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  What Does the Bible Say About Genealogy?

This week we hear from Jim in Monroe with a follow-up question from last week. He writes, “You paraphrase Jesus as saying that ‘earthly relationships have no bearing on heavenly relationships.’ Does this mean that these near-death experiences in which people are visited by or see lost relatives again are just a hoax? Do you feel that the LDS are wasting their time with all the attention they pay to genealogy? …I'd like your frank opinion as to whether my genealogical research is more of a detriment than a boost to my spiritual well-being.”

Our understanding of the hereafter has been widely formed by the media and popular society. For instance, I have a daughter who is believes after people die they become angels, a popular belief, but one which is misinformed and inaccurate. So, for a time, let's suspend what we’ve been taught by our society about life after death and focus strictly on the scriptures. 

In the afterlife, according to Jesus, heavenly relationships aren't like earthly relationships. The passage of the Levitical marriage I cited from Matthew 22 is pretty clear about that. "There will be no marriage nor people given in marriage." On the other hand, it's also fairly clear that people still have their identities in the afterlife, and it seems as if people know each other on some level--Moses and Elijah both conversed with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration (Matthew 17.3) as if they knew each other and knew Jesus and apparently knew who they themselves were. Indeed, apparently people there also remember the relationships they had on earth, as seen when King Saul consulted a medium to get advice from the late Samuel (1 Samuel 28) who not only recognized Saul, but gave him what-for for disturbing him!

So, although the relationships are quite different, there seems to be evidence that memories are not totally suspended.

As to genealogies, the New Testament is pretty clear about that. In the first century, and for centuries both before and since, there was a move to keep up with one's genealogy. For one thing, this allowed you to prove you were a true Israelite, since that is a birthright as opposed to a religion, and for a second thing, it provided "bragging rights" if you were related to someone great--and most of us are, if we're willing to trace one path over another as we go back. 

The notion that tracing the genealogies back as a spiritual discipline or so we can do for the departed the spiritual things they did not do for themselves, as in the baptisms for the dead practiced by the LDS, seems pretty superfluous and in two biblical passages is actually prohibited. We read in 1st Timothy, “Stay in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies” (1 Timothy 1.3-4). Then in Titus we read, "Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies… because these are unprofitable and useless" (Titus 3.9). Clearly, doing the genealogy thing, at least as a spiritual discipline, is a no-no.

Which begs the question about the baptism for the dead that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15.29. According to one scholar, this passage is the most troubling in the New Testament, and indeed, it is one of the most written about. The question, according to many scholars, is what is baptism referred to, for it could be metaphorical or it could be the normal use of the word--even Jesus used it in both senses. Then, second, who is being baptized, where, and for what purpose. Paul's reference, in any event, seems to suggest that this form of baptism was not of ill intent nor does he prohibit it. If this practice, whatever it was, was prevalent in the early church and if the apostles had deemed the act unorthodox, we would almost certainly have seen some declaration against the practice. However, in the second century, some began to practice a different form of baptism for the dead that was specifically prohibited and taught against by the Church (see Homilies of St. John Crysostom no. 40). This being the case, most scholars seem to believe that the first century practice of baptizing for the dead was a rite that did not imply that this act somehow benefited the deceased--much as a funeral today is for the benefit of the living, not the dead. Regardless of the practice, baptisms for the dead were prohibited by Church in the second and third centuries and were not widely practiced again until the rise of the LDS church in the 1800s.

Well, we went from relationships to baptism for the dead, but the point is this: what we do on earth in this life may have a bearing on the destination of our afterlife, and it may produce memories, but the relationships formed here are clearly not binding and perhaps not even relevant in the life to come. And as to what we do here effecting the lives of those on the other side, perhaps we should heed Samuel’s tirade at King Saul and honor the “do not disturb” sign.

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