Can We Raise the Dead Like Jesus Did?

In John’s Gospel, Jesus performs a series of signs to show that he is Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. In John 11, he performs the climactic sign, raising to life his friend Lazarus, who had been dead and buried four days. In the context of this miraculous sign, Jesus proclaims: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (v. 25).

In Acts, we see Peter and Paul doing the same thing: Peter raises Dorcas (Acts 9), and Paul does the same with Eutychus (Acts 20), though neither had been dead four days.

What about Christians today, though? Can we raise the dead like Jesus and certain apostles did? Some Pentecostals would say yes. That Peter and Paul did it indicates this miracle isn’t restricted to Jesus alone. Cessationists, on the other hand, would say no: Peter and Paul were apostles, and the ability to raise the dead ceased after the apostolic era.

This subject has become increasingly popular in recent years thanks to the worldwide influence of Bill Johnson and Bethel Church in Redding, California. As Johnson writes in his Manifesto for a Normal Christian Life:

People often come to me and ask me to pray for them, that they would discover God’s will for their life. I already know God’s will for their life—heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out devils, cleanse lepers.

Bethel has even spawned a ministry called “The Dead Raising Team.” According to leader Tyler Johnson, they are fulfilling Jesus’s commission to raise the dead (Matt. 10:8).

But does Jesus really expect believers to raise the dead as part of “normal Christian life”?

Two Unhelpful Responses

There are two unhelpful responses to this question, from my perspective as someone who believes God still works miracles through his people. The first is a cynical cessationism. Some cessationists deny any possibility of someone being miraculously raised in response to fervent and faithful prayer.

In his two-volume Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Craig Keener meticulously records accounts of resurrection in response to prayer throughout church history and today. He provides accounts from Irenaeus, Augustine, Benedict, Francis Xavier, and John Wesley, as well as numerous contemporary accounts from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and occasionally the West. He also recounts a personal resurrection (his wife’s sister) and many examples from physicians who could medically verify the person was dead before raising them to life by prayer. Keener uses the language of “resuscitation” to refer to those who rise from the dead but will eventually die at the end of their life.

Rejecting all such evidence could reveal an “under-realized eschatology” in which one doesn’t fully apprehend the fullness available to Christians in this age. We mustn’t say categorically that we should never pray for the resurrection of the dead, lest we deny God’s ability to do so today.

However, I believe another extreme found among some Pentecostal teachers is far more destructive. Please note I’m not lumping every charismatic into this category, as plenty of theologically sound charismatics bless the wider body of Christ. Nevertheless, I’m convinced Bill Johnson and Bethel represent an extreme Pentecostalism that is both dangerous and destructive.

I’m convinced Bill Johnson and Bethel represent an extreme Pentecostalism that is both dangerous and destructive.

The expectation that every Christian should be raising the dead is biblically erroneous. The New Testament only provides two accounts of people, besides Jesus, raising the dead (Peter and Paul), and church tradition indicates that while there were examples of resurrection in the early church, they were rare. Johnson’s view is an over-realized eschatology: he believes he has more of the blessings of the future kingdom than he actually does. In fact, an over-realized eschatology is the error committed by the “super-apostles” whom Paul opposes in both 1 and 2 Corinthians (see, for example, 1 Cor. 4:8).

Why do I go so far as to claim this theology is destructive?

Picture a funeral service for a loved one. Friends and family are gathered to grieve the loss of a loved one. Instead of providing words of comfort, though, the minister turns the funeral into a “resurrection service,” commanding the deceased to wake up and walk out of the casket. I know of Bethel-inspired ministers doing this from America all the way to Malaysia. (These are instances in which I either know the minister personally or have received the information from friends and contacts.)

Bethel followers sometimes declare that the healing has already happened, which is both presumptuous and deceptive. And when the dead person isn’t raised as promised, Bethel lacks a biblical theology of suffering to help the grieving family understand why the miracle didn’t occur. At best they’ll say they don’t know; at worst that it’s due to lack of faith, unconfessed sin, or generational sin. (I was part of a Bethel-inspired church for years, so I say this from experience.)

How many people become disillusioned with God when they don’t get their promised miracle?

Life in the ‘Now and Not Yet’

So, how should we respond? How can we hold in tension the fact that we serve a miraculous God who can raise the dead and the reality that this happens infrequently at best?

We need an inaugurated eschatology.

The kingdom of God was inaugurated in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, but it will only be consummated when he returns. His kingdom is both present and future—and resurrection is a future kingdom element. On rare occasion, could God give a foretaste, a glimpse, a preview of our future resurrection, when he miraculously raises a dead person in response to faith-filled prayers? Perhaps. Should we expect it as a normative part of the Christian experience? No.

How, then, ought we live in the “now and not yet” of Christ’s inaugurated kingdom? Though faithful Christians will disagree, there’s no reason why God couldn’t raise the dead today, and it wouldn’t be wrong for us to pray to that end. However, that is by no means God’s normative way of working. The miracle was rare in the New Testament, and it’s been even rarer in church history.

Hebrews 11:35 says:

Women received their dead, raised to life again. Other people were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection.

Some came back from the dead, but others were tortured to death. God raised some, but he will resurrect all on the last day. How should we live in the “now and not yet” of Christ’s inaugurated kingdom? By looking forward to our resurrection when Christ returns, and leaving room for his miraculous intervention as we wait.