It is one of the most famous events in the New Testament, and is unquestionably the shortest verse within the entire Bible. John 11:35 does not parse words: “Jesus wept.” It is not terribly difficult to see why Jesus shed tears, either. Lazarus—one of Jesus’ dear friends—had died, and Jesus had not been there to help him. Jesus was distraught, as were Lazarus’ other friends and family. But if you really think about it, it may have been Lazarus himself who ended up having the best case for being emotionally devastated.
How can that be? Lazarus was the dead one! Well, yes. But that was soon to be remedied by the great Physician. As we read, Jesus proceeded to raise Lazarus back to life. With the simple words, “Lazarus, come out!”, the dead man rose. After everyone had removed their jaws from the floor, they naturally rejoiced. Lazarus—their beloved friend and brother—had been given the most amazing gift imaginable: the gift of life. He had once again been given an existence.
Of course, that’s not actually what the “traditional” Christian view of the afterlife asserts. The view that most of us have been taught is quite a lot different from that. It is usually taught (and has been since about the 3rd or 4th centuries AD) that each of us is essentially a soul that inhabits a physical body. Greek philosophers, particularly those following in the footsteps of Plato, believed that we have an “immortal soul.” In essence, this implied that the human soul continues to exist at death, rather than expiring like the body. It can mean more than that, but it at least means that the soul consciously survives the death of the body. It’s an easy view to find in Greek philosophy, but is much harder to find within the Bible.
In the present circumstance, this tells us quite a lot about old Lazarus. If the typical view of the afterlife is correct, Lazarus had not been given “life” at his resurrection. He was previously living as a disembodied soul or spirit, prior to being raised. In other words, he was already “alive:” just not alive with a body here on earth. More than that, Lazarus should have been in a “better place,” as we have all heard many times before. He should have been in heaven, with God and the angels. If not there, then he should have been in Abraham’s bosom or “paradise,” which are both thought to be realms of existence for the souls of fallen believers. Whatever the case, Lazarus was supposed to be living a life of bliss and splendor after his departure from this fallen world.
By now, I think you may see the problem.
If Lazarus was living as a disembodied soul, in a place that is certainly better than here, then Jesus actually did him a disservice. Jesus put Lazarus (his soul) back in a human body, and robbed him of his “better place.” Lazarus had to come back to his fallen body, back to the fallen world, and most importantly, back to a place where the certainty of death still loomed. He would now have to do what very few others ever had to: die twice. Not only had Lazarus been taken away from the glories of the afterlife, he would now have to make the trip to the grave all over again.
In predictable fashion, the very next chapter of John’s Gospel records the following: “So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him” (Jn. 12:10-11). Lazarus immediately became a target, just like Jesus. This means that, on top of it all, he also had to live in fear after his resurrection.
Let me be clear: Jesus’ miracle of raising Lazarus back to life was indeed a miracle. This event was clear evidence that Jesus had power even over death itself. However, we also have to ask what it meant for Lazarus, on a personal level. When really evaluated, the typical understanding of the interim period—the time between death and the resurrection— and the nature of the human soul paints an unfortunate picture for Lazarus. We could add Jairus’ daughter (Mk. 5:22-43, Lk. 8:41-56), a widow’s son (Lk. 7:11-17), a woman named Dorcas (Acts 9:40), a man named Eutychus (Acts 20:9-10), and a few others, to this list.
All of these people were stripped of their heavenly lives, in order to be placed back in this world.
With that said, it is still possible that Jesus really did do Lazarus (and his loves ones) a great favor by bringing him back to life. This would be true if Lazarus was actually dead—really, truly gone and unconscious—and Jesus restored him to the land of the living. Now that would be a reason to rejoice! But if the typical view is correct, and Lazarus was previously living in a place of bliss, that can hardly be the case. Lazarus did not “come back” to life; he simply moved from a heavenly existence to one here on earth.
If the most common way of looking at death, the afterlife, and the human soul are correct, there is only one conclusion to draw from all of this: Jesus wept, and Lazarus should have.
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