And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. Matthew 27:50-53
The woman I was speaking to laughed with embarrassment. “You know,” she said, “all the years I’ve been reading the Bible, and I have never noticed that!” (She had been a Christian for some thirty years.)
What was she talking about? It was that detail about the tombs breaking open and dead people being raised immediately after Jesus’ death. The curtain of the temple being torn in two - that, of course, was no problem: the vast majority of Christian people are well familiar with that. But this...!
Let’s be absolutely clear what Matthew is telling us. Jesus has just died (verse 50), and right then there was this awesome display of supernatural power: the curtain torn, the rocks split, the tombs opened, the dead raised. Not, notice, after his resurrection (you might expect that - and, indeed, Matthew tells us in 28:2 that there was an earthquake after the resurrection). No, after his death.
All sorts of odd questions arise. If these dead people didn’t “go into the holy city” until Sunday morning, what were they actually doing between Good Friday and then? Just lying awake in their tombs, waiting for the moment to come? In which case, what was the point of them being raised at all on Friday? What did they do when they went into Jerusalem? What sort of effect did they have on the people they appeared to? And what did they do then? Slip back into their tombs?
All very strange! It almost seems, if this doesn’t sound too disrespectful of the Bible, like a zombie film.
Many explanations have been offered. The most common is that this isn’t something to be taken literally: Matthew is speaking in figurative language, perhaps wanting to bring to his Jewish readers’ minds Old Testament passages like Isaiah 26:19 (look it up!) and Daniel 12:2 (that too!). He is presenting in graphic - but not literal - terms the great truth that Jesus conquered even by the cross.
Personally, I would be very happy to go with that. But there is a problem: the plain fact is that it just doesn’t read that way - Matthew seems to be presenting it to us as a straight, factual account.
Perhaps we simply have to make of it what we will - I don’t think God will mind our perplexity, even our scepticism.
But, for me at least, two very precious truths emerge from trying to take this story seriously.
First, a new way of thinking about death.
A more literal translation of verse 52 speaks not about “people who had died” but about “people who had fallen asleep”.
I think it’s worth noticing this rather beautiful way the New Testament has of referring to death - you can find it also in, for example, Acts 7:62, regarding the death of Stephen, and in 1 Corinthians 15:6, regarding some witnesses of the resurrection who had died.
What it means is this: yes, one day I am going to die; so are you. That’s a fact. But how much better to say “I am going to fall asleep” - and then add, “but one day Jesus is going to put his hand on my shoulder and wake me to the most wonderful, glorious, peaceful, unimaginable new life there could ever be!”
Second, an insight into the scope of the crucifixion.
Let’s not overlook the fact that these “sleeping people” who rose that day were people who never knew Jesus, and who therefore never expressed personal faith in him. These strange events make clear that they didn’t miss out on the great blessings he brought!
And this reminds us that just as the triumph of Christ’s cross and resurrection reaches far into the future - to include people like us and those who will come after us - so also that triumph somehow, in ways we don’t fully understand, reaches back into the past. It gathers up some who never had the opportunity to know and love him.
God has his own - Matthew calls them “holy people” - in every age and generation. May that be a comfort and encouragement to us!
Thank you, O God, for the victory of the cross and the certain hope of eternal life. As death moves ever closer, help me to see it as a sleep which will herald a wonderful new awakening. Amen.