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What Dad Paul Mean By "Being Absent From the Body"?


What did Paul mean in 2 Corinthians 5:8 when he talked about being absent from the body and present with the Lord?

Steve Answers:

Here’s how 2 Corinthians 5:8 reads:

“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (KJV). Some people find it difficult to understand the style of the King James Version of the Bible. Or, they may have to read it through more slowly a second time in order to understand it. Here’s what I come up with when I limit myself to the one sentence you referenced: I’d rather be with Jesus in heaven than stuck here on earth.

I feel the same way, don’t you?

Some people use this text to support the Greek idea that when a person dies, their soul goes on living; it leaves the body and starts to float around. At some Christian funerals the minister or priest may say something about the dead person already in heaven. When you look at the body in the casket, you know that either the speaker doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, or else there’s a soul that left the dead body and must be floating around somewhere—maybe in heaven?

I’ve noticed that some translations or paraphrases of the Bible make it seem like “being present with the Lord” happens at the moment you die, while others indicate that it’s when Jesus returns that you’ll be present with the Lord. Here’s one example from earlier in the chapter: “For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down—when we die and leave these bodies—we will have a home in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands” (2 Corinthians 5:1, NLT).*

Here’s my paraphrase of that verse, if you have a bias toward the belief that a person’s soul goes to heaven the moment he or she dies: When we die, it’s like our body is a tent that gets taken down. But life isn’t over for you when you die. God has a better place for you in heaven—better than a tent, so you’ll just go there when you die. Please understand that I’m not saying this is an accurate paraphrase. But if I already think that a person goes directly to heaven when they die, it’s not hard to paraphrase the Bible in this way.

Here’s my paraphrase of that same verse if you have a bias toward a person’s death being like sleep until Jesus returns to take us to heaven: We know that because we are followers of Jesus, when we die, life isn’t really over for us. Oh, our frail and faulty human bodies might be something we never come back to, but God has a resurrection body that He will give us when He takes us to heaven. In contrast to our earthly bodies, the resurrection bodies will last forever.

You might need to read a few other verses to see whether your bias should be that our souls go directly to heaven when we die, or we sleep until Jesus returns and takes His people to heaven with a resurrection body.

Jesus is the one who referred to death as sleep. Read what He said in John 11:11-14 and Luke 8:52. But since Paul is the one who wrote 2 Corinthians, let’s consider what Paul had to say about this topic beyond 2 Corinthians 5:8. Here’s what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:10: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body.”

Now, here’s what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:51, 52: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

Here’s what Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

Paul wrote in Romans 14:8, 12: “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

The passage you asked about, 2 Corinthians 5:8, deals with the what, not the when. The what is God’s promise to give us a new body in heaven, where we get to see Jesus face-to-face. This is in contrast to our decaying earthly bodies that won’t last very long in comparison to eternity.

The when is covered in some of Paul’s other writings. So there’s no need to read into 2 Corinthians 5:8 a Greek idea when Paul has been clear in his other letters that the when is the second coming of Christ. It would be odd for Paul to contradict all of his other passages in this one verse.

A few verses before 2 Corinthians 5:8, in verse 5, God guarantees that He’ll give us a new body that’s far superior to our current bodies. His guarantee comes in the form of a deposit that we can have right now: the Holy Spirit. So, if God’s Holy Spirit is in you, then you have the deposit as God’s guarantee of even better things to come—an everlasting body for you when Jesus returns! Like Paul, I’d rather be in heaven with Jesus and my eternal body. But until then, I’ll live for Him in my decaying, earthly body. How about you?

*Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

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