Question: Matthew's gospel records that after Jesus' resurrection, "the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised" (Matthew 27:52). Did these people go to heaven? Please explain what happened to these resurrected people.
Answer: Throughout the Bible, we find eight other accounts of people coming back to life after they had died (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37; 13:20-21; Matthew 9:23-26; Luke 7:11-15; John 11:43-44; Acts 9:36-41; 20:9-12). In each of these cases, it is clear that the individuals involved were resurrected back to physical life, meaning that they would have lived out the remainder of their natural, physical lives, and then died as all people do (Hebrews 9:27).
What were the circumstances of the resurrection described in Matthew 27? Notice verse 53: "...and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many." These resurrected saints did not "go to heaven"—they went to Jerusalem, the "holy city," where many saw them.
The other eight resurrections noted above were not resurrections to eternal life; they were resurrections to physical life. Is there any reason to think that this resurrection of the "saints who had fallen asleep" is different?
The Apostle Paul provides the answer in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth. Paul explains that there is a definite order to the resurrections. Jesus Christ has become the "firstfruits"—the first to be resurrected to eternal life—of all those who have died (1 Corinthians 15:20). Then, Paul describes Christians' resurrection to eternal life: "For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming" (1 Corinthians 15:21-23).
Notice! Christians will be resurrected at Christ's coming! Only then will resurrected mortal beings "put on immortality" (v. 54). God is not the author of confusion, and He cannot lie, so we can be certain that the resurrected saints of Matthew 27 were not yet resurrected to eternal life. When the "resurrected saints" entered Jerusalem, as described in Matthew 27, Christ's second coming had not occurred, so their resurrection had to have been to physical life!
How can we be sure that these resurrected saints—and indeed all the other resurrections described in Scripture, with the sole exception of Jesus Christ—were resurrected back to mortal life? We know this because Jesus "alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light" (1 Timothy 6:16). Jesus announced, "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven" (John 3:13).
What purpose, then, did this resurrection—and earlier physical resurrections—serve in God's plan? They stood as miraculous evidence of God's great mercy, glory and power. They identified God's true Work, and His true servants. Notice how Lazarus' astonishing resurrection strengthened the faith of those standing nearby. Jesus prayed to the Father, "I thank you that you have heard Me. And I know that you always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that you sent Me" (John 11:41-42).
Similarly, the resurrected saints who entered Jerusalem served as a powerful witness that God was working through His recently resurrected Son. "For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will" (John 5:21). These saints lived out their mortal lives as a miraculous testimony of God's awesome power, then they died again. They are now dead in their graves, waiting for Jesus Christ to return, "that they should not be made perfect apart from us" (Hebrews 11:39-40).