Absent From The Body And Present With The Lord

2 Corinthians 5:8
8 We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.

The above sentence is usually supposed to convey the idea that the apostle Paul expected, immediately after quitting this life, to enter into the presence of the Lord Jesus; and hence it is concluded that all the righteous ascend to heaven when they die. This most erroneous conclusion is arrived at from inattention to the context, a superficial view of the passage itself, and total disregard of Paul's teaching in other parts of his writings on the various points involved. Consider:

THE RESURRECTION: In 2 Cor. 4: 14, Paul expresses his confident hope thus: "Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise us up also by Jesus, and shall present us with you." And this was not the first occasion on which he had written to the Corinthians respecting the resurrection of Jesus and the faithful. In his first epistle he had entered into a very elaborate argument on the point. Some among the Corinthians, under the influence of Greek philosophy, had denied the resurrection, and Paul asked, "How say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? " (1 Cor. 15:12). To refute them he reasons out the consequences which follow their negative assumption: "If there be no resurrection of the dead then is Christ not risen (v. 13); "and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain: ye are yet in your sins; then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished" (v. 17, 18). It was on the Resurrection, not on death, that the Apostle based his hopes of salvation; in verse 32 of the same chapter he writes, "What advantageth it me if the dead rise not?" It was not disembodiment that Paul desired, for he goes on to say in 2 Cor. 5:4, "Not that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon (with our house which is from heaven), that mortality might be swallowed un of life."

CHRIST'S SECOND APPEARING: This was what Paul desired. Thus, to the Colossians, he says, "When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, THEN shall ye also appear with him in glory" (Col. 3:4); and to the Romans he says, "If so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together" (Rom. 8:17); and to the Thessalonians, "Ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and the true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven" (1 Thess. 1:9,10), not "that ye might go to His Son in heaven."

THE TWO BODIES: Paul hoped for a new body. As he had previously explained to the Corinthians, "There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15: 44). It is these two distinct and different kinds of bodies he has in his mind when writing the 5th chapter of his second epistle; he speaks of only two living states, the present and the future; and both of them bodily states: he entirely ignores a disembodied state, the interval between the two being passed over as nothing. The former, that is the "natural body," he designates "our earthly house of this tabernacle"; and the latter, that is the "spiritual body," he terms "a building of God," "our house which is FROM heaven." A tabernacle being a more temporary place of abode than a house, it is appropriately used to represent the "natural body," which pertains to this life only. Paul did not desire always to exist in this earthly tabernacle; knowing that as long as he lived in the flesh it would be impossible for him to enjoy eternal life - for "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 15:50) - he "earnestly desired to be clothed upon" with a heavenly house, a "spiritual body." The body pertaining to the future life is called a "heavenly house" because the life which is to be bestowed upon the righteous is now deposited with Christ, who is in heaven: "Your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3); "As the Father hath life in himself, so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself" (John 5:26), that he should give eternal life to as many as God has given him (John 17:2). Eternal life or immortality being a gift held in reserve by Christ for those who are worthy, it is obvious that none can exist between death and the resurrection, when Jesus will come from heaven as a "quickening (or life-giving) spirit " (1 Cor. 15:45), to "clothe" Paul, and all other faithful ones, with a "heavenly house."

The religious teachers of the day represent the righteous as earnestly desiring that their "immortal souls" may be liberated by death from their gross material bodies: they have not a "clothing upon" in view; their idea is to be unclothed. This is the very thing which Paul did not desire: "Not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life." When writing thus, the apostle did not, as many suppose, desire to die; he ardently longed for Jesus Christ to reappear during his lifetime, that he might be one of those who would "not sleep." But, even if he did die, he well knew that he would be raised from the dead when that event occurred, for he had previously told the same church that "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump" (1 Cor. 15:51-52). The next verse - " This corruptible must put on incorruption, this mortal must put on immortality" - not only shows the nature of this change, but strikes at the root of that theory which makes the resurrection consist in an immortal soul re-entering a mortal body; for, according to that theory it would be immortality putting on mortality, whereas Paul says that "mortality must put on immortality," in order that the former may be "swallowed up" of the latter.

When Paul becomes the subject of this process, he will be changed from a "natural body" to a "spiritual body," by receiving his "house from heaven"; he will then realize the prediction he made in writing to the Philippians, that "the Lord Jesus Christ shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body" (Phil. 3:21).

He does not say, as frequently represented, "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord": he had too much respect for the teaching of Moses and the prophets concerning the state of the dead to make such a false statement. Those inspired writers inform us that "the dead praise not the Lord" (Psa. 115:17) that "in death there is no remembrance of God" (Psa. 6:5); that, when a man dies, "his breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth, in that very day his thoughts perish" (Psa. 146:4); and that, as a consequence, " the dead know not anything" (Eccl. 9:5).

Only those who believe this testimony can appreciate the prominence given by Paul to the resurrection, and understand his argument thereon. Keeping these facts in view, it is easy to perceive why the apostle said if there was no resurrection, then the righteous dead had perished. Paul himself is now one of those dead ones, who are said to "sleep in Jesus." He and they are all now "absent from the body," but they are not yet "present with the Lord"; for they are devoid of all life and consciousness, and will so continue until the "Lord shall descend from heaven," when "the dead in Christ shall rise," after which all who are approved by him will "ever be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4: 16-17). Paul desired the two things conjoined, namely, "To be absent from the body AND to be present with the Lord": he is now realizing the former, but not the latter: he has no knowledge of anything, and, therefore, is unconscious of the lapse of time. When he awakes from his sleep of death, it will be to him as though he had but recently fallen asleep.

A portion of mankind will always be in the condition expressed by the phrase "absent from the body"; for it is written of certain lords, who have had dominion over Israel, "They are deceased, they shall not rise" (Isa. 26:14), and of the nations, that "They shall be as though they had not been" (Obad., verse 16).

JUDGMENT: For further evidence that the popular view of this passage is entirely erroneous, it is but necessary to point to verse 10, where Paul says, "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things in body according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad." To what period of time does Paul refer? He supplies the answer in writing to Timothy: "The Lord Jesus Christ shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom"; "Henceforth 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" (2 Tim. 4:1,8). It was then, and not at death, that Paul expected to receive a "crown of righteousness"; it was then, consequently, that he expected to be "present with the Lord."

Reproduced from: The Christadelphian Shield: Papers Explanatory of Wrested Scriptures