Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why Don't North American Christians Raise the Dead?

Jessica lives among the poorest of the poor just north of Lima, Peru. As a very young child she fell ill, languished for a few days, and died. In her neighborhood there were no telephones--no electricity, no running water. Her mother gathered the women in the neighborhood and began to pray. She sent others to find her husband, and still others to find the elders of the church, who showed up within a couple of hours and joined in prayer. After hours more of prayer, Jessica came back to life.
I met Jessica when she was about eight years old. Her mother told me how Jesus had raised her daughter from the dead. I suggested that perhaps her daughter had been very sick, but not dead. With typical North American smugness, I reasoned with the woman that God most certainly had healed the girl, but remained skeptical of outright resurrection. The woman became incensed and told me she knew very well that her daughter had died, and that Jesus brought her back. Mom was pretty angry with me.
Now, every semester I tell my students of the day I met a little girl raised from the dead. Then I watch them process the story--as I did when I first met Jessica. Then we talk about why North American Christians don’t raise the dead.
  • North American Christians don’t raise the dead because we don’t ask. Death has the final word in our society: call the doctor, call the coroner, call the funeral home. Let them make the pronouncement and carry the dead away. Affluent societies are insulated from the dead. The dead are whisked away, cleaned, dressed and embalmed by professionals while we weep and mourn at home. It doesn’t occur to us to stay by their side and ask God to intervene. When a woman named Tabitha died in Joppa, the believers asked Peter to come help. (Acts 9) They didn’t accept death as the final word.
  • North American Christians don’t raise the dead because we don’t see death as an enemy. We attribute every death with God’s sovereign plan, and comfort ourselves with superstitions like “everything happens for a reason.” Yet the Apostle Paul makes it clear that death is indeed the enemy of humankind, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15: 25-26) Death is real, and inevitable, but we have forgotten it is also our foe.
  • North American Christians don’t raise the dead because because we have not learned from Jesus. Jesus taught by his actions as well as his words. Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, CA, reminds us that Jesus ruined every funeral he attended. True, his actions spoke of his own coming resurrection, but perhaps there was something else to learn from his example. Perhaps Jesus raised the dead because not everyone dies in God’s perfect timing. A quick study of those raised from the dead in the gospels and Acts reveal that Jesus and his disciples intervened in the deaths of those who were young, or who died accidentally.
  • North American Christians don’t raise the dead because we have pushed all resurrections into a single event at the end of time. It is a day to be desired: the grave will give up its dead, we will meet him in the clouds. But our faith is about more than the End Times. An illustration: when a local college-aged girl died of a mysterious illness a few years ago we sent a team to pray over her body. One local minister snorted--why would anyone want to bring her back from the dead? She’s happier with Jesus, isn’t she?” The minister could think of no compelling reason for resurrection apart from the Last Day.

Jesus himself gave these instructions to his disciples: “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10: 7-8) The scripture presents the example of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, all involved in resurrection ministry. It’s true that we will all taste death eventually, but it’s not true that all death is for us to taste. The Kingdom of God message should be met with Kingdom of God demonstration. Forgiveness, justice, mercy, community, healing, and yes, resurrections are all signs of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.
Four bullet points aren’t enough to change anyone’s mind. But they should be enough to open the discussion: why don’t North American Christians raise the dead? Believers in Asia, Africa, and South America do. We cannot dismiss their experiences. In many respects believers on those continents are more familiar with death than we are. And more familiar with resurrection.
This is no academic exercise. This discussion is important to individual followers of Jesus. We need to embrace all possibilities of life in Christ, especially, perhaps, the ones that blow our minds.
What do you think? Should we raise the dead? Can we raise the dead? Why are North American and Europeans Christians the exception?


  1. Right on, Ray. I still believe that everything Jesus did in the Bible is for us to do today. But your argument makes perfect sense is to why those things don't happen in America.



  2. How about... We do not raise the dead because we have no faith. North Americans and Europeans are very science driven societies. We are taught to live our lives by the scientific method and unfortunately that doesn't mix so well with faith.

  3. It's strange: the very things that are strengths can eventually become weakness. Western, "1st-world" civilization has contributed so much good to the world through the Enlightenment perspective, but eventually we began to trust in our intellect above God's revelation. Our "smarts" became our weakness.

  4. Currently faith and science seem to be at odds. Yet in centuries past many of the great scientists were believers. (Newton and Pascal come to mind) It seems that in our day the scientific community actually competes with faith for the attention and affection of the public. Science has become a faith all its own, and as such, an idol.

  5. Thanks for this post, Ray. I have not met Jessica on any of my visits to Peru, as far as I know, but I would like to if I get a chance.

