A friend of mine asks,
“Philippians 1:23 For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:
Doesn’t this verse support the soul doctrine?
Paul is insinuating that he will be with Christ instantly upon his death.
The soul doctrine seems Neoplatonic to me , but I’m having a tough time with this verse.”
“To Depart and Be With Christ.” In writing to the Philippians, Paul says: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil 1:22-23). Dualists consider this text one of the strongest proofs that at death the soul of the saved immediately goes into the presence of Christ. For example, Robert Morey states: “This is the clearest passage in the New Testament which speaks of the believer going to be with Christ in heaven after death. This context deals with Paul’s desire to depart this earthly life for a heavenly life with Christ. There is no mention or allusion to the resurrection in this passage.”51The fundamental problem with this interpretation is the failure to recognize that Paul’s statement, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” is a relational and not an anthropological statement. By this I mean, it is a statement of the relation that exists and continues between the believer and Christ through death, not a statement of the “state” of the body and soul between death and the resurrection.Helmut Thielicke correctly points out that the New Testament is not concerned about a ‘state’ which exists between death and resurrection, but for a relation that exists between the believer and Christ through death. This relationship of being with Christ is not interrupted by death because the believer who sleeps in Christ has no awareness of the passing of time. As Thielicke puts it, “The removal of a sense of time means for those who are awakened that the long night of death is reduced to a mathematical point, and they are thus summoned out of completed life.”52The attempts to extract from Paul’s statement support for the belief in the transit of the soul to heaven at death are unwarranted because, as Ray Anderson rightly observes, “Paul did not think the question of the status of the person between death and resurrection was a question that needed to be considered.”53 The reason is that for Paul those who “die in Christ” are “sleeping in Christ” (1 Cor 15:18; 1 Thess 4:14). Their relation with Christ is one of immediacy, because they have no awareness of the passing of time between their death and resurrection. They experience what may be called “eternal time.” But for those who go on living on earth-bound temporal time there is an interval between death and resurrection. The problem is that we cannot synchronize the clock of eternal time with that of our temporal time. It is the attempt to do this that has led to unfortunate speculations and controversies over the so-called intermediate state.By expressing his desire “to depart and be with Christ,” Paul was not giving a doctrinal exposition of what happens at death. He is simply expressing his longing to see an end to his troubled existence and to be with Christ. Throughout the centuries, earnest Christians have expressed the same longing, without necessarily expecting to be ushered into Christ’s presence at the moment of their death. Paul’s statement must be interpreted on the basis of his clear teachings regarding the time when believers will be united with Christ.With Christ at His Coming. Paul addresses this question in his letter to the Thessalonians where he explains that both the sleeping and living believers will be united with Christ, not at death, but at His coming. “The dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17).54 The “so” (houtos) refers to the manner or way in which believers will be with Christ, namely, not by dying, but by being resurrected or translated at His coming. Basil Atkinson notes that the word “so” in Greek houtos “means ‘in this way.’ Its place here at the beginning of the sentence makes it emphatic, so that the meaning of the sentence becomes: ‘And this is the way that we shall be for ever with the Lord,’ implying that there is no other way and leading us to conclude that we shall not be with the Lord till the day of the resurrection.”55It should be noted that in describing the union with Christ which believers will experience at His coming, Paul never speaks of disembodied souls being reunited with resurrected bodies. Rather, he speaks of “the dead in Christ” being risen (1 Thess 4:16). Obviously, what is risen at Christ’s coming is not just dead bodies but dead people. It is the whole person who will be resurrected and reunited with Christ. Note that the living saints will meet Christ at the same time “together with” the resurrected saints (1 Thess 4:17). Sleeping and living saints meet Christ “together” at His coming, not at death.The total absence of any Pauline allusion to an alleged reunion of the body with the soul at the time of the resurrection constitutes, in my view, the most formidable challenge to the notion of the conscious survival of the soul. If Paul knew anything about this, he would surely have alluded to it, especially in his detailed discussion of what will happen to sleeping and living believers at Christ’s coming (1 Thess 4:13-18; 1 Cor 15:42-58). The fact that Paul never alluded to the conscious survival of the soul and its reattachment to the body at the resurrection clearly shows that such a notion was totally foreign to him and to Scripture as a whole.”Immortality or Resurrection, 179-181