Easter Reflections: Resurrection, John 11, and the Problem of Evil

I am always drawn to John 11 when I reflect on Jesus' resurrection. Jesus is in a deeply personal and emotionally fraught situation: Lazaraus, brother of Mary and Martha, all three of whom we know to be close friends of Jesus, is sick; Jesus receives word of this but nevertheless waits where he is with his disciples long enough for Lazarus to die (!), and then tells his disciples that he is glad, for their sakes, that he waited, "so that you may believe" (11:15). The disciples are afraid that by going back to Judea he will risk being stoned, since it was just attempted in the previous chapter; Jesus has a far more important and profound lesson in mind that he wants to teach them. (Keep in mind that you and I know, from John's prologue, who he is, where he's from, and why he was sent into the world. He's got no reason to fear being stoned.)


As Jesus approaches the tomb, Martha comes to meet him from a long way off. This is one of many instances in which, as Dallas Willard likes to say, Jesus displays his mastery of the human personality: He responds to Martha according to the way she chooses to process her grief, which is by immediately engaging him in theological conversation. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will grant you." Some have suggested that she is bitter or angry here, and I don't think that can be ruled out, but I also think it is possible to see her as simply trying to reconcile her grief with her knowledge that Jesus could have, and perhaps still might, intervene in the situation. Jesus responds that her brother will come back to life again, and Martha replies with what was a fairly common Jewish eschatological belief: "I know that he will come back to life again in the resurrection at the last day."


Jesus says many things in John's gospel, but I believe that what he says next is one of his most theologically (socially, culturally, philosophically) loaded statements: "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"


Martha then confesses that she does. Jesus proceeds to the tomb, at which point Mary comes to meet him, asking him the same question Martha asked; but she does not proceed in conversation. Rather, from the context, it appears that she asks him this question through tears, and continues weeping after asking it. This deeply moves Jesus, and when he is shown the tomb he joins her in weeping. It is a profound moment. He then asks for the stone to be taken away, and when Martha objects that it will smell, he responds: "Didn't I tell you that if you believe, you would see the glory of God?" And then he prays, and then he shouts: "Lazarus, come out!" And Lazarus comes out.


What has happened here? A few things are obvious: A dead man came out of a tomb. Jesus shed empathetic tears. Perhaps less obviously, Jesus handled the grief of two women in ways appropriate to their individual expressions of it. But consider the context: He has come from the countryside to Bethany, which was "less than two miles from Jerusalem" (11:17). Jesus' actions are symbolic and weighty because of his location near the Temple. From reading John's gospel before this point we know that this is the seventh and last sign Jesus is to perform, and so this is climactic in some way; from reading on in the gospel we know that it was at this point that the high priests and religious leaders began actively planning to kill him (11:53).


Jesus' actions were significant not only because he brought someone back from the dead - interestingly enough, John doesn't report that the religious leaders deny his miracle! - but because he was wrapping the Jewish conception of a final resurrection for the righteous around himself, and he was doing so in a public way, near the Temple, which was supposed to be the center of Jewish life and worship. He is also redefining what the criteria are for being one who participates in that resurrection (they cannot assume, because they are children of Abraham, that they are therefore righteous).


I began this by saying that I often think about John 11 in connection with Jesus' resurrection. It is difficult for me to read John 11 without becoming very emotional because I often find myself in both Martha's and Mary's shoes when faced with the question of the problem of evil, the presence in the world of seemingly senseless suffering and death. Sometimes I respond like Martha: I want to wrestle and discuss and talk and think about it, and maybe shout at God that if he'd been there, maybe the tsunami wouldn't have hit; maybe the oil rig wouldn't have blown up; maybe the IED wouldn't have gone off; maybe that young girl in Texas wouldn't have been repeatedly gang-raped over the course of several months; maybe I wouldn't think such filthy things; maybe more fathers would love their families instead of abandoning them; maybe my friends wouldn't have had a miscarriage. Other times I respond like Mary: I can barely manage to voice my thoughts in between sobbing in grief and pain, even on behalf of people I've never met. 


No matter how I approach him, however, I always find Jesus waiting and ready to respond. 


If I come to him as Martha I am confronted with the staggering truth: "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" This is not something that I must simply acknowledge to be true; it is something I must be prepared to act on, to believe. No matter how much I might pound on his chest and accuse him of being absent and wrestle with the various ways theologians and philosophers have written about the 'problem of evil,' I cannot escape Jesus, my contemporary, risen from the dead, asking me over and over again: Do you believe this? This is what continually pulls me back, even if I am pulled back kicking and screaming. I simply cannot escape the risen Jesus Christ.


But if I come to him as Mary - if I come to him broken, and hurting, and stumbling through tears shed on behalf of the unjust suffering and pain I become acutely aware of, on a daily basis, on many levels, from my personal sin to things that rot on a global scale - I find him there with tears already on his face. I find him with nail scars on his hands and his feet, and a spear wound in his side, and the piercing memory of the cry of dereliction. I find him, in short, mourning and weeping alongside me. He does not tell me to dry up and get about the business of the kingdom or theology or being a joyful Christian. He weeps with me, openly and publicly.


Death is not the final word. The more I meditate on this passage, and on other important resurrection passages such as 1 Corinthians 15, the more I walk away with the realization that if Christians have any hope to offer the world it must be this. In the face of all the senseless violence and waste and shallowness and triviality and pain and suffering, the resurrection is God's final and definitive statement about whose kingdom is, in fact, the ruling and authoritative kingdom. In other words, if we want to know how God feels about suffering and evil, we need to look at Jesus' resurrection; if we want to know what God has in store for those who believe and trust in him for their vindication, we must, again, look at Jesus' resurrection.


I do not understand why most evil and horrible things happen, and I doubt I ever will. But I am never told, in scripture, that such answers are to be expected. Rather I am invited to see and know and believe the One who is himself the answer. When I do this I find that, instead of beating the air and beating myself up in the process, I now have a strong chest to beat on when I am frustrated and confused and angry and outraged; and I now have the promise that death itself will one day be undone, and God's justice will roll down like a mighty flood, and this world will be once and for all set free.


In John 11 we see Jesus painting a vivid picture of this reality. In John 11 we are reminded that we are continually confronted with the necessity of believing Jesus when he says that he is the resurrection and the life, and that if we are to understand what it really means to be alive at all we need to look to him for those answers. In the process I usually find that my questions themselves are challenged as much as answered; but some of them are not answered, and this is usually, and probably will be for the rest of my life, painful and difficult. But I still cannot get away from Jesus, from this one who has the power to raise the dead, from this one who claims that he is, in fact, the resurrection and the life; from this one who has so powerfully wrested my life away from my own grasp, transformed it, healed it, cleansed it, and resurrected it - and, through the present gift of the indwelling Spirit, promised that there is much, much more to come, both for me, for the people of God, and for this world. That is what I am focusing on this Easter: that the resurrection of Jesus means that everything is different, and that you and I can be called out of our tombs - daily, if need be - and confronted with God's most full, dangerous, provocative, and satisfying answer that is the real and available person of Jesus Christ.