Do Christians believe in life after death? It depends on what is meant by life. One of the consequences of the two world wars was that the flood of deaths led to a rather banal idea of life after death.
We can see this in the flourishing of spiritualism after the first war. The life of the dead was perceived in terms of the technology of the time. The dead could talk over the telephone, as it were, with the medium as an operator, connecting the calls.
Yet the reality went with a certain lack of mystery. The imagined world was just our own world, but without the pain. "It's very nice here," the dead would say, as if phoning from a seaside resort.
During the second war another way of taking away the pain was found: a host of films about life after death designed to reassure troops and civilians. 'Here comes Mr Jordan' (1941), 'A Guy named Joe' (1943), and 'Blithe Spirit' (1945) are examples. Death was a blip in our ongoing existence, something hardly noticed as we proceed in our happy lives.
It's understandable that in time of war people should feel tempted to run away from the reality of death. "Nothing is going to happen, nothing will hurt you," cooed nanny in the nursery as she tucked the children into bed. "In the morning you will wake up in the same bright nursery you fell asleep in." But that's not what the Church teaches.
Death is real. We endure something terrible in our death, if only because the fact of death is terrible. Human beings long for a continuance of this life and cannot conceive of something different. That's what lies behind the Sadducees' questioning of Jesus.
They deny the resurrection, but the resurrection they deny is one that will lead to everything continuing as normal. Their argument against the resurrection fails at the first premise: people who are married in this life will stay married in the next. But Jesus replies that they will not. The question then arises: why is there no marriage?
The answer is: because there is no death. It's because we are mortal that we need to perpetuate our race by procreation. Life is short and much of it taken up by the business of preparing for our successors, so much so that it seems we hardly have time to live just for ourselves.
That's life as we live it, but the next life is described in strange terms in today's Gospel. It's a whole new age which we must be 'worthy to attain' without any guarantee that all will succeed. It comes after death, and in that age
they cannot die any more for they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.
There is something more than a mere absence of marriage here. Part of the explanation lies in the strange use of the word 'sons'. Many translations prefer 'children'. Nonetheless it is important to use 'sons' because it connects with the next passage where Jesus asks his own question:
But he said to them, "How can they say that the Christ is David's son?
For David himself says ... 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand ..."' David thus calls him Lord; so how is he his son?"
He is son of David because he is the Son. Paul, referring to this same passage from the Psalms of David, says that the last enemy to be conquered by Christ is death (1 Cor. 15:25-26). This final conquest has not happened, but the battle against death continues so long as human history endures.
Christ, born into this world, does not marry or have children because he is to be the beginning of the new life where there is no death. Instead, in that life, we share in the common sonship of Christ, waiting to complete that sharing by our own resurrection.
When that day comes, we will wake up, not in the nursery where we fell asleep, but to a life beyond death - a life more radically different from this life than the life of adults differs from the life of children. It will be a life for truly grown up people, people who have grown in Christ.