Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 11

The Lazarus story goes off the rails

Let’s begin with a brief scene from the 1987 film Moonstruck:


Elderly woman at airline departure gate: “You have someone on that plane?”


Loretta Castorini, standing close by (played by Cher): “Yeah, my fiancĂ©.”


Elderly woman: “I put a curse on that plane. My sister is on that plane. I put a curse on that plane that it’s gonna explode, burn on fire and fall into the sea. Fifty years ago, she stole a man from me. Today she tells me that she never loved him, that she took him to be strong on me. Now she’s going back to Sicily. I cursed her that the green Atlantic water should swallow her up!”


Loretta: “I don’t believe in curses.”


Elderly woman: “Eh, neither do I.”


Sometimes people doubt more than we think they do. Just how far are people willing to go—that is, believing in the stuff the church has peddled for centuries? Jesus turned water into wine, and then ordinary priests—using just the right rituals—can change wine into the blood of Jesus, which functions as a magic potion. Many of the faithful don’t bother to check out these claims—skepticism and curiosity never kick in—but some do see through it all, like the elderly woman who didn’t believe in curses after all. She didn’t buy it.


One miracle story is so clumsily told that it almost begs to be debunked; it invites disbelief. And how embarrassing when this miracle story was intended to validate Christianity’s most fundamental premise, that Jesus is the guarantor of eternal life. Let’s take a close look at the John 11, where we find the account of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. 


This story must be understood in the context of John’s zeal for theology inflation. He wrote his gospel long after the first gospel, Mark—there is pretty broad consensus on this among New Testament scholars—and indulged his wild theological imagination. In Mark, Jesus had appeared out of nowhere to receive John the Baptist’s “baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” after which he embarked on his career as a peasant preacher announcing the approaching kingdom of God. 


John’s author, however, proclaimed that this Jesus had been present at creation, and indeed, it was through him that all things were made. As is the case with all theologians, he didn’t mention how he knew this. But never mind, his exaggerated Jesus—who struts and brags about this identity with God himself—has proved to be a favorite with the church.


Knowing John’s mindset, readers today can see how the Lazarus story goes off the rails. It’s not hard to figure out that it was contrived to advance John’s theological agenda; he invented this stunt to provide the occasion for Jesus’ famous claim, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  


Resurrection—other than for Jesus himself—is glimpsed in the earlier gospels. In Matthew 10:8, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach, and to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; in Mark 5 Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus—with parallels in Matthew and Luke. Matthew also includes the bizarre tale of lots of dead people coming alive in their tombs and walking around Jerusalem on Easter morning. Which makes it all the more puzzling that the other gospel authors didn’t include the dramatic Lazarus story. How could they have missed it?


Because it wasn’t part of Christian lore when the earlier gospels were written. Richard Carrier explains how this later author operated: 


“John’s Gospel contains long, implausible, never-before-imagined speeches of Jesus (and yet, no Sermon on the Mount, or indeed hardly any moral instruction of any sort), and entirely new characters and events also never heard of before (Nicodemus, Lazarus, Cana). John also changes everything around, such as moving Jesus’ clearing of the temple to the beginning rather than the end of his ministry, expanding his ministry from one to three years (with multiple trips to Judea and Jerusalem rather than only one), and moving the date (and thus even the year) of Jesus’ execution to make Jesus’ death correspond exactly with the slaughter of the Passover lambs … John has thus run wild with authorial gluttony, freely changing everything and inventing whatever he wants. By modern standards, John is lying.”  (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, pp. 490-491)


It would seem that John’s gospel itself is a major Bible Blunder. 


We read that Jesus received word from Mary and Martha in Bethany that their brother Lazarus was ill, but Jesus claimed he wasn’t worried, v. 4: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” —it’s all about me—and delayed heading to see Lazarus for two days. Then Jesus had to break it to the disciples: “Lazarus is dead.  For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (vv. 14-15)


“I am glad I was not there.” A shocking thing to say, right? But we’re being set up by the storyteller for the stunning denouement. When Jesus arrived at Bethany he found out that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Jesus got scolded for not having come right away.  


Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”


Jesus: “Your brother will rise again.”


Martha: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”


Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." 


Notice this Martha script: “…he will rise again on the last day.” This brings to mind the apostle Paul’s assurances in I Thessalonians 4, where he promises that the dead will rise: 


“For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”  

Note also these verses, John 5:28-29: “… for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear [the Son of Man’s] voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”

So emerging from graves was a thing, i.e., resurrection on the last day. Christian theologians have allowed and even encouraged confusion to set in here. It’s a pretty common belief now that you “get to heaven” right away after dying: St. Peter is waiting at the Pearly Gates with his big ledger to decide if you make the cut. Soon after a person’s death, we hear people say, “I know she’s looking down on us now.” These folks are not waiting for their loved ones to “come out of their graves” on a day of resurrection to live with the Lord: “…even though they die will live.” The most devout might consider this ghoulish; they too would sense that this is bad theology.

But people “coming out of the grave” when they hear the voice of the Son of Man is what the Lazarus story is about.  Martha adds to the drama when Jesus approaches Lazarus’ tomb, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus orders the stone rolled away from the entrance, then postures for his audience:


“And Jesus looked upward and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’”  (vv. 41-42)


Then that magic moment: 


“When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.”  (vv. 43-44)


How do Christians fail to see that this indeed qualifies as a magic spell? Jesus said something really loud, and a dead man came alive. They’re so used to the idea that Jesus performed miracles they fail to notice this fragment of ancient magical lore. 


But does this story do what it’s supposed to do? Does it successfully drive home a theological point worth taking seriously? Are we supposed to be convinced—by Lazarus walking out of a tomb—that we can count on a general day of resurrection sometime in the future?  Are Christians actually looking forward to that, anticipating the day they can gather in cemeteries to see it all happen? This is a contrived story to make a theological point that is now defunct. 


How would a dead body coming back to life—way back then—mean that Christians forever after are assured of eternal life? There is no way at all for that to make sense. The apostle Paul, moreover, would have rejected any tale of a wrapped body walking out of a tomb, stinking after four days. He was sure that, on the day of resurrection, those who are saved would have “spiritual” bodies, as he describes in I Corinthians 15: “… we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (vv. 51-53) Paul pulled this out of his imagination as well; he was just as delusional as John was.


Good novelists—even fantasy novelists—by the way, do not leave loose ends. John might have told his readers when and how Lazarus had to die again. Would that have deflated the story? Neither does Matthew tell us what happened to the newly alive dead people who toured Jerusalem on Easter morning. How long did they wander around before heading back to their tombs to resume being dead? John’s Lazarus plot doesn’t work very well—and neither does Matthew’s zombie plot. They are both feeble fantasies—and bad theology


Of course the resurrection-of-Jesus plot fails as well, because the storytellers couldn’t think what to do with his newly alive body either, except to have it float away into the sky. Theology tends to stumble badly in the face of reality. Two years ago in an article here on the DC Blog I asked: “Did the resurrected Jesus hang out with his resurrected friend Lazarus before they both died for good a second time?” 


I recall as a child being taught how wonderful the Lazarus story was because here was the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” Such a sensitive, caring guy—well, if you overlook I am glad I was not there


There is so much about this story to make us suspicious. After four days of putrification, what sort of aches and pains did Lazarus have as he stumbled out of the tomb? Did he just head home to change clothes? We can assume that no one ever interviewed Lazarus about what had happened; can’t have been much fun. And how did he feel about being allowed to die so that Jesus could be glorified? That must have tested the friendship. But these are real-world questions about John’s macabre theological fantasy. Let’s just file it under Bible Blunders and leave it there.



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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