“The Raising of Lazarus” by Rembrandt 1630-1632
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson May 1–7: Luke 12–17; John 11
The following essay about John 11:1-44 is from Chapter 6 of my book: The Immortal Messiah: the Physiology of Resurrected Beings, Cedar Fort, 2022.
The story of Lazarus is found only in John chapter 11, and is not mentioned in any of the other Gospels:
 “Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha… Therefore his sisters sent unto him [Jesus], saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick… When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby. [6-7] When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was. Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judæa again… These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.  Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well…  Then said Jesus unto them [his disciples] plainly, Lazarus is dead…  Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already…  Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died…  Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died…
[38-39] “Jesus therefore…cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.
[43-44] “And…he [Jesus] cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth… And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.”1
This is the story of Lazarus that I grew up with: Lazarus became sick and then died. Then, after he had lain in the grave four days, Jesus came and raised him from the dead. However, the discussion between Jesus and his disciples concerning Lazarus’ condition is very interesting. First, we read in verse 4 that Jesus said, “…This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” Then he stated in verse 11, “…Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.” Then comes the exchange reported in verses 12-14: “Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.”
So was Lazarus dead or was he just asleep, or perhaps both? How could he be both asleep and dead? One condition that matches these criteria is a coma, in which a person may appear dead while still alive – and in a deep sleep.
A coma is a deep state of unconsciousness during which a person cannot be awakened and does not respond to stimuli.2 Coma patients may not exhibit any detectable blood pressure, may have no detectable pulse, and may exhibit no spontaneous respiration.3 In other words, for all practical purposes, a person who is in a coma appears to be dead.
The term “coma” is from the Greek koma, meaning a deep sleep, and was used as early as 400 BC in the Hippocratic corpus (Epidemica). Galen used the term in the second century AD. Subsequently, however, it hardly appears again in the known literature until the middle of the 17th century.4 Therefore, even though some Greek physicians were aware of the concept, it may not have been part of the general knowledge among the common Jewish population in the first century AD. Today, even in the presence of sophisticated medical monitoring equipment, it is not always easy to determine for certain if a person is alive or dead.
An example from almost exactly the same date as the Lazarus case illustrates the complexity of determining death in the first century AD. In 37 AD, no less a person than the Roman Emperor Tiberius, age 78, fell into a coma resulting from an illness. The Roman historian, Tacitus, writing some ninety years later, stated, “On the 15th of March, his breath failing, he was believed to have expired…” Presumably this was the conclusion of Charicles, a Greek physician serving in the Roman Empire, who was attending Tiberius.5 As Tiberius was presumed dead, Caligula was coronated in his stead. The only way the Romans discovered that Tiberius wasn’t dead was that he woke up and asked for something to eat. This slight inconvenience to Caligula’s plans was handled promptly, as Caligula's chamberlain, Macro, was sent to suffocate Tiberius the same day.6 If a Greek physician, who as a group, was considered the best in the world at the time, was not able to distinguish between coma and death in the Roman Emperor, it is highly unlikely that such a differentiation could have been ascertained by a group of ordinary Jews.
I believe that in the case of Lazarus, there were some simpler and some more complex concepts to be considered. For example, “Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.”7 Martha understood a simpler concept, that after four days a dead body would begin to stink, but she did not understand the more complex reason: that oxidation and bacterial activity are the causes of such decomposition. She also did not understand, nor did anyone else at the time, the more complex concept that there are various kinds of “dead,” which concept even modern medicine still struggles to comprehend and codify. Discussion of these more complex concepts, in my opinion, in no way detracts from the miraculous nature of Lazarus being raised from the dead.
The story of Lazarus is often cited as a type of the resurrection and is one of the last prophecies given by Christ of His own resurrection. I find it extraordinary that Luke, a physician, who listed several miracles of healing, not mentioned in the other gospels: such as fever,8 infirmity,9 dropsy,10 the ten lepers,11 and even two other cases of Christ raising people from the dead;12 never mentioned the raising of Lazarus from the dead – considered by many modern Bible scholars to be the greatest of all His miracles. Recall that as important as this miracle must have been, and still is, we would not even know about it if it were not for the gospel of John. I find it especially intriguing and odd that Luke would discuss in some detail an interaction between Mary and Martha13 but never even mentioned that they had a brother named Lazarus, probably, at least in our day, one of the most famous Christians who ever lived, and certainly one of the most interesting medical cases ever to occur.
