The last few days, two people close to us passed away. It seems to be a season of deaths. The most significant loss I suffered was the death of mum in October last year. The Christian narrative is that those who die in Christ go home to the Lord (Philippians 1:23) awaiting a better place (Revelation 21:1–4). But is it really true?
The one universal experience of humanity is that we die. Most faith traditions have some theory as to what happens to those who die. We need to make sense of death and to comfort ourselves in our loss. But what assurance is there that what we believe is true and not just fairy tales we tell ourselves to find some kind of comfort? And really this is not just a query about others who have died. It is a question for all of us. What really happens when we die?
There is this interesting encounter in the Gospel of John:
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:17–26 NIV)
So Jesus confronts us with this question for our dear ones who have died in Christ and for ourselves — do we believe?
The fact that if we believe in Jesus we will never die is an audacious claim. Martha gives a theologically correct answer — “Yes my brother will rise again on the last day”. But the last day is too far away, whenever it is supposed to happen, to verify her conviction. Indeed, we can give all the theologically correct answers in our eulogies and funeral sermons, but is it true? Yes, we live by faith but it sure would help to have some basis for our faith.
One thing we note is that Jesus is saddened by the death of his friend.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:33–36 NIV)
Jesus sees us weeping at the deaths of our loved ones, and He weeps with us. Indeed, maybe the first thing we offer to those who are in grief is to weep with them (Romans 12:15). This we can and must do. Jesus wept but then He moves on to do more.
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:38–43 NIV)
Jesus continues to be deeply moved. There are no short cuts on the journey of grief. Then the miracle happens. The account has the ring of truth. Martha the pragmatic leader is not keen to open the tomb. She and all humanity know that there is no stopping the process of death. The body of her brother will be stinking. Let’s get real here.
What happens next is incredible and incredibly understated. Just the facts. Jesus returns His friend from the dead. No smart phones then so no Tik Tok clip. Just the account recorded for us. Jesus gives us proof that He can really conquer death. Do we believe?
Of course the definitive proof would come later when Jesus Himself would rise from the dead.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). (John 20:11–16 NIV)
Even with the evidence of the raising of Lazarus, Mary did not believe that Jesus could come back from the dead. Maybe in the days following the return of Lazarus, there were already many logical theories as to how it happened, and that maybe Lazarus wasn’t really dead to begin with.
So Mary was weeping, both at the death of her Teacher and friend, and now the added grief of not being able to weep at the tomb where His body was laid because His body was missing. But she wasn’t expecting Jesus to conquer death.
Then Jesus called her name. And the time of crying was over.
I guess as a modern man trained in the sciences, I wonder how the resurrection took place and how my own rising from the dead, if it is true, would be like. I wonder about the physics and the chemistry of Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection on the last day.
But we are given few details of the how of the conquest of death. That is not the focus of the Scriptures. The Bible is more concerned to let us know that it happened and that it will happen. And that it will be personal. He will call our names.
Do you believe?