(1) On the literal level of the story of Jesus raising the dead man, Lazarus, back to life in this world, one main meaning is obvious: that God-in-Christ has power over life and death. Not even physical death can limit the free action of divine creativity and goodness. Out of his mercy and with divine power over all forces, Christ calls Lazarus back to life in this world: “Lazarus, come forth!” And the previously dead man, whose bodily life is now restored, comes out of the tomb. “Unbind him and let him go.” Christ
unbinds the man Lazarus from the chains of death, and sets him free to live physically. This is the kind of life his sisters, Mary and Martha, wanted Jesus to restore.
(2) By the placement of the story right near the end of John’s “Book of Signs” (chapter 11) of his Gospel, and hence just before the beginning of the Last Supper and Passion narrative, the evangelist intends to show us what the Resurrection of Christ is not. Lazarus becomes a resuscitated corpse, a physical body brought back to life in space-time, and hence subject to suffering, and to dying once again in the body. The Gospels present the Resurrected Christ through stories that are physically embellished to allow us to grasp with faith that the crucified Christ is truly Risen and is Lord. John uses the physical to communicate the spiritual, just as in the Eucharist, we use bread and wine to communicate the spiritual Presence of Christ in and with his body, the Church—that is, the faithful gathered here and now, the community of disciples. If Jesus’ Resurrection were no more than an event equivalent to his raising of Lazarus, then he would have to die again, would be limited by space and time in his actions, and would constantly be suffering, as all sentient beings suffer. “But now is Christ risen,” and that risen Life is free from all limitations of space-time, free from suffering, free from death, because it is completely a sharing in the Life of God. In the One to whom all are alive, Jesus Christ is Risen and Lord (proclaimed at every Eucharist, celebrated especially in Eastertide).
(3) As for the difference between “afterlife” and “eternal life,” that contrast is drawn out in the fascinating dialogue between Jesus and Lazarus’ sisters, especially with Martha. “Your brother will rise,” says the Christ. “I know he will rise at the Last Day,” Martha responds, with good Pharisaical-Jewish belief in a Resurrection after death. To Martha’s creedal religious belief, Jesus replies with one of his thunderbolts intended to pierce through the veil and haze of Martha’s religious beliefs, right into the depth of her spirit: “I AM the Resurrection and the LIFE. He who lives and believes in me…. will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus has indeed pierced the cloudy mind of Martha, who wants to put off into an afterlife our sharing in divine Life. This attitude remains common in Christianity (and in Islam) to this day. But Christ has something far better in store for those who open their minds and hearts to his life-giving word: “I AM…the Life.” To believe in Christ, truly to trust in him, is to open up to the eternal I AM flowing into the depths of one’s heart and mind NOW. “Not tomorrow, not today, but NOW.” As with Plato who had coined the phrase, “eternal life” several centuries before Christ, so with John of the Gospel (and the Apostle Paul): to “have eternal life” is to share now and forever in the life of the deathless One, the divine Presence in whom there is no darkness or death. As St. Luke has Jesus say, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for to God, all are alive.” Period. Not fancy stories, not myths, not rituals, but just the utterly simple reality of the divine I AM.