I agree with the discussion of miracles in the Bible Dictionary, “Miracles should not be regarded as deviations from the ordinary course of nature... Some lower law was in each case superseded by the action of a higher.”14 Concerning Lazarus, Jesus made a very interesting comment to his disciples, “And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe...”15
In his footnote on p. 467 of Jesus the Christ, Elder James Talmage said concerning Lazarus’ four days in the tomb,
On the very probable assumption that the journey from Bethany in Judea to the place where Jesus was, in Perea, would require one day, Lazarus must have died on the day of the messenger’s departure; for this day and the two days that elapsed before Jesus started toward Judea, and the day required for the return, would no more than cover the four days specified. It was and still is the custom in Palestine as in other oriental countries to bury on the day of death.
It was the popular belief that on the fourth day after death the spirit had finally departed from the vicinity of the corpse, and that thereafter decomposition proceeded uninhibited. This may explain Martha’s impulsive though gentle objection to having the tomb of her brother opened four days after his death (John 11:39). It is possible that the consent of the next of kin was required for the lawful opening of a grave. Both Martha and Mary were present, and in the presence of many witnesses assented to the opening of the tomb in which their brother lay.”16
This background provided by Talmage is part of the enormous value of his classic work, and this information about Jewish tradition is valuable to the Lazarus story. As incorrect as this tradition may be, that belief is significant in light of Jesus’ delay in arriving, purposely waiting until that traditional time had passed for the spirit to permanently leave the vicinity of the body.
So was Lazarus actually alive or dead at the time Jesus arrived? Of course he was dead – by all the criteria available to people of the time – and even by most criteria today. Martha said to Jesus, “…by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.”17 And yet, when Lazarus came out of the grave, he apparently didn’t stink.
Another condition that is associated with death is livor mortis, blood pooling by gravity in lower parts of the body. Blood continues to circulate as long as it is being pumped by the heart, even if the heart is only contracting very lightly and infrequently. However, when the heart stops beating completely, circulation of the blood stops, and gravity pulls the blood toward the lower, dependent regions of the body. For example, if a person is lying on his or her back when the heart stops beating, blood will pool in the back of the head, trunk and limbs. Livor mortis, therefore, also called post mortem staining, is seen as a reddish-blue staining of those low-lying dependent regions of the body. In the early phases of livor mortis, patches of discoloration start appearing in the dependent regions within one to three hours of death. The patches increase in size and spread across dependent regions of the body within four to six hours and fully developed livor mortis, with full staining, can be seen within six to eight hours of death.18
In addition to blood pooling during livor mortis, it also breaks down. Red blood corpuscles break open and release hemoglobin into the surrounding tissues. Hemoglobin releases its bound oxygen, which causes oxidative damage to the tissues. Therefore, even if the heart were rebooted after livor mortis has set in, the blood is no longer functional.
The laws of nature obviously have not changed in two thousand years, and, as we believe, miracles do not suspend the laws of nature. Martha was correct that after a person had been dead four days, the body would already be decaying and would stink and livor mortis would be apparent – even in the winter or early spring. We learn in John 10:22, “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.”
If the brain is deprived of oxygen for a matter of minutes, even in the cold, brain damage can occur. The 1986 case of two-year-old Michelle Funk was a remarkable exception. She had been submerged in icy water for over an hour without, apparently, suffering brain damage.19 These data suggest that, even in very cold conditions, the brain can last only an hour or so without permanent damage. Other organs, such as the heart and kidneys, can be equally, permanently damaged following similar oxygen deprivation.
I believe in miracles, but I do not believe that they can defy the laws of nature. It is my opinion that miracles occur by compliance with “higher laws” of nature, which we do not, at present, fully understand. For example, two thousand years ago, if our ancestors became aware of a man-made satellite orbiting the earth, such an event would indeed have been a miracle, but today we understand laws not known then that allow us to launch satellites. Likewise, if a person had diabetes Type I two thousand years ago, it would have been a fairly rapid death sentence. Now we understand laws not known then that can prolong a diabetic’s life for many years.
Therefore, it is my opinion that if Lazarus had actually been dead for the full four days that, even being raised from the dead, he would have experienced permanent brain and other organ damage. Today, we are quite familiar with cases of coma, where patients, by all measurements available, appear to be dead, and indeed are sometimes declared dead, but then revive. In the nineteenth century, relatives sat up with the deceased until they were buried in case they woke up. And when they were buried, some were placed in a “safety coffin” with a cable leading to a bell on the surface that they could ring if they weren’t dead and woke up.
