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The Heavenly Significance of Singleness (and Marriage)

June 26th, 2023 | 14 min read

By Danielle Treweek

In his recent article, Does Singleness Show Heaven? author Matthew Capone argues there is no biblical warrant to conclude that singleness in this life witnesses to or anticipates the life to come. More than that, he concludes that earthly singleness is a “not good” reality whose only consistently unique comfort is found in the knowledge that it will one day cease.

There is much to appreciate in Capone’s argument. He is clearly aiming to bring biblical faithfulness and theological rigour to bear on the question at hand. He rightly emphasizes the significance of marriage as an eschatological foreshadow—a signpost that points us to what is to come in the new creation. He wisely cautions us against drawing unqualified parallels between all aspects of Jesus' earthly singleness and ours. And he is undoubtedly correct that all of Jesus’ people—married and single alike—are called to focus their lives on glorifying and enjoying God in this creation, as we together look forward to the next.

And yet, I cannot agree that being unmarried in this life has no value or significance in helping us understand anything about life in the next (or, indeed, vice versa). Not only do various biblical passages and theological threads come together to suggest that the single life is indeed eschatologically meaningful, but I (and Sam Allberry, whom Capone dialogues with at length, alongside contemporary theologians such as Oliver O’Donovan and Stanley Hauerwas) are far from the only ones to believe this. In fact, we are surrounded by a great cloud of historical witnesses who celebrated and esteemed the unmarried life precisely because they understood it to be uniquely and eternally significant.

But, I get ahead of myself. Capone’s argument begins with an interaction between Jesus and his Sadducean opponents (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40). These men approach Jesus with a religious riddle designed to entrap him. Telling the story of a woman widowed seven times, they attempt to disprove any sort of rational belief in the resurrection by asking him to adjudicate which of her seven husbands she would be married to within it.  But Jesus masterfully undermines both the theological assumption of their riddle and their denial of the theological possibility of resurrection.

With regards to the latter, he reproves them for not appreciating Yahweh’s Scriptural declaration (to Moses) that he is the God who covenants to always bring forth life and ever rule over it. In other words, the resurrection is undoubtedly real because Scripture reveals our God to be the God of the living, not the dead.

However, Jesus also tells the Sadducees that they, along with their riddle, are “quite wrong” because they have further failed to understand the power of God. He explains that no resurrected human being will be married to another resurrected human being, for by God’s power “they cannot die anymore” (Lk 20:34). Jesus reveals that never-dying, always-living resurrected embodied humanity will be like the angels—eternally unmarried and sexually celibate.

Capone is eager to draw his reader’s attention to what he sees as the significance of this passage for our understanding of marriage—namely, that human marriage will be obsolete in the eschaton because the ultimate marriage will have arrived. However, in doing so, he has missed two critical points of Jesus' teaching here. The first is that while other parts of Scripture would lead us to rightly concur with Capone’s rationale about the reason human marriage will not extend into the new creation, that isn’t actually the rationale Jesus gives the Sadducees. Instead, our Saviour here links the end of human marriage with the end of human death. To put it another way, Jesus is not making the same point as, say, Paul is in Ephesians 5. There is more than one reason why we humans will not be marrying each other in eternity. The end of human death and consummation of our eternal life is one of them.

This missed point in Capone’s discussion leads to a second. In deftly removing us from the immediate context and teaching of the Sadducean narrative (in order to argue from other biblical passages about the significance of the theological marriage metaphor), Capone doesn’t allow us to sit with and under the sheer remarkability of what Jesus is actually saying here.

In his interaction with the Sadducees, Jesus Christ reveals a precise, concrete detail of one thing we can expect of our embodied existence in the new creation.  1 Corinthians 15 gives us tremendous insights into the physicality and personal continuity of the resurrection body. The gospel depictions of Jesus’ resurrected body are helpfully instructive for our pondering what our resurrection bodies might be like. But, outside the apocalyptic literature of Revelation, I cannot think of a single other biblical passage in which we receive detailed and concrete insight into a specific aspect of what we human creatures will be doing (or not doing) with our embodied, personal, ever-living new creation selves. In these Synoptic passages Jesus reveals that resurrected human beings will not be married nor be given in marriage to each other. Instead, we will all individually be unmarried and therefore relating to each other as those who are unmarried for all eternity. This is surely a remarkable eschatological insight!

