As I grow older, I seem to think more often about the above question and to realize that my options are fewer than they used to be. When I was younger there were always new things ahead – new ministries, new jobs, new goals. There was always that anticipation of things to come. If matters weren’t going the way I’d like there was always tomorrow. If matters were going right, there were even better things ahead.
But now I realize that the greater part of this life is behind me. There isn’t a great amount of time left to accomplish all I’d like or to change my direction toward some new goal. And so it seems natural to direct my thoughts to what lies beyond this life.
[This could be the place to insert that old joke: At my age I think more and more about the hereafter. Whenever I enter a room, I have to stop and ask myself what am I here after?]
The apostle Paul had much to say about the afterlife. Paul was a man who, I believe, really loved life; he loved his Lord and he loved people. His goal, he tells us was “to know Him and the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). He compared his life and ministry to an athletic contest or race, and feared at times that his race might be “in vain” (Philippians 2:16) or that he might be “disapproved” at the end of his race (1 Corinthians 9:27). And yet while he loved his life and loved to serve Christ, he looked forward to what would come after.
I’m not sure of exactly what Paul’s age was when he wrote, or what his age was at conversion. The only hint I can find in the New Testament is Acts 7:58, where he is referred to as “a young man” at the stoning of Stephen. Whatever that means, if Paul was converted a short time afterward, he couldn’t have been over 30 at the time. Scholars date his conversion at somewhere around 35 AD. So, if Paul died sometime before 68 AD as scholars believe, he would not have been an old man by 21st century standards, even though he refers to himself as “Paul the aged” in Philemon 9 (ca 55 or 56 years old at the time).
[The chronology of Paul’s life is a complicated study, based on comparisons of the book of Acts, biographical data in his letters, and secular historical milestones referred to in these books.]
But what exactly was Paul looking forward to? It seems to me that as Paul grew older, and as time passed, his thoughts and anticipations changed. Now although all New Testament writings (including Paul’s) are the inspired word of God and therefore true, we can see a progression in Paul’s own personal thinking.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, one of his earlier letters (51 AD), Paul is looking forward to the rapture – the time when Jesus comes to raise the bodies of the saints who are asleep in death and to take up bodily those who have not yet died. Paul places himself in that second group, “we the living who remain” (verse 17). Notice also he says, “God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (verse 14). In other words, those who have died are already with the Lord.
When he wrote 1 Corinthians (56 AD), Paul apparently still had the hope of not experiencing death. “Look I’m telling you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed … the dead will be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed” (15:50, 51).
But when we come to 2 Corinthians, written not long afterwards, Paul’s thinking seems to be changing. As he looks at his physical sufferings and their effects on his own body, he considers other possibilities. Paul was probably not much over 50 years old, he could still say “… even if our outer man is wasting away, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day” (4:6). Paul here expresses his mixed feelings and desires. Yet those confusions are not a “my will” versus “Your will.” All of his desires come from his deep love and devotion to Christ.
The most notable passage is 2 Corinthians 5:1-10:
1. “For we know that is our earthly house (OIKIA) of a tent (SKENE) is torn down, we have a building (OIKODOME) from God, a house not handmade, eternal in the heavens.
2. For even in this we groan, longing to put on our dwelling (OIKETERION) from heaven.
3. Inasmuch as, having put it on, we will not be found naked.
4. For even we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, in that we do not wish to be unclothed but clothed, in order that the dying may be swallowed up by life.
5. Now He who prepared us for this is God who gave us the pledge of the Spirit.
6. So then, being confident always and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord
7. – for we walk by faith, not by sight –
8. we are confident and pleased rather to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
9. Therefore also, we make it our ambition, whether at home or away to be pleasing to Him.
10. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each may receive pay for the things done in the body whether good or bad.”
Paul seems in this passage to be referring to three distinct possibilities that await him. The first and most desirable is to “put on” his new body at the rapture/resurrection. This is his ultimate hope whether or not he experiences death (“our earthly house of a tent is torn down”). He refers to this new body as “a building from God …”
The second possibility, at least for the immediate present, is to remain in his physical body (“tent”). While in this state he is “away from the Lord” (verse 6).
This brings us to the third possibility, “to be unclothed” (verse 4) or “naked” (verse 3), to have his “tent … torn down” (verse 1). In other words, physical death. As Paul suffered physically, I’m sure that possibility became more real to him. This is an intermediate state, “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (verse 8). This is not his great desire, however. Paul wants to be complete: body, soul and spirit in the presence of his Lord.
By the time Paul writes Philippians (62 AD) from prison in Rome, he feels that his death is possible, though not certain. He even seems to feel that death is desirable, though he is conflicted.
20. “… as always, even now Christ will be exalted in my body, whether through life or through death.
21. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.
22. But if to live in the flesh, this would be fruitful labor, and what I shall ask I don’t know.
23. And I am pulled by both, having a longing to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
24. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary for your sakes.”
In his last letter, his second letter to Timothy (67 AD?), Paul is writing from prison, awaiting his execution. He now regards death as a certainty, although he is looking forward to a crown which he will receive “on that day,” which refers to his standing before the judgment seat of Christ either immediately following the rapture or the second coming.
2 Timothy 4:6-8:
6. “For I am already being poured out and the time of my departure has come.
7. I’ve fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
8. Already the crown of righteousness is laid up for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge will give me on that day, and not only to me, but to all those who have loved His appearing.”
The older I get the more I realize that possibility number three is more likely, though life has been good and I hope to stay around for quite a while. But I also look forward to entering into Christ’s presence whether in the body or not.