“For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mk 12.25).
The Sadducees were the 1st-century version of the 21st-century liberals. They denied all things supernatural, especially any notion of bodily resurrection from the dead (cf. Mt 3.7; 16.1, 11-12; 22.23, 34; Lk 20.27; Acts 4.1-2; 5.17; 23.6-8). Sola Torah (Torah alone) was their creed. They didn’t believe anything Torah did not clearly teach. As their Torah did not explicitly command a resurrection (Heb 11.19 had not been written yet!) they denied its reality.
The Sadducees’ debate team tried to outwit the resurrection-believing Jesus with a stock apologetic argument against it (Mk 12.18-23). The Pharisees fell for it every time so why not Jesus?
“Riddle me this, Jesus. Seven brothers marry the same woman according to the law of levirate marriage (Dt 25.5-6). Who of the brothers has dibs on this woman in this ‘resurrection’ you so firmly believe?”
Surely they’d stumped the Truth.
Jesus quickly dismissed their straw man argument. They were ignorant of both Scripture and God’s power (Mk 12.24). They were clueless about the nature of the resurrection life. Resurrection is not the unending continuation of this life (in this case, marriage), but a whole new life in a whole new dimension.
But does Jesus suggest it is an angelic life? What did he mean that we are resurrected to be “like angels heaven?”
In the honest attempt to console grieving friends we might well say their loved one is now angel in heaven. Were that true, it could not be the case until they “rise from the dead,” according to Jesus (Mk 12.25). But even then Jesus does not suggest we become angels at any point after death. There is no marriage in heaven because (1) there is no death in heaven and therefore no need for procreation (Lk 20.3), and (2) the Bride will forever be united to her Bridegroom. Resurrected folk become like angels in that they do not maintain familial or conjugal relationships (v25). Again, Jesus did not say the brothers literally became angels at death, but became like angels in the sense angels don’t marry and have families.
Despite what several gently and lovingly told me at Mom’s funeral, she is not following me in the breeze wishing I wouldn’t cry about her. There indeed are angels dispatched to the aid of God’s children (Heb 1.14). But none of them are named Billie Jean Maxwell.
Imagining a loved one has become an angel is a sentimental thought. But it is not harmless. We all would love to know the one we loved so closely in life is near to us in the afterlife. However, angelifying anyone actually cheapens very important biblical doctrines. While it may feel like good news at the funeral, the fact we do not become angels at death is infinitely better news for eternity.
Consider five theological arenas where it is infinitely and eternally better news that we do not become angels when we die.
Anthropology: God created humans to be physical, corporeal beings.
To discount the body as less important than the spirit is a product of gnostic heresy. The Greeks commonly assumed the body to be evil and the spirit to be good. Therefore, one could do whatever he wanted with the body because it’s evil and will be destroyed. What one does with his body has no affect on his spirit.
To assume we become angels at death is to consider the body to be worthless, temporary and unnecessary to being eternally complete as a human being. But Paul defended the glory and importance of our bodies:
“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom 6.12-13).“For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6.20).
What we do with and how we treat our bodies matters because our bodies matter to God. God created us as unified, holistic beings with a spirit that impacts the body and vice versa (for example, see Ps 32.3-4; Is 40.31). By nature, when we suffer spiritual strain we lose physical appetites. By nature, when we’re sick we feel spiritually drained. This is why the gospel is so radical: it gives strength where there is no strength to be had (Rom 8.10)!
Why do post-abortive moms suffer spiritual affects? They’ve been told it’s their body to do with what they want (there is no connection between body and soul), but they soon realize harming the body has far-reaching spiritual implications. They realize God has created our bodies to respond to and affect spiritual realities. This is why our spiritual appetites lead to physical actions (cf. Jas 1.14-15; 4.2).
God did not create us as physical bodies with a spirit, or spirits with a body, but as spiritual bodies to reflect his glory both inside and out. To separate the soul from the body is to be sub-human.
Christology: Jesus’ bodily resurrection anticipates what will happen with all believers in Christ.
God promises to conform all believers to the image of his Son (Rom 8.29). God will “transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of [Christ’s] glory” (Phil 3.21). When we see Jesus we will be like Jesus (1 Jn 3.2). Therefore, whatever Jesus is in his glorified state is what we will be in ours. Jesus was raised bodily to become the first fruits of God’s intention for true humanity.
Stated negatively: Jesus did not become an angel when he died. God promises we will be like Jesus. Therefore, we will not become angels when we die.
Stated positively: Jesus was raised bodily. God promises we will be like Jesus. Therefore, we will be raised bodily.
“But if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8.11).
To assume we become angels at death is to say we would rather be an angel than to be like Jesus. We want to be like Jesus.
Soteriology: God’s salvation is complete when our physical bodies are redeemed/glorified in a bodily resurrection.
Given God’s valuing the body, his salvation must necessarily include—and his grace experienced by—the redemption of our fallen bodies. What happened with the Fall in Eden was the destruction of the body and soul. We died in every sense of the word. We died physically and we died spiritually. In Christ, God reverses that curse so that both body and soul are redeemed restored to unrestrained, eternal glory.
