Does Paul’s desire “to depart and to be with Christ” show us that the believer goes immediately to “heaven” at death and thus that death is “better by far” than life? No way!
Once again we must ask, on the subject of the afterlife why was it that the only comfort Paul offered the Thessalonian Church was that the dead in Christ would be resurrected when Jesus comes again? (1Thess. 4:13-18). Likewise, in 1Corinthians 15, if Paul believed that the departed go straight to heavenly bliss why does he put forward no hope other than that of the resurrection?
Looking at Philippians 1:20-24 in context, we note the following:
1. It is in Paul’s body (not his “soul”) that he hopes Christ will be exalted, whether by life or death (20);
2. The “gain” Paul has in mind is first and foremost that to the cause of Christ through his dying a martyr’s death (20), then that which is to Paul personally from his martyrdom (21). He no doubt aspired to be like the many “others”, the unnamed heroes of the faith, who are mentioned in Hebrews 11, who “were tortured and refused to be released so that they might gain a better resurrection.” (See Heb. 11:35);
3. So elsewhere Paul speaks of his desire to share in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so at length to attain to the resurrection from the dead (3:10-11);
4. In 2Tim. 4:6-8 too Paul speaks of his imminent death as a “departure”: beyond death however it is the “Day” of Christ’s return that he (along with everyone else) looks to;
5. Throughout the book of Philippians it is clearly the resurrection of the dead at Christ’s return upon which Paul fastens his hope: It is only then that “our lowly bodies … will be like his glorious body” (3:20-21).
Paul speaks not of his “soul” departing but of his whole self. His use of the term, “depart”, suggests a journey in which the beginning is death and the end is being with Christ. It is this end which is “better by far.”
Paul will be with Christ after death, but Philippians 1:23 tells us nothing as to how or when he will be with Christ. Elsewhere Paul makes it clear: It is by resurrection.
Meanwhile either by the way he lives his life, or by the way he dies a martyr’s death, Paul aims to exalt Christ.
This should be our aim too!
(First published in “From Death To Life”, Issue 27, p3).