Jesus’s Failure to Endorse Eternal Marriage in the Bible and Book of Mormon

The title of this essay will be offensive and/or threatening to many Mormon readers.  As discussed fully in the essay “Jesus’s Doctrine and Gospel versus Mormonism’s Teachings of Temple Priesthood Ordinances and Exaltation,” found elsewhere on this website, Mormons believe that in order to attain the highest degree of eternal glory and become a god, a person must be sealed to his or her spouse by proper priesthood authority (which is held exclusively by Mormons) in an LDS temple.  These beliefs stem from a revelation purportedly received in 1843 by Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  This revelation that properly performed marriages lasted throughout eternity was and is known as the “new and everlasting covenant of marriage.” (See Doctrine and Covenants 131:2 and 132:15-17, 19-21.)  However, this essay is not an attack on the institution of marriage.  It is meant to be the complete opposite of that.  Jesus plainly taught that God intended mankind to marry, and blessed them with the ability to multiply and replenish the earth within marriage’s framework.  This essay is meant to preserve respect for the institution of marriage, without encumbering it with teachings not endorsed by Jesus Christ. Too often, the doctrine of eternal marriage, when taken as true, depicts God as demanding that which he does not actually require at all.

Nor should this essay be taken as evidence that the author is dissatisfied in his own marriage, or looking for justifications to diminish its sacred character.  Again, the opposite is true; the author would in no way be disappointed if the idea of eternal marriage were an actual teaching of Jesus’ gospel.  In fact, there is no such thing as an unhappy person in heaven, so even if an unhappily married couple made it to heaven and it were doctrinally possible that their marriage could continue there, it would be impossible, by definition, that said marriage would remain unhappy in that place.  Thus, the audiences most targeted by this essay are those Mormons who are concerned about (a) the eternal ramifications of dying without having been married in the temple (and thereby not being “sealed” for eternity to their spouse); (b) dying without even having a spouse at all (and therefore having no one whom their relatives can seal them to after they die); (c) being sealed to a spouse or to a family to whom they don’t want to be eternally sealed; or (d) the discrepancies between the teachings in the Bible and Book of Mormon on this issue and the practices and beliefs of the LDS Church.  A fifth audience would be any others, Mormon or not, who are spiritually or intellectually interested in whether eternal marriage is a true teaching of Christ’s church.

In the 12th chapter of the New Testament book of Mark, verses 18-27, we read that the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection, came once to Jesus with a hypothetical:  A woman is taken to wife by one man, who dies without producing any children by her.  Then following the Levirate marriage practice prescribed in the law of Moses for such situations, the dead man’s brother took the woman to wife.  But he died without producing seed as well, as did five more brothers from that same family.  After the death of her seventh husband, the woman died childless.  The question posed to Jesus was which man would be the woman’s husband in the resurrection.  Mark 12:24-27 recounts Jesus’s response:

24 And  Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God?

25 For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.

26  And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the Book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?

27 He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.

These verses of scripture have greatly perplexed thoughtful orthodox Mormons, because Jesus here refutes the idea of marriages performed on earth having any effect when we are resurrected.  Based on my personal observations as someone is his mid-sixties who’s been an active LDS church member his whole life, the first impulse of Mormons upon reading Jesus’s words here is to see if they are corroborated by the other synoptic gospels.  And indeed they are, in Matthew 22:23-32 and Luke 20:27-38.  Their next impulse is to see if Joseph Smith, in his own purportedly inspired correction of the erroneous verses of the Bible, in any way altered the wording contained in the verses in Matthew, Mark or Luke. But he did not; he left them intact.  In fact, no sermon or exposition by him construing these verses has ever been reported.

A third Mormon impulse has been to hypothesize that Jesus was somehow limiting his remarks to a category of people who were married on earth, but not sealed together properly by Melchizedek priesthood authority, and thus not entitled to have their marriage last beyond the grave.  This hypothesis is untenable, however, for several reasons.  First of all, there was no such thing as eternal marriage at this time in history; it was unheard of among the Jews and among the Nephites, and no scripture suggested it.  Jesus never spoke of it in anything he said to the Jews or to the Nephites, though he spoke much of marriage related issues to both peoples.

