Day 31: The Problem of Death

11 Mar The Problem of Death

Illustration: Juliana Crownover

Christianity can never be merely a pleasant or consoling religion. It is a stern business. It is concerned with salvation through sacrifice and love of a world in which, as we can all see now, evil and cruelty are rampant. Its supreme symbol is the Crucifix – the total and loving self-giving of man to the redeeming purposes of God. Because we are all children of God we all have our part to play in His redemptive plan; and the Church consists of those loving souls who have accepted this obligation, with all that it costs. Its members are all required to live, each in their own way, through the sufferings and self-abandonment of the Cross; as the only real contribution which they can make to the redemption of the world. Christians, like their Master, must be ready to accept the worst that evil and cruelty can do to them, and vanquish it by the power of love.[i]

Evelyn Underhill, The Fruits of the Spirit

Opening Prayer

Almighty God, who sees that we are surrounded by many great infirmities, help us to put our whole trust and confidence in your mighty power. We ask you to grant that we may evermore rejoice in the abundance of your loving-kindness, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, forever and ever. Amen.[ii]

Old Testament Lesson

This text occurs directly after the story of the widow whose oil did not run out that we read a couple weeks ago (Day Fourteen). Through the intercession of Elijah, the widow and her son were miraculously saved from hunger amidst a terrible famine. However, in this text, the widow’s son has died from an unspecified respiratory illness. Elijah intercedes with God and the son comes back to life, a kind of resurrection. Although the woman thinks her sin is a barrier to this healing, we discover that this is not the case.[iii] God shows His abundant mercy and forgiveness in raising her son from the dead. Since Elijah stretches himself out three times over the child, many early Christian readers interpret this as symbolically representing the three persons of the Trinity, all of whom were involved in creation and thus all of whom are involved in the re-creation that resurrection entails. Thus God’s ultimate victory over sin will be a victory over death as well.

1 Kings 17.17-24

17So it happened after these things that the son of the woman, whose house it was, became sick. His sickness was so serious that he could barely breathe. 18So the woman said to Elijah, “O man of God, what do you have against me? Have you come to remind me of my sin and to cause my son to die?” 19And he said to her, “Give me your son,” and he took him from her bosom and brought him up to where he was staying and laid him down on his bed. 20Then he called to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD my God, why have you brought calamity on the widow, with whom I’m staying, by causing her son to die?” 21Then he stretched out over the lad three times and called to the LORD and said, “O LORD God, restore the life of this lad to him.” 22And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah and restored the life of the lad to him so that he lived. 23Then Elijah took the lad and brought him from the upper room to the house and gave him back to his mother and said, “See, your son is alive!” 24And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the LORD speaks true things through you.”

New Testament Lesson

This is one of Jesus’ greatest miracles. Jesus raises Lazarus, whom he loved, from the dead. Few other scenes depict so vividly Jesus’ deity and humanity, united in one person. When Jesus claims that those who believe in Him, though they die, will live, He is making a spiritual point. Believers are still sinners in this life. But those who come alive spiritually will also come alive physically in the resurrection. The promise is that both body and soul will be healed when the process of redemption is completed. At the end of the story, when the text says that Jesus was “deeply moved,” the underlying Greek word implies extreme irritation and anger. Jesus is likely indignant at the scourge of death, brought on by sin. Jesus becomes deeply emotional over the terrible sight of raw mourning. However, unlike Jesus, who, after His resurrection leaves his burial garments behind, Lazarus comes forth with them on, an indication that this healing is only temporary and that Lazarus, too, will eventually die.[iv]

John 11.1-45

1Now a certain man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the town where Mary and Martha, his sisters, lived. 2(Now Mary was the woman who had anointed the Lord with myrrh and who wiped his feet with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick.) 3So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, look, the one whom you love is sick.” 4And when Jesus heard it he said, “This sickness will not be unto death, but for the glory of God so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6So when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed there in the place where He was for two days. 7Then, after this, He said to the disciples, “Let’s go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to Him, “Rabbi, the Jewish leaders are now seeking to stone you and you want to go there again?” 9Jesus answered and said, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble since he sees the light of this world. 10But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles since the light is not in him.”

11Having spoken these things, afterwards, He said to them, “Lazarus our friend has fallen asleep, but I will go to awaken him.” 12Then the disciples said to Him, “Lord if he has fallen asleep he will be restored.” 13But Jesus was speaking about his death, and they thought He was talking about sleep. 14Later, Jesus said to them openly, “Lazarus has died, 15and I rejoice for your sake that I was not there so that you might believe. But let’s go to him.” 16And Thomas, the one called Didymus (the twin), said to his fellow disciples, “Let’s go so we can perish along with Him!”

17Then Jesus came and found him after he had been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was close to Jerusalem, only about two miles away. 19And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary so that they might comfort them about their brother. 20Now, when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet Him. 21Then Martha said to Jesus, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he is dead, will live, 26and everyone who lives, and believes in me, will by no means die eternally. Do you believe this?” 27She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world.”

28Then, having said this, she went out and spoke privately to Mary, her sister, saying, “The teacher has come and He is calling you.” 29And when she heard it, she quickly arose and came to Him. 30(Now Jesus had not yet come to the town, but was still in the place where Martha had met Him.) 31Then when the Jews who were with her in the house to comfort her saw that Mary, who had arisen quickly, went out, they followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there.

