The Resurrection of the Body – more than the raising of Lazarus

[Jesus] cried out in a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out!' The dead man came out… (John 11:43b-44a)

What was Lazarus's experience? Why do we not hear a report about it? We are fascinated with “near-death” experiences (e.g. the recent book “Heaven is for Real” remained on the best seller list for over three years) and we have this feeling that if someone could scout ahead beyond the veil of death and come back to tell us about it, we would more easily believe (and more readily behave!). It is reminiscent of Israel's explorations of the land beyond the Jordan river, the Promised Land–we would like to send a Caleb or Joshua ahead of us to reconnoiter the land and come back to tell us what it is like. But Jesus assures us, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31b)

Perhaps this is why Scripture tells us practically nothing about Lazarus's experience of rising from the dead. It leaves us wondering, “What was it like?” It would be so interesting to know what his experience was…or would it? Perhaps we do not get more about Lazarus's experience of waking up and emerging from the tomb because it is simply a distraction. As Jesus reported in the parable of Lazarus (a different Lazarus) and the rich man, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” (Luke 16:29) Indeed, the law and the prophets, the Gospels and the epistles bring us closer to understanding the meaning of life (and eternal life) than someone who comes back from the dead (like Lazarus). How can this be?

Resurrection is more than a resuscitated corpse

Pope John Paul II explained this in the following way, “Eternal life should be understood in an eschatalogical sense, that is, as the full and perfect experience of the grace (charis) of God…” (TOB 67:5). Pope John Paul II clarified (in the same audience) that we already get a taste of this through faith, that this is an experience, “in which man can share through faith during his earthly life…” At the same time, we do not experience it fully, it will “only be revealed to those who will participate in the 'other world' in all its penetrating depth, [and] will also be experienced in its beatifying reality.” (TOB 67:5)

In order to participate “in all its penetrating depth” and experience this grace “in its beatifying reality,” we must be transformed in a way that is not only “by degree” but in a way that is “essential.” At the same time, we must be quick to clarify that this transformation does not involve any “disincarnation” or “dehumanization.” (TOB 67:2) Rather, there is a certain continuum between the human experience of this life, particularly the way that we are permeated by truth and love, and the divinized experience of the “other world.” (TOB 67:4) At the same time, our divinization in the “other world” is “incomparably superior to what can be reached in earthly life” (TOB 67:3).

The greatest mutation

Pope Benedict XVI tied all this together in an Easter Vigil homily when he called the resurrection “the greatest mutation”:

But somehow the Resurrection is situated so far beyond our horizon, so far outside all our experience that, returning to ourselves, we find ourselves continuing the argument of the disciples: Of what exactly does this 'rising' consist? What does it mean for us, for the whole world and the whole of history? A German theologian once said ironically that the miracle of a corpse returning to life – if it really happened, which he did not actually believe – would be ultimately irrelevant precisely because it would not concern us. In fact, if it were simply that somebody was once brought back to life, and no more than that, in what way should this concern us? But the point is that Christ’s Resurrection is something more, something different. If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution, it is the greatest 'mutation', absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development: a leap into a completely new order which does concern us, and concerns the whole of history. (April 15, 2006)

A glorified body

Pope John Paul II gave a thorough treatment of the resurrection of the body in his Theology of the Body discourses (TOB 64-72), but we will just give a hint of what he says about this experience. I will leave it to the reader to contrast this description of resurrection as a radically new step in life with Lazarus's experience of merely resuming this earthly life still headed towards his second death. Pope John Paul II described our resurrected life as being perfectly integrated, and “the powers of the spirit will permeate the energies of the body” (TOB 67:2). The “powers of the spirit” refer to things like the intellect and the will and the memory. That these powers will permeate the body means that we will have absolute control over our bodies to the most refined degree–having intelligent fingers, for example or eyes that can make their own choices. Furthermore, because our whole person will be taken up in receiving “God's most personal self-communication” (TOB 67:5) all of these powers will be oriented towards love. Our bodies will be a perfectly harmonized integration totally open and oriented to receiving God's love and through Him open to everyone else.

Whatever Lazarus's experience of life after death was, we can be sure it was not like that. From the experience of the resurrection of the body, there will be no turning back. In the Resurrection of Christ, we have a future that is unimaginably beautiful and therefore a hope that helps us to say with St Paul, “For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…to know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:8,10-11) And “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” (Romans 8:18)