Note: By this title, I in no way intend to imply that Jesus in the tomb was only "mostly dead." The resurrection was the real deal. My point is that Easter demonstrates preeminently God's power of life-giving that takes many other forms as well.
The other day I was reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. She says God "deals so extravagantly and unfathomably in death—death morning, noon, and night, all manner of death...Our bodies are shot with mortality."
Annie Dillard finds an inspiring courage through the memento mori of nature. But when I read this passage, it troubled me. Easter was coming up, and the words of the angel at the tomb echoed in my mind: "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" Jesus Himself said of the Father, "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all are alive to him."
Like Inigo Montoya, I find defining terms helpful. Otherwise we keep using words that do not mean what we think they mean. What is death? Is it merely a terminal physical malady? If so, God’s statement would have been a bit deceptive when He told Adam and Eve that in the day they ate of the forbidden fruit they would surely die; and Satan's retort would make better sense. I find that inconceivable. Death must mean something deeper and wider than just dying.
I find much delight in being able to worship not only the God of everything, but the God of each thing. He is the God of fire. He created it. When I gaze into the searing-red, dancing flames of my campfire, I get to worship the God of fire Himself. I also get to worship the God of love, the God of thunder, the God of the sea. He made all things, but each particular thing speaks something particular about His character. He's not just a general kind of God. Patterns of His character emerge through what He makes and does.
What does Jesus mean, then, that God "is not the God of the dead"? Did we Christians get short-changed? Are we missing a category? Who is the god of the dead? I want a God still when I'm dead. God seems to spend a lot of time trying to get us to change how we think about death and dying. Jesus said to Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die." Then Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. How many times did Lazarus die? If we believe Jesus, we have to say zero—otherwise two times. Zero makes a point worth thinking about.
I don't think that point is merely that death can lead to something good, like "going to heaven." Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. It's odd that we make death such a simple, contained thing. Biblically speaking, both life and death extend way out into the subtleties of our day-to-day experience as moral ways. We are always experiencing forms of Life and of Death, like heat and cold. This is what I think Annie Dillard is on to, whether she knows it or not.
She describes shocking confrontations with death in nature, like a frog slowly being eaten alive by a giant water bug. Death is indeed all around us in nature, but it’s also as much within us as without. It is both visible and invisible. When I hate or envy, blood drips into the carpet. When faith and hope wane, the whiff of necrosis is in the air. Even sorrow and loneliness peer down into a dark valley of dry bones. Death comes in manifold forms, because it is in fact a kingdom spread throughout all of creation. Physical human death is only the most painfully offensive tip of the whole iceberg. We fight death all day long in our hidden fear, despair, lust, and selfishness.
Life, too, is a pattern, and a kingdom at war with—in rebellion against—the kingdom of death. Everywhere life overcomes death, the miraculous hand of God is at work.
C. S. Lewis wrote the book on miracles. I love the way he shows God as the God of life in nature. He suggests that God's miracles always reveal the consistent patterns of the kingdom of life.
"Once in the desert Satan had tempted Him [Jesus] to make bread of stones: He refused the suggestion. 'The Son does nothing except what He sees the Father do'; perhaps one may without boldness surmise that the direct change from stone to bread appeared to the Son to be not quite in the hereditary style. Little bread into much bread is quite a different matter. Every year God makes a little corn into much corn: the seed is sown and there is an increase," Lewis says.
Because death (in all its forms) is so out of character for God, Jesus, even in His victory over death did not claim to be the God of death, but the resurrection and the life—much more akin to the gods of fruitfulness and fertility. Lewis continues, "The vine is one of the blessings sent by Jahweh: He is the reality behind the false god Bacchus. Every year, as part of the Natural order, God makes wine...Once, and in one year only, God, now incarnate, short circuits the process: makes wine in a moment: uses earthenware jars instead of vegetable fibers to hold the water. But uses them to do what He is always doing. The miracle consists in the shortcut; but the event to which it leads is the usual one."
Lewis explains the horror of death we see in nature as a corruption of God's good design for life to be in and through one another: "In the universe, as we now see it, this [vicariousness] is the source of many of the greatest horrors: all the horrors of carnivorousness, and the worse horrors of the parasites, those horrible animals that live under the skin of other animals, and so on. And yet, suddenly seeing it in the light of the Christian story, one realizes that vicariousness is not in itself bad; that all these animals, and insects, and horrors are merely that principle of vicariousness twisted in one way." The greater a good, the more evil its distortion.
We tend to see Easter as a point on a line. And indeed it is the greatest turning point of history. But history is like a canvas, and God seems to like to work in layers. Jesus' words about life and death often slipped past His contemporaries' comprehension because His meaning went much deeper and wider than they could see: "Destroy this temple." "My flesh is true food." Life is best thought of as living and the purpose for living, bound together in one whole package. Likewise, death encompasses dying, but only as one of the many representations of the whole kingdom of evil, confusion, despair, and purposelessness. It’s a single pattern, easy to recognize when we look for its telltale signs.
Jesus said "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly." It's good for me to be on the lookout for the subtle and invisible areas life and death that are at war with one another, especially in my own heart. When I don’t look for them, I ignore the signs of dangers creeping in, scratching for a foothold.
The life Jesus offers is not merely a binary issue of where we go after we die. It's apparently something that can "abound". With Him is the "fountain" of life, and He aims not only to save us from death, but to overwhelm us with every form of living. Life is the pattern of fruitfulness and multiplication that applies not only to loaves and fishes, but to love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness.
If life and death are things that can abound or dwindle, it's indeed possible to be "only mostly dead." We have a lot to learn from Miracle Max. Many have been worn down by despair, but Christ's way of life does not extinguish even a smoldering wick. The life of His kingdom is the kind of stuff that can get in to the smallest places, the way dough can "catch" invisible yeast from the air itself. Read the parables; the kingdom of life is about multiplication. We should never lose hope for the smallest bit of life to get in and grow and make something.
Keep your eyes open for the subtler signs of life, and of death. Creation teaches us that the pattern of life can feel slow, and takes patience, but just try stopping the spring from coming. As Lewis says, "A man really ought to say, 'The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago' in the same spirit in which he says, 'I saw a crocus yesterday.' Because we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring comes slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned."