One of the great discoveries I made when I began to take my first theological steps was the distinction between the resuscitation of a corpse and the resurrection of the dead. There is a profound difference, in orthodox Christian thinking, between, say, the raising of Lazarus from the dead (recounted in the Gospel of John, chapter 11) and God the Father’s vindication of Jesus Christ on Easter morning. In the former instance, Lazarus was truly dead—his remaining in the tomb four days sealed that fact—and he was truly pulled from death’s blaze, like an ashen remnant lifted from amid the coals, and given a restored life. Even so, he had to die again, still subject, after his grave clothes had been removed, to the same old process of decay he had known before he heard Jesus’ summons from the tomb. But unlike Lazarus, Jesus emerged from his tomb, St. Paul tells us, never to die again: “death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). There is, in other words, a qualitative difference, not merely a difference of degree or intensity, between the raising of Lazarus and the raising of Jesus. The former is a miracle, but it doesn’t solve the problem of death for all. The latter is an apocalyptic action of unilateral divine sovereignty, forever defeating death and ensuring its absolute eradication. As Luke Timothy Johnson has put it, “The Christian claim concerning the resurrection of Jesus is not that he picked up his old manner of life, but rather that after his death he entered into an entirely new form of existence, one in which he shared the power of God and in which he could share that power with others.”
In our time, perhaps no one has done as much to emphasize the distinction between the respective acts of resuscitation and resurrection and make that distinction understandable to a wide range of Christians than the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. In books like The Resurrection of the Son of God and its shorter, more accessible counterpart Surprised by Hope, Wright has labored to differentiate between the miracles Jesus performs on behalf of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43 and parallels), the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17), and Lazarus and the unprecedented, category-breaking, boundary-transgressing action of God in raising Jesus to the new life of the age to come. Although Wright has written the definitive historical defense of the empty tomb tradition, he has also drawn attention to the fundamentally non-historical truth that the empty tomb points to. The new life that Jesus now enjoys is, in Wright’s fine coinage, “transphysical”: it is real bodily life, but at the same time, it is unlike any bodily life we now know. Jesus’ body is, precisely, the first instance of God’s eschatological renewal of all things. His resurrection is the beginning and initial example of the new creation. It is dissimilar to anything we’ve seen before—without analogy or pre-formed pattern, utterly unique in its unsurpassable theological significance.
And yet, like many theological discoveries I’ve made during my years of education in the Church, this one is vulnerable to distortion and misuse. I still believe what I learned from Wright, but this year I’m particularly struck by the account of Lazarus’ raising in John 11 and how freely Jesus portrays what he does with Lazarus as a metaphor for the singular resurrection that Lazarus has yet to enjoy. Speaking to Lazarus’ sister Martha, Jesus promises, “Your brother will rise again” (verse 23). And Martha, schooled in the kind of texts that Wright so helpfully highlights, replies, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (verse 24). Martha is a good theologian. She knows there is a distinction to be drawn between anything that might happen to Lazarus now, in history, and the great capital-R Resurrection that he and she are both destined for on the coming Day of the Lord. But Jesus isn’t content with her doctrinally orthodox conclusion. Immediately following her reply, he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (verses 25-26). And what follows that declaration is, of course, the beckoning of the dead Lazarus from his grave.
Jesus, in other words, makes his resuscitation of Lazarus into a sign or symbol of the end-of-history resurrection for which Martha is rightly hoping. With his raising of Lazarus to enjoy the old life he had before he died, Jesus is creating an analogy or signpost that will serve as a faint—but true, nonetheless—indication of what Lazarus, Martha, and all believers can expect from him in the end. Jesus’ granting of historical life to a corpse becomes a window into what it may be like when he finally and irreversibly grants eternal, immortal life to those who are dead.
What this means, I take it, is that we are given permission to look for similar analogies. Seeing the first buds of flowers springing up around Easter time, we’re permitted, even encouraged, to consider those to be a sign of resurrection. (That was the point, after all, of having the Christian calendar coincide with the changing of the seasons in the northern hemisphere.) A dinner invitation from the spouse from whom we’ve been separated for the past year can be an intimation of resurrection. A declaration of a cease-fire and the initiation of peace talks in a war-ravaged region of the world, an effort to reach across an ecclesial divide and begin some small ecumenical joint project, the news of a friend’s leukemia remission—all can be intimations or icons of resurrection. My friend Jonathan Linebaugh has begun to talk about a Christian theology of “the one and the any,” and that seems appropriate here: once you know the truth of the resurrection, practically any hopeful moment can be read as a sign of its future arrival.
None of these things, of course, should simply be equated with the eschatological resurrection. Some Christians like to say, “I believe in ‘resurrection,’ just not the Resurrection,” but I’m not one of them. Nor should any of these things—flowers, dinner invitations, physicians’ good reports—be treated as the equivalent of Lazarus’ resuscitation, since, in the narrative of the Fourth Gospel itself, even that event is treated as a unique testimony to Jesus’ divine identity (“I am the resurrection,” he says, echoing the giving of the divine Name in Exodus 3). Still, though, all these signs of new life—and more—are genuine metaphors for the resurrection that’s to come. They are teasers, foretastes, hints and gestures towards the day when Easter will be consummated, and the bodies of the saints will be made like Jesus’ glorious body by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself. There are times when the small resuscitations of our lives come to stand for the Resurrection, and that’s a good thing when it happens.