Resurrection?

John 11:1–45 (2002)

You can deconstruct if you want to but the Gospel writer’s intent is so clear and single-minded that it would be out of tune with the narrative. Equally, this story can be seen as having been assembled after the Resurrection — why else would Jesus say he is the resurrection and the life? But this does not fit with John’s story either, there are odd elements in the passage — what was the point of raising Lazarus anyway as he would have died again sooner or later (the question still arises if we see the story as myth)? Also Jesus’ statement does not seem entirely consistent:

Whoever has faith in me shall live, even though he dies; and
No one who lives and has faith in me shall ever die.

This saying could deconstruct the whole idea of Resurrection. Alternatively, it is ‘life’ that is being stressed and not just physical life. What does Resurrection mean on its own? Not enough? Not much? It is life that is the driving concept not resurrection. The story of Lazarus brings death close to Jesus, and he is able, for the most part (?) to face it. In some ways it is too obvious, unless the story is totally unfamiliar, Jesus can raise the dead just as he himself will be raised, he has already made this prophecy in the previous chapter. Also, Jesus has truly mind-bending powers which are apparently able to bend the physical world.

One way of reading this is — don’t worry about death, everybody dies, Jesus is not unique in that respect. Indeed, putting one’s trust entirely in a future (potential?) eschatological resurrection, like Martha, is to be distracted from the point that Jesus (or the Gospel writer) is making — I am the resurrection and the life, [have] faith in me. Maybe one should accept what Jesus says purely on the basis of his being able to make such bold claims; or because he has complete mastery over life and death (he had already healed a boy at the point of death) or because we already know that he will be raised. The point of the story is what Jesus says and how people react to it, it is not Lazarus being raised — there is little interest in the raising of Lazarus by either Jesus or the Gospel writer. We read that the dead man came out, we do not see him, he does nothing, says nothing, there is no touching reunion with Jesus. In fact, Jesus has no contact with Lazarus in this Gospel. Lazarus appears again in the next chapter but is merely among the guests with Jesus. Martha and Mary are much more significant, more real.

True faith in Jesus means to truly live and mere physical death cannot detract from that. One description for the contrasting state of dying without faith in Jesus is ‘dying in one’s sins’ as Jesus says in an earlier chapter — you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am what I am (8.24). Looking at where we started, it is very clear that Jesus is saying that resurrection and life come to those who believe (just as it did to Jesus in the Synoptics?). When one believes it is a re-enactment of Jesus’ resurrection, not of the ‘resurrection’ of Lazarus. Thus, as we might have said at the beginning, Lazarus’ ‘resurrection’ is like a parable about Jesus’ resurrection, it explains Jesus resurrection more than anywhere else in the Gospels. When the resurrection happens it is not explained, it needs no explanation, its meaning should be clear.

We can talk about resurrection in human terms to make it more accessible, but it is essentially a divine act. The resurrection explains Jesus and points to him as divine; he is transformed from human into something more than human. His spirit takes over from his body, it is less clear in John’s gospel because Jesus’ divinity is more apparent, but he discards the human weaknesses and becomes even more in tune with God. The resurrection is God’s seal upon Jesus; the early post-Resurrection proclamations of the Gospel make this connection between the resurrection and the status of Jesus. If we have no difficulties with the divinity of Jesus there can be little difficulty with the idea of his resurrection (although there is still freedom around the nature of that resurrection and how the accounts can be interpreted). This is the basis of John’s gospel; it is very clearly posited on the post-resurrection, exalted Jesus. John’s Jesus is not already moving towards the resurrection state, in his own way he resolves the problem of the development of Jesus, how can a man be God?

So what does resurrection mean for us now? It is the transformation that happens to the Christian [or Muslim or Hindu] when God encounters a human being. It is ‘new life in Christ’; it is what the writer of 1 John says, ‘we have passed from death to life’ [another Qur’anic theme]. This may be too radical and discontinuous for some of us. We could see it as a change of attitude, a difference in outlook. But, we probably ought to acknowledge that we have moved away from the dramatic original concept, though recognising the obvious hyperbole associated with it (and therefore with Jesus’ actual resurrection also?).