Jesus Does Not Always Try to Prevent People from Dying

There's a lot to like about the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus' amazing declaration to Martha that "I am the resurrection and the life"; Jesus' poignant weeping with Mary in front of Lazarus' tomb;  and of course, Jesus' climactic command: "Lazarus, come out!" And out he walks. Pretty great, right? 

Here's the catch: it's Jesus' fault that Lazarus died in the first place.

"I Am Glad I Was Not There"

At the beginning of the chapter (John 11), we learn that Jesus was sent word by Mary and Martha that their brother was sick. They knew that Jesus could heal because they obviously had a close relationship with him and his ministry; Mary was the one who anointed his feet with oil, and in the message Lazarus isn't even mentioned by name. He's just called "the one you love." 

The next few verses seem out of place. It's not how you'd expect Jesus to respond:
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
I always catch myself at the word "so." Typically that English word is used to draw a conclusion, but the conclusion here doesn't seem to follow. Jesus loved them, so he immediately left and went to--oh, wait, no. He stayed put. Not only did he stay put, but he clarified that Lazarus' sickness is both for God's and for his own glory. That sounds awful. Since when is Jesus the sort of person who thinks the death of someone he loves brings him glory? And a few verses later, when he's talking to his disciples about going to Judea:
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Not only does Jesus know that his waiting has resulted in Lazarus' death, he actually says he's glad he wasn't there, "so that you may believe."

If that doesn't at least seem a bit callous or harsh, you are probably too familiar with this story.

Looking More Closely

At this point, some nuance is in order. Jesus didn't cause Lazarus' death; the immediate cause was his sickness. It's also important to see that Jesus didn't actually say that Lazarus' death would bring him glory; a close reading shows that it is Lazarus' sickness that Jesus says is "for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it"; and the idea is probably not that the sickness itself is somehow God-glorifying, but that the whole situation represented by the sickness will cause the truth and glory of God--personified in Jesus, the incarnate Son of God--to be made known more clearly. That's what Jesus seems to mean when he tells his disciples that he's glad he wasn't there "so that you may believe."

The fact remains, however, that the following is true:

1. Jesus could have left immediately and prevented Lazarus from dying, but he didn't, because

2. Jesus was willing to allow sickness that he knew would lead to death to play a role in making his identity, and thus his and God's glory, more fully known, toward the goal of helping his disciples "believe."

Your reaction to these two points is probably dependent on your view of God. If you consider yourself a high Calvinist, this text fits easily with an overall biblical theology in which God's foreknowledge / causation of events that we might view as lamentable or evil is necessitated by your reading of God's sovereignty. If, on the other hand, you are a non-Calvinist, or you believe that Jesus isn't the sort of person who would turn down the opportunity to keep someone from dying for any reason--because if you found yourself in his situation you can't imagine letting someone die to make a theological point, no matter how important--then chances are you minimize a text like this, or attempt to mitigate its force.

The fact remains that Jesus let Lazarus die to make an important point about belief in himself to his disciples (and, presumably, to future generations of Christians).

Following Jesus Means Dying One Way Or Another

Biblically faithful Christianity always includes the awareness that one's life, health, & death are no longer the most important things in the world. Jesus makes this point elsewhere repeatedly, most famously telling his disciples that following him means to "take up your cross" (Matthew 10, Luke 9, Mark 8)--in other words, prepare to be executed as outcasts because of me. Elsewhere in John Jesus says that a man's blindness was not on account of his or his parents' sin but rather "so that the works of God might be displayed in him" (John 9), which is basically the same thing he says later about Lazarus' sickness and death. Other New Testament writers make similar points all over the place. This helps decenter our ego and recenter us on the priorities of the kingdom, which often don't include things like safety, comfort, and not dying.

At this point you might be wondering: what's your big point? I hesitate to "bring it home" one way or another because my goal is more vague (and perhaps impossible). I just want people to be more interested in who Jesus actually is rather than who they might already think he is. If you want some takeaways, here are some:

 - Your life and death do not take place in isolation; they are caught up in bigger purposes about God's glory and belief in Jesus. This calls not necessarily for understanding but rather for faith and joy.

 - Jesus believed death and sickness could be used to make his glory more apparent. If your reaction to this is negative, on the one hand that's completely understandable; on the other it means you need to seek Jesus for who he is rather than who you think he is or want him to be. When you do this, you'll see the face of God, and that is always good for you, in the best and most eternal sense of the word "good."

 - Grand, sweeping statements about who Jesus is, what God must or cannot be like, need to be passed through specific stories in the Bible like this one before you make them so cavalierly on blogs or twitters or Facebook or wherever.

 - However, I don't believe we are biblically permitted to point to specific instances of death or suffering and claim that we understand how they fit into an overall plan. My favorite (short) book-length defense of this idea is still David Bentley Hart's The Doors of the Sea.

If you care about the Bible and believe that Jesus is in fact the resurrection and the life for anyone who believes, let's commit together to remembering that sometimes we don't know Jesus as well as we want to, and the process of knowing him better isn't meant to always be comfortable. Sometimes Jesus doesn't try to prevent people from dying. This doesn't mean he's not good; it means that our understanding of who he is needs to include all of him, even the parts that we don't understand or that make us uncomfortable.

After all, it is Jesus himself who offers new life, not the Jesus we create from our preferences.