“. . . we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8.23).
“For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked” (2 Cor 5.1-3).
Christ’s work is not complete when we die and go to heaven. His work is complete when “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come forth; those who did the good to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil to a resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5.28-29).
So we don’t breathe a sigh of relief at the funeral of a dead Christian because God has finally taken them to a better place. While we’re thankful that is true in some sense we also groan because there is still something wrong with seeing a soulless corpse decaying in a box. God’s plan of redemption is not yet complete until the redeemed soul is reunited with the redeemed and resurrected body.
The gospel does not end at “going to heaven when you die.” It ends at the resurrection, where recreated body and souls enjoy and worship Christ’s unrestrained glory in the recreated cosmos. It ends when all our senses are redeemed from the curse of sin so that we know God with every faculty of our being.
Sanctifcation: Being human for eternity is necessary for understanding, appreciating and enjoying God’s grace for eternity.
As a sub-category of soteriology, we should say something about the affect this has on our sanctification: our becoming like Jesus by growing in the understanding and enjoyment of the gospel. God designed the plan of redemption so that he will be worshiped for his being the God of sovereign and unending grace, displayed in Jesus Christ.
“He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the kind intention of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the beloved” (Eph 1.5-6).
So the content of our worship for eternity will be to glory in God’s grace. It will be praising him that though we deserved the fullness of God’s wrath in hell, we now enjoy the fullness of God’s blessing in heaven. As the smoke of hell rises up forever and ever (Rev 19.3) we will proclaim, “Hallelujah! We’re not there, but we should be! We’re not where we deserve to be, but where God chose us to be!”
The glory of the gospel is that in Christ alone God saves forever those who otherwise deserve to be damned for their sin. They experience God’s grace for no other reason than God chose to love them for his own sake.
These are things, Peter wrote, “into which angels long to look” (1 Pt 1.12). Unfallen angels love to watch God’s plan of redemption working out in the church. But they watch it as outsiders looking in. They will never experience what it’s like to be cast under the wrath of God only to be redeemed from that wrath by the work of Jesus. In a word, they will never know what it’s like to experience the fullness of God’s grace.
Neither unfallen or fallen angels (cf. 2 Pt 2.4) will experience the fullness of God’s grace. Only redeemed and resurrected humans will.
So it is better to be created by God, left to fall into sin and under his eternal and just wrath, to be dogged by sin and pain of repentance, and then to be rescued from that wrath by grace through faith in Jesus Christ than to be created as or become an angel. Becoming an angel at death would actually shortchange the worship God is due and our eternal joy of being the object of God’s sovereign grace.
Wings would actually interfere with our enjoyment and vision of God!
Judgment: God’s ultimate judgment of sin will be the physical, bodily torment of all unbelievers.
Just as the eternal enjoyment of God’s grace in the new creation will be a bodily, physical experience, so will the experience of God’s wrath in hell. To make light of the body with respect to eternal life is to make light of God’s grace in the gospel. To make light of the body with respect to eternal death is to make light of God’s judgment.
Hell is not en vogue these days (if it ever was!). But all of Scripture and especially Jesus clearly teach a literal hell with the eternal, conscious, physical (bodily) torment of all those who resist Christ in this life.
“If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Mt 5.29-30).“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10.28). Satan doesn’t destroy the soul and body in hell. God does!“In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame” (Lk 16.23-24).
We’re all familiar with John’s image of the “lake of fire” that will receive all unbelievers and Satan himself (Rev 20.14f.; 21.8).
Every description of hell depicts a physically painful experience of God’s eternal wrath. And regularly the image of hell is a place where people suffer skin-scorching fire and lung-filling toxic fumes. Now, that may all sound fanciful and a bit cartoonish but even if the language is symbolic then how much more will the reality be! We’re told 3rd and 4th degree burns are horrifically painful. So if you wanted to describe the fullness of God’s wrath it would be appropriate to depict the unending pain of 4th degree burns. Death would be a favor, but there will be no favors in hell.
Hell is not the absence of God, where all unbelievers are left to their own devices. God will be just as present in hell as he is in heaven. Only, he will be present in the fullness of his wrath rather than the fullness of his blessing. And all those there will have every one of the their senses fully sensitive to that wrath. Just as God must raise our bodies to be equipped for heaven (unending life without pain) so must he raise and prepare the body for hell—unending pain without death.
To assume good people become angels at death demands assuming bad people become demons. Just as becoming an angel would shortchange joy, becoming a demon would be getting off easy!
I don’t suggest interrupting a funeral or demoralizing a grieving friend with a theological coup d’état at a viewing. Be careful how you wield these truths. But be sure to wield them! There is far better news than that we become angels when die. We actually get raised from the dead so that we see, hear, taste, touch and smell the glories and excellencies of Jesus Christ for all eternity. Boneless wings may taste good in this life, but heaven’s feast is enjoyed by wingless bones.