This post was originally published for First Things on April 6, 2015.
Yesterday, on Easter Sunday, many sermons were preached from John 11 on Jesus’s raising of Lazarus of Bethany from the dead. John 11:25-26 is one of the great resurrection texts of the New Testament. The Book of Common Prayer includes it in the “Order for the Burial of the Dead”: “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
The raising of Lazarus was a favorite story among the early Christians. In Aldo Nestori’s definitive repertoire of the paintings of the Roman catacombs, the raising of Lazarus is the second-most represented. (The most popular are depictions of the Good Shepherd with eighty-five instances, while Lazarus comes in second with sixty-six, and Jonah, another resurrection motif, with sixty-five.) In an age when Christians were subjected to violence, persecution, and martyrdom, John’s account of Jesus’s raising of Lazarus assured the catacomb Christians that death, however and whenever it came, was not the final word.
But there is another reason for the enduring appeal of John 11. This passage records two acts of Jesus that give insight both into his intentionality and his emotionality, and it does so with an intensity found nowhere else in the gospels. The first of these is recorded in the well-known text, “Jesus wept” (11:35). The Greek verb dákrusen in this setting means more than to shed a few tears. It means something like “he burst out crying” or, as Dale Bruner has rendered it, “Jesus bawled.” The tears of Jesus show his deep identification with those who are grief-stricken. It reveals the breaking of his heart for others whose own hearts are broken. Here Jesus weeps with those who weep, even as he learned obedience through what he suffered. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the One who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7). The weeping of Jesus is a corrective to every stoic and docetic reading of the Gospel of John. On display here is not only the divine authority of Jesus, but also his deep human involvement in the death of his friend and its effects on those who mourn his loss.
But more troubling, and more difficult to explain, is what the text tells us about Jesus’s own emotional reaction to the scene around him at the grave of Lazarus. In 11:33, we are told that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (NRSV). Here, the author of the fourth Gospel links two verbs to describe Jesus’s response to the situation: embrimásthai and tarásso. Tarásso means “to shake, to stir up, to be troubled.” It is one of John’s favorite verbs. For example, it is used for the troubling of the waters at Bethesda in 5:7, and it recurs five times in four consecutive chapters (11:33; 12:27; 13:21; 14:1, 27). It is a word that conveys a sense of being upset, overwhelmed, floored, or “punched in the gut,” as we say in English.
Many English translations soften the force of this unusual word embrimásthai to mean “deeply moved in spirit” (NIV), or “his heart was touched” (GNT), or merely “sighed heavily” (NEB). But, as Rudolf Schnackenburg noted, this word “indicates an outburst of anger, and any attempt to reinterpret in terms of an internal emotional upset caused by grief, pain, or sympathy is illegitimate.” Other scholars have pointed to classical and patristic sources that support the stronger rendering. One of these is from Aeschylus in his play Seven Against Thebes, in which this verb refers to the snorting of a stallion about to charge into battle (cf. the movie War Horse). The image is that of an enraged animal, grunting and growling, nostrils flaring, bellowing with anger and rage. In the context of John 11, this word at least means that Jesus experienced indignation, revulsion, outrage.
But at what or whom was Jesus angry? Some say that he was angry with himself because, after all, his own delay in coming to Bethany had precipitated the crisis. Others suggest that he might have been angry at those among the Judeans, especially the Pharisees, who were already conspiring to have him killed. Still others suggest that his anger was focused on the lack of faith on the part of Mary and the other mourners who refuse to believe. However, it is best, I think, to regard Jesus’s anger as directed against Satan, the evil one himself, who presides over the realm of death, wreaking havoc throughout God’s good creation.
It is well known that John has no temptation narrative with Jesus and Satan in direct confrontation. Nor does he record the exorcisms so prominent in the synoptics. In John, Satan is a shadowy figure, though he is not absent. For example, in 8:48, Jesus is accused of being in league with the devil; in 12:31, Satan is referred to as “the prince of this world” whose defeat will be accomplished by the “lifting up” of Jesus on the cross; and in 13:2, the devil is said to have inspired Judas to betray Jesus. What we have in John 11 is Jesus’s direct confrontation with Satan, his deliberate pursuit of him, and his attack against him at his most formidable point: the realm of death.
There are many echoes of this motif in the early Christian tradition. For example, in the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew from the third century, Jesus is depicted on the Last Day as leading the apostles and Mary from the Mount of Olives toward the eastern gate of Jerusalem to recapture the city from the Evil One. In this assault, Jesus is said to have threatened or rebuked (embrimēsamenos) the demons of the underworld, even as he beckons Michael the archangel to sound his mighty trumpet. Likewise, in the life of Antony, as told by Athanasius, the great father of monasticism gradually withdraws from the softer life of the city into the far reaches of the desert, eventually making his abode in the graveyard and tombs of the dead. He does so not (as some of my students allege when I have them read this story) because he is psychologically imbalanced and just needs to see a good shrink; rather, he is a prize-fighter for Christ doing hand-to-hand combat with the devil.
Something similar, I suggest, is going on here in John 11. And so it is not the weeping sisters and their friends, the unbelieving crowd around them, or the plotters seeking his death who evoke this intense expression of anger and revulsion on the part of Christ. Rather, this strong emotion, as Herman Ridderbos has put it, “is the revulsion of everything that is in him against the power of death.” Or, as Calvin comments: “Christ does not come to the sepulcher as an idle spectator, but like a wrestler preparing for the contest. Therefore no wonder that he groans again, for the violent tyranny of death that he had to overcome stands before his eyes.”
This perspective challenges both our contemporary understanding of death and the modern view of God. When I was a student at Harvard, I once heard Elizabeth Kübler-Ross speak about her best-selling book, On Death and Dying. Her work helped to normalize and domesticate death in our culture. She carefully and clinically explained the various stages of grief related to death. She taught us to consider all of this in a calm and therapeutic manner, and no doubt many people found solace in such construals. So, in this way of seeing things, death becomes a normal, controllable, and manageable part of human life. This perspective fits comfortably into the positivist, materialist, and secularist presuppositions of our time.
The New Testament, on the other hand, presents death as a violent intrusion, an illicit disruption, a trespasser, a foe or enemy to be overcome. Indeed, Paul refers to death as “the last enemy” to be destroyed by Christ, who will stomp it under his feet on the day of resurrection (1 Cor. 15:25-26). In the meantime, God does not sit idly by, observing with cool detachment the sufferings of his people and the ragings of Satan. That kind of God is the God of deism, the God Thomas Hardy once referred to as “a dreaming, dark, dumb Thing that turns the handle of this idle show.” This view of the divine is at the root of much contemporary atheism. But the God of the Gospel of John is the one who challenges evil at its strongest point, who becomes indignant and angry in the face of death and evil. What we have in John 11 is not so much sinners in the hands of an angry God (though there is much about judgment in John), but rather sin itself, in its most intrusive, death-dealing effect, confronted by an angry Christ.
The fierce Christ of Easter faith is not like the Jesus depicted on the front of many church bulletins: the freshly-laundered Jesus all buffed and tanned, stepping out of the tomb like an athlete fresh from the gym, or like a CEO all buttoned up for a board meeting. No, he is more like Aslan, the great untamed Lion in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. When Mr. and Mrs. Beaver first tell the children Susan and Lucy about Aslan, they describe him as the “King of the woods and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea . . . the King of Beasts . . . Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.” To which Susan replies:
“Ooh! . . . Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, where he now serves as research professor of divinity.