“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.” Philippians 1:21-23
This passage is often cited to prove that Paul believed that when he died he would immediately be with Christ (presumably in heaven since that is where Christ is now). Is there a more persuasive reading of Paul’s difficult words? Let’s have a gander…
One thing must be made clear from the inception of this study: this passage (and the surrounding context) is dealing with how Paul functions pastorally toward his original readers. It is not a detailed description about what happens when we die.
Other passages in Philippians shed a much clearer light on Paul’s personal hope. These passages do not seem to indicate that Paul believed that his soul would escape his body at death, heading toward a heavenly bliss). Consider the following:
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (1:6)
so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ (1:10)
holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain (2:16)
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory (3:20-21)
Back to our primary passage, Paul’s states that to depart and be “with Christ” is his preference. The few times that Paul speaks of a future “being with the Lord” indicate that this meeting occurs precisely at the resurrection of believers, not at the moment of one’s death. Therefore, it would make sense that if Paul was trying to be consistent with his arguments, he would surely mean the same thing when saying that he wants to be with Christ in Phil. 1:23. I stress that this theological link is absolutely vital to getting at what Paul was trying to impress upon his audience. Let’s have a closer look at how Paul speaks elsewhere of this important motif:
Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thes. 4:17)
who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. (1 Thes 5:10)
Unlike today, where there is so much confusion among adherents of Christianity concerning what happens when we die, Paul did not have to state that people go to the grave at death every single time the subject came up. This was the dominant view taught in the Hebrew Bible, which Paul was raised with from an early age. For most of his converted believers, this theology was assumed as a given. Since the metaphor of ‘sleeping’, the regular euphemism in the Hebrew Bible denoting the state of death, implies a lack of consciousness, the idea arguably behind Paul’s statements here is that if Paul falls asleep in death, his next moment of consciousness will be at the resurrection (which is certainly a gain to Paul from his present experience in prison).
Phil. 1:21-23 must be recognized as an obscure passage, no doubt. The ad hoc nature of Paul’s letters even brings out the possibility that, perhaps, there there was even an ‘in-house’ understanding to what these word might have meant between Paul and his audience. What remain certain is that Phil. 1:21-23 is not being a clear cut passage proving that believers go to be with Christ when they die. Therefore, it should not be pressed to make Paul say something that contradicts his hope for the return of Jesus throughout the remainder of the letter and the same hope in other fuller expositions on the topic, such as we find in 1 Thes. 4:13-17 and 1 Cor. 15.