How Do We Rise from the Dead? Let Me Count the Ways

Five modern visions of life after death.

Resurrection — a return to life after death — is a common theme in some Jewish and Christian theology, popular culture, and even everyday life. In March, a Mississippi man awoke on an embalming table after being declared dead. The BBC reported on Christian ministries seeking to raise the dead via prayer. Local church signs still proclaim, “He is risen.” At the movies, a little boy is an eyewitness to heaven (Heaven Is for Real), and on television, loved ones suddenly return after being dead for years with no explanation (Resurrection) and apocalyptic survivors fight reanimated corpses (The Walking Dead).

All this seems far-fetched, but we live in an era with many modern visions of resurrection. Here are five of the most fascinating:

'The_Raising_of_Lazarus',_tempera_and_gold_on_panel_by_Duccio_di_Buoninsegna,_1310–11,_Kimbell_Art_Museum1. The Lazarus Phenomenon

In June 2012, a Brazilian toddler awoke in his open coffin and asked for water — 20 hours after being declared dead. His family believed that this was a miracle, but the child died shortly after. This type of resurrection is labeled the Lazarus Phenomenon: a person previously thought to be dead comes back to life, usually after failed attempts at CPR. It is technically a return of spontaneous circulation. First reported in 1928, the phrase was not coined until 1993. It alludes to Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in the New Testament.

Unlike Lazarus, who reanimated after four days, most of these patients return to life 10 minutes after CPR fails. Out of 38 documented cases, only 14 recovered neurological activities and proved well enough to return home. Most patients died shortly after reviving. Medical researchers speculate that the Lazarus Phenomenon could be a delayed reaction to drugs or hyperinflation of lungs from CPR.

2. Deadraisers

The 2013 documentary Deadraiser follows contemporary Christians who attempt to raise the dead and perform other healing miracles. Funded via Kickstarter, the film follows a group of Christian men as they attempt to follow Jesus’ example as set out in Matthew 10:8 — “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

Likewise, the Dead Raising Team (DRT) is a Christian ministry that provides grief support for those who’ve recently lost loved ones — and offers prayers of resurrection. They claim 11 resurrections. Tyler Johnson (who also appears in Deadraiser) founded DRT after his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Johnson came to believe that “God’s healing” was possible for anyone — and even “that men did not have to suffer the loss of loved ones through death.” Through prayer, DRT combats illness and death and claims that “God desires that every Christian have the faith to raise the dead.” For the likes of Johnson, death is a foe that can be beaten with the right training.

3. Cryonics

In 1976, Robert Ettinger founded the Cyronics Insitute (CI), which preserves humans at low temperatures with the hopes of later revival. CI hosts over 100 human patients and 64 pets, mostly cats and dogs, in cryostasis at its facility in Clinton Township, Michigan. Whole body suspension costs about $28,000.

CI patients seek “a second chance at life.” The recently deceased are cooled to “liquid nitrogen temperatures” to keep the body preserved until advances in science can cure what ails them. In the 2014 documentary We Will Live Again, Ben Best, president and CEO of CI, says, “I think the future will be kinder and gentler than the present.” He remains hopeful that science and medicine will advance (enough) in the next 50 to 100 years to revive CI’s patients.

The goal, however, is not just resurrection, but also the lengthening of life spans and the renewal of youth. For their members, Best states, “Heaven can wait.” CI assumes not only that patients can be revived as they were before, but also that future science will improve them.

4. Consciousness Transfer

In the new film Transcendence, scientist Will Carter (Johnny Depp) has his consciousness uploaded into a supercomputer, “a mighty cyberbrain.” As longtime science fiction fans might guess, things do not turn out well. It doesn’t always end badly. In John Scalzi’s Android’s Dream, a dead man’s brain scan becomes the foundation for an autonomous and intelligent computer program. “Brian” retains his humanity in the face of his supercomputing power.

Digital consciousness is not just for sci-fi fans — it’s also related to religion. The faithful of Terasem believe in the possibility of resurrection as a digital self in the future. They record “mind files,” detailed thoughts and feelings, which are stored in servers until these files can be transformed into a consciousness similar to the one you have now. Terasem blends technology and spirituality in the hopes for future reanimation of a digital self unbounded by the body.

Zombie Walk 2012 - SP5. Zombies

In Dawn of the Dead (1978), Peter (Ken Foree) ominously proclaims, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Zombies are another vision of resurrection, a very unpleasant one. The living dead are ravenous monsters who most often consume the brains and flesh of humans. In zombie media, only the body returns. The zombie might look like the person you once knew, but there’s no consciousness or soul (except in Warm Bodies).

Monsters, according to cultural theorist Edward Ingebretsen, are always warnings about human behavior and strivings. While the other visions of resurrection contain an element of the miraculous and hope, zombies depict our fear that revivals are not inherently positive or welcome. What comes back might not be comforting. Resurrection can go wrong.


Image via Shutterstock.

Kelly Baker
Written by

  • John W. Morehead

    This is helpful. Then there are the millions of Christians around the world who hold an eschatology wherein one day the dead will be transformed with new bodies and where Christ’s Resurrection is understood as the prototype for their eventual transformation. This view continues to influence pop culture beyond religious believers, including some of the views you listed here.