In the Greek New Testament, there are three words used to speak about where dead bodies go when they die. What we find when we read descriptions of those that have died, is that the person is always identified with their body that is in the grave. Scripture describes the dead person as buried in a tomb or a grave. What is not described is that the body goes to the grave and an immaterial soul or spirit escapes the body to go to some form of the underworld. Let’s look that the three words that the New Testament translates as either tomb or grave and how they are used.
The first Greek word taphos is defined as a burial-place, a sepulchre, a tomb, or a grave. The word is used seven times in the New Testament scriptures. In two of these instances, the word is not used to talk about a literal physical grave for a body. In Matthew 23:27, Jesus tells the Pharisees that they are whitewashed tombs, and in Romans 3:13 Paul makes the statement that a person’s “throat is an empty grave”. A third use of the term is found in Mathew 23:29 where Jesus speaks out against the Pharisees who build the tombs of prophets but do not listen to their words. The remaining four uses of the word taphos are all found in the book of Matthew.
In Mathew 27, we find the account of Jesus burial. In context, we are told that Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for Jesus dead body (soma). The body is said to be placed in a tomb (mnémeion), and Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting outside of the tomb (taphos). Here we see that the Greek word mnémeion and taphos are used synonymously to refer to the same location. We will examine the Greek word mnémeion later. Mathew then explains that the religious leaders ask for Pilate to set a guard outside of the tomb. They fear that someone will steal the body in an attempt to validate Jesus words that he would rise from the dead (nekron) after three days. The word taphos is used three times in this short explanation and is found in Matthew 27:61, 64, and 66. The final use of the word is found in Matthew 28:1 when both of the women return to the tomb three days later.
In summary, what we see is that Jesus is associated with his dead body (soma) that is buried in a grave or tomb which remained there for three days. Personhood in death is always associated with an embodiment. A person is their body. If the New Testament writers believed in the form of dualism or life after death, it seems reasonable to assume that they would have ceased to associate personhood with the dead body upon death and would have communicated that the loved one lived on somehow. If we reflect on how many funerals are conducted today within Christian circles we might think of phrases such as “they are in a better place”, “I know they are in heaven looking down on me”, “they are in heaven now”, or “they have gone to be with Jesus”. Phrases like this are not found in the Bible. The closest the New Testament comes to this sort of reassurance might be Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica.
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
(1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
Here Paul describes those that have already died as “asleep in death”. He says our hope should reflect the model of Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul places the personhood of the deceased in the grave with their bodies. He says that the dead people will rise from the ground. Paul places the Christian hope of an afterlife in the resurrection at the time of Jesus return and not in any form of an intermediate state.
The Greek word Hades is found ten times in the New Testament. In two of its uses which are found in the Synoptics, Jesus uses the word to describe how entire cities will go to Hades. Jesus compares their judgment to the inhabitants of the city of Sodom who all died. In this way, Jesus equates Hades with the grave and bodily death, the place where people go when they die. A third text also found in the synoptic gospel of Mathew describes the churches victory over death. Jesus says the gates of Hades (the grave) will not overpower the church. (Mathew 16:18). Here, Jesus is referencing Isaiah 38:10, where the prophet speaks of the gates of Sheol. Isaiah does not describe Sheol as a place of life but rather a descent into nothingness. He laments saying “For Sheol cannot thank You, death cannot praise You.” While Isaiah portrays Sheol as a place of non-existence, Jesus provides the hope that the church will conquer death through his resurrection. This hope is presented in a fourth use of the word Hades which is found in the book of Revelation. While the previous text was a promise of the future hope by Christ during his ministry, this text is confirmation of the promise which he confirms after he has been resurrected. Jesus tells John in Revelation 1:18, “I was dead (nekros), and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death (thanatos) and Hades.” Here Jesus confirms the enemy of death has not won. So far, in all four of these texts, we have seen, Hades is used as a reference to the grave, the place where the dead go after they die, in which there is no activity.
The book of revelation contains two more uses of the word Hades. In both cases, death and Hades are described as the opposite of life. Authority is given to death and Hades (personified) to kill and take life. John says, “I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death (thanatos), and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.” (Revelation 6:8) Here the idea of death is portrayed as a human riding a horse. This is highly symbolic imagery and not to be taken literally. Death is not a person. We also see the logical, sequential order of the grave or Hades coming after death. Death is the end of biological life and going to the location; the grave is the result.
Later John also says, “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death (thanatos); and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death (thanatos); and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:13-14). Here we are told that the sea and Hades both contain dead bodies. This makes perfect logical sense if John is explaining the fact that dead people have been buried and are in the earth, and some people have died in the sea and sunk to its depths. However, if Hades is a subterranean underground holding tank of all disembodied spirits, we might wonder why some are said to be drawn from the sea. In the end, Hades itself is said to be destroyed. Again, these texts do not ascribe any activity of disembodied spirits in Hades. They describe it as a place of the dead. John describes the dead in the sea and in Hades, the watery places of the planet and the earthly places of the planet.
