Can We Still Believe in Life After Death?

Ever met a Sadducee? Me neither.

That's not surprising considering that the last one died 2,000 years ago. And even back then, there were never very many of them. It was always a very select group, like a club for the very wealthy. If you lived in Jericho, you were much more likely to run into a Pharisee than a Sadducee. They were a very select group with some very strange views.

And that's part of what makes this story so interesting. It starts with a weird question and ends with a very surprising answer. If we just skim it on the surface, we might assume that it has nothing to say to us in the 21st-century. But we would be wrong about that.

This story presents us with an issue of profound importance. Can we still believe in life after death?

*The Sadducees said no.
*Jesus said yes.

2005 CBS News poll revealed that 78% of Americans believe in life after death.

The most religiously observant Americans are most likely to say there is an afterlife: about nine in 10 of those who attend religious services weekly or almost every week believe in it. This view is shared by seven in 10 of those who rarely or never attend services. Americans of all age groups believe in an afterlife. So do most men and most women.

The poll went a step further and asked if science will ever be able to prove there is life after death. Here the response was even more overwhelming. 8% said yes while 87% said no. That leaves us in a fascinating place.

*Most people believe in life after death.
*Most people believe it will never be proven by science.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this question. If there is no life after death . . .

*Death really is the end.
*There is no heaven or hell.
*There is no reward or punishment.
*There is no resurrection of the dead.
*There is no purpose to history.

And if there is no life after death, then those of us who believe in Jesus have been profoundly deceived. We are, to borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, of all men most to be pitied. If there is no life after death, then we have believed a fairy tale, a nice story that has no real meaning. If there is no life after death, why pray? Why believe? Why live for Jesus? Sometimes I hear well-meaning Christians say, "Even if it's not true, Christianity is still the best way to live." Count me out. If it's not true, then I want no part of it. I know some people say that Christ is so wonderful that even without heaven, it's good to be a Christian. Listen, if this life is all there is, then what you call "Christ" is just a figment of your imagination. To borrow some words from Shakespeare's Macbeth:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

So is there life after death? Thousands of years ago Job raised the same question. "If a man dies, will he live again?" (Job 14:14). That is the question, isn't it? We all die, but what then?

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
Is that all there is?

And that brings us to our text, an encounter that took place two or three days before Jesus was crucified. It is Tuesday or perhaps Wednesday of Passion Week. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the final time. Pilgrims crowd the city in anticipation of Passover. Because of his rising popularity with the people, the Jewish leaders have already decided to find a way to put Jesus to death. Knowing that his time is short, Jesus takes every opportunity to confront evil and to present himself to the people so they can decide whether or not to follow him. Everywhere he goes, crowds gather to listen as he debates the religious leaders of that day. Mostly he deals with the Pharisees who were the largest religious group in Judea.

But on one occasion he faced off against the Sadducees who were very much unlike the Pharisees. Luke 20:27-40 tells us what happened when they came to him with an absurd question about a woman with seven husbands. From Jesus' answer we learn a great deal about life after death.

I. The Sadducees' Insincere Question   

In order to get a handle on the strange question they asked, we need to know something about the Sadducees. They were not the Pharisees. In fact, the Sadducees and the Pharisees were two different groups of Jewish leaders who had no use for each other. The Sadducees came from a small group of aristocratic families that represented the "old money" of the Jewish nation. As such, they tended to congregate around the temple in Jerusalem. You could find the Sadducees in the priesthood and in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Because they were sticklers for law and order, the common people didn't like them. And because they collaborated with Rome, they had power and influence.

When you think of the Sadducees, you need to know what they didn't believe.

They didn't believe in angels.
They didn't believe in heaven or hell.
They didn't believe in life after death.
They didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead.
They didn't believe in the immortality of the soul.

The Pharisees believed in all those things, which was a major reason why the two groups didn't get along. In 21st-century terms, the Sadducees would be like today's religious liberals who don't believe in the supernatural. It was a rich man's religion that offered power with no accountability to God. You live, you die, and that's it.

Jesus was a direct threat to all they believed.

This passage is notable because it records their only direct run-in with Jesus. By definition a Sadducee couldn't become a follower of Jesus without giving up what he believed. So that's why they came with a question that seemed absurd in that day and sounds ridiculous in our day.

"Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?" (vv. 28-33).

This is not a sincere question. It's obviously a made-up situation designed to trap the Lord and discredit him in front of the crowds that followed him during his final days in Jerusalem. The Sadducees intended to ridicule the doctrine of the resurrection. They often used questions like this to tie the Pharisees in knots.

In order to understand the question, we need to go back to Deuteronomy 25:5-10 which describes the law of levirate marriage. Because of the importance of preserving the family name, the law provided for the brother of a man who died childless to marry the widow and have children in the name of the deceased brother. It was a sacred obligation.

So the question is, after she marries seven brothers, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? In her case, Jesus' answer was reassuring. Besides saying in essence, "That's a stupid question," Jesus says there is no marriage in the resurrection. She was probably happy about that. Seven husbands is plenty-and probably a few too many. The good news is, she won't be married to seven men at the same time. The Sadducees framed the question precisely so we would laugh about it.

"Maybe she'll be married to the first one."
"Or the last one.
"Or the best-looking one."
"Or the one with the most money."

You could imagine the snickers in the crowd. The point is, you can't say for sure whose wife she will be. The Sadducees used questions like this to show what they considered to be the absurdity of believing in life after death.

But behind the question lay an important (and wrong) assumption that the afterlife is only a continuation of this life. People often wrongly assume that eternity is nothing but the extrapolation of time into the future. They think the conditions in the age to come are the same as the conditions here. But that is not the case. In this life things are so messed up that we can't imagine how God can straighten them out. But as someone said, "God has an eternity to make right what has gone wrong in this life."

So the question, though insincere, does raise some important issues regarding what heaven will be like. And the answer is, it won't be exactly the same as life on earth.

That's good news-even if we don't totally understand it all.