Now for something completely different. Several days ago I received some correspondence from a young pastor who has been sending his questions on this topic to a variety of Christian writers and speakers. He had seen my husband speak recently but was more readily able to find my e-mail address and wanted to know if either of us had some insights on his questions. I won't quote his questions here, but their general import was to wonder what Jesus meant when he said that we will neither marry nor be given in marriage in the resurrection. As a happily married man, he was distressed at the thought of being separated from his wife in heaven or "not married" to her anymore and wondered how Jesus' words should be taken.
He also wondered whether Jesus' death and resurrection would not be able to restore us to Adam's prelapsarian state, which clearly was meant to include marriage.
One commentary he had read had even conjectured that we might be completely a-gendered beings in heaven, while another person he had consulted was not entirely closed to the idea that there actually will be sexual intercourse in heaven, though that person nevertheless discouraged speculation along those lines.
What follows is my response, which I admitted up front would be rather a long treatise:
First of all, I want to set what I am going to say later into an overall context so that it won't be misunderstood. I think that the commentaries are wrong when they imply that, in the resurrection, we will not be male and female. Jesus says that we will be "like the angels" in that we will not be married but does not say that we will be like the angels in being neither male nor female. (In fact, we don't even know very much from Scripture about the gender of the angels beyond the fact that they are always portrayed as male when they appear on earth!) So the idea of our being recreated as, in essence, aliens rather than human beings, aliens who have no gender, is not in my opinion supported by that passage nor by any other. The prima facie case is that, if a human being dies and is resurrected, the resurrected being is also human, which means (according to God's plan) either male or female.
Moreover, I don't think that Jesus' words imply that we will not know one another or have close human relationships in heaven. Nor does he say or imply that all of our human relationships in heaven will be identical to one another and that we won't be any closer to any one person than to anyone else. Why should Jesus be taken to mean that? That the relationship we call "married" will not be represented in heaven, at least not as we presently know it, doesn't mean that no important and close human relationships, including presumably relationships with those to whom we were closest on earth, will be represented in heaven. I think C.S. Lewis says somewhere that, since heaven is portrayed as a feast, it would be very strange if the guests didn't know one another! St. Paul says to the Thessalonians that they should be "comforted" by the thought of their loved ones as going to heaven and that they should not sorrow as those who have no hope, and this would seem extremely strange if the true doctrine were that we will never see each other again after death or that we will be separated from those we love forever.
What we don't know is the positive nature of those relationships. God hasn't chosen to tell us that by revelation, and we should believe that God has good reason for not choosing to tell us that. But I think we do not need to take Jesus to be saying anything more than that human spouses will have a significantly changed relationship in heaven and will, to put it bluntly, not be having sexual relations. (I think his audience would have understood "no sex" to be an important part of what he meant.) What will that relationship be changed to be like? We don't know in specifics. So we have to trust God that it will be something good, something consonant with "wiping all tears from our eyes," "the former things are passed away," "Behold, I make all things new," "eye hath not seen the things that God has prepared for those who love him," "the sufferings of this present life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed," and "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, which is far better." God has told us again and again of the joy and glory of heaven, and I think it would be presumption to demand more specifics as a condition of trusting him that, in fact, the life of eternity is joyful and wonderful beyond our present dreams.
Here I think that a robust notion of God as the source and fountain of all that is good is useful. The good of the beatific vision cannot, ultimately, be in competition with any finite good because it comprehends all finite goods. It is literally impossible for the goodness of God to be in conflict with some other goodness. In fact, if we place finite goods in competition with God we very much risk losing those finite goods themselves. Lewis again: "Ask for the Morning Star and take, thrown in, your earthly love."
Ultimately, this metaphysical truth gives us courage. Our metaphysical understanding of God as The Good, as the Summum Bonum, allows us to trust him when it comes to contemplating a heaven without sexual intimacy with a beloved spouse. It even allows us (about which more below) to be willing to die to this world in order to accept the world to come. We don't actually have to imagine heaven clearly in earthly terms–to be sure that there there will be art, music, horses, forests, food, sex, or any other specific good thing of earth–in order to know with great confidence that, in seeking the beatific vision, we are seeking both our own highest good and the highest good of those we love.
