Paul wrote about his “desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” Why did he say this? Did he mean he would go to heaven immediately after death?
Of course, Jesus Christ was in heaven at the time that Paul penned his letter to the Philippians. Does Paul’s “desire to depart and be with Christ” mean that the apostle believed that he would join Christ in heaven upon death? While many religious teachers assume that is the implication of this statement, they have missed its true meaning by a wide mark!
In order to understand this accurately, we must view it through the lens of its immediate context, as well as through the broader context of the rest of Paul’s writings.
The context of Philippians 1
Let’s begin with the immediate context. Note the tone of his words at the outset: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:3-6).
The Church faced crushing persecution in Philippi. One of Paul’s main purposes in writing this letter was to encourage his Church family to hang in there through their difficulties.
Undoubtedly, his troubles added to their grief. It was likely shocking, disheartening and discouraging to know where their apostle was. There was no minimizing his imprisonment and his personal suffering. So, he drew upon his situation to encourage them. He wanted them to know that as bleak as his situation might seem, good was coming of it. The implication was that good would come of their personal trials too.
He explained that even his chains (his imprisonment) were advancing the preaching of the gospel (Philippians 1:12-14). He expressed his unshakable conviction that “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (verse 20).
It is in this context that he wrote: “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” (verses 21-23).
To depart and be with Christ
Now, what did he mean by “to depart and be with Christ”? Unarguably, the first two words refer to dying. Even today, people speak euphemistically of death this way, saying someone has “departed this life.” Now, that’s quite bleak, writing about the possibility of dying. But it was realistic, and the Church members needed real comfort.
Paul was confident of God’s hand even in the grimmest of circumstances. What could be grimmer than death? Yet Paul was confident of God’s enduring presence and help throughout all trials.At first glance, the meaning of “be with Christ” seems equally evident—that Paul would join Christ in heaven immediately upon death. But that was not Paul’s intent. And it isn’t what he believed would happen to a Christian upon death. We can readily determine that by looking at two of his other letters.
Paul’s clear statements about what happens after death
The key is when the righteous dead will be with Christ. The clear message of 1 Thessalonians is that they will join Christ when He returns, not before. Like the letter to those in Philippi, the purpose of this letter was to encourage believers who were experiencing grievous trials.
“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [that is, those who have died], lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
Apparently, the Christians in Thessalonica feared that the saints who died before Christ’s return would somehow have a lesser position in God’s Kingdom than those who lived until His return. Or perhaps they thought deceased Christians would miss out on the Kingdom entirely. Such concerns might sound strange to us today, but remember that this was written only about 20 years after the New Testament Church of God began. The Church had not dealt with much death of the faithful.
Additionally, as is evident throughout the New Testament, the early Church of God held the strong expectation that Jesus would return soon—in their lifetime! So, when in the course of time some died, the faith of the survivors was sorely tested.
Paul comforted the members by telling them emphatically: “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep” (verse 15).
First, consider that if the dead were already with Christ, they would, in fact, precede those who remained alive, instead of all joining Christ at the same time, which is what Paul wrote. It’s easy to read over this seemingly insignificant point. But taken any other way it would be nonsensical.
Next, it should be obvious that if Paul had believed that the dead actually joined Christ as soon as they died, he would have offered that in comfort: “Don’t fret. They are already with Christ.” But he did not write that! What he wrote is quite different and cannot be construed as even implying that the righteous dead go to heaven upon death.
“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (verses 16-18).
The dead don’t come with the Lord from heaven, but rather, rise (from the dead) to meet Him as He returns.
Asleep, not awake somewhere else
One last point to note from this letter to the Thessalonians is Paul’s repeated comparison of death to sleep. His use of this analogy would make no sense if the righteous dead were immediately conscious with Christ in heaven. Plainly, Paul intended to convey that the dead saints are totally unconscious until the resurrection.
This spiritual truth about death is confirmed in another of Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians. There he wrote that we “sleep” in death until the blowing of the trumpet that announces Jesus Christ’s return. “We” in this context meant believers, “the dead in Christ.” They enter unconsciousness upon death and remain “asleep” until the trumpet blast that heralds Christ’s return awakens them. Only then are they raised (from the dead) to join Christ.
“Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
By the time of this writing, the Church was more accepting of the fact that some would die. Perhaps, they were beginning to expect that they would all die before Christ’s return. For that reason, Paul began, “We shall not all sleep . . .”
While the introduction is slightly different from that in 1 Thessalonians 4, the core doctrinal teaching is the same: Christians do not join Christ immediately when they die. They will rise up to join Him when He comes down to the earth.
Words of encouragement
Now the meaning of “to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23) becomes unmistakably clear. Paul was confident of God’s hand even in the grimmest of circumstances. What could be grimmer than death? Yet Paul was confident of God’s enduring presence and help throughout all trials. Even if he should die, he was confident that he would join Christ when He returns. That is the capstone for every believer and unquestionably “better” than any other thing!
Paul wanted the Philippians to capture and take hope in this truth.
Today, there are many expressions of comfort offered at funerals and memorials for the dead, as well as in beautifully worded sympathy cards that tell us the dead are in heaven. Now that you know the full meaning of Paul’s words to the Philippians, ask yourself if these expressions are actually comforting—or if they are merely hollow. Genuine comfort can be found only in truth.
The rest of the story
We’ve looked at the immediate context of the phase in question, as well as at the broader context of Paul’s additional writings. We’ve seen that they agree within themselves; there is no contradiction.
They must also agree with the broader context of all Scripture. Jesus said as much in John 10:35, noting that “the Scripture cannot be broken.” The task of examining the Bible’s complete teaching on the afterlife is beyond the scope of this article, but it is no less revealing than what we have covered here.
For example, notice these plain statements from both the Old Testament and the New Testament:
- “The dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). We discuss this more in “4 Keys to Understanding the Afterlife.”
- Jesus said: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13).
For further study, read our free booklet The Last Enemy: What Really Happens After Death?