Or, why marriage is normative
Whether it’s the 4B movement in South Korea or the trend of households in the United States, singleness is a growing reality. This, in turn, is leading to an alarming drop in fertility around the globe.
In short, post-familialism and its sobering consequences in the US and abroad are certainly the present and very likely the future of modern life. But is singleness our ultimate future? Our heavenly future?
In his article Does Singleness Waste My Sexuality?, Sam Allberry claims that singleness provides us with a powerful human picture of the heavenly state. After a helpful explanation of how earthly marriages point toward heavenly marriage Allberry states:
[Jesus’] singleness on earth bore witness to this ultimate marriage he had come to establish.
Singleness for us now is also a way of bearing witness to this reality. Like Jesus, we can live in a way that anticipates what is to come. Singleness now is a way of saying that this future reality is so certain and so good that we can embrace it now.
But does singleness in the present age indeed point forward to heaven? Does it embrace the future? Is it appropriate to compare our singleness to that of our Lord Jesus? And how might we encourage those who are grieving the losses that come with this state?
Marriage in Heaven
In the Gospels the religious leaders wanted to destroy Jesus. A few days before the death of Christ, they sought to trap him with a riddle, having failed before at this same scheme with a trick question about taxes. They proceeded instead to the topic of marriage (cf. Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-40). The Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection) ran their best play: a question meant to reveal how laughable it is to claim that there is life after death. What if a woman has seven consecutive husbands here on Earth? Of course, she cannot be married to all seven at once in heaven, so who will be the lucky man wedded to her for all eternity? They believed there was no answer, making them confident they will stump Jesus just like everyone else they have asked. Instead, he rejects the question’s premise:
Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. – Mark 12:24–25 ESV
But why will marriage change in heaven? Jesus does not reveal this directly, but he points to the answer by naming the Sadducees’ problem: a lack of knowledge of the Scriptures. Those who know the Scriptures understand that human marriages are all meant to point to one, final heavenly marriage. The Old Testament gives a picture of marriage between God and His people (cf. Ezekiel 16:8-21, Isaiah 54:5-8, Hosea 2:19-23); the New Testament between Christ and His bride the church (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33, Revelation 21:1-4).
Marriage is meant to teach about heaven. Thus, there will be no marriage between humans in heaven because earthly marriage will be obsolete. A mere picture is unnecessary when the reality arrives. The appetizers disappear when it is time for the meal. The best marriages here cannot compare to the ultimate marriage there. No matter how much love, connection, joy, intimacy, and safety you can experience in marriage now, you will experience them infinitely more in the presence of God in heaven.
Singleness does not point to heaven; marriage does. Allberry correctly affirms the latter. In fact, his article teaches much the same. However, he wrongly elevates the former. Scripture never presents singleness as an anticipation of heaven. In fact, quite the opposite. In Isaiah 56:4-5 the Lord does not encourage eunuchs that their celibacy bears witness to heaven. Instead, he tells them that heaven will reverse the pain they experience now. They should endure with faithfulness because the challenges of singleness will be replaced by something even better than marriage.
If marriage shows us a piece of heaven, then one way of “bearing witness to this reality” is by engaging in marriage. Marriage, not singleness, “anticipates what is to come.” The Bible sends us to marriage, not to singleness.
You’re Not Jesus
But what about Jesus? Does not his singleness show the goodness of ours? In one sense, yes. Allberry is correct when he teaches:
This reminds us that marriage now is not ultimate. It will be absent in the age to come and is not vital in this present time. This reality is reflected in the life of Jesus himself. The most fully human and complete person ever to live on this earth did so as someone who was single, and yet he called himself “the bridegroom.” The marriage he came for was the one all of us who are in him will enjoy will him for eternity. His singleness on earth bore witness to this ultimate marriage he had come to establish.
However, it is for these very reasons that some of Allberry’s conclusions in the next paragraph are wrong. He goes on:
Singleness for us now is also a way of bearing witness to this reality. Like Jesus, we can live in a way that anticipates what is to come. Singleness now is a way of saying that this future reality is so certain and so good that we can embrace it now. It is a way of declaring to a world obsessed with sexual and romantic intimacy that these things are not ultimate and that in Christ we possess what is.
Allberry is correct that chaste Christians powerfully witness to the world that there is something greater than romance and sex, though this is equally true for singles and for those who are married. But his teaching about our singleness and its relationship to the future runs aground. We are not Jesus, and so our singleness does not mean all the same things that his does. Christ is single because the church is his bride. We are single when we don’t find a spouse. Christ’s singleness reveals him as the bridegroom of the heavenly marriage. Our singleness cannot function in the same way, since it is the church – not individuals – that constitutes the heavenly bride. In fact, scripture uses the image of adoption rather than that of marriage to speak of individual believers. In other words, Christ as an individual can participate in the ultimate heavenly marriage. We, however, participate not as individuals but as members of the universal church. Our singleness and Christ’s singleness are different in kind. Allberry is correct when he says that Jesus’ singleness anticipates what is to come. He errs when he states that our singleness does the same.
