VII. THE RAISING OF THE DEAD.
By George MacDonald
from THE MIRACLES OF OUR LORD
Used with the permission of Johannesen Printing & Publishing.
I LINGER on the threshold. How shall I enter the temple of
this wonder? Through all ages men of all degrees and forms of religion
have hoped at least for a continuance of life beyond its seeming extinction.
Without such a hope, how could they have endured the existence they had?
True, there are in our day men who profess unbelief in that future, and
yet lead an enjoyable life, nor even say to themselves, "Let us eat and
drink, for to-morrow we die;" but say instead, with nobleness, "Let us
do what good we may, for there are men to come after us." Of all things
let him who would be a Christian be fair to every man and every class of
men. Before, however, I could be satisfied that I understood the mental
condition of such, I should require a deeper insight than I possess in
respect of other men. These, however numerous they seem in our day, would
appear to be exceptions to the race. No doubt there have always been those
who from absorption in the present and its pleasures, have not cared about
the future, have not troubled themselves with the thought of it. Some of
them would rather not think of it, because if there be such a future, they
cannot be easy concerning their part in it; while others are simply occupied
with the poor present-a present grand indeed if it be the part of an endless
whole, but poor indeed if it stand alone. But here are thoughtful men,
who say, "There is no more. Let us make the best of this." Nor is their
notion of best contemptible, although in the eyes of some of us, to whom
the only worth of being lies in the hope of becoming that which, at the
rate of present progress, must take ages to be realized, it is poor. I
will venture one or two words on the matter.
Their ideal does not approach the ideal of Christianity for this life
Before I can tell whether their words are a true representation of
themselves, in relation to this future, I must know both their conscious
and unconscious being. No wonder I should be loath to judge them.
No poet of high rank, as far as I know, ever disbelieved in the future.
He might fear that there was none; but that very fear is faith. The greatest
poet of the present day believes with ardour. That it is not proven to
the intellect, I heartily admit. But if it were true, it were such as the
intellect could not grasp, for the understanding must be the offspring
of the life-in itself essential. How should the intellect understand its
own origin and nature? It is too poor to grasp this question; for the continuity
of existence depends on the nature of existence, not upon external relations.
If after death we should be conscious that we yet live, we shall even then,
I think, be no more able to prove a further continuance of life, than we
can now prove our present being. It may be easier to believe-that will
be all. But we constantly act upon grounds which we cannot prove, and if
we cannot feel so sure of life beyond the grave as of common every-day
things, at least the want of proof ought neither to destroy our hope concerning
it, nor prevent the action demanded by its bare possibility.
But last, I do say this, that those men, who, disbelieving in a future
state, do yet live up to the conscience within them, however much lower
the requirements of that conscience may be than those of a conscience which
believes itself enlightened from "the Lord, who is that spirit," shall
enter the other life in an immeasurably more enviable relation thereto
than those who say Lord, Lord, and do not the things he says to them.
It may seem strange that our Lord says so little about the life to
come-as we call it-though in truth it is one life with the present-as the
leaf and the blossom are one life. Even in argument with the Sadducees
he supports his side upon words accepted by them, and upon the nature of
God, but says nothing of the question from a human point of regard. He
seems always to have taken it for granted, ever turning the minds of his
scholars towards that which was deeper and lay at its root-the life itself-the
oneness with God and his will, upon which the continuance of our conscious
being follows of a necessity, and without which if the latter were possible,
it would be for human beings an utter evil.
When he speaks of the world beyond, it is as his Father's house. He
says there are many mansions there. He attempts in no way to explain. Man's
own imagination enlightened of the spirit of truth, and working with his
experience and affections, was a far safer guide than his intellect with
the best schooling which even our Lord could have given it. The memory
of the poorest home of a fisherman on the shore of the Galilean lake, where
he as a child had spent his years of divine carelessness in his father's
house, would, at the words of our Lord my Father's house, convey to Peter
or James or John more truth concerning the many mansions than a revelation
to their intellect, had it been possible, as clear as the Apocalypse itself
When he said "I have overcome the world," he had overcome the cause
of all doubt, the belief in the outside appearances and not in the living
truth: he left it to his followers to say, from their own experience knowing
the thing, not merely from the belief of his resurrection, "He has conquered
death and the grave. O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy
victory?" It is the inward life of truth that conquers the outward death
of appearance; and nothing else, no revelation from without, could conquer
These miracles of our Lord are the nearest we come to news of any kind
concerning-I cannot say from-the other world. I except of course our Lord's
own resurrection. Of that I shall yet speak as a miracle, for miracle it
was, as certainly as any of our Lord's, whatever interpretation be put
upon the word. And I say the nearest to news we come, because not one of
those raised from the dead gives us at least an atom of information. Is
it possible they may have told their friends something which has filtered
down to us in any shape?
