CT recently reported on the decision by LifeWay Christian Resources to pull “heaven tourism” books from the store shelves. Included in the spring cleaning are mega-selling titles 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven is For Real. A decision made easier as the veracity of these experiences eroded when Alex Malarkey disclosed he lied about experiencing heaven as a 6-year old, the story behind The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven bestseller. Now merchandise selection will follow the Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution to turn only to Scripture for information on life after death. Trouble is, there’s not much to go on.
The verifiable afterlife tale with stellar eyewitnesses by a reputable author is the story of Lazarus. In chapters 11 and 12, John the Evangelist details the reactions of Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha, Jesus, the mourners from the village, and the disciples, but nothing from Lazarus, the resuscitated grave dweller, himself.* Unlike the sidelined best-sellers, Scripture doesn’t describe what Lazarus experienced when he was in the grave. He wasn’t dead for an hour and a half in a hospital bed either; he spent four days wrapped in grave clothes stashed behind a heavy stone. Enough time for Martha to be concerned about the potential stench when Jesus commands them to roll away the stone, but not enough for John the Evangelist to include the story angle a 21st century publisher would crave.
We want to know: what did Lazarus think and feel? He’d been sick for several days and presumably knew Jesus’ presence had been requested before he died. Was he angry to see the Jesus who hadn’t shown up when he was ill standing outside the tomb? Did he wonder why he hadn’t come before he died? What did he experience during the four days? How had his life changed? Did he create a bucket list or had the thrills of earthly life lost their allure?
Instead, the scene ends after the dead man walks out of his grave and Jesus tells the bystanders to free him from the binding cloths. Maybe Martha bustles around getting him a change of clothing, a washbasin and a bar of soap. Maybe Mary falls at Jesus’ feet in worship and then runs to greet her brother. Maybe Jesus hugs Lazarus, looks deeply into his eyes and expresses sympathy in a way Lazarus understands after the crucifixion.
The next and last time Lazarus is on stage, he’s an extra at the dinner when Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume and Judas Iscariot complains about the waste. Lazarus reclines at the table with Jesus, but no conversation is recorded. Maybe the dinner guests pummel Lazarus with questions, but John shows the focus was on the one who supernaturally raised a thoroughly dead man from the grave when he writes, “Here [in Bethany] a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor.”
Jesus’ miracle of bringing someone back from death didn’t amuse or entertain, it divided people. One group believed, spread the word and wanted to meet Jesus; the second group turned away, and some tattled to the religious authorities. As the miracle buzz grew, the Pharisees and Sadducees added Lazarus to the Most Wanted List not the best-seller list.
Scripture’s silence on Lazarus’ personal experience frustrates, but it keeps the spotlight centered. Rather than details to spark debates about Lazarus’ afterlife ordeal, such as, “Is this the norm?”, we know Jesus. We know he keeps a puzzling timetable, consoles the grieving, weeps at the loss of a friend, conquers death, and celebrates.
That’s where the afterlife tourism books fall short. They may give hope to the grieving or inspire thought about the afterlife, but when the focus is on anyone but the giver of life, they miss the mark. Rather than honoring those whose earthly bodies will fail again, let’s prepare our hearts during Holy Week to celebrate the Risen One who conquered death once and for all.
*Since Lazarus experienced physical death again at some point, he was resuscitated, not resurrected.