IF YOU WERE TO WALK DOWN THE STREET of an older Middle Eastern town such as the old city of Jerusalem, do not be surprised if you were to come upon a funeral procession like the one described in St Luke’s Gospel. Some people still walk from the home of the departed following the clergy and the bearers carrying the body, perhaps wrapped in a shroud, in an open coffin or on a bier. A Christian funeral procession might stop at the church before continuing on to the cemetery. The body might be placed in the ground simply wrapped in the shroud, particularly in Jewish or Muslim burials.
Christ encounters such a funeral at the Galilean village of Na’in, near Nazareth. “And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, ’Do not weep.’ Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, ‘Young man, I say to you: ‘arise.’ So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother” (Luke 7:11-15).
Resurrection or Resuscitation?
We commonly think of what Jesus did for this young man as “raising him from the dead.” Speaking in this way, it is easy to mistake this event as being the same as Christ’s own resurrection. This is clearly not the case.
The Lord Jesus rose to the new and eternal life of victory over death. The ways in which He manifested Himself were clearly different from our normal earthly experience. He entered rooms when the doors were closed, appeared in other forms (to Mary Magdalene and the disciples on the road to Emmaus) and ascended to His Father with the promise of a future return.
We know of no such happenings in the life of the young man of Na‘in. He resumed the earthly life he had before. As the Gospel says, the Lord gave the young man back to his mother. Speaking precisely we should say that he was resuscitated or revived, rather that resurrected.
The Gospels contain three reports of resuscitations, each one being slightly different. Both Mark and Luke report the revival of Jairus’ daughter. Her father, “a ruler of the synagogue” (Luke 8:40) told Jesus that his daughter was dying. By the time they got to the man’s house they were told that the girl had died. “Now all wept and mourned for her; but [Jesus] said, ‘Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.’ And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead. But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, ‘Little girl, arise.’ Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat” (Luke 8:52-55).
Unlike the girl, who had just died, the young man in Luke 7 had been dead for at least some hours. Customarily in the Middle East people would be buried on the day that they died. The third and even more amazing revival is, of course, that of Lazarus who had died four days before Jesus called him from the tomb (cf., John 11). While each of these people were returned to the same earthly life which they had before, the Fathers saw them as indications of the true resurrection to come. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, teaches:
“Christ is the Destroyer of death and of corruption: He is the One ‘in whom we live and move and are.’ He it is who has restored the nature of man to that which it originally was; and has set free our death-fraught flesh from the bonds of death. …
“We understand that those persons who were restored to life by the power of Christ are a pledge of the hope prepared for us of a resurrection of the dead: namely, this young man, Lazarus of Bethany, and the daughter of the chief of the synagogue. …
“For it was by reason of Adam’s transgression of the commandment that we, having our faces turned away from God, returned to our dust: for the sentence of God upon human nature was, ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ But at the time of the consummation of this world, the face of the earth shall be renewed: for God the Father by the Son in the Spirit will give life to all those who are laid within it.” (Sermon 36 on Luke).
The Near-Death Experience
In 1975 physician and psychologist Raymond Moody authored Life After Life, recounting a number of cases where people were pronounced clinically dead after heart attacks, accidents or other traumas. They regained consciousness after a period of time, anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours, and told of being able to see their physicians working on them or viewing their death from outside their bodies. One accident victim only came to when he felt a pathologist begin to autopsy him!
Most spoke of beatific after death experiences such as a feeling of peace and happiness, meeting spiritual beings and/or dead loved ones and seeing a radiant light. Some – upwards of twenty percent in one study – spoke of frightening experiences: extreme fear, panic or anger, demonic creatures or embittered human-like voices that mock or taunt the subjects.
Many of our otherwise skeptical contemporaries have concluded that near-death experiences prove the existence of an afterlife. Some believing Christians have taken these recorded experiences in our own day as confirmation of the Church’s faith.
In any case, the Lord did not promise to take away death; rather, He died with us and instead of us. He has transformed death into a bridge for us to cross over to paradise in order to await the great Day of the Lord. This is why St Augustine says, “It is more of a miracle that someone rises to live forever than that he rises to die again.’
Today’s near-death experiences in some ways reinforce the experience of the saints.
St Bede the Venerable (673-735) reported in his Ecclesiastical History: “There was a certain householder in that district of the Northumbrians which is called Incuneningum, who led a godly life, with all his house. This man fell sick, and his sickness daily increasing, he was brought to extremity, and died in the beginning of the night; but at dawn he came to life again, and suddenly sat up, whereat all those that sat about the body weeping fled away in great terror; only his wife, who loved him better, though trembling and greatly afraid, remained with him. And he comforting her, said, ‘Fear not, for I am now in very deed risen from the death which held me, and permitted again to live among men; nevertheless, hereafter I must not live as I was wont, but after a very different manner.’”
Likewise St Athanasius of the Kiev Caves (+1176) reported retuning to this life after two days in the next world. He refused to discuss what he saw there, saying only, “Even if I were to tell you, you would not believe me or listen to me.” When he was pressed to explain, he would only say “Repent and pray!”