So I think that it is a serious mistake for commentators to say that we will be a-gendered beings in heaven. I also don't think there is any scriptural reason to believe that we will be separated from those we love on earth when we get to heaven or that no human relationships in heaven will be different or special. But I also think it is a serious mistake to think that there will be some kind of "heavenly sex," because it seems pretty clear that Jesus is saying that there won't be. So we have to rely on our independent reason for believing in the ultimate goodness of God and the promise of the greatest joy and glory in heaven so that we can trust God to give us the greatest joy even though our relationships with our beloved spouses will be greatly changed in ways we cannot now imagine.
Now, all that being said, I think that we can get some glimpses of why it makes sense for there to be no sexual intimacy, and in that sense no marriage as we know it, in heaven. One is the very issue that the Sadducees brought to Jesus, combined with Jesus' own words elsewhere to the effect that God intended one man and one woman to be the norm for marriage, which excludes polygamy as an ideal state. Since marriage after the death of a spouse is morally permissible, there are going to be people who have, though carefully following God's plan for marriage, had more than one spouse in this life, both of whom will be in heaven. But, since Jesus has also made it clear that polygamy was not God's ideal plan (and I think we can see this by the natural light as well), a "heaven" in which men and women are having polygamous sex with multiple partners throughout all eternity is ruled out. So it makes sense that the sexual aspect of human relationships is confined to earth rather than being an aspect of eternity. (In passing, I know of one Christian thinker who has conjectured that there will be non-physical sexual intercourse in heaven, whatever that may be exactly, and that one great thing about it is that this non-physical intercourse will not be confined to one person. This gives one an unpleasant image of promiscuous or at least polygamous heavenly phone sex, which was probably not his intention. It also highlights the dangers of speculation in this area!)
Second, the long, up-and-down, contingent saga of human history will end with eternity. In a way, this is a much bigger deal than the claim that sex and marriage will end with eternity, though I think the latter can be partly explained in light of the former. No more of all of that potentiality both for good and evil in babies, in families, in nations, in civilizations. I can imagine that an historian would find this rather a distressing thought in itself. No more heroic last stands. No more suspense and fear followed by joyous relief. No more of that incredible welter of glory, grandeur, and horror that is human history. It will all be in the past–remembered, transmuted, redeemed. But not continued and added to. Sexual intimacy in mankind has always had as its telos the founding of families and the continuation of human history. In saying this I am not making some sort of statement that all acts of sex between husband and wife must bring about procreation. I'm talking about sexual relations as a general type of phenomenon as created by God. What is sex about in relation to mankind? Given that there will be no more continuation and growth of human families and history in eternity, the central telos of sex as a human phenomenon is lost. So it makes sense that God will transform us in eternity so that in some way our humanity transcends the desire for sexual relations. (This point is related to the question you raise about Adam, which I'll give my best shot at below.)
Third, in some way that we can now only dimly grasp, heaven will be the ultimate satisfaction of our greatest and deepest earthly desires for unity, by way of our union with God. Those of us who have joyful and solid marriages know that these relationships are for us a symbol of what we most desire and most need, a symbol of the greatest happiness and joy. Indeed, they are more than a symbol; for those of us in a happy marriage, here on earth they are the source of our greatest human happiness. Moreover, the human male-female relationship of eros represents to those in it a striving for the complete union of beings that are different yet complementary. All of this explains why erotic imagery has surfaced a fair bit in the literature of mysticism, when a mystic tries to explain what union with God is like. In fact, we have scriptural warrant for believing that marriage is intended to have something like this symbolic role, since Paul likens the relationship between man and wife to the relationship between Christ and the church.
Now, this is rather speculative, but to me at any rate it makes sense that this greatest of earthly symbols will have to pass away when that which it symbolizes comes to be a perfect reality. I would not say that this is the teaching of I Corinthians 13 where Paul says, "When that which is perfect is come, that which is in part is done away," but it is consonant with it. Paul says that agape abides forever, but to my mind it makes sense that eros is like faith and hope as portrayed in I Corinthians 13–it is a great earthly good meant to point to something beyond itself. It is therefore transcended and becomes a remembered reality but no longer a present reality when that which it points to arrives.