32So, when Mary came where Jesus was, as she saw him, she fell at His feet and said to Him, “Lord, if you had just been here, my brother would not have died.” 33So Jesus, when He saw her weeping and the Jews trailing behind weeping, He was deeply moved in His spirit and was troubled within Himself. 34And he said, “Where have you laid him?” 36And the Jews said, “Look how much He loved him!” 37But some of them said, “He was able to open the eyes of the blind, wasn’t He? Couldn’t He have prevented Lazarus from dying?”

38So Jesus was again deeply moved within Himself and He came to the tomb and the cave. Now there was a stone in front of the door. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the one who had died, said to Him, “Lord, it already smells; it’s been four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God?” 41So they rolled back the stone. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that you have heard Me. 42And I know full well that You always hear me, but for the sake of the crowd standing here, I said this so that they might believe that You sent me.” 43And having said these things, He shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The one who had died came out, covered from head to foot with linen strips and his face wrapped with strips of cloth. Jesus said to him, “Untie him and let him go free.” 45And many of the Jews, who came with Mary and saw what He did, believed in Him.

Reflection Questions

  1. Have you ever lost a child/sibling? Did you experience God as a comforting force in your grief? Are you angry with God for allowing this?
  2. The widow doubted that Elijah was a man of God (a prophet) until he did something miraculous. Do you need to see miraculous signs and wonders to believe? What happens when they are not forthcoming?
  3. Are you like Thomas, forever doubting whether following Jesus is a good idea? How difficult is it for you to exercise faith?
  4. Why does Jesus wait so long to show up and do something about Lazarus? Does it frustrate you that the spiritual life almost always involves lots of seemingly wasted time and waiting?

Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)

Love is the essential backdrop in both of our stories today. The widow in our OT lesson loves her son and is crushed when he dies of some strange illness. Since Elijah takes him from her bosom, her son probably died in the widow’s arms. Could the God who saved them from the terrible famine with the miracle of overflowing oil really not keep her son alive from a simple illness? What kind of love is this?

The same is true with Lazarus. Even the Jews notice the emotion on Jesus’ face and remark how much Jesus loved Lazarus. But, from our vantage point in the story, we know that Jesus deliberately waited at least two days before going to see them. He did this to manifest His glory, but at what cost? We’ve seen from other stories that Jesus can readily heal from afar. Yet He deliberately let Lazarus die so he could be resurrected. Again, what kind of love is this?

Both our stories have seemingly happy endings – Elijah’s intercession causes the boy to be raised and Jesus’ powerful words cause Lazarus to be raised. Notice the essential difference. Elijah cannot effect this miracle on his own. He prays to God who works the miracle. By contrast, Jesus simply says the words, “Lazarus, come forth,” and Lazarus does. Jesus’ power to heal is clearly greater than Elijah’s.

But if God really has power over life and death, how can we say he’s loving if he lets our children die? What kind of love is it that lets this world, mired in sin and darkness, to continue? Why doesn’t God do something about this?

We are running up against one of the central problems of the Christian faith – the problem of evil. Put simply, if God is all powerful and good and if death is an affront to His created order, why doesn’t God use his power to keep us from dying? If God can’t do something, then he’s not all powerful (and thus not God). If God could do something, but decides not to, He’s not good. This dilemma is why almost every attack against Christianity starts here. Christians, despite centuries of thinking about this problem, have never been able to come up with a truly satisfactory explanation for why God hasn’t already eradicated the world of sin, evil and death. The problem of evil is the ultimate mystery.

Augustine’s answer comes closest to being helpful. If God gives us free will, then the possibility of misusing our free will must exist. Since we demonstrably use our free will for purposes that are not good, this is why sin exists. We know from St. Paul that death comes through sin (Rom 5.12). So the reality of death is our fault, not God’s. This is a nice, neat theological answer, but where does it leave us? How do we worship a God who allows this to go on?

As great as our stories are today, both the boy and Lazarus still died eventually. Their healings solved a problem for a time, but death comes to us all. This should really bother us.

This is why the promise of resurrection is so central. Resurrection is not some embarrassing teaching that gets thrown in at the end of the Nicene Creed that we say while crossing our fingers behind our backs. The hope of resurrection is central to our faith. What God has promised to do is to make things right. He has promised to put down sin. This will only happen when death is finally destroyed. We believe this will happen at Christ’s second coming.

Until then, we live in a kind of season of Lent. We live in the time between the times, the time between Christ’s first and second advents. We grapple daily with deprivation, disease and death. And there seems to be no end in sight.

Sin is an affront to God. It ruins everything. Yet God loves us enough to give us the grace and the freedom to choose Him. For those who do, for those who see in Christ the true hope of glory, He offers eternal life to those who would follow Him as disciples. But God also respects our freedom enough to allow us to wallow in muck if we choose. Yet he offers something far better for those who would leave behind the glittering things of the world and turn and follow Him.

Discipleship is hard. But Easter is coming. The promised rewards of genuine discipleship are truly out of this world.


Potential Applications

  • Meditative Prayer

Pretend that you are one of the Jews in the Lazarus story and observe it from the outside. What is the scene like? The people? How do they make sense of death? Try to really feel what the various characters are feeling (including Jesus).

  • Fast

Traditionally, Christians fast from meat and heavy foods on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. Consider following this practice.

  • Contemplation

Imagine your death. Pretend that you are on your death bed, about to die. You are reviewing your life, epoch by epoch. What are you proud of? What are you embarrassed by? At the point of death, what actually satisfies you? Are the choices you’ve made in your life leading you toward greater satisfaction?

[i] Evelyn Underhill, Lent With Evelyn Underhill (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 1990), 104.

[ii] Adapted from The Anglican Breviary, 487.

[iii] Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, 128.

[iv] Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 427.

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