Stephen Hawking was Professor of Maths at Cambridge. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 21, and in an interview he was asked about life after death. He said, 'I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.'
And if you're a Christian and do believe in life after death, that can be unsettling. Partly because it sounds scientific (although as far as I know Hawking had no expertise in brain science). And some scientists do say that your brain is your consciousness – there's no separate soul or 'you' – so that you can't possibly survive the death of your brain. But it's also unsettling because it's mocking, isn't it? 'Heaven… is just a fairy story for those afraid of the dark.'
Well, whether you believe in life after death, or don't, or would like to, we're going to see this morning how Jesus answered some people who mocked the whole idea. And as he did, he taught some big things about what life beyond death will be like, and why we can trust it's real.
So would you open a Bible to Luke 20. We're in a series in Luke, in the bit that describes Jesus' showdown with the Jewish leaders who ultimately got him crucified. And in Jesus' last days, different groups of those leaders threw questions at him. And they either tried to trap him into an answer that could get him condemned to death (as we saw last week). Or they tried to make him look foolish, so that he'd lose face with the crowds who were basically his protection from the leaders' plans. And that's what they try in this week's passage. So, Luke chapter 20 and look down to verse 27:
"There came to [Jesus] some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection."
So the Sadducees were a group within the Jewish leadership, and they didn't believe in resurrection from the dead – in other words, in life beyond this life. So they would have agreed with Stephen Hawking: 'That's… a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.'
So in passing, can I say: don't be surprised when bishops and church leaders deny fundamental Christian truths. That's nothing new. And don't be surprised, either, when such people turn out to be the fiercest opponents of what we believe. It was, after all, the religious unconverted who got Jesus crucified.
So, verse 27:
"There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, 'Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother [in other words, take her as his wife and have children for his brother, so to speak]. Now [and here comes the question where they're trying to make Jesus, and his teaching about life after death, look foolish:] there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died.'"
In other words, each brother in turn married their brother's widow to have children for him, but then died without children – and that happened from brother number two through to brother number seven. So, you may have seen Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. This is Seven Brothers For One Bride. Verse 32:
"Afterwards the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, [in other words, in the End, when God raises everyone who's ever lived from the dead] whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife."
And you can hear the mockery, can't you? 'What will they do? Each has her for a day? Polygamy in heaven?'
It's easy to mock something, isn't it – rather than think about it properly? That's why things like Have I Got News For You go down so well. That's our culture – mock instead of think. And I've had people say to me, about life after death, 'So what about babies who die – they're just stuck crawling around heaven are they?' Or, 'What about the transplant patient and the donor? Who gets the kidney?' It's easily mocked, isn't it? But can I say: even in our more secular culture, a recent poll found that 46% of people said they do believe in life after death, 46% said they don't, and 8% said they don't know. So don't think that everyone is like the Sadducees – they're not, by a long way. So how does Jesus answer them? Verse 34:
"And Jesus said to them, 'The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.'"
So the first thing he says is:
1. Get Your Ideas about Life After Death Right (verses 34-36)
Because the Sadducees are thinking it'll just be this life continued – so, for example, if you're married in this life, you'll still be married beyond this life. But Jesus says: it's not like that. So the first thing to learn is that:
- It won't just be this life continued
And thank the Lord it won't be. Because, for example, I was talking to a man in his eighties who said to me, 'I find nothing attractive about the idea of heaven. I mean, who'd want the aches and pains and sorrows of this life to go on and on forever?' So he was thinking like the Sadducees – that it'll just be this life continued. But Jesus says: it's not like that.
The next thing Jesus says is that:
- It will divide people
Look at verse 34 again:
"And Jesus said to them, 'The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.'"
So to live in this age, all you have to do to qualify is: be born. But to live with God and the risen Lord Jesus in that age, you have to be 'considered worthy'. Which doesn't mean you have to earn it by good behaviour – we can't. It means God has to consider you as one of the people who should be there. And the rest of Luke's Gospel makes it crystal clear that those are the people who've turned to Jesus, who've said sorry and asked forgiveness for living their own way, and who've accepted him as the rightful Lord of their lives. That's who Jesus means by, 'those… considered worthy.' It's those who've come into relationship with him. Which, sadly, is not everyone. Which is why life after death will divide people – there is a hell to be avoided as well as a heaven to be gained.
