Doesn’t Paul say he would prefer to depart to be with the Lord?
Text in question: Philippians 1:21–23
“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.”
Proof text: Philippians 1:20
A commonly cited text from Philippians chapter 1 seems to imply that we immediately go to God’s presence when we die. On its surface, it gives the impression that the life after death is superior to the life we have now … that death and dying are somehow preferable to staying alive. People who fear death and the afterlife may find comfort in these verses, because the apostle Paul himself seems to struggle between a desire to live and his desire to die.
To properly evaluate this passage, we must always remember that a text without its context is merely pretext. This is especially true with Paul’s writings, because he often uses many verses to explain a point of doctrine or theology. When we add the verse immediately preceding the passage in question, the description of death seems to change. The entire passage in question now reads:
“According to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:20–23).
Verse 20 adds the important detail that Paul prefers to be in God’s presence after his death “in my body.” Whether “by life or by death,” Paul expects to magnify Christ in bodily form.
We must be careful when we toy with the idea that death brings something superior to life. While it is true that our resurrected bodies will be incorruptible and we will enter into eternity without the inevitability of growing old or decaying, we must remember that this is not death. This is, in fact, new life. Death is unconsciousness. Death is the absence of life. Death is the worst thing that has ever happened in the whole universe. The devil wants you to think otherwise! His lie from the beginning of time is that you “shall not surely die … your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God.” If we choose to believe that death brings this kind of privilege, we are following the devil’s theology.
Though Philippians 1:20 disproves the idea that life after death continues on in an immediate, spiritual form as a soul without a body by reminding us that Paul expects to meet God in his own body, the passage retains a comforting message for those who fear death and dying. The Scriptures portray death as a sleep of unconsciousness, when the deceased person becomes unaware of the passage of time. The sleeping saints, or the “dead in Christ,” have no fear, pain or knowledge of any kind between their deaths and the return of Jesus Christ, at which time they will be resurrected in bodily form to “always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17).
Paul did not look forward to death. Death is not a reward. Rather, he looked forward to the day he would rise again, with an incorruptible new body, to be with Jesus and the family of God. He simply knew that he must first “depart” from this life to await his new one.
*All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.