  6. This is a good question. I think we view death as good. "He went to a better place," or "At least she isn't suffering now." That didn't stop Jesus. He knew about Heaven in a way that none of us can, being its creator. Yet, he still raised people from the dead. If Lazarus was in a better place, why bring him back? Maybe when someone is too young to die-- a child, a parent of a young one, a newlywed, we should cry out to God and beg Him to reverse the laws of nature and show just how powerful He is. How would the reporters explain that? How about the doctors? How about the funeral director? Boy that would rock!

  7. It was about 2003, in Ventenilla, an hour or so north of DT Lima but still in the Lima District. That area has grown so much! I went back in 2008 and they were beginning to get power and water, and the population had swelled to more than 200,000! Jessica must be in her mid-teens by now.

  8. It would rock, indeed, Paul. I think you're spot on about young people--they seem to be those who Our Lord raised. Lazarus was one of the Lord's best friends, still single, so he would've been 30 or so--at the most.

    All the things we say at funerals are true, and they *are* a comfort: suffering gone, a better place, etc. Yet we've made peace with an enemy. I wouldn't pretend for a minute that everyone we might pray over would come back to life, but I think it's important to have the perspective the Lord wants us to have.

  9. I'd suggest another reason: NorthAmerican Christians don't raise the dead b/c we are not as spiritually plugged-in as those who do. In other words, all of our distractions, entertainments and selfish uses of time draw us away from hearing God in the moment. Those times when I've been tuned in to the Holy Spirit for concentrated times allow for more clarity, insight and USEFULNESS throughout the day, w/o the chaos of all the other input.

  10. ray, great post. these are the kinds of things that need to be talked about in church, it causes us all to take stock of what i "really believe".

    that said, my money is on horse #1 - we simply don't ask, and the reason we don't ask is mostly fear related. when you pray for the sick, the demonized, and especially THE DEAD - things either change or they do not. it's hard to wax poetic. there are no loop holes. most of us hate that.



  11. You bet, Kathleen. It's true for me personally, there are plenty of distractions to going deep with Jesus.

  12. Yeah: who wants to pray a prayer where there's no chance of mis-interpreting the answer? As you said, "things either change or they do not." Still, simple obedience to his leadership will bring about change over time, I hope!

  13. On the one hand, that would give us a reason to work with James 5:16-18, wouldn't it? (Verses that tend to get ignored in many circles.) On the other hand, there's the cases where incessant prayer really occurs in an overdone and offensive way (including some common friends of ours).

  14. I love the passage in James, and have commented on it elsewhere ( precisely because it's the kind of passage that seems to defy belief. We could ask, "Who is easier to imitate, Jesus or Elijah?" and everyone would certainly pick Elijah--but honestly--could we imitate him?

    As to incessant and overdone prayer, yep. I have deep-seated skepticism toward most televangelists. Still, I suspect Elijah was no picnic to be around, either! :-)

  15. This is excellent, Ray! Just the kind of thing the church today needs to hear and discuss (and dare I say, "do"?)

  16. Yes, dare to say, "do."

  17. I write as a Belgian, do I can't say much about North-America. But we don't raise much dead people here either...

    I wonder if evangelicals have reduced to the good news too much to 'Jesus died to take away the punisment of your sins so you don't have to go to hell', instead of 'Jesus has defeated sin, evil, satan and death(!) in his crucifiction and resurrection'. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, and death will be destroyed in the lake of fire in the end, but sometimes we seem focussed on only the punishment we'd get for our sins being taken away. There was a whole lot more happening... The good news is much bigger... But do we really believe that?

  18. Exactly, Brams: "The good news is much bigger." The gospel of the Kingdom of God differs radically from the gospel of Go-To-Heaven-When-You-Die.

    Blessings to you and yours.

  19. It's my first time to your blog and I love the topic you bring up. I've been pondering this question, and even the more basic - why don't western Christians heal the sick. We pray for the sick (for comfort) but Jesus told us to heal the sick (Matt 10 & Luke 10).

    I've seen so many things with my own eyes that I'll believe that Jesus most certainly still raises the dead - now I'm waiting for my opportunity to come across the dead to pray.

    I'll be back, thanks for writing.

  20. First of all, Andrea: welcome! I chose to focus on raising the dead (in part) because of the shock value. But you bring up a valid point--why don't North American Christians pay for the sick more regularly?

    I my opinion I think it has to do with associations with "faith healers" and televangelists. Many local pastors want to distance themselves from those images. But that's a shame, because I think prayer for the sick ought to be a part of every service every time a local church gathers.

    As Adam (with Indigenous Worship) said below, you get immediate feedback about what "works" and what does not! Consequently local pastors tend to shy away from that type of ministry. To your point--if we prayed for the sick more--and saw more healings--we would have greater expectation about praying for the dead!