Capone is right to caution us against any direct, unnuanced equation of the earthly unmarried life with the heavenly unmarried life. Whatever the unmarried resurrection life is to be like, it will be far more transcendently wonderful than anything we might expect of the unmarried life on this earth. And yet, everything we are able to gleam from Scripture about the resurrection age leads us to believe that there will still be vital aspects of continuity between embodied human life here and now, and embodied human life there and then.  In fact, while Capone insists that “we should not compare” earthly and heavenly singleness, his entire (correct) argument about marriage’s significance as that which shows us heaven relies on him doing precisely that for earthly and heavenly marriage! Why is it that we are able to ponder the imperfect comparison of earthly and heavenly marriage, but are warned against doing the same for earthly and heavenly “not-marriage”?

Certainly, the church of both antiquity and the Middle Ages would have been utterly bemused by such a theological double standard. The fact of the matter is that the pre-Reformation Church’s theology of what we today call “singleness” was deeply eschatological in its shape, formation and implications. This was in no small part because of Jesus' teaching in the Sadducean pericope. Our ancestors overwhelmingly understood Jesus’ comment of being “like the angels” to be a reference to unmarried sexual chastity in the resurrection. Many of them conceived of this as a kind of rediscovered and eternal virginity (of both the body and soul).

Take for example Cyril of Alexandria who encouraged the unmarried Christians of his age to remember that what “we are all to become, you have begun to be. The glory of the resurrection in the next life you possess already… In persevering in chasteness and virginity, you are equal to the Angels of God”.[1] Indeed, as early as the second century, the ancient Christian church understood the unmarried virginal life to be that which uniquely announced the coming dawn of a new creation. Church greats such as Origen perceived the virgin Christian to be a teleological symbol that mediated between this creation and the next. Gregory of Nyssa asserted that the sexually chaste unmarried Christian epitomised humanity’s individual eschatological future. John Chrysostom saw the unmarried person to be one who necessarily testified to the wonderful hope of a coming age freed from the cycle of death and decay. The inimitable Augustine of Hippo contended that unmarried virginity “belongs with the angels, and in corruptible flesh is a foretaste of eternal incorruptibility. All physical parenthood, all married chastity, must give way to this”.[2]  As the contemporary commentator François Bovon observes, the early church fathers “did not reserve the fulfillment of Jesus’ words for the eschatological future [but instead claimed that it] is the ascetics and monks, who here below are already “equal to angels.[3] 

Their medieval Christian descendants likewise understood the chaste unmarried life to be that which pointed and even pre-emptively participated in this aspect of humanity’s heavenly embodied reality.  Writing in the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux wondered “why should you not be, even today, what all the elect will some day after the resurrection, like to the angels of heaven, since like them you are unmarried?”.[4] It was the unmarried celibate “alone, in the here and now of our mortality, [who] mirrors in some degree the state of immortal glory… offering in some measure to the world an experience of that heavenly mode of life”.[5]  This connection between the unmarried celibate and the vita angelica (life of the angels) was further exemplified and celebrated in various hagiographical accounts of the lives of saints, resources intended to teach theology to everyday medieval believers. For the first millennium and a half of the Church’s corporate life and teaching, “singleness” was celebrated—at times, revered—precisely because it was understood to uniquely testify to the eschaton.

Of course, that our ancestors held such a view doesn’t necessarily mean they were right to do so. In fact, it would be impossible for them to have all been thoroughly correct because, even as they agreed that the unmarried life was to be eschatologically esteemed, they often disagreed with foundational aspects of each other’s arguments about precisely how and why this was true. For example, Gregory of Nyssa—amongst many of his contemporaries—saw marriage and sex as being concessions given by God to a newly mortal humanity after the fall (i.e., virginity was God’s original creative intent which we are to return to in eternity), while Augustine came to teach that both of these were instituted at the time of creation in the Garden (i.e., celibacy is God’s new-creative intent which we are destined towards in eternity).

In this sense, the church’s pre-Reformation theology of singleness was not monolithic. However, it was consistent. That is, the unmarried life was unfailingly esteemed because it actively testified to a fundamentally significant part of the resurrection life and relationships that await God’s people.

