Most religions address the challenge of death with some concept of an afterlife. Islam presents the goal as paradise. Eastern religions speak of reincarnation, then escape into the great universal spirit. Most Materialists say, “When you’re dead, you’re dead,” with hope being in the next generations.
Christians sometimes talk of life after death as “heaven,” although the Bible says little on this state. (You can confer with Grandpa William Hendriksen’s book The Bible on the Life Hereafter.) The Reformed Christian tradition emphasizes the renewed creation, which N. T. Wright calls, “life after life after death.” This is the goal of the biblical story, but it is not the focus of Christianity.
The Lazarus story (John 11) previews Jesus’ resurrection and helps us interpret it. Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick, but he waits two days before taking the dangerous journey towards Jerusalem. When he arrives, Lazarus’ sister Martha expresses faith that Jesus could have helped and still might. Martha has faith now and hope for the future, but the two seem disconnected.
Jesus talks about the present. His statement, “I am the resurrection and the life,” is present tense. “I am” reflects the unique name of God as the one who promises to be with his people and is here now in Jesus. Jesus’ “I am” statements in John are well-known, but difficult to know well.
Martha’s sister Mary weeps and wonders why Jesus has not been there to heal her brother. Jesus weeps too, but why? Is he angry at death? Are the Jews correct that Jesus weeps in love or maybe in failure to save Lazarus?
John leaves us guessing, as does death. Death is beyond our control and our understanding. There should be no easy, empty clichés at the grave. It is not God’s will for a loved one to be ill or to die tragically. We should not add “will of” before “your heavenly Father” in Matthew 10:29. We can say “God is here” but little more. We rightfully grieve and get angry.
Now in anger Jesus confronts the enemy, death, the tomb, the imprisoning stone, rot and decay. Martha does not want to smell death, but Jesus wants her to see something else, someone else.
Then there is no smell, and Jesus prays in thanksgiving. Lazarus is not dead, but he was. How? By the one who is the resurrection and the life now.
Lazarus is still wrapped in burial clothes. When Jesus rose from the tomb, he left the wrapping behind. Jesus’ resurrection is final. Lazarus’ was not. It was only a sign, not just of future resurrection, but of life now.
Christianity promises life after death and a life after life after death, but its focus is on life before death, life now. Resurrection life is about having faith like Martha’s, but also going beyond that. Resurrection life still grieves death, like Mary, but with hope. It is to be Lazarus, called out, freed and sent. You are free, free to receive, free to live a meaningful life of love and joy now. This is the greatest metanoia, from death to resurrection life.