Man and wife in heaven? Is Old Testament God violent?

| Father Kenneth Doyle | September 21, 2016 | 0 Comments

Q. My wife passed away three years ago, and I miss her very much. We were married for 63 years. What are the Church’s thoughts on the hereafter? Will we still be man and wife?

A. Your question is one frequently asked by those who are mourning deeply the death of a spouse. The response should bring you some comfort.

In one Gospel story (Mk 12:18-27), a question is posed to Jesus by the Sadducees, who did not believe in an afterlife; they wanted to know about a woman who had had seven spouses successively, and which man would be her husband in heaven. Jesus explained that “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but they are like the angels in heaven” (Mk 12:25).

Some have interpreted these words — erroneously — to mean that there will be no continuing and special relationship in heaven between earthly spouses. Instead, what Christ simply meant was that the institution of marriage, as we have known it on earth, will be unnecessary in heaven. There will be no need for procreation because no one will ever die; human companionship will not be required to satisfy our loneliness because the desire for intimacy will be fulfilled by knowing the Lord personally.

Still, though, the Church does believe that the relationships we have enjoyed on earth will be transformed and enhanced as they continue in heaven. A prayer frequently used at the end of funeral Masses has the priest saying, “Before we go our separate ways, let us take leave of our brother/sister. May our farewell express our affection for him/her; may it ease our sadness and strengthen our hope. One day we shall joyfully greet him/her again when the love of Christ, which conquers all things, destroys even death itself.”

Q. In the Bible, I have just finished the story of David and Saul, and it strikes me that throughout the Old Testament (at least so far), God has been a bit of a warrior, delivering enemies into the hands of those who are faithful. Yet, when I come to the New Testament, Jesus seems to speak against violence. Why the change?

A. The question you raise — about the seeming contrast between the God of the Old Testament, destroying enemies of Israel by violence, and the Lord of mercy portrayed by Jesus — is an age-old one. I am not sure that there is an answer that completely satisfies the contemporary reader and believer, but let me try.

That there is violence in the Old Testament is indisputable. Some would point out that the Canaanites, for example — vanquished through God’s help to give the Promised Land to the chosen people — simply got what they deserved: They had been a brutally aggressive people, engaged in bestiality, idol worship, widespread prostitution and even child sacrifice. But that explanation, I believe, falls short.

I would stress, instead, that it was only gradually that the God of creation revealed himself to the human race; the Bible is an unfolding story in which we slowly come to know the Lord of grace and love. The Old Testament reflected the Middle Eastern culture and attitudes of the time, and God revealed himself according to the understanding and circumstances of that day. It was only when Jesus arrived that he showed us more fully what God is like.

It should be noted, too, that there can be seen throughout the Bible an admixture of the God who loves tenderly and the God who calls us to task. Exodus 34:6, for example, hails the Lord as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity,” while Matthew’s Gospel warns of the danger of eternal punishment and says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Mt 10:38).

So to draw a division between an Old Testament God who is angry and judgmental and a New Testament God who is loving and merciful is simplistic and inaccurate.

Father Doyle writes for Catholic News Service. A priest of the Diocese of Albany, New York, he previously served as director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Questions may be sent to askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.

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Category: Seeking Answers