I turn to the cases on record. They are only three.
The day after he cured the servant of the centurion at Capernaum, Jesus
went to Nain, and as they approached the gate-but I cannot part the story
from the lovely words in which it is told by St Luke: "There was a dead
man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and much
people of the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion
on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier;
and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto
thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered
him to his mother."
In each of the cases there is an especial fitness in the miracle. This
youth was the only son of a widow; the daughter of Jairus was his "one
only daughter;" Lazarus was the brother of two orphan sisters.
I will not attempt by any lingering over the simple details to render
the record more impressive. That lingering ought to be on the part of the
reader of the narrative itself. Friends crowded around a loss-the centre
of the gathering that which was not-the sole presence the hopeless sign
of a vanished treasure-an open gulf, as it were, down which love and tears
and sad memories went plunging in a soundless cataract: the weeping mother-the
dead man borne in the midst. They were going to the house of death, but
Life was between them and it-was walking to meet them, although they knew
it not. A face of tender pity looks down on the mother. She heeds him not.
He goes up to the bier, and lays his hand on it. The bearers recognize
authority, and stand. A word, and the dead sits up. A moment more, and
he is in the arms of his mother. O mother! mother! wast thou more favoured
than other mothers? Or was it that, for the sake of all mothers as well
as thyself, thou wast made the type of the universal mother with the dead
son-the raising of him but a foretaste of the one universal bliss of mothers
with dead sons? That thou wert an exception would have ill met thy need,
for thy motherhood could not be justified in thyself alone. It could not
have its rights save on grounds universal. Thy motherhood was common to
all thy sisters. To have helped thee by exceptional favour would not have
been to acknowledge thy motherhood. That must go mourning still, even with
thy restored son in its bosom, for its claims are universal or they are
not. Thou wast indeed a chosen one, but that thou mightest show to all
the last fate of the mourning mother; for in God's dealings there are no
exceptions. His laws are universal as he is infinite. Jesus wrought no
new thing-only the works of the Father. What matters it that the dead come
not back to us, if we go to them? What matters it? said I! It is tenfold
better. Dear as home is, he who loves it best must know that what he calls
home is not home, is but a shadow of home, is but the open porch of home,
where all the winds of the world rave by turns, and the glowing fire of
the true home casts lovely gleams from within.
Certainly this mother did not thus lose her son again. Doubtless next
she died first, knowing then at last that she had only to wait. The dead
must have their sorrow too, but when they find it is well with them, they
can sit and wait by the mouth of the coming stream better than those can
wait who see the going stream bear their loves down to the ocean of the
unknown. The dead sit by the river-mouths of Time: the living mourn upon
its higher banks.
But for the joy of the mother, we cannot conceive it. No mother even
who has lost her son, and hopes one blessed eternal day to find him again,
can conceive her gladness. Had it been all a dream? A dream surely in this
sense, that the final, which alone, in the full sense, is God's will, must
ever cast the look of a dream over all that has gone before. When we last
awake, we shall know that we dreamed. Even every honest judgment, feeling,
hope, desire, will show itself a dream-with this difference from some dreams,
that the waking is the more lovely, that nothing is lost, but everything
gained, in the full blaze of restored completeness. How triumphant would
this mother die, when her turn came! And how calmly would the restored
son go about the duties of the world.11*
He sat up and began to speak.
