In my previous two posts I’ve talked about Jesus’ view of the coming destruction of sinners. My goal is to compare and contrast his views with those of the book of Revelation. For both Jesus and the prophet John (author of Revelation) the future will not only bring very nasty destruction for some people on earth, but also an amazing salvation for others.
Here is how I talk about the future rewards of the righteous in my book Heaven and Hell (Simon & Schuster, 2020).
It is easier to document Jesus’ words about the dreaded fate of sinners in Gehenna than about the blessings of the saved in the Kingdom of God. Even so, we have seen one teaching that is repeated in the Gospels: the coming Kingdom will entail a fantastic banquet where the redeemed eat and drink at leisure with the greats of Jewish past, the Patriarchs. This is a paradisal image of great joy.
Another key passage involves Jesus’ discussion of what life will be like once the resurrection has occurred. The earliest account is in Mark 12:18-27. In the immediate context, Jesus has come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and a group of opponents, the Sadducees, want to confound him with a verbal trap. The non-apocalyptic Sadducees, as we have seen, did not believe in a future resurrection of the dead or, apparently, in any afterlife whatsoever. But since the core of Jesus’ teaching was an apocalyptic message, these naysayers thought they could publicly reveal the error of his ways.
They come up to Jesus and propose a situation. According to the law of Moses, if a man who is married dies without leaving any children, his brother is supposed to marry the widow and raise a family in his brother’s name (see Deuteronomy 25:5-6). This was to keep the man’s bloodline alive. In the Sadducees’ cunning hypothetical situation, there was once a man who had six brothers. He was married, but he died childless, so the oldest remaining brother took his widow as his own. But he too died childless. And so it went, until all seven brothers had been married to the poor woman. Finally she herself died. Then the Sadducees spring their trap, thinking they’ve identified an obvious absurdity in Jesus’ view of the coming resurrection: if all seven had married the woman, which one of them will be her husband when they are raised from the dead?
Jesus was not fazed by the question but, as was his wont, turned it against his opponents. First he tells them they simply don’t understand the Scriptures that predict a resurrection or God’s power that will make it happen. What they don’t realize is that at the resurrection, no one will be married. Instead, those who are raised will be “like the angels in heaven” – unmarried and, presumably, eternally happy about it. She won’t be anyone’s wife.
Jesus goes on to point out that in the Hebrew Bible, when God addresses Moses out of the burning bush, he tells him: “I am the God of … Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6) These three patriarchs had lived centuries before Moses, and Jesus wants to make a point about the verb “to be,” that God uses the present tense: I am their God. He does not say he was their God. For Jesus the fact that God said he is their God indicates that they were still alive. They had not been annihilated in death. They were being kept until the future resurrection. Sometimes it really does matter what the meaning of the word “is” is.
Moreover, for Jesus, when the Patriarchs were raised, they, along with all the righteous, would not simply be revivified and brought back from a very long Near Death Experience, only to lead another life leading up to a second death. They would be given a glorified, immortal existence, comparable to that of the angels. Here Jesus is endorsing the view that we have seen elsewhere, starting with the book of Daniel. The resurrection of the dead meant being given an exalted existence for all eternity; it would not be a mere replication of life people have now in this world of sin and suffering. It would be like the lives of God’s powerful and glorious angels, an eternal life blessed by God in a world where there would be no longer any traces of evil.