Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
I like the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and not just because you can sing most of it to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. (Go ahead and try it with the lines above. I’ll wait.) She wrote fascinating things, and as someone with a taste for the macabre, I can appreciate her morbid death poetry more than most. (“Morbid Death Poetry” is a good band name.)
But I bring up Dickinson because that subject, death, has been on my mind recently. My church’s Bible study class is working our way through the gospel of John at the moment, and we hit Lazarus a few weeks back. While doing my preparatory study, I discovered something truly fascinating. The word in John 11:33 and 11:38 all English versions translate “deeply moved in spirit” . . . isn’t. It should say, “Jesus was livid.” Enraged. Furious. German translations seem to take that more literally, but English translations insist on an impassive Jesus who isn’t allowed to be human enough to get mad outside of the temple.
I believe it’s a grievous mistake in this particular instance. After all, just a few verses earlier in John 11, Jesus declares himself to be “the resurrection and the life” (v. 25). Three chapters later, he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), and five chapters earlier he is “the bread of life” (6:35). Repeatedly Jesus refers to himself as life itself. Here at Lazarus’ tomb, then, we see Life encountering Death. Life sees destruction, devastation, sorrow, pain. Life see the horrors of Death victorious, a world enslaved by its oldest enemy.
And Life. Is. Furious.
It was never supposed to be this way. Death was never intended to exist in our world. Mothers were never supposed to lose children. Sisters weren’t meant to mourn brothers. Sons weren’t born to bury fathers. But in this moment, Christ sees this playing out before his very eyes. He sees the Fall, feels anew the betrayal of our first parents, sees our continued rejection of eternal life as we prefer to wail at tombs, servants of Death who have refused Life time and time again.
And he is angry.
Angry any of this happened. Angry Death has won for thousands of years. Angry people will grieve and lament and die for thousands more.
And so, just this once, just for these beloved friends, with tears in his eyes, he thinks in his heart, “No. This will not do.”
It’s a clear call of command, raw divine authority infusing every syllable. “Lazarus! Come forth!”
Lazarus comes forth.
And Death loses the day after all.
It’s a victory repeated as Christ raises others, just as the Prophets had. And it’s a victory which will be completed on the cross and in an empty tomb, the power of Life on display, a God “born that Man no more may die.”
Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus is engaged in no less a divine showdown than Elijah at Mount Carmel as he takes on the prophets of Baal. It is a display of power, it is a show of righteousness, it is anger and truth and heaven on earth.
But it’s also a dramatic reminder of a deeper biblical truth: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). Death will one day die, cast into a lake of fire (Rev 20:14). Death is the enemy of Life; Christianity affords it no other place in the cosmos. It is never good, never a friend, never sweet release, never the will of God. It is a price to be paid, a blood debt owed for sin — the necessary consequence of a planetary rebellion.
I’m not entirely sure we see it that way, though. No one who has sat by the bed of a loved one struggling to survive has ever prayed the gasping and pain never ceases. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us will admit we’ve begged God for people to die — not out of hate, but out of love. It’s why we turn off the machines in the end: we love them. We don’t want them to continue suffering in a body which feels nothing but agony. We want them to have rest, and death is sometimes the only escape. We love them enough to want that for them, because we all eventually stop being afraid they will die and start being afraid they won’t. It’s not cold, cruel, or callous. It’s mercy. Respect. Love.
But is it? Again, Scripture is clear: death is evil, an enemy to be destroyed. How can it ever be a welcome friend? I think we’ve always struggled with this, really. It’s why we converted the angel of death, slaughterer of the firstborn, to a guy in white in Touched by an Angel. Death, to Christians, stopped being the Grim Reaper and became a blessed escort into the afterlife, a mere psychopomp. Honestly, I feel it’s a natural progression of perception. The question remains, however: is it accurate? Are we correct to make the shift? It’s a question which keep recurring in our modern world as things like physician-assisted suicide and right to die laws become more and more commonplace. Do we force people to endure torment because death is an enemy? Do we let them kill themselves and pronounce God’s blessing upon the act? The world is asking these questions. Christians must answer them. Offhand, I’d say we’ll all devise different answers, too. It’s a complex issue, and there’s a lot at stake.
Death is a curse — the Curse. It is also a sometime blessing. How do you feel? How do we think about death? How does it matter for how we live our daily lives?