For their part, the Reformers did generally understand Jesus' rebuke of the Sadducees to mean, as per Luther, that in the resurrection they “will not marry… A wife no longer belongs to her husband. Taking a wife and bearing children will cease then.[6] And yet, for all their consensus on the meaning of the biblical text, the Reformers demonstrated a general lack of interest in its ethical implications for the here and now. Their historical legacy has become our theological present. As Davies and Allison conclude in their commentary on Matthew’s Sadducean passage, while in the past, “the value of chastity once made our verse a prized possession… [Today] the verse has gone from being significant to marginal”.[7]

The fact that we contemporary Protestants have virtually no collective memory of our own heritage on this matter is a significant loss. Not only do we have little awareness of, let alone actual appreciation for, the notion that singleness may be eschatologically significant, but today’s Reformed leaders frequently reject such a possibility altogether. Notwithstanding some notable exceptions such as the forementioned Sam Allberry,  Stanley Hauerwas and Oliver O’Donovan, Christian theologians, leaders and teachers have, from the time of the Reformation forward, readily argued that there is no theological significance to be attributed to the unmarried life on earth in light of the unmarried life to come—all while saying the exact opposite about the theological relationship between earthly and heavenly marriage.

Yet in each of the New Testament passages which specifically discuss the “single” life on earth (alongside some key Old Testament passages which do the same), its eschatological significance is always on view. Yes, we have the synoptic passages of Jesus' words to the Sadducees about the unmarried angelic-like life to come. But we also see Jesus speaking of the eunuchs whose priority and focus is on the eschatological kingdom of God (Matthew 19:10-12), alongside Isaiah’s promise that God’s eunuchs will be given an everlasting name better than sons and daughters (Isaiah 56:4-5). In the apocalyptic context of Revelation 14:4-5 it is the 144,000 virgins who are the first fruits redeemed from makind for God, and it is they who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.  

And then there is the “purple passage” of 1 Corinthians 7, in which the Apostle Paul’s assertion that remaining unmarried is not merely a good, but even a better option, is grounded in his unapologetic eschatological framework. While he makes it clear that it is not a sin to marry, he urges his readers to recognise that marriage brings anxieties, troubles and divided devotion in a world whose appointed time has grown very short and whose present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:25-35).

Yes, it would be short-sighted of us to simply adopt all our forbears’ theological convictions about singleness’ eschatological significance without qualm or consideration. And yet, it is just as short-sighted of us to overlook our own theological heritage on this matter and, most importantly, the scriptural evidence which compels it. Furthermore, a theological retrieval of singleness’ eschatological meaning does not require us to reject the same with respect to marriage. There is simply no reason for us to continue approaching this as a “zero-sum game”.  

What a joy it is for those of us who live in the now but not yet to celebrate the way in which both the married life and the unmarried life show us different aspects of the heavenly reality which gloriously awaits us.

Footnotes

[1] Cyprian, “Treatise II: On the Dress of Virgins,” in The Treatises of S. Caecilius Cyprian, vol. 3, A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (London: John Henry Parker, 1840), 129, §13.

[2] Augustine, “Holy Virginity,” in Marriage and Virginity, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (New York: New City Press, 1996), 1, 74, §13,12.

[3]François Bovon, Luke 3: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 19:28–24:53, ed. Helmut Koester, trans. James Crouch, Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis: Augusburg Fortress, 2012), 75.

[4]Bernard of Clairvaux, “In Labore Messis 5,” 2, §255. Cited in Jean Leclercq, The Life of Perfection: Points of View on the Essence of the Religious State, trans. Leonard J Doyle (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1961), 30.

[5] Bernard of Clairvaux, “In Labore Messis 5,” in Sancti Bernardi Opera Omnia, ed. Jean Leclercq and C. H. Talbot (Rome: Cistercienses, 1957), 7: 107. Cited in Karen Cheatham, “They Hasten Toward Perfection: Virginal & Chaste Monks in the High Middle Ages” (PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2010), 180.

[6] Martin Luther, “Matthew 18–24, Expounded in Sermons,” in Sermons on the Gospel of St. Matthew: Chapters 19–24, ed. Benjamin T. G. Mayes, Luther’s Works (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 138.

[7] William David Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2005), 3, 230-31.

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Danielle Treweek

Danielle Treweek is the Diocesan Research Officer for the Sydney Anglican Diocese, author of The Meaning of Singleness and founding director of the Single Minded Ministry. She is a graduate of  St Mark’s National Theological Centre (PhD), Moore Theological College (BDiv Hons) and the University of Sydney (BA).

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Sexuality