The Sadducees and Julian Barnes

Recently I was reading the section in chapter 22 of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is asked a question by the Sadducees “who say there is no resurrection.”

“Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother. So too the second…. In the resurrection, therefore, to which of the seven will she be wife?”

(Incidentally, I’ve always wondered why Catherine of Aragon didn’t use the brother’s-widow-marrying-rule from Deuteronomy 25:5 when she was being divorced on the grounds of Leviticus 20:21; or, if she did, what Henry VIII’s counter-argument was.)

In this section of the gospel, Jesus is facing trick questions from various opponents. But this one, I thought, although perhaps facetiously expressed and dishonestly intended, is actually a reasonable question, which deserves (and got) a reasonable answer. You don’t have to have been married seven times, or to brothers; you only have to have been married twice, or just been in love twice, to wonder how things work in heaven. Marriage, after all, is an exclusive relationship.

Vera Brittain’s fiancé was killed in the First World War. Some years later, she was engaged to someone else, and had a dream of agonising choice between the two, featuring the verse “And whose shall she be in the resurrection?” from this passage. (She tells the story in “Testament of Youth”, her moving account of wartime nursing and bereavement.)

Jesus answers the Sadducees by saying, in effect, that life in heaven is different.

He tells us that there is no marriage in heaven, something I don’t blame the Sadducees for not having thought of before; and St Paul also says that God will destroy the stomach and food (1 Corinthians 6:13).

So I always think it’s strange that the most common New Testament image of heaven is of a wedding feast, an event surely associated very strongly with sex and food.

Strictly, of course, we’re not talking about “heaven”, but “life in the resurrection”, “a new heaven and a new earth.”

A life without physical needs like food may be a life of pure spirit and feeling. But on the other hand, if there’s one thing the New Testament and the Apostles’ Creed insist on about the resurrection of Jesus, it’s that it was a bodily resurrection. Resurrected people do not float forever in or on clouds. Resurrection as an endless feeling of disembodied joy and worship is not biblical. And actually how can one feel joy, or any other emotion, without a body to feel with?

As well as worship and hearing all the stories of unsung heroes and heroines, I like to think of the new earth as having animals, woods, seascapes, fun activities, and even (despite St Paul) cups of tea.

It’s almost impossible to imagine eternal life. (“The Last Battle” by CS Lewis ends with its beginning, so to speak. “The things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.”) This for me is largely because it’s impossible for me to imagine experience without time. I can’t imagine existing without a time dimension: therefore I need time in eternity, but is this a contradiction in terms?

More simply, of course, what do resurrected people do all day?

The noted author Julian Barnes wrote a curious and entertaining book called “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters”, which I admired until I read the last chapter.

(Spoiler follows.)

From fallible memory, this chapter says “I’ve just had the oldest dream in the world,” and describes the narrator’s dream of the perfect life: beautiful surroundings, delicious food, no responsibilities, stunning sex with someone he loves, and repeated unusually successful rounds of golf. It’s a perfect life, but quite soon he gets very bored and wants to escape.

“That’s the oldest dream in the world, and I’ve just had it.”

The End.

It seems clear to me that Barnes is here ridiculing the religious offer of endless happiness in the afterlife, on the grounds that endless happiness is boring.

It’s a point, but (I think) an extremely silly one, surprisingly silly for someone plainly so intelligent. It’s so silly that for me it devalued the whole book.

Of course an afterlife that consists of sex, food and golf would become boring. An afterlife that consisted of chocolate, Marvel films, reading or writing about Ragaris, and conversations about Jane Austen or theology would also become boring.

Any afterlife would pall after, say, ten or twenty years maximum, if like Barnes, you remove the point of the afterlife, which is to be with God.

With God, loving Him and His people, doing whatever God wants done, discovering whatever God has planned for us to discover: isn’t this what the Christian afterlife is for?

Maybe this doesn’t involve food, and the wedding feast is only a metaphor. Or maybe it does, of a different kind from St Paul’s! Maybe there’s a way to be joyously with all your seven husbands without jealousy or neglect.

And the time/eternity issue? Once again, that’s for God to fix.

Love from the PPI Blogger


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