Not counting his own resurrection, Jesus raises three people from the dead: Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:18–26; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40–56), the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17) and Lazarus (John 11:1-45). The latter is typically the most remembered. Lazarus is the only person raised who is named and his story represents the climactic sign of Jesus’ ministry in John’s gospel. In addition, unlike the other resurrection accounts, Lazarus has been buried and gone for a significant period of time — four days to be exact (John 11:17, 39).
So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days. (John 11:17 NASB)To heighten the sense of drama, John includes that Lazarus’ ever pragmatic sister, Martha, tries to dissuade Jesus from entering the tomb based upon the macabre reality of her brother’s stench after four days (John 11:39)!
That Lazarus’ resurrection in John is more stirring than the comparable stories in the Synoptic gospels is not surprising and historical critics have long read the story with skepticism. Alan J. Torrance (b. 1956) appraises:
The Lazarus story constitutes the most spectacular — if not stupendous — of the miracle accounts in the four Gospels. Presented as a piece of historical reporting, the story has a counterintuitive ring to it. Unparalleled in significant respects by any of the Synoptic miracle accounts and certainly uncorroborated by them, what reads as a carefully crafted story of the reanimation of a decaying corpse takes some believing. It...comes from a writer who appears to exaggerate miracle accounts. His blind man is not just blind but blind from birth [John 9:1], his lame man is not just lame but lame for thirty-seven years [John 5:5]. Lazarus is not just dead but seriously dead! John Cleese [b. 1939]’s famous parrot sketch comes to mind: “Dead for four days? How dead can you get!” (Richard Bauckham [b. 1946] and Carl Mosser [b. 1972], “The Lazarus Narrative, Theological History, and Historical Probability”, The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, 247)Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) counters:
What makes the reanimation of Lazarus...notable is the length of time he has been dead (at least four days – John 11:17, 39; his body presumably would have begun to decay!). Of course, if one comes to these texts already convinced that resurrections are under no circumstances possible, no amount of evidence will persuade one of historicity...Others find themselves unable to believe that the Synoptics would have omitted such a story if it actually happened. (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel: Issues & Commentary, 165)Ironically, the evangelist’s intent in denoting the four days is to leave no doubts that Lazarus has indeed died. In fact, timing is emphasized throughout John’s account of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) notes:
The Lazarus story makes several references to time—two days (John 11:6), twelve hours (John11:9), four days (John 11:39), that year (John 11:49, 51), that day (John 11:53)—and together they reinforce the idea of God’s plan having its due time and of the need for being ready to meet him. (Brodie, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 389)Four days is not a common biblical time span (Judges 11:40; I Samuel 27:7; John 11:17, 39; Acts 10:30) but here it is significant. Many have presumed that the story reflects a commonly held Jewish belief that a person’s spirit remains near her body for three days after death only to depart when putrefaction becomes evident. The spirit is then obligated to depart to Sheol, the place of the dead.
In Israel’s climate, burial was not delayed as evidenced by the account of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:6, 10). Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) comments:
Burial was on the day of death. It was followed by a week of mourning. In popular Jewish belief the human spirit hovered near the body for three days, then departed as the color of the corpse began to change. Normally death would be irrevocable and all hope abandoned for one buried four days (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 12:6; Leviticus Rabbah 18:1). The problem is acute (cf. John 5:5: paralyzed for thirty-eight years; John 9:1: blind from birth). (Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles, 177)
Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) adds:
This note is significant. There was a well-known Jewish belief (attested from about A.D. 200) that the soul of a dead person remained in the vicinity of the body “hoping to reenter it” for three days, but once decomposition set in, the soul departed. Similarly, the Mishnah says that in judicial cases deceased persons can only be identified for up to three days (Yebamot 16:3). John wants us to know clearly that Lazarus is truly dead and that the miracle of Jesus cannot be construed as a resuscitation. (Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: John, Hebrews-Revelation (Bible Knowledge Series), 105)Though many scholars assume that the evangelist presupposes the belief that the spirit hovers for three days, some, notably Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855-1938 , p. 307), doubt just how common this common knowledge was at the time of Jesus as it is not attested until two centuries later.
It can be certain that in referencing the four day period, the evangelist is underscoring that Lazarus is irreversibly dead. He is neither found buried alive nor resuscitated.
