Lazarus and the "Haunting Hypothetical"
Fifth Sunday in Lent

For Sunday April 10, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Ezekiel 37:1–14

Psalm 130

Romans 8:6–11

John 11:1–44

            Of the more than 400 books that I've read and reviewed the last ten years, one of my favorites is Nothing to Be Frightened Of by the British writer Julian Barnes. The New York Times named it one of the ten best books of 2008. Barnes's memoir is an emotionally resonant exercise in that most Lenten of all disciplines — memento morum, contemplate your death.

           Barnes (b. 1946) was never baptized, and has never attended a church service in his life, so he's never had any religious faith to lose. He came by his unbelief honestly; his father was an agnostic and his mother said that she didn't want "any of that [religious] mumbo jumbo." But the prospect of total extinction, both personal and cosmic, and the terror which the thought of absolute annihilation provokes in him, causes Barnes to admit in the first sentence of his book that while he doesn't believe in God, he misses Him.

Jesus raises Lazarus: medieval fresco inside crusader chapel of Bethphage.
Jesus raises Lazarus: medieval fresco inside crusader chapel of Bethphage.

           The title for Barnes's disquisition on death comes from one of his journal entries over twenty years ago: "People say of death, 'There's nothing to be frightened of.' They say it quickly, casually. Now let's say it again, slowly, with re-emphasis. 'There's NOTHING to be frightened of.' Jules Renard: 'The word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning, is nothing.'" Exactly where the emphasis on nothingness rightly falls is what occupies Barnes' considerable talents. The result is a book characterized by deeply personal candor and broad-ranging critical inquiry that encompasses art, music, philosophy, science, literature, and family memories.

           John's gospel story about Lazarus is only one of many instances, deeply embedded throughout the New Testament, of the claim that Jesus "conquered death" (2 Timothy 2:10). The Lazarus story also illustrates the fractious responses to Jesus. Over and over we read that "the people were divided because of Jesus" (7:43, 9:16, 10:19). His detractors said he was demon-possessed and "raving mad" (10:20). His own family declared him insane and his brothers didn't believe in him (7:5). "Many" of his closest disciples quit following him (6:66). Even those who continued to follow him at first didn't believe that he had risen from the dead; "it seemed like nonsense," says Luke (24:11).

           Eventually, though, the earliest disciples boldly preached the message articulated by Paul in this week's epistle: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you." (Romans 8:11).

Jesus raises Lazarus, Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.
Jesus raises Lazarus, Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.

           Doubts about the resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus didn't begin with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophes, nineteenth-century Darwinists, or with twentieth-century post-modernists. Only our modern hubris, what the British historian EP Thompson (1924–1993) called "the enormous condescension of posterity," could believe that only we today — finally! — have advanced beyond the crude superstitions of illiterate peasants who in 33 AD were so gullible that they didn't know that corpses didn't rise from the dead.

           Alternate explanations for the story of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus arose along with early unbelief. One proposal “widely circulated” (Matthew 28:15) after Jesus's death was that the disciples stole the body and created the fiction of Christ's resurrection. Others argue that the life and teachings of Jesus are “immortal” in the sense of being sublime or intensely inspirational, much like we describe the literature of Shakespeare or the music of Mozart. Others suggest that the spirit of Jesus "lives" on in us as a powerful memory and presence, like the spirit of Gandhi or a favorite uncle who deeply influenced us when he was alive.

           These alternate explanations have in common the idea that the resurrection accounts are more myth and metaphor than history, more like religious poetry than straightforward narrative, something to be taken figuratively but not literally (Borg and Crossan). But that's not what those first doubters came to believe, not by a long shot. To them, Lazarus and Jesus were truly and literally raised from the dead. Even if they couldn't fully understand, describe or explain it, just as we can't today, they freely admitted that their “gospel” was a sham and that they were liars if Jesus was not raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1–28).

Jesus raises Lazarus, 3rd century.
Jesus raises Lazarus, 3rd century.

           Maybe the first believers were badly deluded and wrong, or blatant liars and immoral — "deceived or deceivers," as Pascal put it (Pensees 322, 310). Neither of those explanations ring true to me. The only thing they stood to gain from preaching the resurrection was political persecution, intellectual scorn, economic hardship, and social marginalization. No person should believe a lie about the resurrection, Paul said, and they certainly shouldn't preach a lie (1 Corinthians 15:12–19).

           This story about the death of death succeeded, says Barnes, not because first century people were gullible, not because it was violently imposed by throne and altar, not because it was a means of social control, and not because there were no other alternatives. No, the Christian story succeeded because it was what Barnes calls a "beautiful lie" (53) or "supreme fiction" (58). It's the stuff of a great novel, "a tragedy with a happy ending." And good novelists, says Barnes, tell the truth with lies and tell lies with the truth.

           But Barnes doesn't let himself off the hook so easily; he's bothered by the "haunting hypothetical" that this Grand Story could be true.

           His strictly atheist-materialist option is simple enough. When your heart and brain cease to function, your self ceases to exist. But in this view, Barnes wonders if the "self" is nothing more than random neural events. There's no ghost in the machine to begin with, so in fact there's no "self" that ceases to exist. In post-modern parlance, personal identity is little more than a social construction.

Jesus raises Lazarus, 3rd century.
Jesus raises Lazarus, 3rd century.

           Barnes has nagging suspicions about this neat and clean scientific scenario. Even if they are hard to define or describe, a common sense outlook, endorsed by the vast majority of humanity that has ever lived, is that intelligence, aesthetic imagination, our moral impulse, consciousness, love, gratitude, guilt, regret, and the longing for immortality — all of these seem to point beyond themselves. They have the ring of truth that makes them hard to reduce to functions of mere biology.

           And so Barnes wonders, given his genuine lack of religious faith, whether it's proper to seek and to assign any meaning to his personal story. Does his life enjoy a genuine narrative? Or is it only a random sequence of neural events that ends with total extinction, such that any and all meaning-making is what he calls pure "confabulation?" One thing you can be sure of, Barnes reminds us — in the end, it doesn't matter what you think. The divine reality and life after death, or lack thereof, is what it is, and so "the notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque."

           There's a deep irony here. In his review of The God Delusion by the Oxford atheist Richard Dawkins, Jim Holt observes that if "the after-death options are either a beatific vision (God) or oblivion (no God), then it is poignant to think that believers will never discover that they are wrong, whereas Dawkins and fellow atheists will never discover that they are right" (New York Times, October 22, 2006).

For further reflection:

G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936)

The Convert

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white,
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead.

The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

Image credits: (1) Bethany; Meeting place for friends; (2); and (3, 4)