Praying for a Resurrection from the Dead4
Enough time has passed since the controversy at Bethel regarding praying for a resurrection that I thought I would share a few brief comments.
Simply put, is it biblical and prudent for us today to pray for a resurrection of the dead?
To come straight to the point: Yes, it is. This issue was everywhere in the news when Olive Heiligenthal, two-year old daughter of worship leader Kalley Heilingthal, died in her sleep. Bethel Church in Redding, California, came together for several days to pray for Olive’s resurrection. They eventually concluded that it wasn’t God’s will to raise little Olive, and a memorial service was conducted. You may not know anything of the Heilingthal family, but I encourage you to pray for them and ask that the God of all comfort would bring peace to their hearts.
The reaction of the broader Christian world to this event was tragic, and in my opinion, sinful. Countless individuals ridiculed and mocked those who were contending for a resurrection. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I have come to expect this from many so-called Christians who are critical of anything pertaining to the ministry of the Holy Spirit and his gifts today. So let me say a couple of things.
First, I think all of us would agree that funerals are a necessary evil. Unfortunately, if God chooses not to raise a person from the dead, there’s little we can do about funerals other than attend them and try to console and encourage those whose loved ones have died. But Jesus took a different approach. Jesus didn’t merely attend funerals. He disrupted them by raising the dead person back to life! A man named Jairus, an official of the synagogue, asked Jesus to heal his daughter. When he arrived, she was already dead and the funeral had begun. Jesus put an end to it by raising her to life (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43). On another occasion, Jesus encountered a funeral procession in the town called Nain. A woman had lost her only son and was preparing for his burial. He stopped the proceedings and raised that young man back to life again (Luke 7:11-17).
Second, this is neither a defense nor criticism of Bethel. You may not agree with how they prayed, but I hope you would find no objection to the fact that they did pray. Why wouldn’t you pray for a child to be raised? Is this something you think either God can’t do or wouldn’t do in our day? On what basis do you believe this?
We read in Acts 9 how Peter raised from the dead a lady named Tabitha. A young man named Eutychus was raised from the dead by Paul in Acts 20. And nothing in the NT even remotely suggests that we shouldn’t pray for resurrections today. So regardless of whether or not you agree with the style of ministry carried on at Bethel or any other church, why wouldn’t you join with them in praying for the resurrection of Olive rather than making fun of those who did?
Third, having said that, we must admit that genuine resurrections are rare, even in biblical times. They weren’t normative then and thus are not normative today. But that doesn’t mean they never occur. Perhaps resurrections are rare because it is no great blessing to have to die twice!
Fourth, as for the occurrence of resurrections in the church age, I direct your attention to the remarkable work of Dr. Craig Keener. Craig is a good friend of mine. He received his Ph.D. in biblical studies from Duke University. He is widely regarded as one of the leading NT scholars in the world today, even by those who disagree with him. He is the current President of the Evangelical Theological Society, a position that I also held about two years ago. He has written two large volumes defending the credibility of miracles in the NT (Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts [Baker Academic, 2011; 1248 pages]).
Beginning on p. 536 of volume one and extending through p. 579, he documents several hundred resurrections that have occurred all across the world, one of which was the raising from the dead of his own sister-in-law. He cites more than 50 resurrections that have occurred in the ministry of Heidi Baker in Mozambique. Craig does not claim that all of the cases he cites are necessarily genuine, but he does provide extensive eyewitness testimony and medical documentation to support the reality of resurrections beyond the time of the early church.
Finally, I suspect that, as glorious as a resurrection from the dead obviously is, such a supernatural event does not always accomplish what we might hope for when it comes to the reaction of the unbelieving world.
Consider again the resurrection of Lazarus, which I believe tells us a lot about human nature and the depravity of the unregenerate heart. Can a miracle such as this lead to the conversion and salvation of a previously unbelieving soul? Yes. We are told in John 11:45 that “many of the Jews . . . who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.” Praise God.
But there was yet another response on the part of many. We see it in several places.
We read in John 11:46 that some immediately run off and tattle on Jesus to the Pharisees. The Pharisees gather together to try to figure out what to do. It seems obvious to us what they should do: bow before Jesus and put your trust in him as the promised Messiah, the one who raises people from the dead! But no, they can’t allow him to go around raising people from the dead! “Everyone will believe in him” (v. 48a) and if they do, they won’t follow us any longer. We’ll lose our popular support. Worse still, “the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (v. 48b). In other words, they are terrified that if they acknowledge what Jesus has done the Romans will take the Temple from them and perhaps even destroy the entire Jewish nation.
They couldn’t care less about a man being raised from the dead! They have seen for themselves undeniable proof of the supernatural, divine power of Jesus. But they don’t care. They only care about protecting their reputation, their property, their status, and their personal comfort. Such is the depth of human depravity apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit! It’s quite simply astounding to ponder.
Look next at John 11:55-57. While in Jerusalem for Passover they stand in the temple looking for Jesus. But they look for him not to follow him or to praise him. No. According to v. 57, “the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” They remain rigidly and defiantly opposed to Jesus, wishing only to rid themselves of him lest he threaten their status in the community.
Both of these incidents tell us once again that not everyone will respond positively to a miracle. We tend to think that if God would only perform a supernatural sign in the presence of our unbelieving friends and family they would turn from their sin and trust Jesus for salvation. Some certainly would. Some did who witnessed the healing of the man born blind (John 9). Some did who then watched Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. But many were so entrenched in spiritual blindness and self-centeredness that not all the miracles in the world could pierce their calloused hearts.
There is one more text that reveals much about human sin and spiritual blindness. It is found in John 12:9-11. There we are told that whereas many came to the temple in Jerusalem to see both Jesus and Lazarus, the “chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well” as Jesus. They were determined to do this because “many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus” (v. 11).
Amazing! Think of it. Here is Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead. And here is Lazarus, undeniably once dead and now alive, standing in their presence. And their response is to say: “Let’s kill them both! We can’t have tangible evidence of this undeniable miracle walking around. We’ll lose our following among the people. They will run off after Jesus if we don’t intervene and kill them both!”
Notwithstanding the recalcitrant unbelief of many in the face of an undeniable supernatural event, I will continue to ask God for a resurrection whenever I’m confronted by death. In fact, I have prayed many times for the dead to be raised. No, I have not as yet witnessed one. But I will continue to cry out to God for funerals to be interrupted. I don’t doubt for a moment that God can answer such prayers, just as he did in the case of Lazarus, Tabitha, and Eutychus. And I will continue to pray for such miracles and to join others when they do so as well. Doesn’t that strike you as a better and more biblical approach than ridicule, scoffing, and mockery? I hope so.