In this article, I will look at the word translated as "dead" in the Gospels, much of this focuses on the idea of the resurrection of the dead because it was the main focus of Jesus's statements about the dead.
The Greek word translated as "the dead" is an adjective, nekros, (νεκρῶς), which Jesus uses in twenty-one verses. The word, in the singular, means "a corpse" as well as a "dying person." To the Greeks, it also means "the dead as dwellers in the nether world," but more broadly it meant "the inanimate," and "the inorganic." Jesus uses it mostly in the plural to refer both to physical death and spiritual death. However, he uses it at least fifteen times, in the context of rising or awakening from "the dead." He never uses the Greek word for "death," thanatos (θάνατος), in the context of resurrection or an afterlife, with the possible exception of John 5:24.
Not a God of Dying Rather of Living
Since the afterlife is a cornerstone of Christianity, Matthew 22:31 and Matthew 22:32, referring directly to the afterlife, should be the focus of a lot of attention. However, like many of Jesus's challenging statements, these verses don't lend themselves to a simple explanation within the boundaries of Christian dogma, so they are often ignored, or at least their complexities are. Together, the literal translation of these two verses is:
Concerning, however, the awakening of the dead, you really don't recognize the thing being promised to you by the Divine, saying: "I myself am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." He is not a god of dead ones rather of living ones.
Notice the emphasis that Jesus puts on the present tense of the Biblical quote spoken by God to Moses, from Exodus 3:6, but this verb tense is taken from the Greek Septuagint version, not the original Hebrew. In the original Hebrew, there is no verb, the pronoun "I" and "God" are equated by the construct form they share, which creates a combined word out of a series of words. Jesus is paraphrasing the Greek translation, where the tense of the verb "to be" is in the present tense. God does not say, "I was the God, of Abraham," despite the fact that the patriarchs died hundreds of years before Moses, but He is their God even though they seem dead to us.
A Matter of Perspective
In these verses, Jesus may be saying that the Patriarchs are living and have always been living, at least from God's point of view since God is present across all time. Jesus is dealing with our faulty perceptions of time. As we now know, time is a dimension of our physical universe, just like height, depth, and breadth. Jesus is saying that God, angels, and our own resurrection exist outside time, that is, outside of our current framework of existence.
However, he could also mean that resurrection is a form of reincarnation. He says this clearly about Elijah being reincarnated as John the Baptist in Matthew 11:14. Of course, he precedes this statement with the phrase " if you all wanted to welcome him," so he may have foreseen the difficulty Christians would have with this concept.
From God's point of view, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living in every sense. Their life in what we consider the past exists now for God, but their resurrected or reincarnated lives also exist now. Though we cannot conceive of a timeless state or a state which has direct access NOW to all of time, this is a limitation of our current state, not a limitation on God, the angels, or our future state.
Gods of the Dead
In some versions of this Greek verse, the definite article before the final "God" is missing, making this verse "he is not a god of the dead." This fits with the ancient world's view of the realm of the dead, ruled by a god, Anubis in Egypt, Pluto in Rome, and Hades of the Greeks.
The ancient world had a very clear concept of a "god of the dead." From the earliest Egyptian religions from the time of Moses to the Roman religions of Jesus's era, there was a clear model for the afterlife. Souls, referred to as "the dead," traveled to the underworld where they were judged by the god of the dead. The "dead," no matter how they were judged, lived a type of half-life, without a body (though among the Romans, some thought that the most heroic dead could achieve a godlike status in the underworld and could affect our world). The Egyptian religion was built around the idea that the spirit of the dead would be joined by the resurrection of the body at some future date, but that idea was not widely shared in the ancient world.
For Jesus, the statement that God is not "a god of dead ones" may speak directly against the existence of an afterlife that is some form of holding cell where dead "souls" spend time in heaven before a final resurrection.
The word that is translated as "resurrection" in Matthew 22:31 is anastasis. This word is always used by Jesus to refer to the awakening of the dead twice directly or by context. It is the noun form of anistêmi, which means "to make stand up," "to raise," "to wake up," "to build up," "to restore," "to rouse to action," "to stir up," and "to make people rise." This verb is five times to refer to the dead being "raised, but Jesus also uses it commonly to refer to rising from sleep. The noun means, "a standing up," "removal," "a rising up," "a setting up," and "rising from a seat." He uses the same verb in Luke 22:46 to refer to rising from sleep. Jesus's concept is more clearly "the awakening of those dead." This term "awakening" is very important, though it is often translated as "resurrection" in today's Bibles when referring to the "dead."
Jesus also uses another Greek word, egeiro, that means "awaken" or "rouse up" with nekros, the word translated a "the dead" five times, three times with verses that seem to mean lifting up, or raising the spirits of those dying, not actually bringing the dead back to life.
Jesus refers to death as sleep, katheudo, twice before restoring people to life. Once before raising the little girl in Matthew 9:24, Mark 5:39, and Luke 8:52. And again before raising Lazarus in John 11:11. So for Jesus, death was just a state of suspended animation. Jesus seems
The Noun "Dead" or the Adjective "Dying"
One problem with all these versions is the word translated as "the dead," nekros, also means "dying." In some verses, Jesus seems to refer to those dying rather than those who are actually dead. For example, the three times where Jesus talks to John the Baptist's followers about the wonders they have seen. Since they do not witness any actual resurrections, which come much later in the Gospels, Jesus is either referring to lifting up those who were sick on the verge of death or raising up those who were spiritually dying. It is worth noting that in all three of these verses, Jesus does not use the article "the" before the term for "dead" or "dying."
However, it is impossible to form a firm rule about his use of the definite article. Out of the twenty-one times, Jesus uses the word the Greek adjective, nekros, for "dead," two-thirds of the time he doesn't use this definite article. Without the article, the word acts more as an adjective "dying" and less as a noun, "the dead." The seven times Jesus uses the article the sense is more clearly referring to a category of dead people or a specific event, the final awakening of those dead.
Two of those seven times that Jesus does the article, (Matthew 8:22, Luke 9:60), Jesus refers to "those dead burying the one of their own dead" where the uses the first Greek words "the dead," τοὺς νεκροὺς, is used metaphorically, meaning spiritually dead or dying. The other five times (Matthew 22:31, Mark 12:26, Luke 20:37, John 5:21, John 5:25), Jesus is clearly referring to a particular event affecting all those who are "the dead."
A New Type of Being
We must also mention Jesus's teaching regarding our existence after death. In five verses, Matthew 22:30, Mark 12:25, Mark 12:26, Luke 20:35 and Luke 20:36, the resurrected dead are likened to the messengers of the Divine, not marrying and not dying.
Because we cannot think outside of time, we try to force both God and our ideas of the afterlife to conform with our perspective, which exists within time. So, we conceive that, after we die, time passes until the Last Judgment. We have to spend that time in a spiritual heaven, which is different than the final paradise of heaven on earth.
None of this seems very consistent with what Jesus taught since he seems to be talking both about reincarnation and a state of "soul sleep," where the soul is not conscious until it receives a body