Life After Death — According to Martha and Jesus
by Ron Shockley, Texas
The 11th chapter of John’s gospel has deeply intrigued me for some time due to its powerful truths about death. I’ve often thought that if more people truly examined what is said and shown in the little details of that chapter, the prominent belief in an innate, Platonic immortal soul might be more willingly discarded in favor of the actual truth of Scripture. One can find some surprising revelations in the story of the sibling family at Bethany if we are willing simply to open our eyes to it.
To be sure, a good many students of the New Testament are aware of the basic events of John chapter 11. John tells the story of what is probably the greatest miracle Jesus performed. It is the story of the resurrection of Jesus’ friend Lazarus from the dead. Before this, Jesus had brought others who had died back to life — the widow’s son (Luke 7) and Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5), but these were individuals who had very recently died. When Jesus finally came to help Lazarus, he had been dead and buried for four days. Such a miracle would leave no doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, because people just don’t come back once they’re dead and buried. A person who had just died could be viewed by skeptics as possibly misdiagnosed — they were not really dead and then they were somehow healed/revived by Jesus. But a mere “healer” could not bring someone to life who was totally and absolutely dead for 4 whole days — not to mention the body wrapped/prepared for the grave and then placed in the burial tomb. No, such an event could only be a bona fide miracle — the power of God causing the “impossible” to occur. And this is precisely the reason that Jesus did not rush to “heal” Lazarus once he heard that he was very ill. Jesus waited an extra two days before going to see him. He knew that Lazarus would die before he could get there anyway. Therefore it would magnify the miracle if he was dead, indisputably. It would prove that Jesus was indeed the Son of God — God’s chosen/sent Messiah. Yet many still do not believe.
Everyone is familiar with the results of the story. After delaying his departure, Jesus goes to Bethany, visits Lazarus’ sisters, gets caught up in their grief and is moved to tears (thereby giving us the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept,” John 11:35). Then ultimately Jesus does the awe-inspiring miracle of calling the previously deceased Lazarus to “come forth” — resulting in Lazarus returning to life and shuffling out of his burial tomb still bound up in his burial clothing.
Though that is what almost everyone is familiar with, there are several nuggets of truth lying in the details of this story. These simple truths can be recognized when one examines with an open mind what Jesus himself says about Lazarus, what Jesus and Lazarus’ sister Martha say to one another in conversation, and finally the total “silence” which occurs once Lazarus is resurrected.
First let’s look at what Jesus says about Lazarus’ condition to the disciples. When Jesus was ready to head back to Judea and told them the reason for the trip, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going to awaken him out of sleep” (John 11:11). The disciples must have heard the message that Jesus received: “Lord, he whom you love is sick” (John 11:3) because they naturally thought that sleep would do a sick man some good: “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” However, like many people today, the disciples were not grasping that Jesus was using the biblical sleep metaphor to describe death. Jesus had to spell it out for them by saying plainly, “Lazarus is dead” (John 11:14).
Why would Jesus use such a metaphor about death? The answer is quite simple. It is because that is just what the entire Hebrew Bible says about death many, many times. Both of the books of 1 and 2 Kings repeatedly tell of king after king who upon dying “slept with his fathers.” Job himself said, “Man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens are no more, he will not awake nor be aroused out of his sleep” (Job 14:12). And of course the prophet Daniel presented this vital resurrection truth: “Many of those who are asleep in the dust of the ground will awake, [some] to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Jesus used precisely this language — almost the same words as Job, spoken centuries before: “I go that I may awaken him out of sleep.” I note that Jesus never made mention of Lazarus’ body or soul. Jesus just talked about Lazarus the person. He wanted to go and wake Lazarus up from death — not reunite a soul with a body. The truth is just what is presented. Jesus wanted to awaken Lazarus from the sleep of death. This is the simple truth so horribly poisoned by later Platonic philosophy.
Next comes an extremely important conversation between Jesus and Lazarus’ sister Martha. This occurs when Martha hears of Jesus getting close to Bethany. She goes out to meet him while her sister Mary stays at home with the other mourners who had come to console them on the loss of their brother. When Martha comes up to Jesus the first thing she tells him is, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha knew that Jesus had the power to heal him. Her very next statement testifies to her full-blooded faith: “Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Now here is where things get very interesting. Jesus responds to her by saying “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23). This is significant. Jesus’ very first words to the devastated Martha are that her brother will rise again. Jesus does not say that her brother is more alive than ever as a disembodied soul up in heaven (as I recently heard at a good Baptist funeral!). He simply says that her brother will “rise” again. Now pay close attention to Martha’s response. She says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). Martha isn’t a Greek philosophy student. She doesn’t offer up anything steeped in Platonic Dualism. She doesn’t say she thinks she’ll meet him again as a conscious, bodiless spirit in heaven. No, she too understood the Hebrew Scriptures and knew that at the end of the age — on the last day — her brother would be resurrected from the dead. This was the Hebrew expectation, shared of course by our rabbi Jesus.
