As we ponder Jesus’ confrontation with the Sadducees regarding life in the world to come, we are compelled to ask, “Do I believe in resurrection?” How one answers this question orients how we live today. It is a question that is not so much answered intellectually, though it is not beyond reason, as in the ordering of our loves. Who or what is our true love? Do we find our loves fulfilled in the living God or in the promises of this world?
To answer yes to resurrection is not a polemic against this world or our embodied nature, for the promise of resurrection of which Jesus speaks is not the denigration of our bodies or the rejection of our wholeness but the goal of our being. At some point we will all die; and that reality, and the hope of a future resurrection, does not diminish the importance of this life but makes it all the more significant.
The Sadducees, who answered no to resurrection, have tradition and, it seems, the Torah on their side. Apart from Dn 12:1–4, little is said about resurrection in the Old Testament. The Sadducees, a priestly, elite party, accepted the authority only of the Torah, and they did not find there any claims to resurrection. Indeed, what they found in the Torah was the law of levirate marriage, outlined in Dt 25:5–10. If a man died childless, his nearest male kin was to marry his widow, and the first child born to them was considered the child of the dead man, “so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel” (Dt 25:6).
The Sadducees propose to Jesus a ludicrous scenario as a means of demonstrating the foolishness of belief in resurrection. A woman was married to seven brothers, one after another, all of whom died childless. “Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus does not dismiss the question as foolish or reject it as a carefully designed trap, but uses it as an opportunity to teach.
First, Jesus says that marriage is about this world and the things of this world, not about the world to come, so the carefully crafted conundrum is rejected. Second, Jesus draws on a passage from Exodus in which God says to Moses that he is “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:15). Jesus understands this as proof of the resurrection, for if God speaks of the current existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, this demonstrates that “he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
It is striking biblical interpretation, head-spinning really, for it suggests the untapped depth of Scripture, but it was an essential proof for those who accepted the scriptural authority of the Torah alone.
In fact, however, the majority of Jews in Jesus’ day believed in resurrection, as had been the case since the Hellenistic period. Most groups, like the Pharisees, accepted resurrection, and many texts written in this period speak of it directly and often. But Jesus’ interpretation grounds belief in resurrection not just in a text the Sadducees would accept but, more important, in the nature of the living God as one who gives life to his creation and sustains that life beyond the limits of our understanding: the dead are never lost to God.
This belief and hope are seen in the seven Jewish martyrs of 2 Maccabees, all brothers, and in martyrs today, who offer their lives not out of a lust for suffering or as rejection of this world, but in trust of the living God. As the mother of the Maccabean martyrs says to them: “It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again” (2 Mc 7:22–23). This world and our choices matter, for it is the beginning of a life that God has ordered to go on forever.