How long does a marriage last? Given that the Bible only allows very limited grounds for divorce, does that mean that marriage lasts for ever? Or is it true that marriage is also ended by death?
These questions have not traditionally been difficult to answer. The Church taught for centuries that marriage was something that was entered into for life, and that a marriage inevitably ended with death. Then, in the past two hundred years, a separate doctrine gained popularity, claiming that marriages went beyond the grave – that they could be eternal or celestial in nature.
They can’t both be right. Some would claim that two types of marriage can exist at the same time, but in essence the dispute is clear. Some people believe that marriages can last into eternity – while others say that they cannot. Who is right?
What the Bible teaches about Marriage
As can be seen throughout the Bible, men and women are treated differently. The bible doesn’t talk about single and married men because their marital status is not an issue. However, women are divided into two camps, for their marital status is important.
Women are classified either as virgins or wives. Other categories also exist – such as prostitutes and widows, but the two main categories are the most important. Wives are shown to be of two types. The main type is that understood by modern society – where a woman is part of a man’s household, is his helper and where he is her sole sexual partner. The other type is the betrothed woman. This is seen most clearly in the Old Testament. She is legally a wife but, while promised to him, she has not yet joined his household or been united to him sexually.
There is no other stage of courtship that is recognised by scripture. Women are either married or unmarried. Wives are either betrothed to or united with their husbands. These days, in the US, Britain and other parts of the world we also have the secular concept of engagement, where a man and woman express their intent to marry, but it has no legal effect and no moral effect. It is unrecognised by scripture. That is not to say that people should not get engaged – it is their own choice – but it would be incorrect to claim that it was scriptural, and there are no grounds for believing that it was ever practised in biblical times.
That these things are true can readily be deduced from the Mosaic Law which treated betrothed women just as a normal wife, and from the complete absence of any other form of courtship being mentioned in all of scripture. Furthermore, it can be seen that betrothal is merely what happens on the way to a complete marriage. Normal marriage is a more pure form of marriage than betrothal because it involves the physical union of two becoming one flesh through sexual intercourse.
Many have implied that sex is dirty or sinful because it is related to the body (the flesh), but the Bible clearly teaches that sex is a gift from God, and that it should be conducted morally, which the Bible teaches is solely within marriage. Indeed the sexual union in marriage is shown to be a shadow of the truth of the spiritual union of Christ and the Church. Marriage is for physical union. Paul even allows marriage on the basis of it preventing sexual immorality. Betrothal looks forward to a future physical union, and is therefore completed by that union.
Some will wonder why it is necessary to consider how a marriage begins in an article about how it ends. The simple reason is that occasionally, those who teach ideas of eternal marriage get a little concerned about the possibility of sex in eternity, and wish to portray their eternal marriage as ‘platonic’ and not involving sex. This is dubious. Not only does all the evidence point to Plato indulging in homosexual acts, but it ignores the primary reason for Paul the Apostle allowing marriage.
However, most of those who teach eternal marriage make sure that sex is included. And on top of this they build other doctrines, asserting that man will still be able to reproduce in eternity, and that his spiritual progress will, to some extent at least, be dependent on the numbers of spirit wives he has or the number of spirit children he can father.
Before moving into the reasons why marriage is just for life, we should be aware that taking away the false doctrine of eternal marriage removes the basis for these other false doctrines about fathering children in eternity, about further spiritual progression in eternity and about any link between the two. These false doctrines, unsurprisingly, have absolutely no basis in the Bible, and in a number of places run contrary to it.
Till Death Us Do Part
- Luke 20 vv27
“Then came to him certain of the Sadducees, which deny that there is any resurrection; and they asked him, saying, “Master, Moses wrote unto us, If any man’s brother die, having a wife, and he die without children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother.
There were therefore seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and died without children. And the second took her to wife, and he died childless. And the third took her; and in like manner the seven also: and they left no children, and died. Last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them is she? for seven had her to wife.”
And Jesus answering said unto them, “The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.”
The Sadducees raised a very important question. It was possible for a woman to be married to several men over the course of her life, but only to one at once. So whose wife was she when all were resurrected? They raised this question because they thought it disproved the resurrection, and expected to defeat Christ with it. In fact he both answered their question and defeated them by being raised from the dead himself.
His answer was simple. After the resurrection there is neither marrying or giving in marriage. God’s people don’t marry each other after the resurrection. You would think that this answers the question. The woman would be married to none of them. However, some point out that Christ didn’t say that marriages already contracted would then be annulled. They then build up the teaching that marriages can last forever on something which Christ didn’t say.
This is arguing from silence. Not the best method of argument but occasionally it can be fair. For example – the Bible says nothing against polygamy – therefore it’s okay to do it. However, in this case, an argument from silence cannot be relied upon, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Christ obviously thought he had answered the question. If, however, it was still possible for marriages on earth to last forever, then the question was unanswered. Who would the woman be married to? Christ wasn’t avoiding the question like a modern politician – he was answering it. The fact that marriages didn’t occur after the resurrection was answer enough. The only way that it can be construed to answer the question is to allow the fact that it means that marriages end at death.
Secondly, we have the benefit of considering other Scriptures on the matter.
- Romans 7 vv 2-3
“For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.”
This clearly states the rules about marriage. The woman the Sadducees mentioned was quite legitimately married to all those men. Romans shows us that it would have been wrong for her to be married to more than one at once. If she did this, she would be committing adultery. However, on her husband’s death she is freed from the law of her husband, and can marry another. When she is married she is under the law of her husband. When he dies she is no longer under his law – she is now unmarried, and can therefore marry again.
Thirdly, we can recognise that the idea that marriages continue into heaven is not found anywhere in Scripture. To advance the idea is to speculate.
Fourthly, the idea that marriages continue beyond death is a misunderstanding of what the Bible says marriage is about. Marriage is a covenant or contract based on the idea of one flesh. It is the appropriate environment for a sexual union. However, it is the union of bodies which provides an illustration of the union in Spirit that the church has with Christ. After the resurrection, true Christians will have new bodies. The contracts made with their old bodies will no longer be valid because those mortal bodies will have been changed into something entirely different – into something immortal. Hence the marriage contract will have no basis on which to survive – for both the bodies that it was based on will have been changed into something new. Christ has said there is no marrying or giving in marriage in heaven, so these new bodies will not form the basis of any new marriage. The only type of union left will be a spiritual union. But that spiritual union will be between Christ and the church. Will a wife be united to her husband spiritually? Only in as much as all the church are united in Christ. Will she be united physically? No. For the bodies which were one have died and been changed into new bodies, and those new bodies will not be given in marriage.