This introduces the very interesting question, if one has a sacramental theology, as to whether or not there will be sacraments in heaven. Will we take Holy Communion in heaven, for example, when we are in the fully experienced presence of Christ himself? I am inclined to think not, and it fits with that view theologically to believe that the physical sacrament of marriage will be in some sense fulfilled in heaven and therefore will not continue on an on-going basis.
The next thing I want to talk about a bit is renunciation. I want to be very careful how I say this. I am not saying that married people on earth should give each other up and go into monasteries, or that it would be virtuous if they did so! I am not saying that married people on earth should give up having sexual relations with each other, or that they would be better if they did so! I'm saying nothing of that kind at all when I talk about renunciation.
What I am saying, though, is that since the Fall everyone who wants to go to heaven has to be willing to die. We know of a couple of people (Elijah and Enoch) who went to heaven without actually dying, but they are definitely the exception, and the evidence is that they had whatever willingness to die was called for. In the New Testament, Jesus is absolutely clear about this: He says that if anyone follows him, that person must take up his cross, must be willing to die, must lose his life. Jesus says this over and over again, and St. Paul teaches the same, repeatedly. Death is the gate to life. If we suffer with him we shall also reign with him. It is an absolutely central Christian teaching.
In this context, the idea of some kind of merely pagan "heaven," a "happy hunting grounds," in which everyone is just having a good time, all the earthly pleasures and joys, only more of them, forever, and a Christianity in which we follow Jesus in the hopes of getting that kind of heaven forever as a reward must be incorrect. By the way, this also applies to sitting around and singing all the time. That will do all right as one image, but that's not what it's all about. That is to say, the passionate musician is in just as much need of renunciation as the passionate lover. It's not as though the Christian life and heaven have been set up so that unmarried harp-players have an easy transition! On the contrary: We all have to be willing to give up everything in return for the beatific vision. This, by the way, is why I think it's better when we're really getting deeply into the subject to talk about the beatific vision, however vague our ideas of it may be. The contrast with "having a full marriage, complete with sexual intimacy, in heaven" shouldn't be "sitting around in a robe singing praises all day." It should be the beatific vision. Man's chief end, says the Westminster catechism, is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Is this in conflict with what I said above when I said that God, as the Summum Bonum, literally cannot be in competition with some other good? On the contrary: These two truths–that the Good of God cannot finally be in conflict with other goods and that we must in the end be willing to "die to" all other goods–are deeply intertwined. Because of the Fall, we cannot make the transition to the beatific vision unless we die, give things up, allow things to fall from us, and accept what happens in faith that God knows what is best and that the greatest good is yet to come, in our ultimate union with him, even though we cannot now imagine it.
This is true of all earthly goods, not just of marriage. And think of how old age teaches us this. Consider a ballerina. If she lives to be old enough, she won't be able to dance anymore. That doesn't mean that dancing is bad. Let us imagine that her dancing was beautiful and was done to the glory of God. It was a gift of God, a gift to be received with joy and thanksgiving, and losing that ability will be a natural cause of grief. But in the end the dancer has to die. The dancer has to accept grief and death at the hand of God, including the "little death" of getting too old to dance. The singer gradually loses the glory of his voice as he ages and must accept this "little death" and the human grief and pain that accompanies it with trust and love, not with bitterness. This, I think, is related to what Jesus meant when he said that we must be willing to cut off a hand if necessary to enter into life eternal.
This is a hard saying. It is a hard fact. It is the hardest thing in life. Dying is like that.
So, in the end, the deeply loving husband and wife will die and be separated by death, and they must accept this and trust God to give them back their relationship in a transmuted form, according to his will, however, whenever, or whatever that may be. Just as the dancer must not say, "If I can't dance in heaven, I don't want to go to heaven" and should not seek reassurance that she will be able to dance in heaven before longing for union with God, so it is with the loving husband or wife. We cannot make our desire for heaven contingent upon any specific reassurance as to how and whether we will "get back" our earthly relationship as we know it with our spouse or any other earthly good whatsoever. As Christians, we must die full of trust in God that we will ultimately find all good in him, seeking him as our highest good, and knowing that in the final analysis we cannot have any good thing at all unless and except we have it in him. This is simply a fact of the spiritual life. There is no good apart from God. To be apart from God is to be in hell. And in hell there are no good things. If you have not recently done so, re-read Lewis's The Great Divorce on these topics and see how the human goods that each of the spirits seeks can be found only if the dead people are willing to desire God rather than seeking directly for the human good itself.