  21. Initially, I felt some pain when reading this. I guess it reminded me of when my grandfather was dying of cancer and I prayed daily for him to be cured. Then he told me he was ready to go to heaven. His earthly life had become very sad. So, when he died, I knew it was what he wanted. So, I never thought of praying for him to come back to life. But why, not? I'll try it if the opportunity comes around. Just being as open as possible for the spirit to do His work is the most important thing, to me.

  22. Hi Jessica: first of all let me say I'm sorry for your loss. Every single family member is precious, and your comment reminds us that this discussion isn't merely theoretical, it's quite real. We've all lost loved ones, and we've all taken comfort in the truth that suffering comes to an end and our loved one is with Jesus.

    The scripture teaches us that we will all experience death. It would be foolish to think that Christians should stand against death every time it happens. Psalm 116 shares with us how tender and close the Lord is in the process of dying, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."

    Still, we need to be reminded that there was a time when there was no death, and there will come a time when death is no more. We live in the in-between time, and when Christians raise the dead it points to Jesus' mastery over all creation and his coming victory. What we see in the scriptures is the resurrection of the young or in case of unexpected accidents. At least to that degree, we should be ready--and willing--to ask.

  23. Ray,

    With respect for you, brother, I would suggest that the question would be better phrased, "Why doesn't Jesus raise the dead among North American Christians." I don't mean to nit-pick, but only to set the focus on its proper person—the Lord. He alone can raise the dead, though he may use people to do it.
    Secondly, I believe that your question, while it may raise some other issues (e.g. Why don’t Christians see death as an enemy? In what ways are we not learning from Jesus?), is focused on a topic which is not foremost in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. What if Christ’s work of bringing dead hearts to life is more important and utterly God-exalting than Him bringing dead bodies to life? It is possible for Jesus to bring a dead man to life, physically, while his heart remains dead as a stone. But it is impossible for Jesus to raise a man’s dead heart to everlasting life (starting now, not after he dies) and not resurrect him physically, whether on the Last Day or before. And what if resurrection is only a pointer to something greater, namely, the awakening of dead hearts?

    Yes, death is our enemy! The amazing thing is that Jesus has crushed our enemy, so physical death no longer has to be feared, though we still hate it and long to see its full defeat on the last day. My heart is more turned to gaze on Christ when I see Him transform someone’s heart than hear of a dead person raised to life. A dead body is not stubborn. A dead heart is.
    Your Brother,

    Cameron Raulston

  24. Hi Cameron, and welcome! I'm grateful that you took the time to read the post and raise whatever questions or issues you have. Welcome to the conversation.

    Of course, Jesus does it, but--as with everything else he does in the earth--he partners with people. Two things to note here: (1) from the Garden of Eden forward, God's preferred way of accomplishing his will is through human agency ("And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?"), (2) Any valid follower of Jesus would be quick to correct any potential error as to the source of power (cf Acts 14: 8-18).

    Second, I don't think I indicated that the activity of raising the dead is "foremost in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament." In my view, the "gospel of the Kingdom of God" is the foremost topic in the New Testament. There's not enough space here, but a short answer is that raising the dead is a sign of the Kingdom's in-breaking--that is--the powers of the age to come are already breaking into the here and now. You'll get no argument from me that the new birth ("being born from above") is of greater importance, but in this particular post the subject is about the expectations of believers. Many (most?) believers have almost no expectation that signs and wonders should accompany the preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. (Acts 4: 29-30 or also Hebrews 2: 1-4) On other continents and in other centuries, the church cannot conceive of a message preached but not demonstrated.

    My purpose in this post was to point out the radical disparity between the church in the book of Acts and the 21st century North American church. Churches from both centuries possess the same ultimate goals, but the 21st century North American church finds itself virtually powerless in any significant New Testament sense.

    Hey, Congrats on the new baby!

  25. Ray,

    Thanks for responding. I agree wholeheartedly with your explanation that Jesus uses His followers to carry out His purposes. Reading back over my response, I realize that I unintentionally implied that you indicated raising the dead was “foremost in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament.” I didn’t mean to, but I just wanted to clarify Whose power was at the root of everything.
    When you say that the “21st century North American church finds itself virtually powerless in any significant New Testament sense,” what do you mean? Isn’t the preaching of the Gospel and the regeneration of people’s hearts powerful in a New Testament sense? What about the acts of “forgiveness, justice, mercy, community” that abound in many gatherings of believers in North America? Are only healings and resurrections powerful, or are they more powerful than these other signs of the Kingdom?
    I am not sure, honestly, what I think about praying for dead people to be raised. When people I know die, will I want God to bring them back? Yes! But if they are believers, and if it is true that their souls are instantly with Jesus, why should they want to, and how would it benefit them or people who see it? If people don’t believe in Jesus based on the testimony of God’s Word, they may not believe even if they see the resurrection of a dead man. In fact, in our thoroughly “rational” society, many would find ways to explain it away. So I guess my question is, why is there a need for North American Christians to raise the dead? Is the testimony of the Bible and ordinary signs such not enough? You are right in saying many, if not most North American Christians do not expect signs and wonders to accompany the message of the Kingdom. After reading your post, I realize that I am probably one of them. But does this need to change? I’m just not sure! (By the way, I wrestled with this same question throughout much of college, and I’m still not certain that I’ve arrived at an answer. But I do know that I believe without seeing healings, resurrections, or any of the other extra-ordinary signs and wonders that occurred in the early church.)