It is vain to look into that which God has hidden; for surely it is
by no chance that we are left thus in the dark. "He began to speak." Why
does not the Evangelist go on to give us some hint of what he said? Would
not the hearts of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, children,
husbands-who shall say where the divine madness of love will cease?-grandfathers,
grandmothers-themselves with flickering flame-yes, grandchildren, weeping
over the loss of the beloved gray head and tremulously gentle voice-would
not all these have blessed God for St Luke's record of what the son of
the widow said? For my part, I thank God he was silent.
11 Those who can take the trouble, and are capable of understanding
it, will do well to study Robert Browning's "Epistle of an Arab Physician."
When I think of the pictures of heaven drawn from the attempt of prophecy
to utter its visions in the poor forms of the glory of earth, I see it
better that we should walk by faith, and not by a fancied sight. I judge
that the region beyond is so different from ours, so comprising in one
surpassing excellence all the goods of ours, that any attempt of the had-been-dead
to describe it, would have resulted in the most wretched of misconceptions.
Such might please the lower conditions of Christian development-but so
much the worse, for they could not fail to obstruct its further growth.
It is well that St Luke is silent; or that the mother and the friends who
stood by the bier, heard the words of the returning spirit only as the
babble of a child from which they could draw no definite meaning, and to
which they could respond only by caresses.
[Note: in the full text Macdonald speaks also on the raising of Jairus'
daughter and Lazarus]
Without the raising of the dead, without the rising of the Saviour himself,
Christianity would not have given what it could of hope for the future.
Hope is not faith, but neither is faith sight; and if we have hope we are
not miserable men. But Christianity must not, could not interfere with
the discipline needful for its own fulfilment, could not depose the schoolmaster
that leads unto Christ. One main doubt and terror which drives men towards
the revelation in Jesus, is this strange thing Death. How shall any man
imagine he is complete in himself, and can do without a Father in heaven,
when he knows that he knows neither the mystery whence he sprung by birth,
nor the mystery to which he goes by death? God has given us room away from
himself as Robert Browning says:-
. . . "God, whose pleasure brought
Man into being, stands away,
As it were, an hand-breadth off, to give
Room for the newly-made to live,
And look at Him from a place apart,
And use His gifts of brain and heart"-
and this room, in its time-symbol, is bounded by darkness on the one
hand, and darkness on the other. Whence I came and whither I go are dark:
how can I live in peace without the God who ordered it thus? Faith is my
only refuge-an absolute belief in a being so much beyond myself, that he
can do all for this me with utter satisfaction to this me, protecting all
its rights, jealously as his own from which they spring, that he may make
me at last one with himself who is my deeper self, inasmuch as his thought
of me is my life. And not to know him, even if I could go on living and
happy without him, is death.
It may be said, "Why all this? Why not go on like a brave man to meet
your fate, careless of what that fate may be?"
"But what if this fate should depend on myself? Am I to be careless
then?" I answer.
"The fate is so uncertain! If it be annihilation, why quail before
it? Cowardice at least is contemptible."
"Is not indifference more contemptible? That one who has once thought
should not care to go on to think? That this glory should perish-is it
no grief? Is life not a good with all its pain? Ought one to be willing
to part with a good? Ought he not to cleave fast thereto? Have you never
grudged the coming sleep, because you must cease for the time to be so
much as you were before? For my part, I think the man who can go to sleep
without faith in God has yet to learn what being is. He who knows not God
cannot, however, have much to lose in losing being. And yet-and yet-did
he never love man or woman or child? Is he content that there should be
no more of it? Above all, is he content to go on with man and woman and
child now, careless of whether the love is a perishable thing? If it be,
why does he not kill himself, seeing it is all a lie-a false appearance
of a thing too glorious to be fact, but for which our best nature calls
aloud-and cannot have it? If one knew for certain that there was no life
beyond this, then the noble thing would be to make the best of this, yea
even then to try after such things as are written in the Gospel as we call
it-for they are the noblest. That I am sure of, whatever I may doubt. But
not to be sure of annihilation, and yet choose it to be true, and act as
if it were true, seems to me to indicate a nature at strife with immortality-bound
for the dust by its own choice-of the earth, and returning to the dust."
The man will say, "That is yielding everything. Let us eat and drink,
for to-morrow we die. I am of the dust, for I believe in nothing beyond."