We should add that if that was wrong or not totally accurate, here was the perfect opportunity for Jesus to correct her if indeed her brother’s soul had immediately gone on living somewhere else. If Lazarus’ conscious soul had been shipped off to the “better place” or even the bad place, Jesus should have at the very least appended her statement with, “his body will be resurrected some future day, but his soul is alive and well.” Then Jesus could have consoled her with something along the lines of, “but before that day, you will be reunited with him up in heaven.” That would match up with what is commonly heard today when someone is offering consolation to another who has recently lost a loved one. In that vein it should be, “Lazarus is now happily reunited with your parents.” (I’m guessing they’re dead at that point since they’re not mentioned in the story.)
But Jesus does nothing of the sort. Jesus doesn’t adjust, correct, or add to her statement about her brother coming to life again in the resurrection on the last day. He just checks with her to see if she understands fully who he is and his connection with that future resurrection. Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” And without skipping a beat Martha instantly says, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that you are the Christ, the Son of God, even he who comes into the world.” Martha understood that Jesus was the Messiah. She knew that he would be the one to resurrect the dead on that final day. Martha certainly did not subscribe to much later views that Jesus was an archangel come to earth, much less that he was Yahweh!
Finally let’s examine in detail the conclusion of the story. What happens after Jesus (through the power of God, his Father) brings Lazarus back to life? Well, we are told that Lazarus emerges from the tomb and Jesus tells everyone to “Unbind him and let him go.” But what does Lazarus have to say about his trip through the netherworld? What does Scripture report concerning the first man to be brought back to life after being dead for four days? Nothing, you say? Well, shouldn’t that cause one pause? There is not a peep said about Lazarus after that time. Why not? If Lazarus had just been pulled down out of heaven why wasn’t he a little upset at Jesus for taking him out of a place of eternal bliss? And if Lazarus had just spent four days in hell suffering torment (and now had a reprieve, a chance to make amends), why wasn’t he falling at Jesus’ feet thanking him profusely for pulling him out of there and giving him another chance? This would have been the opportunity for someone to give first-hand details of what heaven or hell was like. Lazarus’ experiences on either side would provide the ideal “in person” testimony about those places. What a witness Lazarus would have made! What a grand opportunity in Scripture to record all the details of those four days of having his soul living on past the death of his body. Lazarus would have been able to detail either what to look forward to — or what to avoid at all costs. But what are we told in Scripture? Nothing. The question “Why is this?” is huge. Why is nothing reported about Lazarus’ four days in death?
To me the answer is glaringly obvious. Simple deductive reasoning should tell us that since Scripture uses the sleep metaphor for death, then a resurrection from death is simply an “awakening” (as Job, David and Jesus indicate). All Lazarus knew when Jesus woke him up was that it was the next conscious moment for him since he drifted off into unconsciousness at death. He didn’t have anything to report because there was nothing to report. He didn’t know anything about his experience because that is just what Scripture describes: “the dead do not know anything” (Ecc. 9:5); “there is no activity or planning or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Ecc. 9:10); “the dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17). Lazarus was just like a light bulb that was switched back on after being off. He didn’t go anywhere just as the light doesn’t go anywhere. It just doesn’t exist until the power is restored. Jesus restored the power of God’s animating life energy to Lazarus and Lazarus lived/existed once again.
This simple truth is the true hope that Scripture presents. This is the reason for using the sleep metaphor for death. When we die our brain dies. Our brain is the center of our consciousness. Without a living brain, we have no consciousness. We have to be resurrected back to life in order to have conscious existence once again. This is the glorious reason for a future resurrection from the dead. Bringing bodiless souls from heaven to be put back into a resurrected body at Jesus’ second coming is (frankly) nonsense. Scripture never describes such a thing. The concept of souls being re-inserted into freshly resurrected bodies just isn’t anywhere to be found in Scripture. The sleep metaphor doesn’t work at all in such a scenario. Think about it. Human beings in literal sleep are not “more awake and active than ever”! Such a statement would be absurd. Being asleep means you are not conscious. You are not aware of what is going on around you. So it is in death. Your light bulb is off. Your light does not exist. The dead have to wait for Jesus to return and turn the electricity back on. He has to resurrect us as whole body/brain/spirit possessing beings in order for us to live once again. That is the incomparable message presented in the Bible as a whole.
The details of John 11 paint a picture far different from the all-too-popular view of immediate immortal life after death. Jesus’ usage of the sleep metaphor, Martha’s understanding of when her brother would exist again, and the utter silence of Lazarus’ experience while dead for four days do not provide a view of a separable soul immediately escaping the death of the body to live on past death. On the contrary, they give solid evidence that death is a period of inactivity — the dead “know not anything” (Ecc. 9:5) and they “sleep in the dust of the earth” (Dan 12:2). And this period of sleep-like inactivity continues until the day that Jesus returns and brings them out of that sleep state. This is the powerful beautiful truth confirmed by Jesus himself in John 5:25, 28-29:
“Truly, truly I say to you, an hour is coming and now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear shall live. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear his voice and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”
May Jesus triumph over the Platonism which has so poisoned churchgoers.