  26. Hi Cameron!

    There’s no question that the ultimate in healing is the restoration of relationship with the Father. I think everyone has that goal in mind when we talk about mission. The new birth in Jesus Christ is God’s saving power, and there is no substitute--you must be born again.

    Here’s what this post comes down to: do we read the book of Acts as a normative description of church life, or do we read it as the history of the early church? Believers in Asia, South America and Africa receive the book of Acts as normative. Western Christians read it like a history book. A history book describes what happened long ago. The events are a safe distance away from our lives, and they do not challenge Christians to re-think their way of life. As to why we should even think in terms of raising the dead, I can only quote a line from the original post, “Perhaps Jesus raised the dead because not everyone dies in God’s perfect timing.”

    Try reading the book of Acts and looking for the connection between signs and wonders and success in the gospel. The goal is not signs and wonders, but a “sign” points people toward the reality. The reality is Jesus. As to the tendency of Westerners to “explain away” the miraculous intervention of God, I assure you that those who have been touched have no desire to explain it away--they rejoice! The ones apt to do the explaining are those watching from the outside.

    Here are three points to consider:
    (1)You will discover the use of of the miraculous in Acts chapters 1,2,3,4,5,6, 8,9,10,12,13,14,16,18,19,20,27, and 28. My point: you described the “extra-ordinary signs and wonders” of the early church, yet they were not extraordinary to those believers. Nor are they extraordinary to the majority of believers around the world today. We are the ones in need of a change.
    (2)The ministry of Jesus is filled with the demonstration of the in-breaking of the kingdom. He not only proclaimed the kingdom, he demonstrated it. He instructed his disciples to do the same (Matt 10, Luke 9, Luke 10, Mark 16, Acts 1). His most amazing statement regarding the role of the miraculous is found in John 14: 11-14. What are we to do with that?
    (3)The witness of the third-world church is largely ignored by Western Christians, who have money and education, but are not very effective in their witness. I think we should learn from our brothers and sisters around the world.

    I know your questions come from a sincere heart and an honest desire for dialogue. I welcome them! I’m sincerely not trying to “win an argument,” just sharing the passion of my heart. Blessings to you, Cara, and you wonderful new addition!

  27. Back in the 90s I heard evangelist Guy Chevreau tell about a policeman who prayed to raise the dead every time he encountered a fatal accident or crime. He viewed it as "practice", figuring that one of those times Jesus would do it! Let us all be that faithful!

  28. That's one policeman I would want at my side in an auto accident. Thanks for sharing that!

  29. Thank you so much for your FAITHFUL words! It is so heartening. What was the single most significant thing Jesus did? Wasn't it RAISING HIMSELF FROM THE DEAD? He could have come back transformed as a highly elevated spirit but he came back to a human body. What did he do that created the most profound joy in his observers? He reversed death. I am rejoicing at the numbers of my fellow believers who are asking God to restore their loved ones they can't part with. Paul said be baptised {purified} for the dead. Doesn't this mean we can affect the state of the hearts of our loved ones where they are so that they are equipped to be able to be restored?

  30. I can offer a reason... because in Lima, Peru, where they don't have running water much less adequate medical care, her "death" was a misdiagnosis by her family. This has commonly occurred throughout history, and I'm sure it's still common in the third world.

    In the modern world, we have adequate technology to confirm death.

  31. Where is your faith...what a miserable life you live not to take in the account of miracles and blessings from our Heavenly Father.

  32. My life is just fine. I don't feel the need to invent miracles in order to find satisfaction in my life.

  33. I was raised from the dead. I'm not joking, I'm not being sarcastic. This is the first time I've spoken about it. People, my family to be specific, are now frightened of me. My mother told me "You're not even human anymore." I think this is why North American Christians do not call upon the Holy Spirit to raise the dead. North Americans are afraid of authentic miracles. Authentic miracles mean people must believe in God, must alter themselves to God rather than altering God to themselves. North Americans do not want their beliefs challenged, they do not want beliefs replaced with knowledge and experience--they like the Christian facade they live behind. Anything that threatens that facade such as an encounter with God is viewed as evil.