"No," I return. "I recognize another law in myself which seems to me
infinitely higher. And I think that law is in you also, although you are
at strife with it, and will revive in you to your blessed discontent. By
that I will walk, and not by yours-a law which bids me strive after what
I am not but may become-a law in me striving against the law of sin and
down-dragging decay-a law which is one with my will, and, if true, must
of all things make one at last. If I am made to live I ought not to be
willing to cease. This unwillingness to cease-above all, this unwillingness
to cease to love my own, the fore-front to me of my all men-may be in me
the sign, may well be in me the sign that I am made to live. Above all
to pass away without the possibility of making reparation to those whom
I have wronged, with no chance of saying I am sorry-what shall I do for
you? Grant me some means of delivering myself from this burden of wrong-seems
to me frightful. No God to help one to be good now! no God who cares whether
one is good or not! if a God, then one who will not give his creature time
enough to grow good, even if he is growing better, but will blot him out
like a rain-drop! Great God, forbid-if thou art. If thou art not, then
this, like all other prayers, goes echoing through the soulless vaults
of a waste universe, from the thought of which its peoples recoil in horror.
Death, then, is genial, soul-begetting, and love-creating; and Life is
nowhere, save in the imaginations of the children of the grave. Whence,
then, oh! whence came those their imaginations? Death, thou art not my
father! Grave, thou art not my mother! I come of another kind, nor shall
ye usurp dominion over me."
What better sign of immortality than the raising of the dead could
God give? He cannot, however, be always raising the dead before our eyes;
for then the holiness of death's ends would be a failure. We need death;
only it shall be undone once and again for a time, that we may know it
is not what it seems to us. I have already said that probably we are not
capable of being told in words what the other world is. But even the very
report through the ages that the dead came back, as their friends had known
them, with the old love unlost in the grave, with the same face to smile
and bless, is precious indeed. That they remain the same in all that made
them lovely, is the one priceless fact-if we may but hope in it as a fact.
That we shall behold, and clasp, and love them again follows of simple
necessity. We cannot be sure of the report as if it were done before our
own eyes, yet what a hope it gives even to him whose honesty and his faith
together make him, like Martha, refrain speech, not daring to say I believe
of all that is reported! I think such a one will one day be able to believe
more than he even knows how to desire. For faith in Jesus will well make
up for the lack of the sight of the miracle.
Does God, then, make death look what it is not? Why not let it appear
what it is, and prevent us from forming false judgments of it?
It is our low faithlessness that makes us misjudge it, and nothing
but faith could make us judge it aright. And that, while in faithlessness,
we should thus misjudge it, is well. In what it appears to us, it is a
type of what we are without God. But there is no falsehood in it. The dust
must go back to the dust. He who believes in the body more than in the
soul, cleaves to this aspect of death: he who believes in thought, in mind,
in love, in truth, can see the other side-can rejoice over the bursting
shell which allows the young oak to creep from its kernel-prison. The lower
is true, but the higher overcomes and absorbs it. "When that which is perfect
is come, then that which is in part shall be done away." When the spirit
of death is seen, the body of death vanishes from us. Death is God's angel
of birth. We fear him. The dying stretches out loving hands of hope towards
him. I do not believe that death is to the dying the dreadful thing it
looks to the beholders. I think it is more like what the spirit may then
be able to remember of its own birth as a child into this lower world,
this porch of the heavenly. How will he love his mother then! and all humanity
in her, and God who gave her, and God who gives her back!
The future lies dark before us, with an infinite hope in the darkness.
To be at peace concerning it on any other ground than the love of God,
would be an absolute loss. Better fear and hope and prayer, than knowledge
and peace without the prayer.
To sum up: An express revelation in words would probably be little
intelligible. In Christ we have an ever-growing revelation. He is the resurrection
and the life. As we know him we know our future.
In our ignorance lies a force of need, compelling us towards God.
In our ignorance likewise lies the room for the development of the
simple will, as well as the necessity for arousing it. Hence this ignorance
is but the shell of faith.
In this, as in all his miracles, our Lord shows in one instance what
his Father is ever doing without showing it.
Even the report of this is the best news we can have from the other
world-as we call it.