Second, the Old Testament contains a complete description of all ordinances performed within the Jewish Temple, and marriages weren’t solemnized there ever, under any circumstances.  In fact, the manner of marrying couples among the Jews appears to have been devoid of any exchange of vows by the bride and groom themselves, or of any ritual words pronounced by a priest as characteristic of today’s ceremonies.  Marriages were consummated by sexual union inside the bridal chamber as the guests waited outside; before that point, they were only contractual betrothals (engagements) arranged by parents.1

Third, the question asked of Jesus was a hypothetical referring to no specific people.  The question thus did not contain any information which would cause Jesus to provide an answer that applied only to persons who weren’t devout enough to have been married in some ritually-preferable way.  In fact, Jesus’s answer presupposes the righteousness of the hypothetical people involved, as shown by his reference to them in the next life as being “as the angels which are in heaven.” His words as quoted in Luke are even more indicative of their presumed righteousness, wherein Jesus describes them by saying “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.”  See Luke 20: 36.  Only in Mormonism does the idea exist that angels who dwell in God’s presence in the celestial kingdom of heaven are individuals being punished for their ritually inferior marriage, or for their failure to marry (see Doctrine and Covenants 132: 15-18).  Such a notion is utterly devoid of foundation in the Bible or Book of Mormon, where angels in heaven are uniformly revered as holy.2

Fourth, the whole context of Jesus’s answer to the hypothetical is that it’s being used by Sadducees who are attempting to demonstrate supposed logical problems associated with a belief in the resurrection.  Jesus’s purpose in answering is not only to correct the false notion that marriages survive the grave, but to establish the universality of the resurrection.  Therefore, he speaks categorically, clarifying that marriage are performed only by “the children of this world” (see Luke 20:34), but are not part of anyone’s heavenly existence.  Just as his comments on the universality of the resurrection cannot be interpreted as having only limited application, his comments on marriage are also not  susceptible of such an interpretation.

Another explanation occasionally proffered by Mormons is that what Jesus means is that for a marriage to last forever, it has to be performed on earth to be eligible for eternal duration, but it cannot be performed in the hereafter, because marriages aren’t done in heaven.  Joseph Smith taught this3  In fact, this is also the canonized explanation contained in Doctrine and Covenants 132:15-16:

 15 Therefore, if a man marry him a wife in the world, and he marry her not by me nor by my word, and he covenant with her so long as he is in the world and she with him, their covenant and marriage are not force when they are dead, and when they are out of the world; therefore, they are not bound by any law when they are out of the world.

16 Therefore, when they are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory.

17 For these angels did not abide my law; therefore they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever.

This explanation of Jesus’s quoted words in Matthew, Mark and Luke, which was also the one adopted by James E. Talmage in his well-known tome Jesus the Christ,4 suffers from the same defects as the last one discussed, and more.  The most obvious of these defects, at least for Mormons, is that Mormon doctrine steadfastly maintains that marriages are performed in heaven after this life, and this doctrine is found in the Doctrine and Covenants, and is taught repeatedly by virtually almost every Mormon general authority and lay leader everywhere.  Women and men who go their lives without marrying through no fault of their own, are assured by church leaders that they will be provided with at least one spouse and marriage in the next life, assuming they’ve lived righteously.  This promise is also provided to spouses who are married, whether in temple or not, and live worthily, but whose spouse does not live worthily enough to expect the highest heavenly reward.  And naturally, it is taught to grieving family members and friends of those who die before having the opportunity to marry.  Some Mormon women, including the author’s own mother, secretly harbor worries that when they arrive in heaven, they’ll find their dead husband has acquired an additional wife, or more than one, in heaven while his wife lived out her mortal life.  The doctrinal basis for such a belief of marriages being performed in the future in heaven is found in Doctrine and Covenants (hereafter “D&C”) 132:39, where the Lord is quoted as saying he gave David’s wives to someone else.  Since there is no scriptural account of David’s wives being given to anyone else by the Lord during David’s life on earth, it is to be presumed this would have to have been done in heaven.  This one verse provides a fairly weak and uncorroborated scriptural foundation for the Mormon belief of marriages performed in heaven, and it is virtually never cited as authoritative on the question, but that fact has had virtually no effect whatsoever in deterring church leaders from promising such future marriages to the faithful.

Looking at Jesus’s words within the broader context of biblical and Book of Mormon exegesis, they seem to merely restate that which is plainly implicit in the ancient scriptures.  Nowhere is found in either book even a slight hint that marriage endures beyond the grave under any circumstance, even though marriage as a topic, and marriages of specific people are much discussed in both books, and the posterity of the main figures are faithfully chronicled. If indeed the Book of Mormon contains, with the Bible, the “fulness of the everlasting gospel,” as Mormons believe (see Introduction to the Book of Mormon in the LDS scriptures, as well as the numerous Book of Mormon verses which substantiate that claim), its teachings should contain many references, both by prophets and the Lord himself, to the extreme importance of this doctrine of eternal marriage.  Instead, the doctrine goes unmentioned throughout the several allusion to the sanctity of marriage in both books, and  even when Jesus goes out of his way to define the basic elements of his gospel in 3 Nephi 11:28-40.

