by Bethany Reise
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes that there is but one hope to which believers have been called (Eph 4:4). Most Christians have been taught that the hope they are awaiting is eternal life in heaven, to which their immortal soul will depart after death. They would be surprised to find out that this is not the hope to which Paul was referring. Paul was speaking of the resurrection of the righteous which is to occur at the second coming of Christ. It is only at this time that the dead who have been sleeping in their graves will be awakened and clothed with immortality. They will live and reign with Christ in the kingdom of God which is to be established on the earth at the end of the age.
At this point most would argue, “Well, what about when Paul said that he would ‘prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord?’” (2 Cor 5:4) “Or,” they contend, “When Paul said that his ‘desire to depart and be with Christ?’ Surely that proves that his hope was to die and immediately be in heaven with Christ!” (Phil 1:23). However, interpreting Scripture while under the influence of Greek philosophy is a dangerous idea. One must abandon the influences of pagan philosophy and adopt the perspective of the Hebrew writers of the Bible in order to understand Paul’s hope, the hope of all believers.
While the early church was growing, Paul implored believers adhere to the truth and warned them of the dangers of “philosophy and empty deception” (Col 2:8). Paul’s admonitions went unheeded, however, and Greek philosophy started becoming entangled in Christian belief, before it was finally welcomed into Christian tradition by the early church fathers. Platonic philosophy asserts that a separate and immortal soul inhabits the body while it is alive, but after death the soul is released from the body, departing to another realm. By the second century, the Platonic philosophical thought had made its way into the writings of influential church theologians and writers, such as Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine.1 They adopted the belief that man was an immaterial and immortalized soul, housed in a physical body. Upon death, they asserted, the disembodied soul of the believer departs from the body and goes to heaven. Under their care, the precious hope of the apostles and all the faithful of times past were exchanged for a false hope.
Therefore, since most are under the influence of Greek philosophy, one must adopt a Hebraic understanding of the nature of man when trying to understanding Paul’s statements about the hope he professed. The Bible teaches that man is mortal. As author Greg Deuble rightly states, “The stubborn fact is that there is not one passage to be found anywhere in the Bible that teaches man has an immortal soul.”2 God also defined mortal man as a living soul. In Genesis 2:7, the author states that “the LORD God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen 2.7). So, the “equation” for man is as follows: “body + breath of life = living soul.”3 Man is a living soul; he is not some sort of combination of a physical body and an immaterial soul.
Accepting this definition of the nature of man impacted the Hebrews’ understanding of death and life in the age to come. For the Hebrews, death was simple: when a person dies, they rest in the grave in a state of unconsciousness, much like sleep (Ecc 9:5, 6, 10; Ps 13:3, 146:3; Jn 11:11-14). It is in this state of unconsciousness that the dead wait, until they are resurrected on the last day (Dan 12.2). On the last day, the Messiah will come and the righteous will be resurrected or “wakened” and clothed with immortality. At this time, the final kingdom of God will be established on the earth and God will dwell with His people (Dan 2:44; Job 19:24-26; Is 25:8; Ez 37:23). Job expresses this hope in one of his discourses: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:24-26). From this, it is evident that Job was anticipating that at future time after his death, he would be raised with renewed flesh. This raising was associated with his Redeemer coming to take his stand on the earth. This was the great hope to which the faithful of the past looked forward to, and the very same hope that Paul professed: the resurrection of the righteous, who would be clothed with immortality at the second coming of the Messiah.
Based on his letters to the early churches, it is possible to see that Paul’s eschatological view contained the same three basic elements as Job’s did, namely; the resurrection, the return of the Lord Messiah, and the change from mortality to immortality. These elements are evident in Philippians 3, where Paul expresses his hope of being awakened from the dead and receiving a new resurrection body at the second coming of Jesus, saying: “…If by any means I might attain to the resurrection from the dead… eagerly await a Savior from [from heaven], the Lord Jesus Christ… [who] will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:11,14,20). Clearly, Paul’s eschatological view was consistent with that of the Old Testament writers.
There are some however, who would disagree, citing certain verses that Paul wrote in his letters to the Philippians and Corinthians. In the eschatological view they propose, the hope of believers is an individual event separate from the return of the Messiah, where the disembodied, immortal soul of the individual is released from its physical body immediately after death. The return of Christ loses most, if not all, of its significance and the hope of the faithful of the Old Testament is nullified; what kind of hope is a resurrection from the dead at the return of Christ, if believers are already Him in heaven immediately after death? This is a contradiction of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures, and even Paul’s own words! Therefore, in order to resolve the conflict, one must compare the verses that are unclear to the ones that are more so, all the while keeping in mind the context of the author and the passage.