Now, I say all of this not because I'm suggesting that you sit around and make a spiritual exercise out of feeling renunciation concerning your relationship with your wife! I'm not suggesting anything of the sort! The way in which you are called upon to die today is going to be different from the way that you are called upon to die tomorrow. Present reality presents us with plenty of spiritual exercises without making up phantom ones culled from a dimly and imperfectly imagined future. Today, God may call upon you to die by selflessly resolving a conflict with your wife. Today, God may call upon you to die by accepting the common cold with kindness and humor. Today, God may call upon you to die by sitting up in the night with a vomiting baby or by listening to a boring member of your congregation talk for hours or by not losing your cool in a staff meeting in which the other people are being idiots.
Speaking for myself, I'm terrible at dying. I take even the tiniest of difficulties with a very bad grace indeed. Suffering scares me stiff. I don't want to give up a thing, and I'm a very irritable and difficult person to live with! I have a lot to learn about dying to self and dying to this world. If you do any googling at all and find my blogging on line, you will see me sometimes being harsh and not abiding fools gladly, which may sit oddly with these lofty thoughts. I mention it by way of anticipation and to show that I'm well aware of the contrast.
But some fifteen years ago I had an insight, which I find hard to put into words, and it is something like this: When I love this world most, I renounce it just because I love it most, and trust God to give it back to me if it is his will and in the way that is his will. I do not love this world most and most truly when I am grasping it tightly. I love it most when I perceive its grace and beauty with an almost painful sharpness and at the same time hold it out to God. Most days, I have no idea of this. It is just words. But after I had suffered a painful illness and was recovering, on that one day, for a few brief moments, I understood that truth.
God tries to teach us this truth a little bit every day, in ways great and small. He teaches it to us perhaps most of all through sorrow, pain, loss, and illness. So when the time comes for you to understand it through the greatest death of all–the parting from your wife–the grace will be there for you. You don't need to flog your courage by worrying now about whether your wife is an idol or asking yourself the hypothetical question, "Would I be willing to give up my wife?" and worrying that you don't know how to answer the question. God doesn't work like that. He gives us each day our daily bread–the courage today for the death you are called upon to die today, the loss you have to sustain today. But if you can believe these things that I am saying about renunciation, love, and trust, it will, I hope, help you not to fear too greatly the death you will be called upon to die another time.
This long discussion brings me, finally, to a few words about Adam. I think that you are incorrect when you conjecture that Jesus' death and our redemption should bring us back to the prelapsarian state, simpliciter. On the contrary, the prelapsarian state was a beginning. The beatific vision will be an end. The End, the realization of our greatest End–our ultimate telos. Adam was just getting started. This, of course, explains how God could create marriage in the garden for mankind but transcend marriage in mankind's eternity. The Garden of Eden wasn't eternity. It was never meant to be. It was the beginning of human history. Even if Adam hadn't fallen, there would have been some kind of human history. We just don't know what it would have been like. Lewis conjectures, in Perelandra, that an innocent and newly created race of beings who reproduce sexually may be intended for some kind of growth qua species. Hence, Tor and Tinidril as Lewis portrays them will someday be able to experience time itself differently and even move around in outer space. (This is mentioned at the end of the book.) Carrying that conjecture farther, we may say that perhaps if man had not fallen the entire human race would have finally been able to go through a painless transition to their own end of history, to the fuller beatific vision, and to that glorious, scarcely imaginable, yet entirely human transcendent state which we now can reach only by the painful process of death. That, of course, is something we may never know. Lewis also often says that we are not told what "would have happened." I bring it up here, though, to show that it is perfectly possible to construct a consistent theological position that in no way denigrates the state of Adam and Eve before the Fall while not holding that that is what Jesus is restoring us to as our own eternal state. He is offering us something better which, we may reasonably believe, was always God's final intent for man.
I hope that these thoughts are of some help.