In 2012 a neighbor, Mr Qingwang, found 95-year-old Liu Xiufeng of Guangxi Province, China, dead in her bed, about two weeks after Ms Xiufeng had received a head injury from a fall. Mr Qingwang shook her and called her name, with no response. In accordance with local Chinese custom, the “dead” woman was placed into a coffin and left in her house for six days so that friends and relatives could come by to pay their respects. A wooden lid was placed on the coffin between visits, but was not nailed down. After the six days, and one day before the funeral, Mr Qingwang, returned to Ms Xiufeng’s home and found the coffin empty, with the lid removed, and the corpse missing. Mr Qingwang was so terrified that he ran out of the house and recruited help from the neighbors. They found Ms Xiufeng in her kitchen, sitting on a stool, cooking a meal. She explained that she had awoken very hungry after being asleep for a long time. She said that she had to push on the coffin lid for quite some time in order to get it open.20
In January 2014, 24-year-old Paul Mutora of Kenya, tried to take his own life by drinking insecticide. He awoke 24 hours later on a slab in the morgue at Naivasha District Hospital – and terrified the attendants by coming back to life. One month later, in February 2014, a 78-year-old man, Walter Williams, from Mississippi was declared dead by a hospice nurse. He awoke the next day in a body bag at the Porter & Sons Funeral Home in Lexington. Two weeks later, Mr. Williams died for good. On 6 November of the same year, a Polish woman, Janina Kolkiewicz was declared dead at age 91 years. After being dead for eleven hours, she awoke in the hospital morgue, complaining of being cold and hungry.21
These and at least 34 additional similar cases are examples of what, since 1982, when the phenomenon first appeared by that name in the medical literature, have been called the Lazarus phenomenon or Lazarus syndrome, also known as autoresuscitation after cardiac arrest. Even in our modern medical age, a clinical declaration of death is not as definitive as is usually assumed. Two types of death are currently defined: clinical death, which is defined as the absence of a heartbeat, pulse and respiration, and biological death, which is defined as the absence of detectable brain activity. Several known medical conditions; such as catalepsy, torpidity, or coma; can make it impossible to determine whether a person is actually dead or alive – even in the presence of our most sophisticated medical monitoring equipment.22
It may be possible that Jesus, along with everyone else, fully believed Lazarus to be dead. Indeed, even by today’s standards, he may have been declared dead. I believe that God, told Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead, but told him to terry two days before doing so (Jesus said, “I can of mine own self do nothing…because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me;”23). I believe that, of course, God knew exactly what he was doing and he knew the higher law that allowed Lazarus to appear quite dead while preserving the function of all vital organs. I also believe that, whereas Jesus did exactly as he was told by God, God may not have revealed to Jesus all of the laws behind his directions. Perhaps this is precisely why Jesus referred to Lazarus as being dead, but not totally dead – he knew he could raise Lazarus from the dead, because he was commanded to do so by the Father, but he may not have known by what means the miracle was to be accomplished. Martha believed that, after four days, Lazarus’ body would stink from the decay setting in, but the scriptures do not tell us that, when he came out of the tomb, he actually did stink. Two thousand years ago, I don’t believe anyone but God knew the full medical concept of comas – not even Jesus. I do not believe that Jesus had to understand the mechanisms of His miracles to perform them, He only needed to obey His Father.
Was this, then, just a trick? Not on Jesus’ part, as he probably was not aware that Lazarus was not actually dead. Was this just a trick on God’s part? We may have to wait and ask Him that question when we have a chance to meet Him. It is my opinion that God did not put Lazarus into a coma; that occurred as a natural outcome of his illness. But certainly God knew of the coma (even knowing that it was going to happen and when Lazarus would recover) and used this circumstance to show the power He had given to Jesus – the power over life and death. Jesus said of this opportunity, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.”24 When Jesus arrived at the tomb, he, “…lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.”25
Why would God do such a thing – if such a thing was done? Why did God have Jesus perform any miracle? By His miracles, the people believed, but also by His miracles the priests and other Jewish leaders hated Jesus and ultimately murdered Him. It is clear that this particular miracle was a type of the resurrection of the Savior. Even after this miracle, Christ’s disciples found it hard to believe that He had risen from the dead. Beyond that, for additional information, we’ll have to ask God some day. I’m also anxious to ask Luke why he didn’t discuss perhaps the most famous Biblical medical case of all time. Luke described Jesus’ raising the man from the dead being carried out of the city26 (perhaps the greatest miracle associated with that particular man being raised from the dead was that Jesus some way sensed that he was not completely dead – why didn’t Christ raise every dead person He encountered?) and His raising the ruler of the synagogue’s daughter from the dead. He even stated of the girl, “Weep not; she is not dead, but sleepeth.”27 Matthew also recounted that miracle.28 Yet Luke and Matthew omitted the rising of Lazarus, for what reason we do not know. Biblical scholars believe that John’s gospel was the last of the four to be written, and that he often filled in gaps in the other narratives. This is probably why the raising of Lazarus is recorded in John, but it still remains unclear why that miracle was overlooked by the other three gospel authors.