The second to last text that uses the word Hades is found in the book of Acts. In the following text, the apostle Peter quotes David in the Psalms. Peter translates the Hebrew word Sheol as the Greek word Hades. David said, “For You will not abandon my soul (nephesh) to Sheol;
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” (Psalm 16:10). This gets translated in Acts as, “Because You will not abandon my soul (psuche) to Hades, Nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” (Acts 2:27, 31). In its original context, David is speaking about physically dying and being buried in the ground. Peter draws on this song to show how David prophesied that Jesus would be resurrected and would not be left in his tomb. Both Peter in Acts chapter two and Paul in Acts chapter thirteen describe what happens when a person goes to Hades, the grave. Both men describe that death results in decay in the tomb. In all nine of these texts, there is no mention of a separation or reunion of a body with a soul or spirit. The person is associated with their body, and they are said to go to their graves and decay when they die. So far, nine out of the ten uses of the Greek word Hades provide no support for a disembodied afterlife.
The one outlier is found in a parable of Jesus. (Luke 16:23) This single text differs from the others because Jesus presents a parable in which people are alive in Hades. Jesus provides a parable in which seems to support the Greek dualist understanding of anthropology and afterlife only to reverse this idea at the end of the parable. Jesus denies the ability of someone from the dead to go to the living and instead points to the necessity of the resurrection. All sorts of questions arise in regards to this text. Is this text a parable? The contextual evidence surrounding the narrative seems to indicate it is for multiple reasons. Is this story original to Jesus? Scholarship has discovered that this story, in several forms, actually seems to predate Jesus telling. Versions of the story are told and recorded both by the Egyptian and Jewish cultures. Are parables meant to be taken literally? Most scholars agree that parables are not intended to make direct statements about the nature of something but are designed to communicate truth indirectly.
We also have evidence that reveals that Jesus was mimicking the Pharisees theology of the afterlife back to them with a twist. The Pharisees reportedly believed in the immortal soul, a conscious intermediate state and eternal conscious torment. Here Jesus tells a parable using their theology and then denies any ability to communicate with the dead and instead directs his audience toward the idea of resurrection. This one use of the word Hades at face value seems to be used as support for an intermediate state, but once properly evaluated looks highly unlikely that it would stand along in contrast to the others. Also, when taken literally, the parable becomes problematic in that both Lazarus and the rich man still seem to be embodied after death. Much more could be said in regards to this text, but if one were to take the use of Hades literally in Jesus parable, they would need to recognise at the very least that this would be an exception to how the remaining nine texts used the word Hades in context.
The final Greek word mnémeion is translated as a tomb, sepulchre, or monument. This word is the most common of the three words and is used forty times in the New Testament. The word mnémeion is used to refer to a physical tomb where dead bodies go to decay. The use of the word mnémeion generally falls into five different categories that we will explore below. In even broader categories, it is associated with two things, demonic activity, and a place where dead bodies are placed when they die and can from which they can potentially be raised.
1. Demons and Tombs
Mt 8:28 (cf. Mk 5:2-5, Lk 8:27)
All three of the synoptic gospels record a story in which Jesus casts out a demon who has been possessing a man living in a graveyard. The disciples record several accounts during Jesus’ ministry, where he casts out demons and engaged in spiritual warfare. In this context, the word mnémeion is used to describe the physical place where bodies reburied. It should come as no surprise that there is demonic activity surrounding the dead in their tombs. God strictly forbade the practice of necromancy in the Old Testament because it is associated with the demonic. Saul, the first of Israel’s kings, was removed from office for engaging in necromancy. Later we find in the Old Testament, that the worst king in Israel’s history Manasseh not only engaged in the same activity but promoted it to an extreme. In contrast, the king Josiah who is recorded as the closest king to God did away with all such practices.
2. People in Tombs
The next category that we come across in regards to the word mnémeion is either individuals or groups that go to the grave or come out of the grave. In the first case, the disciple John gives an account of the death and resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus’ dearly beloved friend. The word mnémeion is found in John 11:17, 31, 38, 12:17 and is used to describe both Lazarus burial and his resurrection from the tomb. In the texts, Lazarus is said to be his body which is buried. The common understanding is that his body had started the process of decay being in the tomb for four days and most likely smelled very badly. Jesus comes to the tomb and raises Lazarus out of the tomb. In a similar description, the gospel of Matthew describes the saints whose bodies (soma) are raised from their graves. (Mt 27:52-53) At no point in these accounts do we find a testimony of the raised people explaining their experience in an afterlife as disembodied souls.
Finally, In the book of Acts, both Peter and Paul contrast the bodies of Jesus and King David. Peter and Paul say that while David died and was buried in a tomb and his body is currently undergoing decay, Jesus, on the other hand, was resurrected and his body did not undergo decay in the tomb. (Acts 2:29, 13:36) In all of these texts, we see that the people themselves are said to be in their tombs. They are their dead bodies that are buried, and they are the same body that is raised back to life. At no point are they described as being something other than, or more than their bodies in death.