C.S.Lewis put it this way: "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Your will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Your will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. In fact, without that self-choice there could be no Hell. (The Great Divorce)
There is a hell to be avoided as well as a heaven to be gained. And Jesus only taught that because he wants everyone to avoid it. And, as we remember at this communion service, he died on the cross for our forgiveness, so that you and I can avoid it.
So, life after death won't just be this life continued; it will divide people. And the next thing Jesus says is that:
- There won't be marriage anymore
Verse 35 again:
"but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage [why not? – read on:] for they cannot die any more."
So Jesus says that in life beyond this life – in the new creation, as the Bible calls it – there will be no more death. And therefore, no more need for each generation to replace the last. And therefore no more need of having and nurturing children. And therefore no more need of marriage.
Now the assumption behind that is not that having and nurturing children is the only purpose of marriage. The Bible says there are three fundamental purposes for marriage: no.1, having and nurturing children; no.2, companionship; and no.3, providing the basic building-block of human society – the married family. But having and nurturing children is one of the purposes of marriage – and the one which the Bible mentions first, because Genesis 1 says:
"male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And… said…, 'Be fruitful and multiply…'" (Genesis 1.27-28)
And that purpose is being forgotten by our culture. Partly because contraception has driven a wedge between sex and marriage on the one hand and children on the other. And partly because children are often seen as a burden to be avoided, rather than a blessing to be embraced.
Now this bit of the Bible is primarily about life after death – rather than marriage. But a few more things about marriage need saying.
Because one question this raises is, 'What if I'm married, but can't have children? Is mine somehow a lesser marriage, somehow serving God's purposes less?' And the Bible would say: 'No.' It would say: God is sovereign over whether or not married couples can have children. Children are his gift – and the very opposite of anything we can take for granted. And my knowledge, from pastoring this church, of those facing the sadness of not being able to have their own children, and of those who've faced big trials in waiting for children – from miscarriages to difficult pregnancies – all underlines that this is an area where nothing can be taken for granted. And if in his sovereignty, God doesn't give us children of our own, then, like so much suffering, there will always be a mystery about that, which we won't understand – at least in this life. But we can say to ourselves that he must therefore have other purposes for the time and energy that would have gone into our own children. And whether or not that includes considering adoption, it'll always include investing ourselves in our spiritual family and children – our brothers and sisters in Christ, and those who still need to be brought to Christ in the first place.
Another question this raises is: 'If I know as a single person that I can't have children – maybe because of age or a medical condition – does that mean I shouldn't get married?' And again, the Bible would say: 'No. But that, if you do marry, the Lord would want you to do so saying, 'I'd like to have had children – and been willing to – if I'd been able.'' Just like he would want any of us, if we marry, to do so saying, 'Lord, I accept having children as one of the purposes of marriage, and I go into this willing for that, if it's your will.'
But back to the main point – of life after death. Jesus says: it won't just be this life continued; it will divide people; and there won't be marriage anymore. And the other things he says here is:
- There won't be sin and death any more
Look at verse 36 again – which says that there's no need for marriage in the new creation,
"for they cannot die any more, [why not? – read on:] because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection"
So those of us trusting in Jesus are going to be 'equal to angels'. Which doesn't mean 'equal in every respect' – identical – so let's not run away with the idea that we're going to be able to fly like some of them can. He's talking about the angels who – unlike Satan and company – have never fallen and therefore never lived under the consequences of the fall. So he's saying: we're finally going to be people who are free of the misery and frustration of our ongoing sinfulness, because God will finally have got all the sin out of us, through a final, resurrection transformation of us. And where there's no more sin, there's no more mortality as a judgement on sin.
That's the unimaginably fantastic experience we can look forward to, as verse 36 says, as
"sons of God… [and] sons of the resurrection"
Now the women here might reasonably ask, 'Why doesn't Jesus use inclusive language here? Why does he use language that seems to exclude us? Why doesn't he say 'children of God' (as the NIV translates it, to get around the problem)?'
