The death, resurrection, and second death of Lazarus

One of the recurring themes in the Gospel of John is that the people who were healed by Jesus faced ostracism and worse from some of their fellow Jews. You see it in the story of the man who was born blind; after Jesus healed him, he was thrown out of the synagogue for refusing to deny that Jesus was the Messiah. And you see it in the story of Lazarus; after Jesus raised him from the dead, he became such a celebrity that the chief priests plotted to have him killed.

This last detail is often forgotten in dramatic depictions of the raising of Lazarus — possibly because John’s gospel never tells us whether the plot succeeded — but a few films have acknowledged it. Three come to mind.

First, and most obviously, there is The Gospel of John (2003), a mostly word-for-word adaptation of the gospel which, naturally, has to incorporate this detail somehow.

As the film’s narrator, Christopher Plummer, recites this part of the gospel, the film shows Lazarus getting up from his table and walking to the window, where he can hear the crowds calling his name. (The image above is taken from this scene.) And as Plummer mentions the plot against Lazarus’s life, Lazarus turns and looks back at Jesus with a troubled look on his face. And that’s about it.

Two other films have gone further than this and have shown the plot carried out — and in both cases, the man who murders Lazarus is none other than Saul, the persecutor of Christians who will one day convert to the faith and, under the name Paul, become the most prolific contributor to the New Testament.

In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Paul is a Zealot who kills Lazarus to destroy the evidence of Jesus’ greatest miracle. The murder is preceded by an odd bit of dialogue in which Lazarus, who doesn’t seem terribly happy to be alive, says he was surprised to find that there wasn’t much difference between death and life:

And then, there is Jesus, the Spirit of God (2007), an Iranian film which tells the story of Jesus from a Muslim point of view. In this film, Paul is hired by the chief priests to kill Lazarus — and he does so late at night, in the street:

Not surprisingly, both films take a rather dim view of Paul overall. The latter film limits its treatment of Paul to this one episode and casts a rather brutish-looking actor in the role, while The Last Temptation of Christ suggests that Paul went on to invent Christianity without any interest in whether it was true or not. So Christians might understandably not want to entertain the scenario offered by these films.

However, given the biblical Paul’s connections to the priesthood, and given that he was involved with the martyrdom of Stephen and others prior to his conversion, it is not impossible that he would have been involved in the plot against Lazarus, too.

The more interesting point, for me, is that the resurrection of Lazarus was not entirely the happy, triumphant thing that many films make it out to be. Yes, it was an incredible example of Jesus’ miraculous power; and yes, it was a potent symbol of the more-permanent resurrection that awaited Jesus and, through him, awaits humanity as a whole. But the fact remains: Lazarus did die a second time. And according to John’s gospel, it might have happened sooner, rather than later.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).