3. Jesus prophesies of Resurrection
The third type of use of the word mnémeion is found in the gospel of John. Jesus says:
“Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”
Here Jesus is speaking of his return and the resurrection of all the dead that are in their tombs or graves. When Jesus prophecies about this event, he speaks of bodily resurrection from the grave, not a reunion of body and soul/spirit. Here he associates the people’s identity with their bodies that are in the mnémeion. They are not said to be in heaven or a spirit underworld somewhere waiting to be reunited with their bodies. They are dead bodies in their graves awaiting the call to the resurrection from their creator. Paul also describes this same event to the church in Thessalonica in the text we examined earlier.
4. Jesus laid in the Tomb
The fourth category in which we can place the use of the word mnémeion is in its reference to where Jesus was placed after his crucifixion. (Mt 27:60, Mk 15:46, Lk 23:53-55, Jn 19:41-42, Acts 13:29). All four of the gospel accounts along with the book of Acts record that Jesus was crucified and once he was dead, he was buried in a mnémeion, a tomb. All of the accounts are explicit that Jesus is his body that has died. Joseph asks for Jesus body so he can lay him in the tomb. These texts help us see that Jesus was spatially located in the mnémeion, where he would be between death and resurrection. Jesus testified concerning himself on several occasions that he would be dead for three days before being resurrected. He later affirms this in the book of Revelation stating that he was dead but is now alive forever. The point being that all these texts associate Jesus with his body, that was dead and that the dead body remained in the tomb and did not go anywhere. This stands in contrast to those that will suggest that Jesus was a spirit and went to God after death. This idea is suggested as a result of Jesus words on the cross that he entrusted his Father with his spirit. Notice though that Jesus speaks of the spirit as something he possesses, but is not himself. The other argument that is used is that Jesus soul went to Hades. This idea is proposed from a dualistic reading of the Acts 2:27, 31 texts that we examined earlier. What we saw however was that the Hebrew understanding of Sheol which gets translated into Hades is not a disembodied underworld. This idea comes from Greek mythology. Instead, the Hebrews saw Sheol/Hades as the grave.
5. Jesus Empty Tomb
The final set of texts that the word mnémeion is used to describe is the empty tomb. (Mt 28:8, Mk 16:2-8, Lk 24:1-24, Jn 20:1-11). All four of the gospels testify to the reality that Jesus rose bodily from the mnémeion. Upon investigation, the disciples and woman found that the tomb was empty. The angels at the tomb ask “Why do you seek the living (zoe) One among the dead (nekros)?” (Luke 24:5) Jesus says to the disciple John “I am the Living (zoe) One; I was dead (nekros), and now look, I am alive (zoe) forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:18) In both cases, we see that death is presented as the opposite of life. Later when Jesus eats with his disciples, he says, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit (pneuma) does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:39) Jesus affirms that the same body that was crucified and laid in the tomb dead is the body that was resurrected and given new life.
In summary, when people die, their bodies (soma) are placed in the grave. (taphos, Hades, mnémeion) Death is most often described as sleep, and in turn, resurrection is described as an awakening to new life. In texts that describe people’s deaths, these people are described as their bodies, not a body and soul/spirit composite. Nobody is said to ‘go to heaven’ when they die except the resurrected Jesus, and in that case, he is a glorified body, not a disembodied spirit. We have no Biblical description in the New Testament of a person dying and their spirit or soul going to heaven. The closest example we have to such a notion is the parable that was discussed in Luke’s gospel, and in that case, both the rich man and Lazarus are portrayed in Hades, not in Heaven. Resurrection or return from the grave is never spoken of as a reunion of body and soul/spirit. Instead, it is spoken of as the reconstruction of the body (soma) that originally died. In examining texts that discuss both tombs and graves, we can conclude then that the Christian hope is in the resurrected body in which Jesus is our example. Jesus himself confirms in the gospel of Luke that he is not a spirit (pneuma) but is flesh and bone. This phrase should remind us of Adams word in Genesis “this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” (Genesis 2:23) God’s desire in the resurrection of the body is to restore and redeem what he originally created, blessed and called good, our physical material bodies.
God raised Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit
John 21:14 Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.
Acts 2:24 But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death
Acts 2:32 This Jesus God raised up again
Acts 3:15 but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead
Acts 4:10 Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead
Acts 5:30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death
Acts 10:40 God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible,
Acts 13:30 But God raised Him from the dead;
Acts 13:33 God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus
Acts 13:37 but He (Jesus) whom God raised did not undergo decay.
Romans 4:24 those who believe in Him (God) who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,
Romans 6:4 Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father
Romans 6:9 Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him.
Romans 8:11 He (HS) who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies
Romans 8:34 Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised,
Romans 10:9 believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead
1 Cor 15:4 He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
1 Cor 5:20 Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.
2 Cor 4:14 knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also
Gal 1:1 God the Father, who raised Him (Jesus) from the dead
Eph 1:20 He (God) raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand
Col 2:12 God who raised him (Jesus) from the dead
1 Thess 1:10 whom he (God) raised from the dead, that is Jesus
1 Peter 1:21 God who raised him (Jesus) from