But the original word Jesus used is 'sons' because in Jesus' day, and the Bible writers' day, the son was the one who inherited. So Jesus is using a mini-illustration where the point isn't being male – the point is: being the one who inherits. So if you're a woman, you need to read yourself into the male picture of the sons, just like we men have to read ourselves into the female picture of the church being the bride of Christ. So, don't get hung up on the gender of the picture – get the point of the picture. And the point is: whether you're a woman or a man trusting in Jesus, you are guaranteed, by Jesus death and resurrection, to inherit this unimaginably fantastic resurrection life.
I've said this is primarily about life after death. But let me say one more thing about marriage. Which is that if it's not ultimately going to be part of the new creation, we mustn't make it something ultimate in our minds right now.
So if you're single, don't make marriage the ultimate thing you hope and pray for – or worry won't happen to you. Because the ultimate thing is going home to be with our Father in the new creation, along with the whole family of our brothers and sisters in Christ, where everyone will be single again. So working back from there, the ultimate thing now is to know God as our Father, through Jesus, in the context of the family of the church. So if you're a single Christian, please believe that the most important relationship in your life is already in place.
And if you're a married Christian, please remember that your relationship with your wife or husband is only the second most important in your life. The first is with God, through Jesus. And only in him will you find the resources you need to keep giving and forgiving in married life. And if instead you treat your marriage as your ultimate relationship, you'll burden it with expectations it was never meant to meet.
So that's Jesus' main lesson here: get your ideas about life after death right. The other lesson, much more briefly, is this:
2. Know that God's Commitment to You Guarantees You Resurrection Life with Him (verses 37-40)
And I'm assuming the 'you' there is someone trusting in Jesus. Look on to verse 37. Jesus says to these Sadducees:
"'But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush [which we had as our Old Testament reading, Exodus 3.1-6], where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.' Then some of the scribes answered, 'Teacher, you have spoken well.' For they no longer dared to ask him any question."
So Jesus has moved on from what resurrection life will be like, to how we can know it's real. And if you or I were asked, 'Why do you believe life after death is real?', I guess we'd head straight for Jesus' resurrection and say, 'Well, Jesus rose from the dead to show that he really was and is the Son of God, and that there really is life beyond death, and that he's the key to us getting there.'
But that's not where Jesus goes. He doesn't say, 'Look, within a week, I'll have died on the cross and risen again, to give you the most solid reason there is for believing in life after death.' Instead, he goes for Exodus 3. Which is because, strange as it sounds, the Sadducees only accepted the authority of the first five books of the Bible – Genesis to Deuteronomy. So Jesus answers them from there. Which is an example of how we need to explain the same gospel differently to different people with different starting points and assumptions and obstacles in their minds.
So Jesus quotes Exodus 3 and says, 'When God met Moses, it was hundreds of years after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had died. And yet God said:
"I am… the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."
And when God calls himself, 'The God of Someone' – the God of John or Sarah – it means he's committed to John or Sarah, in relationship with them. And Jesus says: 'The point is: God can't be the God of a dead person – because you can't be in a relationship of commitment with a dead person.'
So, says Jesus, when God said to Moses, 'I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob' – hundreds of years after they'd died – it could only mean one thing. Which is: that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still alive at the time of Moses. So, yes, they had died. But they weren't dead, because God had kept them alive beyond death, because otherwise he'd have stopped being committed to them –which is something God cannot do.
The point is: once God is committed to someone, he can't ever stop being committed to them, because that's against his nature. And so he has to bring them through death into resurrection life – so that he can keep being committed to them forever.
A friend of mine, Giles, is a minister. And through his church, an elderly couple came to faith at the end of their lives. And then the wife, Jean, died. And Giles visited the husband, who was still very new in his faith. And he said to Giles, 'For my peace of mind, this is what I've been saying to myself. I've been saying, 'The Lord Jesus committed himself to Jean. And he can't ever stop being committed to her. So he must have brought her through to be with him where he can keep being committed to her.' Is that right?' And Giles said, 'That's exactly right.' Because that's exactly what Jesus is saying here.
Which is a wonderful thought, isn't it, as we grieve believing loved ones – and a wonderful thought as we face our own mortality. Because the resurrection says that life after death is real. And this part of the Bible says that if God has become our God through Jesus, then his commitment to us guarantees that one day we'll be there with him to enjoy it.