“Absent from the Body, Present with the Lord” -Heaven at Death or Resurrection Hope?

In this short video I demonstrate that 2 Corinthians 5:8 almost certainly refers to Paul’s hope for the return of Jesus in order to cloth him with his resurrection body. The popular view, which suggests that Paul is here teaching that his immortal soul leaves his body at death to go to be present with the Lord in heaven, is to be rejected as confused.

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‘Sending’ Language and the Origins of Jesus

little-scrollToo often interpreters of the Bible read the various statements which depict Jesus as having been “sent from God” with such wooden literalness. They assume that, since God is in heaven and Jesus was on earth, then Jesus must have literally descended from the location of the one who sent him (heaven). I contend that the language of sending needs to first be placed into its wider context before making an assessment of its meaning in regard to Jesus and his place of origin. Note carefully how sending language is used in the Hebrew Bible:

God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot lived – Gen. 19:29

Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ – Ex. 3:13

Then Samuel said to Saul, The LORD sent me to anoint you as king over His people – 1 Sam. 15:1

Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” – Isa. 6:8

Since the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have sent you all My servants the prophets, daily rising early and sending them  – Jer. 7:25

This was only a short selection of the hundreds of passages wherein God sends (commissions) human agents. In not one of these instances which I have provided (Lot, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, the prophets) did the agent literally come out of heaven. Now it would certainly be appropriate to say that they were sent from heaven (i.e., God) in a strictly poetic and metaphorical sense, just as modern people speak of their newborn child as a “gift from heaven.” These passages from the Hebrew Bible indicate that God sends (commissions) his servants in a way that does not necessarily preclude their origins in the heavens. No one thinks that any of these human agents existed in heaven prior to their divine commissioning.

With this data in mind, we can safely move onto the New Testament data. Consider the following examples:

There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. – John 1:6

For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.” – Acts 3:26

It was this Moses whom they rejected when they said, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ and whom God now sent as both ruler and liberator through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. – Acts 7:35

A few short comments will suffice for now. John 1:6 indicates that John the Baptist was sent from God. Surely he did not descend from heaven. This language arguably sets up the following ‘sending’ references in the Fourth Gospel. Moving on to Acts 3:26, the reader should notice that God first raised up his servant Jesus (i.e., put him on the scene) and then he was sent. The ‘raising up’ language is often used in this way in crucial passages such as Deut. 18:15, 18; and 2 Sam. 7:12. Finally, the Acts 7:35passage shows that the divine commissioning language used of Moses continued to be used on into the first century CE.

Some other crucial passages indicate again that language describing things “from heaven/above” is best reckoned as poetic and metaphorical:

Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above – John 19:11

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights – James 1:17

This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. – James 3:15

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle… – James3:17

Even Josephus can speak of being sent by God:

I have come to you as a messenger of great destinies. Had I not been sent on this errand by God, I knew the law of the Jews and how it becomes a general to die.” – Josephus, War 3:400 (Loeb tr.)

Therefore, when Jesus says things like “I have come out of heaven” (John 6:38) or “I am from above” (John 8:23), we should not so quickly think that the author was trying to convey that Jesus literally descended from heaven. Rather, he was God’s authoritative human agent on earth, representing the Almighty as the shaliach. He was, however, still born of Mary (cf. Matt. 1:18. 20; Luke 1:35; John 3:1618:37; Gal. 4:4; 1 John 5:18).

This evidence suggests that the sending language used of Jesus is better read as an indication of his authoritative commissioning from God rather than a statement of “heavenly origins” (in the strictest sense of those words).

Romans 13:1-7 and Christian Civil Obedience

church_and_state-1024x617Romans 13:1-7, which insists that the rulers are to be obeyed by their [Christian] subjects, has been used and abused by many different countries over a long period of time. The early colonies used the passage to support slavery and oppression. South Africa used the passage to support Apartheid.  America, in the wake of September 11, used this passage to provoke support of military action against other countries. The so-called “Just War” theory likewise uses this passage as its main weapon (pun intended).

However, if Paul had desired to create, in seven little verses, a Christian theology of Church and State, how would he have responded to the exceptions to such belief? Suppose the Egyptian midwives had not ignored Pharaoh’s edict to kill Israelite males, which allowed Moses to live (Exod. 1:17-21)? They clearly ignored the laws of the land, and God blessed them for it!

Or how about the three Jewish boys who were commanded to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image in Daniel 3? They refused to obey that edict, and God vindicated them because of their fidelity (Dan. 3:18).

The Book of Acts often has the early Apostles refusing to quiet down their personal evangelistic efforts, choosing rather to obey God rather than humans (Acts 4:19; 5:29; 16:21).

The Apocalypse of John envisages the faithful martyrs, who refused to take upon themselves the mark of the beast, vindicated with resurrection and given positions of rulership with Christ (Rev. 20:4).

As we can see, if Rom. 13:1-7 is used to force unquestionable obedience to the governing bodies, then how come so many within the people of God acted contrary to such a theology?

When we look closer at Rom. 13:1-7 we see that Paul has other things in mind than a Christian theology of Church and State. Three things stand out to me which are worthy of comment. First of all, Paul states that the emperor Nero was in authority because of God (13:1). Nero, who thought he was God and who was regularly praised with such divine titles, was, according to Paul, working for the true God. Romans 13:6 even says that the Roman authorities (including Nero) are servants of God. I doubt Nero would have agreed. People served Nero. Paul argues that Nero serves the true God. We can see that Paul is undercutting the claims of the Roman empire by saying that the true God is really in power, despite the exaggerated claims of the Pax Romana.

