Why we don’t agree about afterlife

By Leonard Hitchcock

The afterlife realm that isn’t hell is variously described and variously labeled by Christians. Sometimes that realm is said to be composed of different regions, which may exist simultaneously or successively.  Some of those domains are described as existing on the Earth (e.g. the “millennium”); most are claimed to be located in an unspecified elsewhere that is simply “up there.” For the purposes of the discussion that follows, I shall call all such domains “heaven.”

The imaginations of Christians are largely unfettered when it comes to describing heaven, but there have always been certain constraints upon how they are permitted to conceive of it.  Its inhabitants, for example, must include certain special beings, e.g. Jesus, God the Father, Apostles, Angels.  All of the human dead residing there must be characterized as “the blessed,” or “the saved.”  Because heaven is a place where humans are rewarded, it must be a place in which they are, in some way, happy.  And those who find themselves in heaven are there forever.  Beyond these few strictures, there are no real guidelines.  What else exists in heaven, what the landscape is like, how humans look and act there, are all matters about which one person’s guess might seem as good as another’s.

Yet many do not take this tolerant attitude.  Several weeks ago a letter to the Idaho State Journal took issue with the Mormon doctrine that there are marriages in heaven.  The author, Mr. Campbell, pointed out, quite cogently, that Jesus seems to have unequivocally ruled out that possibility, as evidenced by a passage in Matthew.  In that passage, Jesus responds to a question from a Sadducee regarding the old story of the seven brothers who, because Jewish law required it, each married, in succession, a woman who had originally married the eldest of them and found herself eventually widowed by all. The question was: to which brother will she be married in heaven?  The questioner thought this to be a question that had no satisfactory answer, something like “Have you stopped beating your wife?”  He wished to mock the belief of the Pharisees that there would be a millennial period on Earth after the resurrection of the dead in which the Jewish people would live the lives of ease, security (and unimpeded procreation) that they had been deprived of in this world.   Jesus did not try to dodge this trick question.  He responded that the woman would be married to none of the brothers because marriage itself would have no place in heaven.

Mr. Campbell did not venture to offer, or refute, what I understand to be the standard Mormon response to his attack.  That response, in a manner worthy of Bill Clinton, raises the issue of what exactly one means by “marriage.” For Mormons, the marriages that Jesus referred to in Matthew were “ordinary” marriages, not the marriages performed in Mormon temples.  We are asked to assume, in other words, that Jesus, in his response, knew what kind of marriages the Sadducee was referring to, and craftily chose to remain silent about the other kind.  This explanation of the passage in Matthew may seem rather implausible, at least to non-Mormons, but it would be unfair not to point out that Mormons are far from being the only Christians whose vision of the afterlife includes social and sensual pleasures, and hence doesn’t square with Scripture.

The Mormon heaven is actually a quite typical product of the late 19th century, an era which extolled marriage, the family, loyalty, duty and moral rectitude, and projected those virtues into the hereafter.  One must, of course, credit Joseph Smith with some innovative ideas within that Victorian framework.  Other Christians struggled to imagine family life in heaven without procreation, yet couldn’t see any rational need for it insofar as no one there died and needed to be replaced.  Mormons found a clever way to make sex and reproduction morally obligatory and thereby preserve full-function marriage within the celestial kingdom.

Though arguments about what heaven is really like are, to some of us, as pointless as arguments about Mr. Pickwick’s real hat size, the conflicting ways in which heaven has been imagined by Christians is extraordinarily revealing.  Speculation has ranged between two extremes: a heaven which is an ethereal, unchanging, God-permeated realm in which celestial inhabitants do little but commune with the Deity, and a heaven that is a homey, familiar, Earth-like domain over which God rules in kingly splendor while His subjects busy themselves with activities that differ qualitatively, but not generically, from those they engaged in while still alive.  In my next column I will review and discuss the history of these disparate visions, and the commitments that lie behind them.

Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is a professor emeritus at Idaho State University’s Eli M. Oboler Library.