Moreover, it requires no great scrutiny of the scriptures to conclude that numerous prophets down through time, and Jesus himself, were definitely not married.  The scriptural descriptions of the lives of Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, John the Beloved, and Paul so clearly establish their bachelorhood that this author has been unable to find a single scriptural scholar outside of Mormonism who thinks otherwise.  Those Mormons who have been willing to teach that Christ or Paul, for example, were married constitute a very small minority of Mormon writers, and even they have rarely been willing to publish books or papers to that effect, apparently cognizant of the nonexistent scriptural support.  In the author’s experience, those Mormons hold such views only because they deem it impossible to be exalted without being married, relying solely on D&C 132.  As this author has argued in essays on this website referenced above, the teachings of D&C 132 are spectacularly wrong, fully contradicted by the Book of Mormon and Bible at almost every turn.  (In the author’s opinion, Book of Mormon prophets Abinadi, Samuel the Lamanite and the last Moroni, to name a few, most probably remained single as well.)

In preaching that marriage was ordained of God, and that men should not divorce their wives for any reason other than sexual infidelity, Jesus also explained why some few men nevertheless intentionally remain single.  He prefaced his remarks by saying “All men cannot receive this saying, save they to which it is given.”  He then declared, “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.  He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” (Emphasis added; see Matthew 19:11-12.)  By twice limiting his words’ application to those who could receive them, Jesus implied that they were not generally applicable to most men.  Virtually all Bible Commentaries interpret this scripture the same way.  Representative of them is this explanation:

Those who heard the words could hardly fail, as they thought over them, to look on their Master’s life as having been the great perfect example of what He thus taught . . . The motives which St. Paul states as determining his own choice of the celibate life (1 Corinthians 7:7), or the counsel which he gave to others (1 Corinthians 7:32-34), are identical with this teaching in their principle.5

Even James E. Talmage interpreted Jesus’s words to mean that some men

voluntarily devoted themselves to a celibate life, and some few adopted celibacy “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” that thereby they might be free to render all their time and energy to the Lord’s service.  But the disciples’ conclusion that “it is not good to marry” was true only in the exceptional instances stated.6

Another often-overlooked scripture signifying Christ’s abstention from marriage is found in Isaiah 53:8, wherein the prophet makes pointed reference to the dilemma posed by the prospect of Jesus dying without posterity.  Isaiah then resolves the dilemma in verse 10 by explaining that Jesus, the suffering servant, shall obtain posterity whenever individuals “shall make his soul an offering for sin.”  This explanation would be unnecessary, and would make no sense, if Jesus were producing posterity through the biological means incidental to marriage.

This understanding is further reinforced by the comparison in Ephesians 5:25 of Christ’s relationship with the church to the ideal relationship of a man to his wife:  “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved  the church, and gave himself for it . . .”  Again, if Jesus had been married, Paul would have taught that men should loved their wives as Jesus loved his wife.  The comparison of men’s wives to Christ’s church bolsters the conclusion that as Jesus had himself indicated, some men, like he himself, had kept themselves celibate so they could serve God with undivided attention and devotion.

In summary, it appears that the reason Jesus failed to teach that any marriages last into the eternities, regardless of how they’re performed, is because he didn’t believe it.  He affirmatively taught the opposite.  Whether he eventually changed his mind thirteen years after the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1830, and sixteen years after Joseph Smith married his first wife Emma in 1827, and approximately eight or nine years after Joseph is claimed to have secretly taken Fanny Alger as his first polygamous wife, readers must decide for themselves.

 

FOOTNOTES

1.  Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995) 803-05.

2. For more on Mormonism’s unique teachings on the supposed inferiority of “ministering angels,” see the essay previously referenced in the second sentence of this essay, and “Polygamy, Doctrine and Covenants Section 132, and their Doctrinal and Historical Problems within Mormonism” elsewhere on this website.

3.  See Joseph Fielding Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1968) 300-01.

4. James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1972) 548, 564.  Surprisingly, Talmage, citing modern revelation from Joseph Smith as his source, even goes so far as to say that Jesus’s words make obvious that only the first marriage had could have any eternal effect, despite the plain indication in Jesus’s words that none of the marriages survived into the resurrection.

5. Excerpted from “Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers” as quoted in Biblehub.com, an online biblical exegesis website.

6. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p. 475.

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