We can appreciate the question of the Sadducees to Jesus if we understand the context of their doubts about the resurrection. Faith in the resurrection was a historical development. In the early years of the Israelites’ faith, there was no teaching on the resurrection. The Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, which every Jew subscribes to as the most important part of their sacred scriptures, does not speak about the resurrection. It was believed that in death, we would all enter Sheol, a place of non-existence, both for the good and bad alike. It was later on during the time of the prophets, Daniel and Ezekiel, and the wisdom books such as Job and Wisdom, that faith in life after death gradually emerged. In the later part of the Old Testament, especially towards the inter-testamental period and by the time of the Maccabean era (170 B.C.), belief in the afterlife became more explicit. Nevertheless, the Jews were divided over this doctrine, as seen in the time of Jesus, with the Sadducees denying the doctrine of the resurrection, and the Pharisees upholding it.
It is within this context that the reality of the resurrection was challenged. So, all those who were skeptical about the resurrection would see the argument of the Sadducees concerning the case of the man whose brothers had to marry his widow in order to raise up children for him. If she were to marry all the seven brothers who died, then the logical question was, “when they rise again, whose wife will she be, since she had been married to all seven?”
In fact, this question is not only relevant to those who challenge the reality of the resurrection but also for those who believe in the resurrection. There are many naïve Catholics who similarly ask me, “Would my husband still recognize me as his wife in heaven? And suppose I remarry after his death, would I then have two husbands in heaven?”, or, “Will I see my parents and friends or my dogs and cats in heaven?” Such questions, sincere and innocent though they may be, belie the fact that many do not understand the true meaning of the resurrection.
The resurrection of the body is not a resuscitation. In the next life, our body would be transfigured. The body would possess a glorified matter with the soul. Whilst it remains a body, it would be an incorruptible body. As St Paul says, “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1 Cor 15:42-44) So at the resurrection we will have a spiritual body filled with the glory of God.
Accordingly, in the next life, we will share the life and love of God so totally that we will love each other as God loves us, individually, personally and yet inclusively. That is why the Lord said to them, “Is not the reason why you go wrong, that you understand neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, men and woman do not marry; no, they are like the angels in heaven.” Heaven is a communion of saints. We will still recognize each other but we will love without possessiveness. We will love all others as much as we love our spouses when they were on earth. Regardless whether they were our loved ones on earth or not, in heaven, we will have so much capacity to love that our love includes all. Isn’t this the kind of love that priests and religious are supposed to live already in this life? We are called to love everyone, rich and poor, friends and strangers, male and female, without discrimination or exclusivity. We are called to share the love of God with everyone because all are our brothers and sisters. We love others as much as God loves each one of us.
Of course, this cannot be understood or accepted through human logic alone. This is the mistake of the Sadducees and all those who deny the resurrection. They want to rationalize and prove the resurrection through reason. Indeed, Jesus did try to offer them an argument based on scriptures to indicate the truth of the resurrection. “Now about the dead rising again, have you never read in the Book of Moses, in the passage about the Bush, how God spoke to him and said: I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob? He is God, not of the dead but of the living. You are very much mistaken.” And this is what systematic theology also seeks to do when proving the resurrection. We will use the scripture texts and illustrate the gradual belief in the doctrine of the resurrection from the time of Abraham till the period before Christ.
However, this is insufficient because without a proleptic experience of the resurrection, such reasoning remains a theory and a hypothesis. This is why our faith in the resurrection is not dependent on reason but on our personal encounter with the Risen Lord. Only an encounter with the Risen Lord can cause us to believe in the resurrection. This was true of the apostles and particularly St Paul who was a great persecutor of the Church until his encounter with the Lord. He wrote, that Christ “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Cor 15:5-9)
Indeed, in the final analysis, faith in the resurrection requires a personal encounter with the Risen Lord, without which, it remains an empty doctrine and lacks the power to change lives. With the resurrection, we can “proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor 1:23-25)
The resurrection is the basis for the proclamation of the gospel. After encountering the Risen Lord, Jesus commanded them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:19f) Indeed, the Lord repeatedly told the disciples when they saw Him, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers.” (Mt 28:10)
This explains why St Paul too could encourage Timothy, the young bishop to proclaim the faith without fear or favour. He reminded him, “never to be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord, or ashamed of me for being his prisoner; but with me bear the hardships for the sake of the Good News, relying on the power of God who has saved us and called us to be holy – not because of anything we ourselves have done but for his own purpose and by his own grace.” We should not be afraid to witness for Christ like the apostles who preached with boldness after the resurrection because “this grace had already been granted to us, in Christ Jesus, before the beginning of time, but it has only been revealed by the Appearing of our saviour Christ Jesus. He abolished death, and he has proclaimed life and immortality through the Good News.” Faith in His death and resurrection is the power of God that we are called to rely on. St Paul said, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10f)
So what must we do? St Paul told Timothy, “I am reminding you now to fan into a flame the gift that God gave you when I laid my hands on you. God’s gift was not a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power, and love, and self-control.” The Risen Lord has given us His Spirit at Pentecost. This same Spirit that empowered Jesus in His ministry will empower us as well.
So we must renew the Holy Spirit in our lives. That is why He ordered the disciples “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4f) With the Holy Spirit in us, we know with confidence that the Lord is also with us. We can say with St Paul, “It is only on account of this that I am experiencing fresh hardships here now; but I have not lost confidence, because I know who it is that I have put my trust in, and I have no doubt at all that he is able to take care of all that I have entrusted to him until that Day.”