Lazarus and the Toilet Paper


Buried within this true, but weird, anecdote, is a fact that hardly anyone ponders: “How many rolls of toilet paper does it take to completely wrap a human being—head, body, arms, and legs?”

One of my enriching academic experiences was to break away from the science building occasionally and audit university classes in other disciplines. One extended illustration of that was multiple semesters attending Spanish classes, starting at the beginning, and continuing through some (for me) rather difficult material. I learned a lot of new words and grammar and was exposed to cultures and authors I had never encountered before as a totally English speaker and reader. I tried to be a full participant in the classes, taking the tests and fulfilling the class assignments.

In one class, an assignment was that each student was to choose a Bible story and tell it to the class in Spanish. We could use props if necessary, but we could not write out and read the story: we had to tell the story in Spanish. We were on our own with the text itself.

This was a challenging assignment for me and, I suspect, others in the class. Which story seems to be the simplest? It should not be too long or complex; that would increase the chances that we would forget something and panic. Panicking in another language would not be good. On the other hand, the story needed to be interesting. Probably most of the students would recognize many of the best-known Bible stories and, even if the presenter erred in explanation, the listeners’ history could fill in missing details.

I chose what I feel is one of the most dramatic incidents in the New Testament, the raising of Lazarus. It has interesting multiple characters, some action, some unexpected aspects, and appears only once (in the Gospel of John), so there are not multiple versions to try to harmonize.

The story features a lot of movement. When it opens, Jesus is in Jerusalem and Lazarus is ill in nearby Bethany. Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, are clearly old friends of Jesus. This is the same Mary who, in another incident, anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. These are loved friends.

Messengers come to Jesus to tell him of Lazarus’ illness. Rather than going immediately, however, Jesus delays two days before making the walk to Bethany and during that delay, Lazarus dies. This causes both Martha and Mary to say, when Jesus does arrive, the same thing, “If you had been here, he would not have died.”

Jesus uses the opportunity to do some serious teaching to Martha, Mary, and the others gathered. He talks about life and death in ways they have not heard before, words that you and I need to hear also but are equally hard for us to understand.

As the emotional ending of the story nears, Jesus weeps and approaches the tomb. More action occurs as he requests the grave entrance stone be moved aside.

My Spanish rendition of the story was moving along successfully, and we were reaching the climax.

My son (who we will call “Lazarus” for this story) was a college student at the time. A friend (who we will call “Accomplice”) was with him outside the closed door of the classroom. In preparation for this climax, “Accomplice” had totally wrapped “Lazarus” in toilet paper. (This took only one complete roll to the surprise of each of us.)

As the story concluded, I spoke as Jesus and pointed with both arms and hands at the closed door and shouted “Lázaro, sal de ahí!” (In English, “Lazarus, come here!) Accomplice opened the door and Lazarus walked stiff-legged and stiff-armed into the classroom.

The class irrupted into laughter and applause. I smiled. The professor smiled. I could not tell whether Lazarus was smiling because his face except for eyes was covered by toilet paper.

The illustration and assignment were complete. Lazarus was alive.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain


  • Andrew Holowiecki

    my Lazarus story is not quite as interesting, but will always be a part of my heart. For all the grief amongst science and religion; i was assigned by happenstance to study the zebrafish mutant named “lazarus”. The mutants name stems from the original paper describing its phenotype. A common technique with zebrafish is to attempt to “fix” or “recover” a condition by injecting messenger RNA into developing embryos. The mRNA codes for the deficient gene in the fish. Thus; sometimes injecting this mRNA fixes the deficiency. In the case of the lazarus mutant; injection of pbx4 mRNA repaired the abnormal heart development of the mutant; thus the fish that died could now live. The author of the paper must have had some background in Christianity. This is such a common technique and could have been assigned to any gene, but it is neat that it was mine.


  • Jim, I enjoyed your story. It’s good to read some light-hearted pieces–especially now.


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