Philippian eschatology (Phil. 1:21-23)

“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. 

 

The Witch of Endor and Samuel’s Death

1 Samuel 28:8-15 “Conjure up for me, please, and bring up for me whom I shall name to you.”… Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”… He said to her, “What is his form?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe… Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” 

 

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Sometimes this passage is used to prove that Samuel, who was dead, must really be conscious in the afterlife since he was able to verbally communicate with King Saul. Some fundamentalists even presume that the deceased Samuel resides in heaven at this very moment.

Some considerations will easily dismiss these claims.

  1. The passage nowhere says that Samuel was in heaven. Rather, Samuel has come up from the grave in 28:8, 11, 13, and 15. The woman of Endor said that she saw Samuel coming up out of the earth. This seems to indicate that Samuel had died and was buried in the ground like virtually every other person in the Hebrew Bible before him.
  2. The earlier account of Samuel’s death clearly states that he was buried (1 Sam. 25:1).
  3. It is interesting that Samuel states that Saul and his sons will be with him tomorrow (28:19). This means that the wicked Saul and his sons will go to the same place where Samuel went, being the grave/Sheol. All come from dust and all return to dust (Ecc. 3:20).

Is the ‘Immortality of the Soul’ Scriptural?

Here are a few answers to the common objection to what the Bible teaches about death and resurrection. Maybe you will find them useful.

Objection: “I believe in the immortality of the soul.” Image

Answer: Show them that:    

1. souls can die 

Ezek. 18:4, 20; Lev. 23:29; Prov. 6:23; Josh. 10:28; Matt. 10:28; 20:28; Rev. 16:3; Isa. 53:12; Mark 8:35; Psalm 22:29; 40:14; 56:6, 13; 63:9; 78:50; 89:48; James 5:20.

2. you return to dust when you die

Psalm 7:5; 22:15, 29; 44:25; 90:3; 104:29; 119:25; 146:4; Gen. 3:19; Ecc. 3:19-20; 9:10; 12:7; Daniel 12:2; Job 7:21; 10:9; 17:16; 20:11; 21:26; 34:14-15; Isa. 26:19; Matt. 12:40.

3. there is no activity in the grave where people go when they die

Ecc. 9:5, 10; Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 31:17; 115:17; 146:4; Isa. 38:18; Job 3:13-17; 10:18-19; 14:21; Ezek 32:21; 2 Kings 22:20; 2 Chron. 34:28.

4. death is called “sleep/lie down with your fathers”

Daniel 12:2; John 11:11-14; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Cor. 7:39; 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thes. 4:13-15; 5:10; 2 Peter 3:4; 2 Sam. 7:12; Deut. 31:16; Psalm 13:3; Job 7:21; 14:12; Jer. 51:39, 57; 1 Kings 1:21; 2:10; 11:21, 43; 14:20, 31; 15:8, 24; 16:6, 28; 22:40, 50.

5. Adam was created as dust of ground + breath of life = living soul (i.e. Adam became a living soul, not that he possessed a soul)

Gen. 2:7