Raising the dead, with and without hope

April 16, 2014

As Easter approaches, raising the dead is at the forefront of my mind. But I think of a different vision of resurrected dead, zombies. The popular monsters reanimate as gruesome bodies; their essential natures, spirits, or souls are absent. Zombies are a reckoning of the horror of the dead coming back to life. Their shambling presence is a cruel mimicry of the living.

Some claim that Jesus was a zombie. Easter becomes Zombie Jesus Day, a time to reflect on the living dead and eat lots of chocolate. With these monsters, however, resurrection is tragic. Hope disappears.

In February, Walter Williams made national news when he came back to life. He died at his home under care of a hospice nurse and his family. When the coroner checked Williams’s body, he found no pulse. Williams was placed in a body bag and delivered to Porter and Sons Funeral Home in Lexington, Mississippi. While on the embalming table, he began to kick and breathe. The coroner proclaimed that Williams’s return to life was a miracle from God. His daughter, Mary, later affirmed that God brought her father back to life because of his faith. Not surprisingly, the unexplained event garnered much attention. Was this an example of the miraculous? Was this an act of God? It was for Williams’s family as they gained something that other families often wish for, a little more time with the departed. Sadly, the 78-year-old died two weeks later of natural causes. 

While Williams’s return appears an isolated incident, some evangelicals seek to raise the dead as a part of their healing ministries. Following the example of Jesus and the exhortation to raise the dead (Matt. 10:8), the participants pray over the recently departed to bring them back to life. One such ministry, Global Awakening, centers on physical healing. Raising the dead, then, becomes an extension of their healing message. A recent documentary, Deadraiser, follows a variety of Christians who attempt resurrection. 

Resurrection, however, is a tricky business for people past and present. Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), the founder of Christian Science, thought resurrection was possible. Eddy believed that Christian Scientists could move beyond the sinful material world and uncover the true spiritual nature of God and humans. Following the example of Jesus, Christian Scientists hoped to heal the sick, exorcise demons, and raise the dead. Eddy suggested that Jesus was the first to realize that humans were spiritual beings trapped in matter. In Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875), she wrote, “Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal.” The material world ensnares us and obscures our inherent spiritual nature. Jesus performed feats that seemed miraculous because he recognized his spiritual connection to God. Once Christian Scientists untangled themselves from matter, they would be able to heal like Jesus did. 

After Eddy's death in 1910, the Church of Christ, Scientist, supposedly installed a phone in Eddy’s tomb in case of her resurrection. Unsurprisingly, this rumor proves false. The true story is more pragmatic. At Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her casket resided in the receiving tomb while her grave was prepared. A guard stood there to prevent vandalism, and the phone was there for contacting the guard. All that aside, the image of Eddy’s telephone is a reminder of the hopeful nature of her ministry. Maybe Eddy would reappear. Maybe she wouldn’t. The phone would be there waiting either way. 

The raising of the dead, in Christian Science and current ministries, evokes a hope that death can be defeated. Yet zombies remain the cautionary tale that resurrections might be awful rather than awe-filled.

Our weekly feature Then and Now harnesses the expertise of American religious historians who care about the cities of God and the cities of humans. It's edited by Edward J. Blum and Kate Bowler.


resurrection-inspired Christianity

I’m grateful Dr. Baker dispelled the egregious “telephone in the tomb” myth. It’s one of many similar fictions that have long haunted – figuratively speaking! - the historical memory of Mary Baker Eddy.

While trivial in itself, the tale sends a message that the Christian Science leader couldn’t possibly have had anything meaningful to say on a subject as profound and meaningful to serious Christians as the resurrection.

I’m a Christian Scientist who has read and benefited from Christian Century for four decades. In this week after Easter, when many readers will themselves have pondered the meaning of the cross and the empty tomb, perhaps it’s fitting to offer a bit more perspective on Eddy’s unembarrassed conviction that death will ultimately “be defeated.”

Of course, the simple basis for this conviction was in Scripture. She shared St. Paul’s view of death as “the last enemy that shall be destroyed.” And unlike many of her late nineteenth-century contemporaries, she did see death as an enemy, not an event to be sentimentalized or attributed to the divine will or a phenomenon merely to be accepted as part of the natural order. In her view, Christ’s resurrection slashed through ordinary conceptions of the “natural order.”

Her insistence on the spiritual nature of reality followed. It wasn’t essentially a philosophical position on spirit and matter in the abstract. Nor would she have accepted the gnostic formulation that “humans are spiritual beings trapped in matter.” On the contrary, she saw the resurrection as evidence that humanity is not “trapped” in matter and mortality. If the resurrection actually happened, after all, then physical laws and biological processes clearly aren’t the invariable definers and determiners of life.

Her most radical conclusion concerned the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection for today. It wasn’t merely an event from the remote past to be memorialized. The resurrection not only illumines the darkness of mortal existence. It changes everything about how we see the universe.

She wrote: “Jesus overcame death and the grave instead of yielding to them. He was ‘the way.’” We all, she felt, need to experience something of the tremendous change that the disciples experienced as a result of what they had witnessed.

The challenge is always to live this resurrection-inspired Christianity and not merely talk a good game. Eddy emphasized the “immense spiritual growth” this discipleship requires. She spoke of Jesus’ “infinite distance above us” and the “all-conquering love” that raised him from the grave. Of this “triumph over death,” she stated: “I have by no means spoken of myself, I cannot speak of myself as ‘sufficient for these things.’”

In an unusual church by-law, Eddy advised her church members to observe Easter with “gratitude and love . . . each day of all the years” and “daily Christian endeavors for the living whereby to exemplify our risen Lord.” To put a telephone in a tomb would not have represented “hope” to her; it would have represented delusion. The real Easter hope lay in God's “all-conquering love” in all its immediacy and infinite scope. Whatever else it may be, her teaching is a reminder that this love is real and vital to our existence, and that Christianity is more than an uplifting human ideal. The “Spirit of him that raised up Jesus,” in Paul’s words, is the Spirit that heals us today and moves us forward, often in spite of ourselves.