Is Death Better By Far?

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).

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One Response to Is Death Better By Far?

  1. BRANDO BOBIER says:

    This verse says that “to die is gain”, from which it is taught that the “gain” is going to heaven to be with the Lord. But whose gain? Christ’s or Paul’s? Most expositors seem to think it is Paul’s, but this would contradict the very spirit of this context. It would introduce a self-motive which was completely lacking in the Apostle’s mind here. Even if chapter three is remembered with its stress on the “prize of the high calling” (Phil.3:14), we must not assume that this is the only theme that is brought forward in this epistle. Paul has certainly avoided the spirit of Peter when he said “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed Thee, what shall we have therefore?” (Mat.19:27)

    The Companion Bible note on Phil.1:21 is, “if his bonds had furthered the Gospel, what might not his death do?” and this is the point. It should be in the context which is critical to understanding it. The “furtherance”, or gain, of the Gospel is the theme of the first chapter of Philippians (see verses 17, 27). In verses 12-14 Paul said:

    But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather UNTO THE FURTHERANCE OF THE GOSPEL; So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the place, and in all other places; And many of the brethren in the lord waxing confideny by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear(Philippians 1:12-14).

    Paul saw that his imprisonment, certainly not a personal gain, had to serve to further the gospel of Christ. Likewise, Paul was considering that his death, even less a personal gain, might also result in the furtherance of the gospel and in Christ being magnified.

    What then? Notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice. For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
    According to my earnest expectation ( apokaradokia) and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. (Philippians 1:18-20)

    In verse 20, both life and death relate to Christ being magnified, and verse 21 reiterates the point “For me to live is Christ (His gain, and to die is (Christ’s) gain. Paul’s hope was that, whether he lived or died, the result would be gain for Christ. Apokaradoka, “earnest expectation”, is a picturesque word used only by Paul in two contexts: Romans 8: 19, “the earnest expectation of the creation”, and here. It was possibly coined by him and describes a keen anticipation of the future, literally a “craning of the neck” to see and what lies ahead. This future certain hope bore a relationship to his imprisonment and testing, making them “a light affliction”, while he looked at this future glorious scene (2Cor.4:17-18), and so enabling him more resolutely to magnify the Lord in his body, whether in its present sufferings or in final martyrdom.

    But if to live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour; yet what shall I choose I wot not.
    (Philippians 1:21)

    Much emphasis has been laid upon that Paul says he DID NOT KNOW what to choose, and yet he did have a very pronounced desire for something far better. Now if the Apostle did say this, then it seems reasonable to conclude that he was pressed out of two by a third, namely, the return of the Lord, which is admittedly so much better than either living or dying.

    “I do not make known” according to Revised Version. Gnorizo 24 times in the New Testament, but never in the sense of “not knowing”. It is generally rendered “make known, or declare”, 105 and what Paul is saying here, is not that he did not know what to choose, BUT HE DID NOT “MAKE IT KNOWN”. Whatever his personal desires were, he put them on one side for the will of the lord to be accomplished and His glory furthered.

    Two alternatives presented themselves to him:

    (1) departing and being with Christ, (2) staying in this life with the object of serving Him and His people.

    These are two opposites which put him under constraint. He was “hemmed in on both sides” (J.B. Lightfoot). Something “very far better” for him is contrasted with something “more necessary for others”. “Departing” is balanced by “remaining in the flesh”. His desire to depart is outweighed by the remaining “for you”. The choice which he did not tell is fairly manifest (Phil.1:24-25). At least, if we dispute the point as to whether he really did choose the harder path, he certainly does tell us that he would remain, and seems to be joyful at the prospect of thus “spending and being spent”.

    Hoekema would object to this on the grounds that the twofold prospect “to depart and be with Christ” (to analusai kai sun Christo einai) is governed by a single article. “The single article” he says, “ties the two infinitives together, so that the actions depicted by these infinitives are to be considered two aspects of the same thing, like two sides of the same coin. What Paul is saying here is that, the moment he departs or dies, that very same moment he will be with Christ”[Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 1979, p.104 as cited by Charles Ozanne, The Life & Soul of Mortal Man (The Open Bible Trust, Grace Pub., 1995) p.30]

    Atkinson, however, draws precisely the opposite conclusion from the same grammatical point. He writes,

    The words ‘to depart and be with Christ’ are represented in Greek by two infinitives prefixed by a single definite article, the effect being to bring together in a startling way two things which are different and apart. Thus, in the believer’s experience the moment after closing his eyes in death he is in his glorified body in the eternal state [Basil F. C.Atkinson, Life and Immortality, p.66].

    There is a refreshingly relevant discussion of this passage in G.B. Caird’s commentary in the ‘New Clarendon Bible. Caird notes that, “In his earlier letters Paul has taught a single consistent doctrine of life after death. Christians who die remain in a state of sleep until the Advent of Christ, who will then raise them to eternal life, transforming their mortal nature and clothing it with immortality (1Thes. 4:13; 5:10; 1Cor.15:35-55; 2Cor.5:1-10; Rom.8:8-25).

    “His conclusion, “There is however one further possibility, that Paul believed in a real analogy between sleep and death. Sleep is the experience which negates the passages of time. When a man falls asleep, the next thing he is conscious of is waking. Similarly, when a Christian falls asleep in death, the next thing he is conscious of is the great awaking of the Day of Christ”(as cited by Charles Ozanne, The Life & Soul of Mortal Man, p.31). This is exactly what we believe. It would be difficult to find it stated more clearly.

    Finally, the word “depart”. The original word is analuo, which is thus defined in Dr. Bullinger’s Critical Lexicon and Concordance:

    Analuo, To loosen again, set free; then to loosen, dissolve, or resolve, as matter into its elements (hence, Eng. Analysis); then, to unfasten as the fastening of a ship, and thus prepare for departure (and with the force of ana, back) to return.

    Schrevelius’s Lexicon thus defines the word:

    Analuo, to unloose, free, release, relax, untie, undo; dissolve, destroy, abolish; solve, explain, analyze; weigh anchor, depart, die; return from a feast.

    It would add considerable weight to our argument if we were to show the close parallel that exists between Philippians and 2Timothy. As previously stated, Paul knew that the only time he could depart and be with Christ was when Christ appears from heaven to get him. Putting on our new bodies and meeting the Lord in the air is far better than either living or dying. 2Timothy shows Paul’s understanding of this:

    For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, and I have kept the faith. Hence forth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the lord, the righteous judge, shall give me AT THAT DAY: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing(2Timothy 4:6.-8).

    It can be said with certainty that, for the believer in the New Testament there is no way out of the grave except by resurrection, whether it is as the consummation of his certain hope, or an out-resurrection, a special one in connection with his prize. Those who do not believe his conveniently stress Philippians 1:23 and forget Philippians 3:11 “if by any means I may attain to the out-resurrection, out from among the dead” (literally). This was the Apostle’s great desire in chapter three (verse11), and it does not express an opposite sentiment to Philippians 1:23. The two must and do blend together. To consider departing and being with Christ, apart from his longing for this unique resurrection, shows biased mind.

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