Not only is our singleness dissimilar from Christ’s, but we should not compare earthly singleness to heavenly singleness. The Sadducees’ question traps them rather than Jesus because they use earthly categories to understand heavenly realities. They assume that heaven will be like earth, except everyone will be alive and live eternally. To compare singleness now to singleness then makes the same mistake. Singleness in heaven will be different in kind from that on earth because we will then fully experience the church’s eternal union with Christ.
In short, individual believers are not Christ’s bride; His church is. Individual singleness does not point to the heavenly marriage; the church does. Yes, people can be fully human and complete without marriage. No, singleness is not a picture of heaven.
While scripture nowhere presents singleness as a picture of heaven, it constantly presents marriage as a picture of heaven. Therefore, believers do not “embrace” “this future reality” by being single. Instead, they show and receive a small taste in marriage
Marriage is Normative
Allberry’s teachings come from a problem that he names at the beginning of his article. His discussions with other singles as well as his own experience raise the question of whether the sexual desires of Christian singles are an unused, wasted appendage, like the appendix Allberry lost by surgery:
Given what we’ve seen about how marriage points to the relationship Jesus has with his people, where does that leave those of us who are unmarried? If we are to live lives of celibacy, does that mean our sexuality is now playing no active role in our lives? Are people like me wasting our sexuality by not giving expression to our sexual desires? If so, it seems odd that this vital aspect of our humanity is now seemingly redundant. If God made us sexual beings, how can it be good that we don’t in any way fulfill that aspect of who we are? Our married friends can feel satisfied that they’re honoring their sexual feelings, giving expression to them in a godly way and in the proper context of marriage, and thereby honoring their sexuality as it points beyond itself to its ultimate referent in Christ.
It is understandable to think this way. I have done so myself at various points, and regularly meet people who still do, especially singles. They feel as though this negation of sexual activity in some way makes them incomplete and dissatisfied. It doesn’t feel right to have something so apparently significant just sitting there unutilized. It would be like a phenomenal pianist never having access to a keyboard. Seems like a waste.
The Bible has a category for singleness, and it’s certainly not a sin to be unmarried (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, Matthew 19:12). Paul and Jesus’ singleness underscore this. We can affirm that while also teaching that marriage is normative for humanity. It is still true on this side of Christ’s resurrection that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Singleness is meant to be the exception, not the norm.
Nature also teaches this. The rise of singleness and its attendant drop in fertility around the world is a tragedy, not a foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth. One does not need to believe in God to see the challenges of isolation and a population with a dearth of young people and birth rates below the replacement rate.
If earthly marriage is merely an appetizer of a heavenly meal, then we should not shy away from both hard truths and great encouragement. The truth is that Allberry and his friends have missed out on something important to human life. Note that I didn’t say essential or necessary for life – just important. No, it is not the end of the world. Yes, it is a real loss.
We all have abilities that go untapped and the world in its fallen state includes inefficiencies. It is good and right to grieve this as a part of the human experience in a sinful creation. Not all is lost. But that comfort ought not to gloss over the fact that there is a real loss.
Thus, we do not assuage the pains and challenges of singleness by congratulating those in that state that they are living some future reality in the present. Instead, we find comfort that the category of singleness as we experience and understand it on this side of heaven will one day cease. We can say to our Christian brothers and sisters who are single, “Yes, you may have missed out on the great appetizer that is earthly marriage. But take heart- you’re still invited to the even greater wedding feast that Revelation 19 tells us about! The best part is yet to come!”
Christian singles look towards heaven not because it will be a place of singleness, but because it will be the greatest marriage imaginable. And they will experience all of it.
Whither Now, Singles?
Though I disagree with Allberry’s conclusions about singleness, he and I are both members of a very exclusive club: never-married evangelical ministers. He holds his ordination in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), I in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). We both know what it is like to pastor a congregation without a spouse. And, while Allberry is over a decade older than me, we have both walked the road of singleness long enough to know its joys, sorrows, confusion, and questions. So how can you encourage those like us as we walk towards heaven?
You could exhort us with Paul’s words in Acts 20:24:
But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
Like Paul, the focus of our lives is on glorifying and enjoying God. We can do that married or single. You might remind us of Jesus’ promise in John 14:1–4:
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.
We have a home, a savior, and a future regardless of marital status.
You could even reassure us with Peter’s words in 2 Peter 1:3 or Paul’s teaching in Philippians 4:10-13 that God gives us all we need to live faithful lives now. Indeed, there are many more ways we can and should encourage our single friends. However, claiming that they are living out a future reality is not one of them. Whatever you do, please don’t tell us that. It is neither heartening nor true.
And, if like those Allberry counsels, we fear our sexual desires are an unused appendage then please encourage us to pursue marriage- one way of picturing heaven here on earth.
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