Chapter 11–Research shows that the ancient Jews of the Bible didn’t focus that much on an afterlife. So it is a little surprising that they also didn’t think that death was final or a total annihilation for a person. The spirit could continue to exist, they believed. Because of that, a tomb of someone who had died was not permanently closed for three days. Relatives visited during that time in case the spirit of the person returned. This gives some helpful background for the times that Jesus raised people from the dead—or brought their spirit back.
In a first instance, Jesus was contacted by Jairus, “a synagogue leader.” Jairus said his daughter was dying. But, as he was speaking, people came and told him, “Your daughter is dead.” Jesus responded saying, ““Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.” Sometime later, when Jesus told the mourners at the house that the girl wasn’t dead but “asleep,” they laughed at him. So he only let the parents and Peter, John, and James into the room. He took the girl’s hand and said, “My child, get up!” Luke’s account then says, “her spirit returned, and at once she stood up” and was offered something to eat (NIV Luke 8:40-56).
In the second instance, Jesus was arriving at a town called Nain (NIV Luke 7:11-16). As he approached the town gate, “a dead person was being carried out” on a bier. This perhaps reflects the practice of carrying the deceased to a tomb within 24 hours of their death. Having compassion for the woman’s tears, Jesus walked over to the bier and said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The young man immediately sat up and began to talk. Obviously the crowd was amazed.
A third instance, the one that challenged conventional thinking the most, was when Jesus called Lazarus to come out of his tomb. Unlike these other two examples, Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. No one expected a spirit to return after that long. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the ever practical sister who didn’t want to open the tomb, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” When Lazarus walked out of the tomb, he was wrapped in the grave clothes required at the time. This “sign” was so dramatic that it scared the Jerusalem Temple priests. It threatened the High Priest so greatly that he was willing to sacrifice “one man” in an attempt to protect Temple worship from the Romans (John 11:1-49).
So why do I relate these three examples? For me, these accounts offer reassurance. They all three show a spirit continuing to exist after dying. And they show that, in some cases, the spirit of a person can even return to a body, particularly one who had recently died with a body capable of being revived. The practice of waiting three days before final burial indicates that a return of the spirit must have been something that had occurred before in ancient times.