Paul shared his trials and desire to be in the Kingdom. Has his desire to be “absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” been misinterpreted?
Many have asked about 2 Corinthians 5:8, which says, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” What did Paul mean by “absent from the body”?
Examining the context
Some mistakenly believe that this verse lends credence to the pagan concept of an immortal soul. But is this what this verse is talking about?
Perhaps the two most fundamental rules for understanding the Bible are to:
- Look at a given verse in its immediate context.
- Look at the subject under discussion in the broader context of the entire Bible.
Let’s apply those rules here.
In the immediate context, the subject begins with the first verse, where the apostle Paul wrote about the temporary nature of physical life. To illustrate his point, he drew an analogy between a tent (illustrating our physical existence) and a permanent building (illustrating the spiritual life that God will grant the saints in the resurrection).
Mortality now—not an immortal soul
In verse 4, he describes our present existence as “mortality,” saying it needs to be “swallowed up by life”—a reference to the change that will take place at the resurrection of the saints, which he wrote about in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-54.
These references give us a glimpse into how the subject of mortality is explained in the broader context of the rest of the Bible. Comparing the nature of a human being with the nature of a spirit being, Paul wrote, “This mortal must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).
Notice that Paul says nothing of an immortal soul. The Bible uses the word soul to mean a living being. Notice Genesis 2:7 in the King James Version: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (emphasis added).
Thus, the Bible doesn’t say Adam had a soul, but that he was a living soul. The phrase in the Hebrew from which “soul” is translated means a living, breathing being. (See our article “Did God Give Adam an Immortal Soul?”)
The Greek word translated as “soul” conveys a similar meaning to its Hebrew counterpart. Neither language expresses anything immortal about a human being. To the contrary, the words for “soul” in both Hebrew and Greek convey a temporary, mortal nature.
Paul’s analogy of this life as a temporary dwelling
Let’s return now to the immediate context of the verse in question. Verse 6 of 2 Corinthians 5 says that “while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord.” This continues the analogy of a temporary dwelling (“at home”). It means that while we are still flesh and blood, we are not with Christ in the way we will be when He establishes His Father’s Kingdom on the earth.
When will the dead be “present with the Lord”? The answer is clear from 1 Corinthians 15. This will occur at the resurrection. That happens when Jesus Christ returns to the earth at the sound of the angel’s heralding trumpet blast.“Absent from the body” (verse 8) refers to being changed from physical to spirit. As 1 Corinthians 15:50-53 says:
“Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. 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. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”
When will the dead be “present with the Lord”? The answer is clear from 1 Corinthians 15. This will occur at the resurrection. That happens when Jesus Christ returns to the earth at the sound of the angel’s heralding trumpet blast. (See Revelation 11:15 and our article “When Will Jesus Return?”)
Obviously, every Christian desires that change, which is the point of verse 8. “We are … well pleased” means we look forward to being “with the Lord” in every sense, including being changed from our physical, mortal state to that of an immortal spirit.
“Death is swallowed up in victory”
The words of 1 Corinthians 15:54 make a fitting summary: “So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’”
For further study, we recommend you read the following materials:
- “You Will Not Surely Die!”
- “Is There Life After Death?” (this page gives links to many related articles and posts).
- The Last Enemy: What Really Happens After Death?