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Eternal Marriage and the Bible

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Eternal Marriage and the Bible

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

In our examination of the LDS view of the family as presented in Gospel Principles, we offered a broad comparison between the Mormon and evangelical views of marriage and family, giving full weight to both the similarities and the differences between them. In doing so we explained the larger theological context of the Mormon belief in eternal marriage and why this belief does not fit in an evangelical theology that takes the Bible as its doctrinal authority.

Turning now to chapter 38, which focuses specifically on eternal marriage, we will address two questions. This article will consider whether there is any biblical basis or support for the doctrine of eternal marriage. The subsequent article will explain the real origin of the Mormon doctrine and practice of eternal marriage.

A. LDS Proof Texts from the Bible for Eternal Marriage

"And Jesus said to them, 'The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.'" Luke 20:34-35

Chapter 38 of Gospel Principles bases its exposition of eternal marriage on Doctrine and Covenants 131 and 132 (see pp. 220, 223). However, the end of the chapter lists three texts from the Bible as additional support (223), and these and a few other biblical texts are cited in support in the LDS Church’s official Topical Guide under “Marriage, Celestial” (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:21-24; Ecclesiastes 3:14; Matthew 16:19; 18:18; 19:3-8; Mark 10:9; 1 Corinthians 11:11; Ephesians 5:31; 1 Peter 3:7).

These biblical texts do not teach that marriage is or can be for eternity, and they certainly do not even hint at the idea of temple marriages—the LDS claim that only some marriages, those performed in temples for worthy couples, will endure beyond the grave and forever. In sum, what can fairly be learned from these texts is that God ordained or instituted marriage, that marriage is a covenant relationship, and that God intends marriage to last until death. Let us examine these texts to see what they actually say of relevance to the subject.

  • Genesis 1:26-28. In this passage, God makes human beings, both male and female, “in his own image,” and instructed them to “be fruitful and multiply.” This passage says nothing at all about marriage per se, although it does reveal that the union of a man and a woman by which children are born is God’s created intention for humanity.

  • Genesis 2:21-24. This passage gives an account of God making the first woman from the rib of the first man, concluding that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (v. 24 ESV). This statement is the Bible’s foundational affirmation that God instituted marriage as a union (“one flesh”) of a man and a woman, and as creating a distinct family unit (“shall leave his father and his mother”). Genesis says nothing about this marriage union continuing beyond death, nor does it say anything to suggest that some marriages are eternal while others are temporal. If this passage did teach eternal marriage, it would have to be understood to mean that all marriages are eternal—which the LDS Church explicitly denies.

  • Ecclesiastes 3:14. From the statement that “whatever God does endures forever,” the LDS Church apparently infers that marriages blessed or authorized by God will last forever. Such an inference misses the point of the statement in its context in Ecclesiastes. That point is that nobody can overturn God’s work or thwart God’s design for his creation. The rest of the verse makes this point clearly: “nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken away from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.” Indeed, in the larger context of the chapter the writer argues that God has ordained that some things die: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die” (3:1-2).

  • Matthew 16:19; 18:18. In these two verses, Jesus tells Peter and the whole group of apostles that they have authority from him so that whatever they “bind” or “loose” on earth will be “bound” or “loosed” in heaven. The context of both statements is Christ’s church (16:18; 18:17), not human marriage.

  • Matthew 19:3-8; Mark 10:9. In these parallel accounts of the same event, the Pharisees asked Jesus if divorce was ever permissible. Jesus responded by quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 (discussed above) and concluded, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9 ESV). Jesus’ point is not that some marriages are merely temporal while other marriages are “joined” by God and so are eternal. Rather, his point is that God binds all married couples to one another and therefore it is wrong to break one’s marriage vow in divorce. (As a side note, this does not mean that God blames innocent persons whose spouses end the marriages through infidelity or abandonment.) Far from dividing marriages into two categories, temporal and eternal, Jesus here assumes that all marriages are alike: they are all covenants that human beings should not seek to dissolve. But that does not mean that the covenant continues after death.

  • 1 Corinthians 11:11. “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12 ESV). This passage simply teaches that neither the husband nor the wife are independent of each other; being a Christian (“in the Lord”) does not mean that a husband is freed from his relationship with his wife or she from her relationship with him. Some of the Corinthians evidently thought that being Christians freed them from all natural obligations and relationships; Paul is explaining to them that this is not so.

  • Ephesians 5:31. This verse quotes Genesis 2:24, already discussed above. In context, Paul is arguing that the marriage relationship is a type or symbolic representation of the relationship between Christ (the bridegroom) and his church (the bride). That is, it is an earthly, temporal picture of the heavenly, eternal reality of the church as Christ’s people.

  • 1 Peter 3:7. The apostle Peter tells Christian husbands to honor their wives, “since they are heirs with you of the grace of life” (ESV). This does not mean that a person needs to be married (let alone married in a temple) in order to be an heir of God’s grace. It means that a Christian man who is married should treat his wife with the respect due to a fellow Christian. All Christians are heirs together, with each other, of eternal life (Romans 8:17; Galatians 3:29; Ephesians 3:6; Colossians 1:12; Titus 3:7; Hebrews 1:14).


B. Biblical Evidence against Eternal Marriage

The Bible never mentions the idea of eternal marriage, either to endorse it or to reject it. However, in a few places it does say things that prove, if we accept the Bible as authoritative and reliable, that the concept of eternal marriage is incorrect. The simplest and clearest evidence comes from two passages in Paul’s writings. Here is the first:

Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress” (Romans 7:1-3 ESV, emphasis added).

