A Lesson on Eternity from the Sadducees

The common refrain among young couples in love is that their romantic passions – and, one hopes they intend, covenanted love – will last “forever.” A personal favorite in my high school days was Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” which seems, surprisingly enough, to bear echoes of Psalm 46:2-3: “If the sun refused to shine, I would still be loving you. / When mountains crumble to the sea, there will still be you and me.”

Those of us who have bound ourselves with conjugal vows for a long time may smile at such puppy-love declarations. And our culture is doing virtually everything it can to obliterate the question: Does – or can – romantic love last “forever”?

Many Catholics, thinking of Christ’s response to the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-33 (cf. Mark 12:18-27) would probably say “no.” Doesn’t Christ tell the Sadducees, who seek to outsmart him by disproving the resurrection, that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

Jesus effectively tells them: it doesn’t matter that this hypothetical woman had seven husbands (all brothers, poor gal!) who died without leaving a single heir. Obviously, she can’t be married to all of them in the afterlife. But Jesus explains, she won’t actually be married to any of them, because marital relations represent a social pact of this world, not the heavenly realm.

There may, however, be a bit more going on in this passage. Both Matthew and Mark emphasize that the seventh husband has no child with the woman. But that point doesn’t actually add anything to the Sadducees’ question. Why is it there? If the last husband had indeed enjoyed descendants with the woman, would it change the dynamic?

For the Sadducees, no, since their point is already made with seven men married to the same woman. For Jesus, it’s safe to assume, his point about there being no marriage in heaven remains regardless of the exact nature of that last marriage. Yet Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts both provide the detail. I suspect the reason for this might be because romantic love does indeed transcend our earthly existence in some respects.

For most married couples, children are the natural result of that romantic love. Children are not simply the assurance of a continued male line.They are eternal souls, possessing intellects, wills, and corporeal identities that indelibly reflect the union of two other persons. We say, “he has daddy’s nose;” “she has mommy’s personality;” “I see your grandfather’s stubbornness!”

Even glorified bodies in heaven cannot entirely change these realities. They are permanent attributes of every human person, whether we like them or not. We simply cannot escape our blood.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

Moreover, a romantic union that bears children links two parents through their progeny, in an eternal way. Once that child is conceived, there is never a time when mother and father will not be the efficient and material cause of that new life. Two souls have in one sense united themselves to each other for all eternity in forming new life, even if one of those souls goes on to marry or have other children with another person under some future circumstance. Every child transcends the parent’s individuality, even in eternity.

Remembering the famous Thomistic aphorism of grace building upon nature, the proposition that romantic love might in some sense continue on into heaven seems fitting. If I found my wife uniquely beautiful and attractive, if we in our first meetings, and many meetings thereafter, form a deep, wholly unique interpersonal connection, would it not seem reasonable to presume that such connections find their fulfillment, rather than their conclusion, before the eternal throne of God?

Not that such an eternal relationship would continue to be marriage as we experienced it on earth – it would, per Jesus, take on some different character. Yet it’s hard to imagine it would be extinguished.

If this is true, it likely would go beyond the simply romantic love that produces children and would encompass other marriages that lack children, or other familial bonds, or even friendships.

My deceased Irish Catholic grandfather – who inspired so many of my own passions – was my grandfather, not some other random person’s. We share genes, personality traits, and a common history that cannot be expunged. The friends we choose are likewise unique to us: we develop close bonds with this person over that person because we share similar passions, virtues, and even a sense of humor.

I see such dynamics at work even with deceased Catholics I never had the chance to meet – especially with the saints. I’m already convinced St. Francis de Sales and I will have plenty to discuss if I am blessed to meet him in the Beatific Vision. St. Therese of Lisieux, on the other hand, though someone I deeply admire and appreciate for her spiritual wisdom, is not someone with whom (I think) I will have as much in common.

Catholics are not Mormons, of course. We don’t believe the marriage decisions we make on earth continue into eternity, with the result of us becoming new, married gods who reign over other earth-like planets where we sire more children.

Nor do we even believe in the kinds of banal, simplistic Nicholas Sparks-esque conceptions of romantic love, in which a couple leaves this earth only to be reunited once more in their single-family home in the sky.

Yet we do believe that as body-soul composites, everything we do on this earth will have some effect on our eternal destiny. That many of us cooperate to bring forth offspring who eternally bear our shared features is at least suggestive that some element of romantic love might remain in the new Jerusalem, albeit in a new, glorified dimension.

Though they – like many of our contemporaries – were blind to where the question of marriage and eternity led, the Sadducees were onto something.

Casey Chalk is the author of The Obscurity of Scripture and The Persecuted. He is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.