By the way, it isn’t an easy task to bring someone out of a coma. Jesus stood at the entrance to the cave and, “…cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.”29 In so doing, Jesus had to believe that God would do the rest – whatever that was. At that time, and even now in many cases, God alone knows how to retrieve someone from a coma.
Today, there is a precise legal definition of death, which includes no pupil reaction to light or temperature stimulation. There is no evidence of respiration or circulation (including absence of circulation as indicated by angiography). Signs also include absence of jaw and gag reflex and no response to pain stimulation. All of these signs must persist for at least 12 hours, with body temperature above 86 °F (30 °C; which eliminates the possibility of resuscitation following cold-water drowning) and a flat-line electroencephalogram (evaluation of brain wave activity). These signs also have to be in the absence of head injury or drugs that could mimic death-like symptoms.30 In spite of these definitions, there still remains debate within the medical community as to how precisely to define death and exactly what tests are needed to confirm it.
Two thousand years ago almost none of those signs could have been ascertained. As a result, death was much simpler then, and far less precisely determined. Based on the simple criteria of death two thousand years ago, a person in a coma could very well be considered to be dead but have a “sickness…not unto death.”31
Please join me for my weekly discussions of Where Science Meets Religion – The Infinite Creation – 6 PM each Thursday at the Century Ward meeting house Primary room (at 4th and Fredregill, Pocatello). Last week we discussed: Dinosaurs Were Part of the Infinite Creation. This week we will discuss: The Rise of Birds and Mammals. I also will be Zooming the sessions: Meeting ID: 935 754 2152 Passcode: nka
Trent Dee Stephens
1. John 11:1-44
2. Weyhenmyeye, James A., and Gallman, Eve A., Rapid Review Neuroscience, Mosby Elsevier, St Louis, MO, pp. 177–9, 2007
3. Aslanidis, Theodoros, Resuscitation Aspects, In, TechOpen, p. 64, 2017
4. Koehler, Peter J., and Wijdicks, Eelco F.M., Historical study of coma: looking back through medical and neurological texts, Brain 131:877-889, 2008
5. Tacitus: Death of Tiberius (A.D. 37), The Annals of Tacitus; Book VI,50, Loeb Classical Library edition of Tacitus, 1937; uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Tacitus/Annals/6B*.html; retrieved 21 June 2020
6. Seager, Robin, Tiberius, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2008
7. John 11:39
8. Luke 4:38-39
9. Luke 13:11-17
10. Luke 14:1-6
11. Luke 17:12-19
12. Luke 7:12-17; Luke 8:49-53
13. Luke 10:38-41
14. Bible Dictionary, lds.org
15. John 11:15
16. Talmage, James E, Jesus the Christ, Covenant Communications, Salt Lake City, UT 2006
17. John 11:39
18. Shedge, Rutwik; Krishan, Kewal; Warrier, Varsha; and Kanchan, Tanuj; Postmortem Changes; StatPearls Publishing, Treasure Island, FL, 2020, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539741, retrieved 20 June 2020
19. Venosa, Ali, Breaking Point: How Long Can Someone Go Without Breathing? Medical Daily, medicaldaily.com, 2015
20. Lusher, Adam, True tales of people coming back to life during funerals and in mortuaries after being declared dead, Independent, 27 October, 2017; independent.co.uk/news/world/halloween-come-back-life-waking-dead-funerals-mortuaries-confirm-russia-egypt-a8023916.html; retrieved 30 November 2019
21. Whiteman, Honor, The Lazarus phenomenon: When the 'dead' come back to life, Medical News Today, 2017, medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317645.php#1, retrieved 29 November 2019; see also Lusher, Independent, 2017
23. John 5:30
25. John 11:41-42
26. Luke 7:12-17
27. Luke 8:49-53
28. Matthew 9:18-26
29. John 11:43
31. John 11:4