The context of Paul’s clear description of the resurrection in I Corinthians 15, serves to undermine the traditional orthodox belief and support Paul’s hope of the resurrection. This chapter provides a similar foundation from which to explain II Corinthians 5:8, one of the commonly cited proof texts for those whose hope is heaven. In this verse, Paul yearns to “be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (II Cor 5:8). By looking back only chapter earlier, the context of Paul’s remarks in chapter five are clarified. Just as in his first letter to the Corinthians, he is speaking of the resurrection hope at the second coming of Christ when he writes in his second letter, written only a year later, that “He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you” (II Cor 4:14). This directly correlates with the remarks of his first letter; “But now Christ has been raised from the dead… after that those who are Christ’s at His coming” (I Cor 15:20,23). Thus, it can be seen already that the two letters share common ground; namely the hope of resurrection at the coming of Christ.
This connection is strengthened further by Paul’s use of a trio of identical metaphors, making it reasonable to conclude that the thematic material of both chapters is the same.4 The first two of these metaphors are found to be located in close proximity to each other, even in the very same verse. The first describes the resurrected believer as being “clothed” and the second describes mortality as being “swallowed” up by immortality. In I Corinthians 15:54, Paul writes that when the perishable is “clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory”” (I Cor 15:54). He echoes this statement in II Corinthians 5:4: “we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (II Cor 5:4). Paul’s third parallel revolves around the idea that salvation in Christ will arrive from heaven. In I Corinthians 15:47, Paul writes that “the second man is the Lord [arriving] from heaven” (I Cor 15:47). Later on in his second letter, Paul relates that the immortality that he so “earnestly desires to be clothed upon with [is the] house which is from heaven” (II Cor 5:2). According to Cambridge biblical scholar, John A.T. Robinson, to say that II Corinthians 5 suggests this, would be “to read the passage in clear opposition to 1 Corinthians 15.”5 Thus, through these three repeated words and phrases found in both I and II Corinthians, an apparent unity in Paul’s eschatological view emerges.
Clearly, based upon the correlations between the two letters to the Corinthian church, it may be ascertained that there is but one hope to which Paul was referring, and it cannot possibly be a departure of the soul to heaven immediately after death. In fact, Paul expresses his horror at the very thought of such a prospect, when he adamantly stated “we do not wish to be unclothed” nor be “found naked.” Therefore, when Paul writes that he would “rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” he cannot possibly mean that he desires to be a disembodied soul in heaven before the return of Christ, because he just condemned that notion only a few verses earlier! Rather, Paul is eagerly anticipating the time when he will become immortal-an event which cannot be separated from the return of Christ. He is speaking of his two simultaneous desires, to be both “absent from the body” and “present with the Lord.” He did not say “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” that is a dangerous misquotation.6 Therefore, there is no doubt that Paul remains consistent in his writings: the hope of Christians lies in the immortality that is to be realized at the return of Christ.
In light of Paul’s obvious aversion to the prospect of becoming disembodied, arguments over the other common “proof-text,” Philippians 1:23, dissipate quickly. In this verse, Paul says that he has a “desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (Phil 1:23) that to continue to live on in the flesh. If Paul is so strongly against the idea of being without a body, it is unreasonable to maintain that this verse suggests this. Paul’s remarks must be read in context and with respect to his character, which reveals Paul’s true motivation is to exalt Christ, either through his life or his death. As author Greg Deuble notes, “One this in sure: Paul is not seeking to escape his ministry by death just so that he can get some personal and selfish benefit,” as the traditional interpretation of Philippians 1:23 implies.7 This would be contrary to his character and his hope. Rather, in this verse, Paul is once again expressing his hope that he “may attain to the resurrection from the dead,” at which time, he would finally be with Christ for eternity (Phil 3:11).
Paul never wavered in his position that there is but one hope. Somewhere along the way however, the church lost sight of this hope. Yes, they propose that there is hope, but it is a different hope than the Bible presents. This false hope has presupposed immortality, effectively clouding over the reality that the precious gift of immortality is only to be given to the righteous at the second coming of the Messiah. Thus, the very hope that the entire New Testament has been trending towards is overlooked entirely, greatly diminishing the significance and unspeakable joy of the future resurrection of the dead and the glorious return of Jesus Christ. It is time to lay aside the false hopes and traditions, and to take hold of that which has been promised to us: resurrection from the dead, immortality, and eternal life in the kingdom of God on the earth. It is time to reclaim the lost hope of the church.
1| Bacchiocchi, Dr. Samuele. Popular Beliefs: Are They Biblical?. http://www.biblicalperspectives.com/books/popular_beliefs/2.pdf
2|Deuble, Greg S. They Never Told Me THIS in Church!: A Call to Read the Bible with New Eyes. Restoration Fellowship, 2006, p 295.
3|ibid., p. 296.
4|ibid., p. 320.
5| Robinson, John A. T. In the End, God – A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things. London: James Clarke & Co, 1950, p 106.
7| ibid., 325.
by Bethany Reise