I’m going to put forward a simple theological contention today, so let me preface so we’re all on the same page. I am assuming a Christian framework for the argument and making assumptions on that basis. That being said, this argument doesn’t exactly start from scratch. Alright then, let’s proceed.John 11: 41-44: So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
I’ve had a question running through my mind for a while now: “Why would Jesus resurrect Lazarus? What could be the point of pulling a man out of Heaven?” Being returned from eternity to a fallen world would be upsetting at best, soul-crushing at worst. I have a confidence that Jesus would not have been spitefully cruel, but then what exactly was he?
Common explanations for this usually go along two lines:
Argument 1: Lazarus’ soul moves from death to Heaven, being fully in the presence of the Father. While there, however, he is called back to the Earth with the full knowledge that he will be a part of the final work of Christ. This is a joy that he understands, willingly accepting a second death.
Argument 2: Lazarus was not in the presence of the Father yet anyway. His narrative is further justification for the fact that the dead slumber in death until the final return of Christ at the end of days. As such, he was simply “woken up” from the slumber of death; it was a pleasant surprise, not a cruelty.
While these both answer my question on some level, I have issues digesting either one whole. To explain why, I’ll need to briefly put forward a Sunday School conception of human construction:
Part 1- The Body
From nose to toes, it’s your very flesh and blood. The body is, however, incomplete, weak, and prone to dying. We are promised that in the fully revealed Kingdom of God we will have a completed, eternal body. Hopefully that means no more acne. Not much to contest here.
Part 2- The Spirit
It’s who you are. You have a personality and you have whims and you have feelings, and they flow from a spirit that has developed in you since birth. For the purposes of this argument, it’s basically equivalent with one’s “consciousness”. The spirit is who you are in this world. We will have a spirit in the Kingdom as well, one free from sin and incompleteness. Through it we will experience eternity.
Part 3- The Soul
This is the part that matters most. We are all eternal souls. The soul exists beyond personality, preferences, and proclivities. It is beyond relationships, circumstances, and feelings. It is my identity, formed by God and held in His hand. The difference is that I only have one of these. The soul is my eternal identity. It stands unchanged behind my mortal existence and my eternal one.
That last bit is why the question on Lazarus bothered me. The explanations assume that the soul “leaves” an earthly timeline and is mystically transported into the eternal timeline.
So if that’s true, then Lazarus shows up at the Pearly Gates, has a few brews with St. Peter (wait, I mean Abraham. They hadn’t switched out yet), then gets a message on his pager (work with me) that he has to pop into temporal existence for a bit and do his best mummy impression.
Here’s the rub: at what point exactly would Lazarus enter the eternal timeline? I ask because Jesus himself didn’t leave eternity to become incarnate:John 1:1-3: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
Or, if I can paraphrase St. Athanasius: Christ sustained the universe from the time of Creation. That didn’t stop simply due to his incarnation. The soul of Christ experienced a simultaneous reality, as the eternal God of the universe and the Word made flesh on Earth. It’s not as if God in eternity was only 2/3 Himself for about 33 years a few millennia ago.
The idea seems complicated, but it actually fits pretty simply. If God is eternal and He exists before, after, and outside of time, then shouldn’t the eternal realm function in the same way? Do our souls operate so differently? We all recognize that we eventually enter a timeless eternity, but when exactly do we arrive there?
Here’s the root of the thing: I think it is reasonable to conclude that even as we now exist in the finite, earthly realm, we simultaneously exist eternally. We have one soul, one eternal identity. And that soul is expressed through a finite body and a finite spirit on earth, just as it is expressed through an eternal body and an eternal spirit beyond earth.
Lazarus didn’t go to Heaven when he died; his soul was already there.
If this argument brings any clarity to the question of eternity, it leaves me a little less clear about my mortal life. If we aren’t solely preparing our souls to go into transcendental hyper drive at death, then what exactly are we expected to do here?
Well, we have a few Biblical imperatives to work with. We are responsible for honoring God with the whole of our lives and for making disciples of all nations. This is the work that brings our souls in line with the truth of God.
So maybe even though our soul is already in eternity, it can still change and grow toward a more perfect union with Christ. Our soul can move toward the throne of God or away from it. Perhaps we make that move in our mortal life and our eternal life simultaneously.
God has reasons for all he does. Though most of life is trivial (just read Ecclesiastes), God does not give us life trivially. It is ours to embrace life for what it is, a co-existence with eternity, and pour ourselves into the preparation of our souls and the souls of all for their eternal identity. How God works this all out is a mystery, but He has given us as much as we need to know.
About The Guest: Matt Ely graduated from Wheaton College (IL) in 2011 with a degree in Political Science. He also completed the school’s Army ROTC program with this blog’s author and was commissioned upon graduation. Matt is currently wrapping up a nine-month Army party as a First Lieutenant in Afghanistan.