The Gospel of John recounts the story of Lazarus in what is the most detailed account of any of the miracles of Jesus. Lazarus was more than a random person in the crowd reaching out for help from Jesus. He was a personal friend and his death deeply affected Jesus, as described in the shortest yet very poignant verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
After Lazarus emerges from his tomb, wrapped in burial cloth and stinking of death and decay, John’s account shifts to the reaction of religious leaders who misinterpret the miracle as a threat to their beleaguered community and traditions. It spurs them to take action against Jesus and his growing number of followers. But what is left unreported is what happened to Lazarus after he emerged from the tomb. Did he remember anything about the experience of dying? Did he gain any insights on his four day journey into what Shakespeare calls “the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns”? Many people of various faiths – or of no faith at all – who have had near death experiences give remarkably similar accounts of lights, tunnels, and seeing loved ones. How much more could Lazarus, who had much more than a near death experience, have told the astonished crowd? Did he have some lesson to teach and did he share it? We don’t know and never will.
What is even more maddening is that his story ends just as it’s getting interesting. What happened to him after his return? Did he resume his old life or did he change it? After receiving the ultimate second chance, how did he make use of it? Or did he squander it as many people do? And how long did his second life last: a day, a week, a year, decades? However short or long his life, we know that at some point Lazarus died a second and final time. Even though he was the object of the most remarkable miracle, we know that in the end he was human just like us. He suffered the same fate that all living things are slated to suffer. He had two lives but he also had two deaths.
The everlasting life that Jesus spoke of before raising Lazarus from the dead was not a literal, never-ending, biological life in this world. If it were, every Christian who ever believed during the last two thousand years would still be alive today – and of course that is not true or even desirable. The life Jesus spoke of was not of this world but something different, something unknown to us but, we hope, much better. This does not trivialize our earthly life or provide a demented excuse to end this life and advance to the next. Even Jesus, who surely knew what he was about to do for Lazarus, mourned his death to the point of openly weeping. If our lives here and now are nothing more than a brief moment in time, what would have been the point of Jesus joining in the sadness at his friend’s death? Perhaps by his grief he was showing that both are important, each in its own way.
The questions and the search for answers in the story of Lazarus are all well and good as a theological or philosophical exercise dealing with the big issues of life and death. But life and death come to us in a more brutal and immediate form. They come with the news that a newborn baby has a serious heart defect. They come with the decision to sign a do-not-resuscitate order for an aging loved one. They come with the dreaded phone call from the doctor’s office informing us that the biopsy was positive for malignancy. The clean issues of life and death, and all previous affirmations of pure faith, can crumble in the light of reality. Our faith can crumble as quickly as Peter’s when he three times denied even knowing Jesus. At those times our best intentions to believe and follow the teachings of Jesus are put to the ultimate test. It is a test that all of us must and will face.
At such a time, we may find another meaning in the story of Lazarus. Remember that Lazarus – after returning to life from being dead for four days – still had to face the end of his life at a later point in time. Even if the sick baby or the fading old person or you with the growing tumor receive God’s greatest miracle, at some point all of us will still die just like Lazarus. Let’s be honest with ourselves and each other: in the moments when we or our loved ones and friends are facing death, the words of Jesus promising everlasting life can lose their meaning.
There is no easy answer. It is hard to have faith when put to the test. But consider this: we have all faced the unknown before. When a baby is born he or she is thrust out of a warm, dark, mostly quiet environment into a colder, louder world of bright light. No wonder babies cry when they are born. But with luck and a little love they discover their new reality, turning the unknown into the known. I can’t tell you that death will be followed by something like life after birth, but if we believe anything it is that there is something beyond death, something that we know as little about as the newborn knows about life. That is what Jesus promised us. Let us have faith in that promise.
Lazarus is dead. Lazarus is alive. As we will be.