There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife” (ESV, Luke 20:27-33).
In the Jewish world of Jesus’ day, the Sadducees were the most skeptical. Their understanding of the Old Testament focused on the “literal” or normal meaning of the words and prioritized the first five books as more authoritative then the rest of the Old Testament.
Their method of interpreting the Bible led them to “deny that there is a resurrection” (Luke 20:27, ESV) and reject angels and spirits (Acts 23:8). We are informed by the Pharisee and Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37-c. 100) that they rejected the “belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades,” and the sovereignty of God (The Wars of the Jews, 2.8.14).
In our day, we would identify Christians holding these views as liberal. The Sadducees were obviously skeptical of the more fantastic claims of the Bible, and they leaned heavily towards the materialism of Epicureanism (Acts 17:18). And in this tendency, they are similar to moderate evangelicals and liberal Christians. Their normal or “literal” is dependent on an understanding of God’s word and world that does not match God’s revelation.
The Sadducees’ basic argument in their question to Jesus is something like this: it is absurd to believe in the resurrection because of the potentially silly and horrifying possibility of seven husbands squabbling over one wife. Yet the linchpin of their argument is the assumption that in the resurrection human relationships will be defined as they as have been since the fall. The scenario they create is only laughable if current experience remains identical in the future.
Note how Jesus responds:
And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” (ESV, Luke 20:34-36, ESV)
Jesus attacks their skepticism by pointing out that in the age to come there will be a decisive break in human relationships. He finds no absolute uniformity and therefore no preposterous conflict at the resurrection. Jesus goes on in the text and corrects their wooden literalism by arguing that “the dead are raised even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush” (v. 36).
Just as modern skeptics the Sadducees laugh at what is taught in the Bible as absurd; yet their argument extrapolates from current circumstances to the future, and then they “prove” the Bible leads to preposterous or immoral conclusions. The Lord overcomes this by arguing from revelation against future uniformity.
Yet there are wider connotations of assuming future uniformity within Scripture. The Apostle Peter links the strategy of pressing current experience into the future to assuming past uniformity (2 Peter 3:4-6):
They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.
It is here that we come to an important modern application. In our day the reigning philosophical system is Epicureanism as popularized by Charles Darwin and maintained and modified by the public consensus of scientists, academics, and the media. For modern Epicureanism or scientific materialism to have any explanatory power, it must assume the uniformity of nature.
And so they do. Absolute uniformity. An unbroken chain of physical causes started by a random event leads from the Big Bang to the end of the universe. A universal history is then taught in which everything is explained by physical causes alone. Anyone who believes anything else is a simpleton, fundamentalist, knuckle dragger because it’s ridiculous to believe anything but what popular scientific consensus currently teaches.
There are two issues that need to be observed: the first is that it’s never absurd to believe God. If God is who He claims to be in the Bible, there is nothing sentimental or unreasonable about believing His testimony about the lack of uniformity in the future and in the past.
Second, natural uniformity cannot be proven by the scientific method. Or as the philosopher Anthony Flew wrote in his second edition of A Dictionary of Philosophy under the term “uniformity of nature”:
A principle used in attempts to justify induction in particular and science in general. It is usually expressed as “the future will resemble the past”… However, to be a principle on which induction can be rested, the uniformity of nature must not itself rely on inductive justification.
He then goes on to argue that for the statement the “future will resemble the past” to be proven true, induction is necessary and that at best the uniformity of nature is a claim.
Philosophical jargon aside, the uniformity of nature is a claim and not a fact or philosophical principle. The supposed absurdity of disbelieving in the uniformity of nature is not supported by reason or facts, but by the faith of those who believe in uniformity. When skeptics, ancient Sadducees or modern neo-Darwinists, mock believers for trusting the Bible’s account of creation, the introduction of death, the destruction of the pre-diluvian world, souls that will never die, the intermediate state after death, the approaching “new heavens and new earth,” they do so because of their faith and not the facts.
The way Jesus, Paul (Acts 17) and Peter argue against skepticism is by proclaiming and believing the claims of Scripture against the scoffers’ claims of uniformity. If we are followers of Jesus and imitators of Paul and Peter as they follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1), we must to do the same.