“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 KJV).
Many thoughtful Bible readers see this text as evidence that when we die our souls are set free to go into the presence of God. Is that a fair interpretation?
On face of it, it seems reasonable. On the other hand, could we be putting too much weight on convenient phraseology? Will this interpretation hold up under examination? Let’s see.
The author is Paul, missionary and theologian of the early Christian church. We have extracted his words from their setting, so, to be fair, we should consider the context. We’ll begin by scanning back to the previous chapter to get the gist of Paul’s broader thought. There he talks about his missionary endeavors and what his commitment to Christ has cost him.
“We are troubled…perplexed…persecuted…cast down…delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). All this, even death itself, was bearable because of the certainty “that He which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also…” (v. 14).
The “raising up” he mentions is the great hope of the Christian: the resurrection of the dead. Paul had described the resurrection in his first letter to the Corinthian believers. He looked forward eagerly to the day when “the dead shall be raised…” (1 Corinthians 15:52).
He doesn’t talk about welcoming death so that his soul could fly free to be with Christ. He speaks of being raised from the dead in a new, changed, and incorruptible body (see 1 Corinthians 15:51-53).
Returning to 2 Corinthians, we come to the beginning of chapter 5. “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (verse 1).
“Tabernacle” is literally “tent.” Scholars agree that “our earthly house of this tabernacle” is a metaphor for our physical body. The New International Version speaks of “the earthly tent we live in.”
In this word picture, Paul sees the tent-house as temporary and subject to destruction. He contrasts it with something far better: “a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” The Greek words portray a solid, permanent structure; an edifice built by God Himself, one that will last forever.
This graphical language reminds us again of Paul’s resurrection picture in 1 Corinthians 15. “We shall be changed,” he wrote. “This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” This earthly tent is not suitable for eternal life. It won’t last forever. God has prepared our heavenly edifice, a building “not made with hands.”
Please notice that Paul has said nothing about an in-between condition, after the tent-house and before the eternal building “in the heavens.” That “intermediate state” is not something he is looking forward to. His faith and his hope are focused on the end of the age, the day of resurrection, when “we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). He wants that day to come soon, so that he can be “present with the Lord.”
Notice how Paul pictures the “intermediate state” in 2 Corinthians 5:2, 3: “For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked.”
Here Paul expresses his dissatisfaction with this earthly life in this dead-end body of his. Then he switches from the body-tent metaphor to a clothing metaphor. His heart’s desire is to put on the heavenly house – the “building of God…eternal in the heavens.” What he wants to avoid is being found naked – completely without a body. Dead.
The following verse helps to drive this point home: “For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life” (2 Corinthians 5:4).
Paul has switched back to that body-tent metaphor. In this condition, he groans or sighs or perhaps even grieves. Why? Because he is “burdened” – troubled, perplexed, persecuted, cast down, delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake (see 2 Corinthians 4:8-10). He earnestly desires this earthly battle to be over. But does he want to die? No. He doesn’t want to be dead, naked, “unclothed.” He wants to be dressed, “clothed upon,” with his heavenly, eternal body – without ever dying.
Paul is not promoting a death cult. He is not giving some looney-tunes heretics grounds for teaching that believers should all kill themselves so they can go to heaven and be with God. No! He wants to skip the whole death thing. He wants his mortality to be “swallowed up of life.” He is eager for the end of this story and the beginning of the next. So am I!
Let’s press on to verse 5: “Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit.” Living forever in perfect bodies? That’s what we were made for. That was God’s original plan for us. God assures us of His intentions for our future by giving us “the earnest of the Spirit.”
“The earnest” is a deposit – like “earnest money” that guarantees an offer to buy a house. Here Paul points to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in and through the church and its members. It’s an advance deposit, assurance of the transformation God’s power will bring about when He recreates us perfect and immortal.
“Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (for we walk by faith, not by sight:)” (5:6, 7).
Paul’s confidence is based on God’s guarantee of a new, immortal body. So far, he only has the deposit (the Holy Spirit), but that’s enough for now. He is still “at home in the body” and “absent from the Lord.” He is not yet in the physical presence of the Lord; but the Spirit of God, the deposit, is with him in the here and now.
How can Paul be so sure about these unseen things – be they the Holy Spirit now or the future resurrection? Faith.
Now our target verse: “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Paul is ready for the mortal-to-immortal transformation. He is eager for his corruptible body to be made incorruptible. (See 1 Corinthians 15). The things of Earth do not attract him. He is no slave to materialism. He has no hopes or ambitions to hold him here.
He burned those bridges long ago. He is willing to leave all earthly things behind and be in the very presence of the Lord.
It’s clear from the context of our verse that Paul is not thinking of his soul escaping his body at death and flying free to be with the Lord. He hopes to skip death completely and get a new immortal body to replace his corruptible, earthly flesh. Amen to that!