The End of the World, the End of Marriage?

Contemplation of “the last things” suggests that the friendship of marriage remains in heaven.

(photo: Holy Family holy card, 1890, University of Dayton Libraries, from Wikimedia Commons)

As the liturgical year draws to a close, the gospels offer one insight after another into what to expect at the end of time. Mostly, they suggest that it is not something that can be expected: that whatever we imagine will be grossly insufficient preparation for what is to come. Nonetheless, we are encouraged to try to envision it as best we can (or else, surely, the Church would have selected a different set of readings!). It’s a bit like telling a one-year-old you’re moving house: the vastness of the change is so great that any words used to convey it will surely be beyond comprehension; yet it is better to give some notion of the coming upheaval, however inadequate such preparation will prove. So it is with us, and the end of (our) time.

One of the things that boggles the adult mind when it sets to contemplating mansions is the abolition of marriage in heaven. Marriage on the natural level is so much a part of life—if not a part of yours, at least a part of most lives around you—that a life without marriage is for many people well nigh inconceivable. No doubt there are some for whom this inconceivable appears in the light of a blessing. But for most, to the extent that we can conceive of life without marriage, many of our attempts paint a sad, dull picture. Marriage is a sacrament (Ephesians 5:32); a spouse is (in the words Milton puts in Adam’s mouth about Eve), “Heaven’s last best gift, my ever-new delight.” Yet Christ assures us that heaven has no marriages.

Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.” (From the Gospel of Friday, November 24.)

The story (invented by the Sadducees) to which Jesus replies is designed to make the idea of heaven sound ridiculous; Jesus suggests that their mistake is to conceive of heaven as a glorified earth. Heaven is not ridiculous, but it is radically different.

Given the radical difference of heaven, and the error of imagining earthly marriages in heaven, what ought we to imagine will be the relationship there between those who were married on earth? Will formerly fond couples be indifferent to one another, either because the Beatific Vision is so consuming, or because they have equal charity for all the Blessed?

While such a situation is possible, the very little we know about human relationships and heaven suggests that it is unlikely. Aquinas proposes that the fellowship of friends, while it has not that preeminent place in heaven which it does on earth, may continue in heaven because it “conduces to the well-being of Happiness,” the Blessed “‘see[ing] one another and rejoic[ing] in God, at their fellowship”” (Summa Theologica, quoting Augustine Gen. ad lit. viii, 25). (This reasoning is consonant with his argument elsewhere that charity is identical with friendship, Summa Theologica

If friendship continues in heaven, it may be too that in heaven as on earth certain friendships are greater than others. One would expect, moreover, that the friendships of heaven are ranked in heavenly terms; that is, in terms of how those friendships pointed the friends mutually closer to God during the time when the friends were still on earth. And of course, on earth the friendship that exists within marriage is—if all goes well—that which draws each spouse closer to God. To put the matter in more familiar words, in a Christian marriage the spouses are each other’s way to heaven.

Now it is possible, of course, that such “ways to heaven” can be via very much negativa. Sometimes it is by putting up with a poor spouse, as St. Monica did with her temperamental husband Patricius, that one becomes a saint. Certainly even in the best of marriages the differences of temperament and upbringing can become abrasive, and those abrasions serve to sanctify. But the primary way in which marriage is supposed to sanctify is through offering what the Book of Common Prayer calls mutual society, help, and comfort; or, as the Roman nuptial blessing puts it, “the companionship they had in the beginning … the one blessing not forfeited by original sin nor washed away by the flood.” And the hoped-for effect of that companionship, for which the nuptial blessing prays, is that

these your servants [may] hold fast to the faith and keep your commandments; made one in the flesh, may they be blameless in all they do; and with the strength that comes from the Gospel, may they bear true witness to Christ before all … And grant that, reaching at last together the fullness of years for which they hope, they may come to the life of the blessed in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Yet how strange if those who were of the most help in getting each other to heaven should be utter strangers once they arrived there! Perhaps, then, death does what divorce only purports to do, and separates those spouses whose attachment was faulty or fractured, while confirming and elevating those attachments that were causes of joy.

The last words below to St. Francis de Sales, who on this as on so many other topics addressed the divine humanely.

… if the bond of your mutual liking be charity, devotion and Christian perfection, God knows how very precious a friendship it is! Precious because it comes from God, because it tends to God, because God is the link that binds you, because it will last for ever in Him. Truly it is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure for ever there. I am not now speaking of simple charity, a love due to all mankind, but of that spiritual friendship which binds souls together, leading them to share devotions and spiritual interests, so as to have but one mind between them. Such as these may well cry out, “Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity!” Even so, for the “precious ointment” of devotion trickles continually from one heart to the other, so that truly we may say that to such friendship the Lord promises His Blessing and life for evermore.