The second point which comes out in Paul’s theology is his continuation of the typical Jewish understanding that pagan governments are used by the one true God for the furtherance of his divine purposes. This is true of the Assyrians (Isa. 10:5-11), of Cyrus the Persian (Isa. 44:28-45:3), of king Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 27:6-7; Dan. 1:2, 2:21, 37-38), and others. The returning Jewish exiles were to even pray on behalf of pagan kings and their families (Ezra 6:10). God uses pagan empires to bring order and stability to the territories.

Thirdly, the Christians in Rome, to whom Paul was writing, were certainly aware that the former emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome for riots, likely involving Christ (cf. Acts 18:1-2; Suetonius, Claudius 25:4). Upon the ascension of Nero to the throne, the edict of Claudius was cancelled, allowing the Jews (including Jewish Christians) to return to their respected places of residence and work. The citizens of Rome were upset at the number of additional taxes which they were forced to pay. Tacitus (Annals 13.50-51) remarks that the Roman citizens responded unfavorably to this additional burden of taxation, moving Nero to consider abolishing them. The Senate, however, convinced Nero otherwise. Add in the fact that Jews were exempted from paying some of these taxes and you have a social situation in the Roman churches which could potentially be explosive and divisive (if it wasn’t already). Paul writes that the believers residing therein should keep their heads down, show respect (13:7), pay their taxes (13:6), refuse to revolt (12:19), bless those who curse them (12:14), and let God take vengeance upon their oppressors (12:19).

In short, it seems best to regard Rom. 13:1-7 as a passage directly applicable to the pan-ethnic congregations in Rome in the middle of the first century CE. Paul needed to write to their situation and give them advice on how to live at peace with a thoroughly pagan regime while they await the return of Jesus to consummate the eschatological empire of God. It is therefore unlikely that Paul intended every government for the last two thousand years to take the message given to the Roman churches and to apply it to their own situations (which have entirely different social, political, and religious factors involved). Paul told the Philippian congregation that their true citizenship resided in heaven, from which the true lord and savior was to return to subject creation unto himself (Phil. 3:20-21).

Was Elijah taken bodily to heaven without dying? (2 Kings 2:11)

“As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven.” 2 Kings 2:11 

This passage is used by some in attempts to demonstrate that Elijah is now in a heavenly abode with God. However, there are certainly other ways to interpret this passage. Let’s have a look:

If the noun ‘heaven’ only had one meaning to its definition, referring to the domain of God, then their assertion would be true: Elijah really was in heaven. The problem is, ‘heaven’ can also refer to the sky. Note the following examples:

  • “heavens are as clouds” -Job 35:5
  • “birds of the heavens” -1 Kings 16:4 (see also Ecc. 10:20; Ezek 31:6; 32:4)
  • “rain from the sky/heavens” -Gen. 8:22.

If the people thought that Elijah was in heaven with God, why then did they set out to look for him afterwards?

“They said to him, “Behold now, there are with your servants fifty strong men, please let them go and search for your master; perhaps the Spirit of the LORD has taken him up and cast him on some mountain or into some valley.” And he said, “You shall not send.” But when they urged him until he was ashamed, he said, “Send.” They sent therefore fifty men; and they searched three days but did not find him.” (2 Kings 2:16-17)

A few years later, Elijah sent a letter to King Jehoram. How could Elijah send a letter if he was up in heaven with God?

“Then a letter came to him from Elijah the prophet saying, “Thus says the LORD God of your father David, ‘Because you have not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat your father and the ways of Asa king of Judah…” (2 Chron 21:12)

Hebrews 11:39 states that Elijah died and has not received the promises. We will be rewarded with Elijah, at the resurrection when Christ returns.

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So what does the passage mean when it says that “Elijah was taken away in the whirlwind”? Perhaps this is similar to the episode of Philip in Acts 8:39, whom God took up from where he was and was taken to somewhere else where he was needed. Elijah was simply lifted up in the sky and most likely transported somewhere else.   

Our citizenship is in Heaven…but we aren’t going there (Phil. 3:20-21)

Philippians 3:20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

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It is often argued that, if our citizenship is in heaven, then we are going to go there, presumably at the moment of our death. Is this really what Paul is teaching? Let’s take a closer look…

  1. One has to first put yourself in the shoes of the original readers of Philippians. They were Gentiles living in Philippi, which was a Roman colony. A colony like Philippi was established because of the over-crowded problem of Rome. Therefore, ‘colony status’ was given to these major satellite cities, so that their residents could maintain all the privileges that they had in Rome.  One of those privileges was the assurance of safety by the Roman military. Living on Caesar’s doorstep was a peaceful assurance for many of Rome’s citizens. But the promise was made for those who were relocated to a colony like Philippi that “if things ever got out of hand in your city, the Emperor will come out from Rome with his legions in order that the situation would be dealt with.”
  2. Now, consider the parody that Paul is making. He is now saying that the Philippians’ citizenship is not in Rome, but rather in heaven. If things got bad, it is the true savior and lord, Jesus, who would come and rescue them from their dire times of distress.  These titles (“savior” and “lord”) were regularly used of the reigning Roman emperors.
  3. Since the Philippians were never thinking of ‘returning’ to Rome as their place of citizenship, Christians should not read this passage to think that Paul is promising a home in heaven. Rather, their citizenship is in heaven, but the kingdom of God will come down and be consummated on this earth. The point of the verse is that it is a parody of the protection promised by Rome for those living in Philippi.
  4. Readers must note that ‘heaven’ is the location “out of which we eagerly await” the return of Jesus. Heaven is not the destination, but rather the starting point from which Jesus comes from.