This statement is explicit: marriage lasts only as long as both spouses are alive. When a woman’s husband dies, she is no longer married to him, and so is free to marry someone else. Paul would surely not have made such an unqualified statement if he believed that Christian women were meant to be bound for eternity to their husbands.

That Paul did not hold to the doctrine of eternal marriage may be seen from another angle. The doctrine of eternal marriage includes the idea that such eternal marriage is necessary and essential for those who would attain exaltation. Yet Paul was himself single and encouraged those believers who could remain chaste while unmarried not to pursue marriage:

“Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion…. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife” (1 Corinthians 7:6-9, 27 ESV).

Paul could hardly have recommended that unmarried Christians refrain from pursuing marriage if he had accepted anything like the LDS concept of eternal marriage. The combination of these two passages (Romans 7:1-3; 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, 27) leaves no reasonable doubt that Paul viewed marriage as an earthly, temporal relationship.

Paul’s view of marriage agrees perfectly with Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. We can see this in one of the passages from the Gospels mentioned earlier that the LDS Church cites in support of its view. After Jesus explains that the Mosaic Law allowed divorce because of the hard hearts of the people and not because it was ever a good thing (Matthew 19:3-9), his disciples commented, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (19:10 ESV). Jesus’ response shows that he agrees with this conclusion:

“Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (19:11-12 ESV).

Being unmarried, far from a bad thing, according to Jesus can be a good thing for “those to whom it is given” to accept this idea. Just as Paul would later counsel Christians who were unmarried that such a condition can be a gift from God to some people (see 1 Corinthians 7, discussed above), Jesus here teaches that God gives some people the ability to choose to remain celibate for the sake of God’s kingdom. What Jesus says here, then, clearly contradicts the LDS doctrine that no one can attain the exaltation to which God calls us apart from getting married.

In another passage, Jesus specifically addresses the issue of marriage after death. On this occasion, some Sadducees, who denied the future resurrection of the dead, posed a trick question to Jesus on the subject:

There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”

And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”

Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask him any question. (Luke 20:27-40 ESV)

The first thing we should notice is that the Sadducees’ scenario was based on a practice authorized in the Law of Moses in which a childless woman whose husband had died would marry his brother (Deuteronomy 25:5). This law presupposes that when the first husband passed away, the woman was no longer married to him and therefore was free to marry someone else. This is quite likely the “law” to which Paul referred in Romans 7:1-3 when he reminded those who knew “the law” that “a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.” The fact that marriage is an earthly, temporal relationship is therefore assumed by the law of Deuteronomy 25:5.

The Sadducees, however, tried to use the law as a pretext for an objection to the doctrine of a future resurrection from the dead. Their argument assumed that the resurrection would be simply a return to ordinary earthly life. If the widow married her first husband’s brother, and then all three of them were resurrected, to which of the men would she be married? To press home the absurdity of the resurrection, they imagined an incredible series of events in which a woman ended up marrying seven brothers, outliving each one in turn, before she herself died. To which of these seven men, they asked, would she be married in the resurrection?

Mormons commonly understand Jesus’ response to this question to mean that marriages will not be performed after the resurrection but must all be performed, here on earth, before that future event. The marriages themselves, Mormons reason, will continue after the resurrection for those who were worthy enough to be married in this life not just for this life but also for eternity.

One problem with this popular Mormon explanation of the passage is that the issue Jesus was discussing with the Sadducees was not when marriages would be performed but to whom individuals married to more than one spouse in this life would be married in the next. If we understand Jesus to be saying only that the time to perform marriages is in this life, then he didn’t answer the Sadducees’ question at all.

Furthermore, Jesus’ explanation of why there will be no marriage in the age to come is not that eternal marriages must be performed in this life but that in the resurrection the redeemed will be immortal: “for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36). Jesus’ answer may be summed up as follows: marriage is for mortals, not for immortals; it is for “this age,” not for “the age to come” (vv. 34-35). In this age, mortals are born, get married, have children, and die, and that cycle repeats each generation; in the age to come, God’s people will be resurrected to live forever in immortality and that cycle of birth and death will be left behind. Marriage, according to Jesus, is part of that cycle of mortality.

The point of Jesus’ answer, then, was simply this: in the resurrection, the woman in the Sadducees’ hypothetical scenario would not be married to any of the seven men to whom she had been married in mortality, because as an immortal, resurrected person she would be done with marriage. Understood in this way, Jesus’ comments are a direct answer to the Sadducees’ question. They had falsely assumed that to believe in a future resurrection meant to believe that old relationships and old lives would merely be resumed. Jesus explains that the resurrection will usher in the age to come in which we will be personally transformed into immortal beings and our relationships will change appropriately.

Both Jesus and Paul, then, understood marriage to be a covenant that ends when one of the spouses dies, an understanding also implicit in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 25:5). This does not mean, of course, that a husband and wife will be strangers in eternity. If they are both redeemed, they will live forever and know and love each other very well—in some ways better than they could know each other in their mortality, since sin will no longer be an impediment in their relationship. But the specific, distinctive functions of marriage are temporal functions fulfilled in this life.


For Further Study

Mormon Families Forever: Too Good to Be True? IRR’s Joel Groat raises some important questions about the LDS Church’s claim that faithful Mormons will have their families living with them forever.