In the classic 1987 fantasy film The Princess Bride, Westley (Cary Elwes, b. 1962) the swashbuckling protagonist, is presumed dead but when taken to Miracle Max (Billy Crystal.b. 1948) it is revealed that he is “only mostly dead”. Max explains, “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do...Go through his clothes and look for loose change.” The four days is to be seen as a definitive postmortem that differentiates between comatose and dead. Lazarus is all dead.
Practically speaking, four days means that for all intents and purposes, Jesus is too late. What is needed is not reanimation but rather resurrection. To produce Lazarus, Jesus must achieve the impossible and as such raising Lazarus is Jesus’s most difficult and astonishing sign. And this is exactly the point that John is attempting to make: Jesus has authority over death.
What state of decay would a body be in after four days? Do you think Lazarus experienced any decomposition (that was restored by Jesus)? What do you think of the belief that the spirit remains with the body for a period of time after death? Which cultures still hold similar beliefs? Does Jesus delay his visit to insure that Lazarus will be definitely deceased when he arrives (John 11:6)? Would it have been any less a miracle had Jesus raised Lazarus after only one day? Have you ever felt that God was slow to act only to later view the delay as perfect timing? Where is Lazarus’ spirit during the four days he is in the tomb and what does he experience?
Lazarus is one of the few people to defy the natural order by dying twice (Hebrews 9:27). Since it is stressed that Lazarus experienced death normally, it has led to speculation as to whether he experienced a normal afterlife — where was Lazarus’ spirit during the four days his body was entombed? From John’s perspective, Lazarus did not enter heaven (John 3:13). Another theory was popularized in the 1984 contemporary Christian song “Lazarus Come Forth”; Carman (b. 1956) sings, “When he died he went to where/The saints of God did stay/In the holding place/They lived beyond the tomb.”
Many have seen Lazarus’ raising as unfair. If Lazarus were in a better place, such as Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22-23), it appears cruel for Jesus to recall him into the natural world only to die again. If Lazarus is relegated to a place like a holding place, purgatory or even hell, it would seem equally unfair that he be rescinded.
Based upon Jesus’ character, it can be assumed that Jesus would not harm anyone, much less, Lazarus whom the text specifically notes that he loved (John 11:5). Wherever Lazarus was, he was safe. As all of the locales for Lazarus’ spirit to rest prove problematic, perhaps Lazarus went nowhere. It is quite possible that Lazarus experiences nothing (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6). Jesus uses the euphemism of sleep to describe Lazarus’ condition and that may be exactly his experience (John 11:11, 13).
Problems only arise if the interpreter tries to conform eternity into the box of human time. Eternal time and space need not be synchronized with human experience.
Thomas G. Long (b. 1946) explains:
Most of this mischief and confusion about the place of the dead was stirred up not only by Platonic dualism but by biblical literalism and, perhaps most of all, by the perfectly understandable attempt to work all of this out using only the metrics of linear, historical clock time, with its fixed notions of before and after, now and then. But when we speak in a Christian sense about death and resurrection, we are working not in clock time alone, but in at least two time frames: ordinary historical time and eschatological time (or perhaps more accurately, the eternal transcends time)...These two perspectives come together in John 11 in the conversation between Jesus and Martha, the sister of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. In that way of the author of John—superimposing two kinds of time, ordinary and eternal, layering the candlestick and the faces in the same text—we are shown Martha, who is in clock time, historical time, and we are shown Jesus, who is eternal, not constrained by time...From Martha’s perspective, they have run out of time...But then eternity speaks into temporality: “Your brother will rise again.” [John 11:23] (Long, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, 51-53)
Tellingly, the Bible is silent on the matter of Lazarus’ whereabouts. His response is not documented and we hear nothing of the phenomenons that people with near death experiences typically recount. Had he experienced something relevant, his testimony would have been recorded. Scripture is silent on the matter for a reason.
The text does open the discussion of where we will go when we die and on that subject, the Bible speaks (e.g., John 14:2).
Where was Lazarus between the dreaming and the coming true of his resurrection? Why is Lazarus resurrected? How do you think Lazarus felt about his resurrection? Why do you think there is no record of Lazarus’ experience from his perspective? Did Lazarus have a choice in the matter; could he have refused to leave the tomb? Where do you think your spirit will go after you die? Are you assured of your salvation?
“Humans live in time but... [God] destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time, which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” - C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), The Screwtape Letters, p. 75