In the face of death, Christians frequently embrace, as a form of hope, the promise that the deceased is “absent from the body” but “present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). This is typically taken to mean that the soul, separated from the body, goes immediately into God’s presence in heaven. This is not only a misunderstanding of the text, which was written in the context of final resurrection, but is also a misplacement of biblical hope in the face of death. The New Testament nowhere tells us to place our hope in a disembodied intermediate state. Consistently, the New Testament points us to the hope of resurrection in the face of death (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; 1 Corinthians 15:50–58; 2 Corinthians 4:7–5:10). Jesus’ claim to be the resurrection and the life (John 11:25) is another case in point.
The account (John 11:1–44) begins with sickness. Lazarus, one of Jesus’ dearest friends, was sick. Knowing the affection shared between the two men, Lazarus’s sisters informed Jesus that their brother was sick, assuming that he would come and do something about it. Jesus delayed for two days so that, by the time he arrived, Lazarus was already dead.
When she learned that Jesus had arrived, Martha immediately went out to meet him. “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 give you” (v. 21) We don’t know exactly what Martha was thinking. Regardless, Jesus did not comfort her by telling her that her brother was in heaven. He did not employ absent-from-the-body-present-with-the-Lord rhetoric. Instead, he said, “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23). Consistent with elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus rooted hope in the reversal of death: in resurrection.
Of course, the promise of final resurrection does not remove the temporal sting of death. While Martha believed that her brother would one day rise again (v. 24), she still felt the weight of grief that Jesus had not healed her brother. But Jesus had an important lesson to teach her. She needed to realise that the future resurrection is not simply an abstract doctrine to be confirmed. Resurrection is our certain hope because of who Jesus is. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (vv. 25–26).
Because of Jesus, death is not final. Our first parents were placed under the sentence of death in the day they sinned (Genesis 2:17) and every human being has since come under the same sentence (Romans 5:12). While death will one day be interrupted by resurrection for every human being (John 5:25–29), only those who believe in Jesus as the resurrection and the life will enter unending life. Those who are not in Christ will face a second, eternal death (Revelation 20:11–15). But those who are in Christ will put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53) and will enjoy eternal life (Matthew 25:46).
Jesus was careful to tell Martha that he was the resurrection and the life. As we have seen, everyone will one day face resurrection, but only those who are in Christ will inherit life. The unbeliever’s resurrection will be a resurrection to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:1–2), a resurrection of judgement (John 5:29), and a resurrection of the unjust (Acts 24:15). Conversely, the resurrection of the just (Acts 24:15) will be a resurrection of life (John 5:29) and a resurrection to everlasting life (Daniel 12:1–2).
In claiming to be the resurrection and the life, Jesus claimed power over death. He promised his followers that death would not have the final word in their lives. Faith in Christ is no vaccination against death, but it is vaccination against eternal death. Fear of death is natural to human beings, but Jesus partook of death that he might overpower this fear of death (Hebrews 2:14–15). He now promises resurrection to eternal life to all who believe in him. The question for us, as it was for Martha, is, “Do you believe this?”
Do you believe that your sin deserves death? Do you believe that Jesus died in your place to pay the penalty for your sins? Do you believe that he rose from the dead, victorious over sin and death? Do you believe that those who, in faith, repent of their sins and embrace him as their Saviour will inherit eternal life? Will you place your trust in the resurrection and the life today?