I served as a missionary in Scotland for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from September of 1987 until September of 1989. For the last five months of my service, that mission was under the direction of Joseph Fielding McConkie, a singularly gifted gospel teacher, a devoted disciple of Christ, a fierce champion of the Restoration, and a bold witness of the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. President McConkie passed away on October 10th, 2013.
He was only my mission president for a relatively short period of time, but he made an indelible impression on me and on my testimony of the Restored Gospel. If you have read anything I’ve written on the subject of religion here on this blog, chances are you’re reading warmed-over McConkie. So much of my thinking on these subjects has been shaped by his perspectives that it’s difficult to separate his point of view from my own.
As I attended his funeral yesterday and sang “Praise to the Man” alongside other middle-aged dudes in a choir of former Scotland missionaries, I tried to think of the best way to honor his memory here. I could recount some of his more memorable teachings, or I could recount some examples of his singular sense of humor.
Then I remembered a story that does both.
During a series of missionary zone conferences, President McConkie would take Bible texts used by critics of the Church and demonstrate how, rather than prove the Mormons wrong, these verses in context actually reinforced a testimony of the Restored Gospel. On this occasion, President McConkie began his instruction by quoting from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 22, verse 30:
“For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.”
By that time in my mission, I had bumped into many an angry evangelical Christian that had thrown those words of the Savior in my face as evidence that the Latter-day Saint doctrine of eternal marriage ran contrary to the Bible. The conventional wisdom is that Jesus was announcing that there is no such thing as marriage in heaven. Certainly a cursory reading of his statement here would give that impression.
Not so fast, President McConkie said. Back up a little, focus on the context, and understand the point that the Savior is trying to make.
He began in verse 23 of the same chapter, which sets up the exchange that yields Jesus’s marriage statement:
The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection…
President McConkie noted that it’s important to recognize the Sadducee agenda here. These guys are questioning Jesus not to challenge him about marriage, but rather to trip him up about the reality of resurrection, a doctrine they rejected. (“The Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection,” President McConkie said, “so they were sad, you see.”)
That’s why Jesus, in his response, doesn’t focus on marriage, either. “But as touching the resurrection of the dead,” Jesus says:
But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying,
I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
And when the multitude heard this, they were astonished at his doctrine.
The astonishing doctrine is not the marriage doctrine, then, but rather the doctrine of resurrection, and everyone knows it, including the Sadducees. That’s the point of the exchange. So when we look at what Jesus says about marriage in order to make that point, we need to realize that his purpose is not to expound on the nature of marriage in the eternities to a group that rejects eternity, but rather to sidestep the rhetorical trap the Sadducees are setting.
Jesus did that all the time. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and “the baptism of John, was it of heaven or of men?” and “he that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone” were all examples of Jesus refusing to accept at face value the premises being presented to him.
That’s all well and good, but what did Jesus mean about marriage in verse 30?
The key, according to President McConkie, can be found in the antecedent to the word “they” in Jesus’s answer. “They” neither marry nor are given in marriage. Who are “they?”
The Sadducees, in setting up the scenario to flummox the Savior, talk about how “there were with us seven brethren,” and each of them, in turn, marries a woman whose first husband dies. The next husband dies, too. This happens over and over again, and she ends up marrying eight times, so who is going to be her husband in the resurrection?
Again, it’s essential to remember that this query is coming from a group of people who don’t believe in a resurrection. They think this example, then, shows how ridiculous the concept of resurrection is on its face, and that Jesus won’t be able to provide a satisfying answer, and his authority with the masses will be undermined by anything he says.
But Jesus refuses to play the game.
“They neither marry nor are given in marriage,” Jesus says – the “they” in question being the people provided in the Sadducee example. “There were with us seven brethren,” the Sadducees said, emphasis added. In other words, seven Sadducees, who don’t believe in a resurrection, marry a Sadducee woman who obviously wouldn’t believe in a resurrection, either. The Savior, then, is masterfully skewering them for their presumption in assuming they’ll be married in a resurrection they deny.
They, the eight men and the one woman who deny the resurrection in the example provided, aren’t going to be married in the resurrection. If you want to be married in the resurrection, you have to accept the Lord and his doctrine. Implicit in Jesus’s rejection of the marriage example of the Sadducees is an assumption that, while “they” won’t be married, there will be others who will be.
“There’s a modern precedent to this,” President McConkie told us. “Can anyone think of a woman in our day who has been married eight times?”
Sure, we all answered. Elizabeth Taylor.
“Good. Is there any question as to who Elizabeth Taylor’s husband is going to be in the resurrection?”
We, laughing, shook our heads.
President McConkie laughed, too, and then said, “Elizabeth Taylor is going to be lucky to be resurrected.”
Joseph Fielding McConkie. A great scholar and a great man. I’m going to miss him.