Sickness Unto Death

Dead RaisingWhy Didn’t Jesus Just Start Raising Lots of People?

We saw with the Iranian Cleric raising the dead thought experiment that a person possessing this kind of power walking around among us would almost certainly provoke us to kill this person of we could.

Jesus says “ask me for living water (John 4)”, “I am the light of the world (John 9)” and now in chapter 11 “I am the resurrection and the life”. He is ascribing to himself all of this importance and power. Our natural inclination is that he would simply take this power to fix the world and even fix us. The reason he doesn’t is that this kind of power alone won’t fix the world or us. 

The Light Comes On To Reveal We Don’t Trust or Want God

This presence of this power in our midst and our considered resistance and objection to it is Jesus’ way of turning on the light and us seeing the true condition of our hearts. We want a God as long as this God will serve us and do what we want (See Moralistic, therapeutic deism) but a God that is picking, choosing, deciding, enforcing is a terrible threat to our determined belief and desire that it is our world and we (or better I) must be its master. 

We want Jesus to fix the world for us but make sure once its fixed he hands it back to us so that we can start running things again. It is like a child who has an overly complex toy, that time and time again breaks it, hands it back to the parent asking to fix it, the parent does, hands it back to the child only to have it broken again. We are back to Mr. Incredible

No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for… for ten minutes!

What Jesus is working towards is actually our being able to handle the earth (as was originally intended in Genesis image bearing) AND living in intimate communion with God. The problem is that we can neither care for the earth NOR live with God because we don’t fundamentally what what either involves. We abused the earth and would kill God and take his place if we could.

On Two Kinds of Death

Augustine of Hippo was a Bishop in North Africa at the beginning of the 5th century and is one of the most important theologians in Western Christianity.

He begins his discussion on the raising of Lazarus with comments about two kinds of death and our efforts with respect to each.

But every man is afraid of the death of the flesh; few, of the death of the soul. In regard to the death of the flesh, which must certainly come some time, all are on their guard against its approach: this is the source of all their labor. Man, destined to die, labors to avert his dying; and yet man, destined to live for ever, labors not to cease from sinning. And when he labors to avoid dying, he labors to no purpose, for its only result will be to put off death for a while, not to escape it; but if he refrain from sinning, his toil will cease, and he shall live for ever. Oh that we could arouse men, and be ourselves aroused along with them, to be as great lovers of the life that abideth, as men are of that which passeth away! What will a man not do who is placed under the peril of death?

Augustine of Hippo. (1888). Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John.

Augustine highlights our dilemma.

Jesus doesn’t start raising all sorts of dead folks for the same reason he doesn’t start a latrine program nor train his disciples to manufacture penicillin. We are not ready for any of it because the basis is not yet set. He raises Lazarus for the same reason he brought “living water” to the Samaritan woman, told Nicodemus he must be “born from above” and healed the man born blind. Raising Lazarus shows us who Jesus is and shows us who and what we really are.

Sickness Unto Death

Not only does Augustine work from this text but so does Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish Christian. In a fascinating article entitled “Sickness Unto Death” on this passage he notes that our problem really isn’t death, it’s us. Animals don’t despair like we do, they simply live.

A despairing man is in despair over something. So it seems for an instant, but only for an instant; that same instant the true despair manifests itself, or despair manifests itself in its true character. For in the fact that he despaired of something, he really despaired of himself, and now would be rid of himself. Thus when the ambitious man whose watchword was “Either Caesar or nothing”3 does not become Caesar, he is in despair thereat. But this signifies something else, namely, that precisely because he did not become Caesar he now cannot endure to be himself. So properly he is not in despair over the fact that he did
not become Caesar, but he is in despair over himself for the fact that he did not become Caesar. This self which, had he become Caesar, would have been to him a sheer delight (though in another sense equally in despair), this self is now absolutely intolerable to him. In a profounder sense it is not the fact that he did not become Caesar which is intolerable to him, but the self which did not become Caesar is the thing that is intolerable; or, more correctly, what is intolerable to him is that he cannot get rid of himself. If he had become Caesar he would have been rid of himself in desperation, but now that he did not become Caesar he cannot in desperation get rid of himself. Essentially he is equally in despair in either case, for he does not possess himself, he is not himself. By becoming Caesar he would not after all have become himself but have got rid of himself, and by not becoming Caesar he falls into despair over the fact that he cannot get rid of himself. Hence it is a superficial view (which presumably has never seen a person in despair, not even one’s own self) when it is said of a man in despair, “He is consuming himself.” For precisely this it is he despairs of, and to his torment it is precisely this he cannot do, since by despair fire has entered into something that cannot burn, or cannot burn up, that is, into the self.

This despair even death cannot cure Kierkegaard goes on to say if in fact we live beyond death. We must be freed from our selves in a deeper way yet not (as some religions and philosophies assert) freed from individual self-hood itself.

Augustine continues

The third example of death is Lazarus. A grievous kind of death it is, and is distinguished as a habit of wickedness. For it is one thing to fall into sin, another to form the habit of sinning. He who falls into sin, and straightway submits to correction, will be speedily restored to life; for he is not yet entangled in the habit, he is not yet laid in the tomb. But he who has become habituated to sin, is buried, and has it properly said of him, “he stinketh;” for his character, like some horrible smell, begins to be of the worst repute. Such are all who are habituated to crime, abandoned in morals. Thou sayest to such an one, Do not so. But when wilt thou be listened to by one on whom the earth is thus heaped, who is breeding corruption, and pressed down with the weight of habit? And yet the power of Christ was not unequal to the task of restoring such an one to life.

Augustine of Hippo. (1888). Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John. In P. Schaff (Ed.), J. Gibb & J. Innes (Trans.)

The Final Straw

In John the raising of Lazarus will be the final straw for Jesus’ opponents. They will meet together and decide that it would be better for one to die than for the nation and their way of life to perish so they decide to kill him.

John notes that on one level they speak the truth. It is better for one to die on behalf of the rest. But what they don’t realize is that in killing him he will in fact end their way of life and inaugurate an entirely new way of life where death itself will be permanently beaten.

Killing Jesus as a man, or even as a way of killing God or at least taking the world from him. (See the parable of the tenants.)  What they don’t realize it it solves nothing. Mr. Incredible power can try to push off our physical death, but as Kierkegaard shows that solves nothing. Even Caesar in death despairs because he cannot be all that he imagines he wants and needs to be. Something within us must change, and Jesus says it doesn’t finally involve a program, but a relationship to the God-man himself which is the only way out of despair.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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