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Commentating on John 11:11-14,

he said to them: "Lazarus our friend sleepeth; but I go that I may awake him out of sleep." His disciples therefore said: "Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well." But Jesus spoke of his death; and they thought that he spoke of the repose of sleep. Then therefore Jesus said to them plainly: Lazarus is dead.

St. Augustine wrote (quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas's Catena Aurea on John 11):

It was really true that He was sleeping. To our Lord, he was sleeping; to men who could not raise him again, he was dead. Our Lord awoke him with as much ease from his grave, as you awake a sleeper from his bed.

So, which is it? Was Lazarus's soul united to his body (and in a coma) or not (thus truly dead)?

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    Was Lazarus's soul [still] united to his body? I don't think we can say. Was he in a coma (as opposed to dead, as we would understand it in modern medicine)? No; he was dead. What Augustine is saying is merely the Christian teaching of "soul sleep"; that a person that is medically dead — indeed, a person whose physical body has been totally destroyed and its constituent subatomic particles subsequently incorporated into other living humans — is "sleeping" in a theological sense.
    – Matthew
    Jan 31 at 21:28
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    I don't think it's constructive to try to explain the situation in terms of modern medical vocabulary: we can't know what modern science would have determined. The key thing is that in the perception of the family at the time he had passed away, there was zero hope of recovery, and Jesus reversed that. Feb 1 at 14:35
  • @MichaelKay What prompted my question was this one about where Lazarus's soul was before Jesus miraculously resurrected him.
    – Geremia
    Feb 1 at 17:31
  • @MichaelKay if Lazarus wasn't dead-dead, then Jesus did not commit a miracle in bringing him back to life. Is that not an important detail? Or is it assumed these days that bringing Lazarus back from the dead is more metaphor than literal?
    – BruceWayne
    Feb 2 at 13:49
  • @BruceWayne My take on this is that when we read the Bible we have to understand what the words meant to the people who wrote them. Lazarus was dead according to what that meant at the time, which is not necessarily the same as what it means today; scientific knowledge has changed over 2000 years, and that profoundly affects the meaning of everyday words like "dead". Feb 3 at 18:20

4 Answers 4

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  1. The ambiguity of Jesus' initial answer confused the disciples so he elaborated:

11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (John 11:11-15)

  1. Martha commented on the odor:

39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” (John 11:39)

Thus by clarification as to the true state of Lazarus, mentioning how many days he had been dead, and drawing attention to physical evidence like odor the author creates a richly textured account that leaves no doubt that the man was truly dead and the people paid enough attention to typical sensory evidence to render such a judgment.

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    I agree that the passage is clear that Lazarus was actually dead; however, that passage is not describing the presence of an odor as physical evidence of Lazarus' death; Martha was simply stating that since he had been dead for so long, there would be an odor if they followed Jesus' command to take away the stone covering the tomb. There is no mention of whether there actually was one or not.
    – Herohtar
    Feb 2 at 20:45
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Was Lazarus in a coma?

The short answer is no.

In fact the Gospel according to St. John is very clear on the subject matter.

The resurrection of Lazarus is one of Jesus’ public miracles. Being in a coma would not have made such a great manifestation of Jesus’ power to make the impossible possible. People occasionally come out of comas. People do not normally raise from the the dead!

Jesus’ words to his apostles were very clear on this issue: ”Then therefore Jesus said to them plainly: Lazarus is dead.”

11 Now there was a certain man sick, named Lazarus, of Bethania, of the town of Mary and Martha her sister.

2 (And Mary was she that anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair: whose brother Lazarus was sick.)

3 His sisters therefore sent to him, saying: Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.

4 And Jesus hearing it, said to them: This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God: that the Son of God may be glorified by it.

5 Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister Mary, and Lazarus.

6 When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he still remained in the same place two days.

11 These things he said; and after that he said to them: Lazarus our friend sleepeth; but I go that I may awake him out of sleep.

12 His disciples therefore said: Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well.

13 But Jesus spoke of his death; and they thought that he spoke of the repose of sleep.

14 Then therefore Jesus said to them plainly: Lazarus is dead.

15 And I am glad, for your sakes, that I was not there, that you may believe: but let us go to him.

32 When Mary therefore was come where Jesus was, seeing him, she fell down at his feet, and saith to him: Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.

33 Jesus, therefore, when he saw her weeping, and the Jews that were come with her, weeping, groaned in the spirit, and troubled himself,

34 And said: Where have you laid him? They say to him: Lord, come and see.

35 And Jesus wept.

36 The Jews therefore said: Behold how he loved him.

37 But some of them said: Could not he that opened the eyes of the man born blind, have caused that this man should not die?

38 Jesus therefore again groaning in himself, cometh to the sepulchre. Now it was a cave; and a stone was laid over it.

39 Jesus saith: Take away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith to him: Lord, by this time he stinketh, for he is now of four days.

40 Jesus saith to her: Did not I say to thee, that if thou believe, thou shalt see the glory of God?

41 They took therefore the stone away. And Jesus lifting up his eyes said: Father, I give thee thanks that thou hast heard me.

42 And I knew that thou hearest me always; but because of the people who stand about have I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.

43 When he had said these things, he cried with a loud voice: Lazarus, come forth.

44 And presently he that had been dead came forth, bound feet and hands with winding bands; and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus said to them: Loose him, and let him go.

45 Many therefore of the Jews, who were come to Mary and Martha, and had seen the things that Jesus did, believed in him. - John 11:1-6;11-15;32-45

Now if Jesus said plainly that Jesus said that Lazarus is dead, it is not possible that Lazarus was in a coma.

St. Augustine equally wrote (quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas's Catena Aurea on John 11):

He then declares His meaning openly: Then said Jesus to them plainly, Lazarus is dead.

He had been sent for to restore Lazarus from sickness, not from death. But how could the death be hid from Him, into whose hands the soul of the dead had flown? And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you might believe; i.e. seeing My marvelous power of knowing a thing I have neither seen nor heard. The disciples already believed in Him in consequence of His miracles; so that their faith had not now to begin, but only to increase. That you might believe, means, believe more deeply, more firmly.

Theophylactus in the same source is quoted as the following:

Some have understood this place thus. I rejoice, He says, for your sakes; for if I had been there, I should have only cured a sick man; which is but an inferior sign of power. But since in My absence he has died, you will now see that I can raise even the dead putrefying body, and your faith will be strengthened.

Thus Lazarus was dead and not in a coma!

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Augustine is just playing with words here, for literary effect. He's taken up the idea that death, for Christians, is like sleep (seen here in John, but also throughout the New Testament), and making a little word play out of it. He's not asserting that Lazarus was sleeping-but-not-dead.

The author of Hebrews has a similar thing: “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death” (11:19). Of course in that case, Isaac didn't literally die; Abraham just got him back from the dead “in a manner of speaking.”

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  • This sort of meaning for words like "sleep" seemed to be somewhat consistent throughout the NT, in the case of believers. They weren't really "dead dead", so to speak, but would live forever with Christ. And so in the NT, we see evidence that the early church didn't fully view them as actually being dead, even if they were so with regards to this life. Feb 1 at 22:41
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Jesus was only using a Euphemism when he said Lazarus was "sleeping" , which is corroborated by his later statement that Lazarus was indeed dead. There might have been, in biblical times, a separate phrase for coma' in which the breath and pulse of the person , through faint, could be felt. History has many instances of people getting buried alive (mostly the victims of deadly contagious diseases ) , simply because their kith and kin had taken them for dead .

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