees take the floor ready to shame Jesus with their impeccable logic and biblical knowledge. They choose the topic of the resurrection as the means to show Jesus up.
And they asked him a question, saying, 19 “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 widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. 21 And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. 22 And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. 23 In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”
Well, guess they showed Jesus! Obviously the idea of the resurrection is foolishness. If people would just think the matter through logically, they would see it makes no sense, particularly in light of the Torah.
The reason for such a law about marrying the widow of a deceased brother, by the way, was to preserve a lineage for the brother. If brother Jacob died before his wife Miriam bore a child, brother Levi married Miriam. The first child born by Miriam would carry on the name and lineage of Jacob. In this case the widow bears no children; so who claims her for his wife in the resurrection?
What could Jesus say to such irrefutable logic? In truth, he has no trouble responding, and he does so in a way that is a verbal smack in the face.
24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.
Before he shows how they are wrong, he explains why they know so little. “Evidently you (the chief priests who bear the authority of interpreting the Scriptures) don’t know the Scriptures. You, who serve as mediators between God and man, don’t know the power of God. Are you sure you’ve had training?”
He then corrects their false understanding of the resurrection. We do not carry on our marital relations, but instead will be like the angels in that regard. That last remark no doubt irritated these unbelievers of angels! Jesus then, unlike his opponents, deals straightforwardly with the issue of the resurrection.
26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”
This is “in your face” talk. Who do the Sadducees revere above all writers? Moses. And Jesus has the audacity to retort, have you not read in the book of Moses? The fundamental argument of the Sadducees was that Moses did not teach the resurrection, and, by the way, they had a strong argument. There is no explicit reference to the resurrection of the dead. Indeed, the word does not appear in all of the Old Testament. A clear teaching of a resurrection does not develop until the period between the Old and New Testaments. Thus, many Jewish rabbis today do not believe in, or are skeptical of, life after death.
But Jesus does, and he goes straight to the writings of Moses to prove his position. His answer appears to be little more than a clever retort. God is the God of the living because he says “I am” the God of the patriarchs, not “I was.” But Jesus is not a mere spinner of words and phrases; he is the master rabbi who understands the true depths of the holy Scriptures.
What does God mean, calling himself the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? Consider what the statement would mean according the Sadducees’ viewpoint. According to them, God means I was their God only while they lived. At death, at the moment of man’s greatest fear, I ceased to have anything to do with them. They are now nonentities. They do not exist except in memory. The promise to Abraham that he would be the father of millions was no more than that – a promise for him to dream about. It cheered him while he existed and nothing more. There is no future, only now.
Do you, Jesus is saying, really think that was the message God was giving to Moses as he called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt? I am your God Moses while you live, but when you die you will be no more. Do you believe that Moses left his secure life at the age of 80 to do a work that he admittedly feared to do, because he was so moved at the idea of God proclaiming himself to be the God of those who no longer exist?
God is not a cemetery keeper! He doesn’t walk around the big cemetery in the sky, pointing to memorial stones and saying, “I remember your father Abraham. We had good times together. I sure do miss him. There’s Jacob’s grave. Boy, he was a rascal!”
Yahweh, Jehovah, I Am Who I Am, is the God of the living, not the dead! Isn’t that plain in the way that God interacts with his people? Did he create man in his own image just to pass the time with him for a little while before his life is snuffed out? Come on, Sadducees, think about this. What’s the tree of life about if God had not intended for man to live forever? In Genesis 5 Moses lists the descendents of Adam noting how each died, but that God took Enoch away. Is there a way to end life without dying? Doesn’t it make more sense to understand that Enoch is still alive with God? Do you really think that the exodus was about nothing more than improving living conditions? The great displays of God’s power in deliverance, establishing the Israelites as God’s holy nation, establishing the law and sacrificial system were all for the mere purpose of making the people good citizens the few years they existed? When God threatened to blot his people out of his book, do you think it meant nothing more than a scrapbook of memory keepsakes?
As one old-timer said, “No wonder they were Sadd-u-cee!” All they have to live for is the moment, which explains their focus on possessing wealth and power. It explains their impatience and rudeness with the masses. They don’t have time for the life-long work of developing patience and other virtues, and there certainly is no payoff at the end. Their destiny is the same as the most virtuous, God-honoring saint – they all cease to exist.
Truly, though, as Jesus said to them, You are quite wrong!
Let’s consider further how badly mistaken is the view that there is no immortality or resurrection. Such a view is mistaken because it misinterprets Scripture and because it degrades our mortal life. First, consider the Scriptures.
Jesus confined himself to the one story involving Moses because he was sparring with the Sadducees. He could have pointed to Elijah who was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire. He could have recited Job’s great statement of faith:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another (19:25-27).
Or he could have turned to the psalms:
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
James Boice noted how David came to such a conclusion: “He reasoned that if God had blessed him and kept him in this life, then God, who does not change, would undoubtedly keep him and bless him in the life to come.” This is the same logic that Jesus was presenting. We can have confidence of eternal life, not based on how we feel or what others may have experienced; our confidence lies in knowing who God is – that he is everlasting, that he does not change; in this case, that “at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
There is the closing statement of David in Psalm 23:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever (Psalm 23:6).
Jesus could have pointed to the prophecy of Isaiah:
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead (26:19).
Or to the prophecy of Daniel:
But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt (12:1-2).
Of course, for us our greatest cause for believing in the life to come and the resurrection is Jesus himself.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:5).
Our cause for believing in life after death comes from the very promises of Jesus:
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die (John 11:25-26).
In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also (John 14:1-3).
To deny life after death and the resurrection requires that we deny the promise and hope that fills the pages of Scripture. Such a view is also badly mistaken because it degrades our mortal life.
John Lennon wanted us to:
Imagine there’s no heaven…
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
So let’s imagine. I think I understand Lennon’s desire for peace, but such imagination must mean that all of our actions mean nothing. As the rock group Kansas noted, our dreams are but dust in the wind. All we do crumbles to the ground. Lennon suggested there would nothing to kill for. But there would be. There would be the need to kill others if I felt threatened in order that I might live as long as I can. For there is nothing after this life – no reward.
Without immortality and resurrection it would not matter if there were a God. If all God does is play with us in our brief existence, what does it matter in the end? How terrible for a man who lives a wasteful life, to realize his error on his death bed, and then cease to exist? How meaningless for a man to live a life of self-sacrifice only to die and the good he did come undone anyhow. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes is right: all is meaningless if there is nothing but this life.
But we are not God’s play toys to throw away when we wear out. Our destiny is not a mere plaque on God’s memory wall. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat” (Weight of Glory, p. 15).
Lewis’ point in bringing that up was that we should treat our neighbor with respect and seriousness. The Sadducees saw only temporal, small mortals. Thus, their arrogance and rudeness. That is a good lesson for us to take note of. Again, Lewis points out:
It is a serous thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
But here is the real lesson I want you to take home. It is the emphasis that I think Jesus was making. The God you worship is your God forever. He will not leave you; never will he forsake you, especially at the time of your greatest peril – traveling into death. He who created you will sustain you. And you do not need a book recounting someone’s supposed experience of coming back from heaven for your assurance. All you need to know is to know the God who has made you, who has saved you, and who promises to bring you home.
And he wants you to know that he is, not was, the God of all the saints that have gone before you, including the loved ones you are thinking of now. My God is the God of Ali Large, my Christian sister who died at 25. He is the God of Richard Scheer, my college mentor who died in his early thirties. He is the God of my spiritual mentor James Boice who died at 61. Your God is, not was, the God of… You complete that sentence now.
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “ O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 15:55-57).
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