Pauline Psyche

Philippians is a phenomenal letter. Paul, even through the trial he faced, was able to reach out and minister to others as a channel of God's truth. 

Early on in the letter, he communicated (1:23) that he had a -

"desire to depart and be with Christ-- which is far better-but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you."

The question is often asked, is Paul here speaking of being absent from the body in some sort of spirit state prior to the return of Messiah? Is he speaking of ascending to heaven, and there await the "rapture" as some theologians posit? What was the purpose of this statement within his letter to the believers in Philippi? (For any interested in this "rapture" question in Paul, please check out Kurt Willems' podcast episode, "The Resurrection - "Physical" or "Spiritual" Bodies.")

The Old Testament, or as I prefer to call them, the Hebrew Scriptures, are relatively silent on this matter. There are however, occasional hints. Jesus, when referencing the resurrection, used Exodus 3 (the “burning bush passage”) to say that his father was not the God of the dead but of the living. What expositor or theologian today would dub this as a resurrection passage? Jesus obviously had reasoning for making reference to this passage (which is another study). 

There are passages (however insignificant to our ways of thinking) that shaped the theology Paul shared in his writings, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and other literature. This other body of writing, to the consternation of some Christians, influenced Paul's theology, whether some like it or not. He was shaped in part by writings categorized as pseudepigraphic and apocryphal. Paul did not necessarily contradict Jesus' teaching on the matter, but merely expanded, expounded and midrash-ed it.

It may be news to some, but believe it or not, Jesus was not a Greek philosopher and neither was Paul. I don't think either of them taught the Pathagorean doctrine of afterlife with its disembodiment, reward and punishment. Psyche (Gk soul) did not mean the same for Jesus and Paul as it did for Pathagoras and Plato. God created man as a whole soul, and the body was not evil. While the Greek uses psyche where the Hebrew uses nephesh, this does not communicate that nephesh was the inward, immaterial, spiritual essence and counterpart in opposition of the body in a dualistic sense. Nephesh is rather the whole person, the entirely of what it means to be human.

Paul (in other passages, e.g. 2 Cor. 5:8) indicates two options, the first of which was being alive (absent from the body), and second, being with Messiah (present with the lord). It is important when we study, to try and not rely on any anachronistic doctrine, preconceived notion of what it means or what we have been taught it means.

We know what Jesus taught on specific matters, but with Paul, eisegesis has become a common practice (inserting ideas and propositions into his writing that would not have been indigenous). So naturally our reading of Philippians can be radically swayed by our worldview or foundation in determining what we think the Scriptures say versus what the author actually intended. We read far more into specific texts than most realize. Was Paul a Platonist? As a Jewish Rabbi, is he to be understood as proposing a cosmological dualism as propounded in Hellenistic Philosophy? Did Paul embrace the idea that the world was essentially evil and that the body was the prison of an internal (soon to be disembodied) soul?

If I held to a doctrine that declared an intermediate disembodied spirit domain or holding tank until the bodily resurrection, I would have to read such a thing into the Pauline corpus. The real question though becomes, is this view compatible with Paul's identity as a first-century, Jewish, Rabbinical sage and his Scriptures, or am I inserting my own preconceived and learned presupposition as to what he meant? Does it come from Pauline theology or has it developed in later tradition and then crept into the mainline stream of Christian thought? Does history give any evidence one way or another? There are all questions that scholars and historians have discussed and wrestled with.

As hard as it may be to believe, Greek philosophy played a significant role in the formation of Christian doctrine in the first few centuries as the "church" suffered an identity crisis, and became largely comprised of gentiles. Those responsible for shaping and molding Christian thought were converts from other religions and some were even trained philosophers. The great shift had begun and Christianity became a religious smoothie of blended belief containing ingredients entirely foreign to Jesus' and Paul's teaching.

Now, we know that Messiah will return (appear) in the same manner in which he left. We know there will be a resurrection of the righteous (and unrighteous). We know that the saints will be with him at some point and there will be a type of judgment (not of condemnation) and reward. We know that the ultimate “theocracy” and governing hand of God has been inaugurated and will come through “the one he anointed” for the task (Paul - Acts 17). We know that it is the “last day” on which the dead will be raised (even Daniel said something like that).

Paul began his letter to the Philippians by admonishing them regarding work that was being done in their lives. Paul seemed to think (in other places of his writing) that the Messiah’s return could readily be approaching, perhaps even in his lifetime. He said that he was confident that such work being done in and through these people would be “complete” on the day of Jesus, i.e. the Lord. He also referenced the anticipation of “Jesus’ day” that would accompany such a work. Paul then talks about his own matters and trials.

One of the key factors specifically in relationship to living and dying (although I do not pretend this thought is by any means original to me) is time. When a person (in Messiah) closes their eyes in death, the Scripture is quite clear about the status of that “soul." It is dead. The breath returns whence it came; to God. The hope of the believer is in resurrection (God did this for Messiah, he will also do it for us – Paul). It is quite evident that time is a unique phenomenon that can (even in our physical dimension) have unusual sensations. A simple example would be the quick passage of time when one is in a comma or deep sleep. In the same sense, (from the perspective of a believer who closes their eyes in death), time ceases for them. The next waking moment for them would literally be the call to awake or “come up here” (as seemingly suggested in Revelation 11). To them, no calculable time would have passed at all. As soon as they departed in death, all would be waking to their inheritance and experiencing being united in fullness with the Messiah.

From a corporeal perspective, those who have died await their calling, and the dead will rise first (on that day). With that said, I find Paul’s words in perfect alignment with this thought:

“But continuation of my natural life would mean productivity in my work. Therefore, I am in a quandary. I am mutually attracted, having a strong desire to graduate to be with Christ—a much better option. But to remain here in my physical state is what you need even more.”

We cannot say for certain what it was this particular group of believers were “in need of” (with Paul), but it is clear that his greatest desire was to be with his lord. Perhaps the next phrase is a key to understanding what he meant –

“staying on here in the flesh is more vital for your sake. Since I have been convinced of this, I know that I will remain here, and stay alongside all of you, to help you to advance and rejoice in your faith, so that the pride you take in King Jesus may overflow because of me, when I come to visit you once again.”

Paul wants to be with the Messiah, but realizes that they are still in need of him. Paul also has the mindset that he is a slave, a bondservant of Messiah. As such, his desire is for that of his lord/master. With that perspective he says,

“Christ will be held in high honor in my body, whether by my living or dying. For my life consists of Christ, and death would be to my advantage.” 

Of course he wants to be with Messiah, but not if it is against the Messiah’s wishes.

To take this passage out of the confines of Paul’s own definition and his theological context is to put words in his mouth and say something that was never intended. There is no sense that Paul spoke of dying and going to “heaven” as sometimes thought. To assume Paul was a Platonist and held contemporary Christian views of cosmology and dualism is to make him something he wasn't. There is much more that could be said in reference to the whole philosophical and abstract notion of “immortal souls" embodied in flesh, but that will have to wait for another time.

Even though I never did take the time to wright a review of his book “Paul” (which was a great read for the most part), I will leave you with a few words from N.T. Wright: 

“Much of the second-Temple literature is precisely concerned to tell the story again and again to show how the plot was progressing and, perhaps, reaching its climax. Unless we recognize this and factor it into our thinking about Paul and his Jewish world from the very start we will have no chance of grasping the fundamental structures of his thought. And if, as has so often been done, we substitute for his controlling narratives those of other traditions and cultures, we are asking for hermeneutical trouble” p. 12.

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