On 14 December, a little girl died. Her name was Olive; she was two years old. She was the daughter of Kalley Heiligenthal, a worship leader at Bethel Church in Redding CA.
Her mother took to social media to ask that people pray with her for her daughter to be raised from the dead. For seven days she prayed, and millions of Christians prayed alongside her, some specifically for resuscitation** and others for God to comfort the parents in their grief.
On the seventh day–this past Saturday, 21 December–the parents evidently held a memorial service for their daughter. I assume they have now released her to God, stopped praying for her to be raised, and now live in confident hope of seeing her again in the resurrection.
**(Why “resuscitation”? I explain below.)
Do I believe in a God who raises the dead?
I believe in a God who CAN raise the dead. Look, I believe in a God who caused and maintains all of creation. Whenever–13.8 billion years ago, or whenever–he set creation in motion, for his purposes, and ever since he has been guiding the course of all matter, energy, and time. If I can believe THAT, how can I balk at believing that he can raise the dead?
I believe God CAN raise the dead, but do I believe that he DOES raise the dead? That’s a harder question.
I feel like Martha: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (Jn 11.24) Like her, I do not expect God to raise the dead in the here and now.
And yet, even as I quote Martha, I remember what she saw that day.
I am confident that we have victory over death, but it is now-and-not-yet, incomplete.
I hear reports of resuscitations of Christians in Africa, Asia. I explain them away; these are near-death experiences or premature pronouncements of death, not corpses who have been in the grave for three days and who suddenly rise and walk.
I believe God CAN raise the dead, but I hedge my bets, keep my faith safe, by defining the question so that what I believe does not get tested.
We are talking about resuscitation, not resurrection. Resuscitation is where someone is brought back from death to live a normal life, like Lazarus in John 11. Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, but Lazarus died again someday.
Resurrection is where someone goes through death and comes out the other side, with a resurrected body (2 Cor 5.1-5), never to die again. Resurrection transforms the resurrected; they are both the same and not the same as they were.
Think of Jesus’ body after his resurrection. He still bore the scars of his crucifixion, he was still physical; he ate to demonstrate this, for example. But his followers had difficulty recognizing him. He had different abilities, not bound by the physical limitations that bind us normal humans, which had bound him before his crucifixion. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, he had taken off the corruptible and put on incorruptibility. This (Jesus’ resurrection) is the only resurrection that has fully taken place.