to die is gain

SDC10734

The apostle Paul told the Philippians that, to him, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”[1] It is quite clear to the reader that if Paul keeps on living, he will keep on serving Christ. Thus, “to live is Christ” must have been a reference to his intention to do just that. But what did Paul mean when he asserted “to die is gain”? Partly, that is answered by the previous verse, in which he expressed his intention that “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”[2] So, “Paul is picking up on the two possible resolutions of his imprisonment, freedom or execution…”[3] If he is set free, it will mean the opportunity to reach more souls with the gospel, to plant more churches, and to honor Christ by bringing more people into his kingdom.

But what else did he mean? How is death gain? Ascough asserts that “The use of the word in Phil 1:21 is clearly drawing on the imagery of the marketplace, where Paul states that it is more ‘profitable’ for him to die.”[4] In what sense? Before looking at the text to seek answers to that question, I will survey the answers usually given by those who hold traditionalists views of the intermediate state.

GAINING A BETTER LOCATION

Some say that Paul had in mind the gain of a new location, immediately at death. The soul, unencumbered by its body, is set free to travel to heaven, and that is the gain that Paul anticipated.

“They are not lost, they are only moved. Moved, by the way, to a much better place.”[5]

“he was talking about his departure to somewhere better than earth.”[6]

“theologians and Bible expositors have been careful to distinguish between the present heaven where God now dwells and where believers go at the moment of death and the future heaven where believers will spend all eternity.”[7]

“Death would send Paul to the place of everything that was truly dear and precious to him. ”[8]

Has Paul made the case, in Philippians or anywhere else, that heaven is where he intends to go at death? Keep in mind that the word for heaven in Greek is simply the normal word for “sky.” [9] Anyway, here is what Paul asserts about the sky:

  • God’s wrath is being revealed from the sky now.[10]
  • No one can ascend to the sky.[11]
  • There are many false “gods” in the sky and on the land, but only one true God.[12]
  • Jesus came from the sky, and at our resurrection we will bear his image.[13]
  • Paul saw a man caught up in the third sky in a vision.[14]
  • Angels are in the sky.[15]
  • All things in the sky and the land will one day be united in Christ.[16]
  • The Father God is the source of the whole family in the sky and on the land.[17]
  • The Master of slaves and the Master of masters lives in the sky.[18]
  • Every knee will bow to Christ “in the sky and on the ground and under the ground.”[19]
  • Christians are registered citizens in the sky, “and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”[20]
  • The believer’s hope (Christ) is laid up for them in the sky.[21]
  • Christ created the sky and the land, and plans to reconcile the whole creation to himself.[22]
  • Christ will descend from the sky to raise the dead at his return.[23]
  • Christ will be revealed from the sky with his mighty angels at his return.[24]

Once the popular and somewhat misleading translation “heaven” is replaced with the common term “sky,” it is easy to see that most of these passages do not argue for a separate location for people to go when they die. However, because so many mistaken assumptions have been read into the texts, some of the passages do require a bit of explanation.

  • The “third sky” of Paul’s vision (2 Corinthians 12:2) is the third creation of the sky. Paul saw into the future – a future after the present sky and land has been destroyed and replaced with the future, eternal sky and land. It is the third sky and land because the first had been destroyed during Noah’s flood. The second sky was that which Paul could see normally by looking up. To see into the future sky required a vision. To live in that future would require a resurrection. For the purposes of this study, it is sufficient to comment that this passage in no way implies continued existence after death.
  • Ephesians 1:10 speaks of the future as well. when all things in the sky and the land are united in Christ. At present, all the holy angels in the sky are united in Christ, but some of the angels are fallen, and will suffer the same fate as Satan, whom they are following to their destruction in Gehenna. Likewise, not all the things on earth are – at present – united in Christ. But in the fullness of time, all those things not yet in Christ will either be reconciled with him, or destroyed by him. Again, there is nothing intrinsic in this verse that demands a conscious intermediate state.
  • Many modern versions translate the phrase pasa patria in Ephesians 3:15 as “every family,”[25] which suggests that there are families already residing “in heaven.” But the NIV version follows another traditional translation option, rendering the phrase “the whole family.”[26] This translation makes the most sense in context, because Paul had just pointed out the fact that Christ is the only one (of the family) who has ascended to the sky, and because of that he can now give gifts to the others (in the family) who are still on the land.[27] So, the “whole family” consists of Christ who is in the sky, and his followers who are not. So, there is no evidence of believers going to heaven when we die in this text either.
  • The post-resurrection future is also in view when Paul speaks of every knee bowing at the name of Jesus (Philippians 2:10). To suggest that Paul also meant that there are presently knees in heaven bowing to Christ, and that those knees belong to saints who have ascended – goes way beyond the boundaries of Paul’s message. It was to these Philippians that Paul revealed that his objective was attaining to the resurrection from the dead.[28] He – that is, Paul — did not imagine bowing his knees to Christ during the intermediate state. Knees are part of the body which is alive. Bowing knees requires that we have knees. The resurrection at Jesus’ return will give those under the ground (whose bodies have decayed) knees again to bow before our Savior.
  • Neither does being registered citizens in the sky kingdom require that believers go anywhere at death. Paul told the Philippians (3:18-21) that there are two kinds of people: there are enemies of the cross of Christ, and us. The god of the enemies is their own belly, and their glory is their shame. They set their minds on the things of the present world. Their end is destruction. But our God is our Savior, and our glory is his return. Our citizenship/ loyalty is directed to the sky where he is. Our end will be the transformation of our lowly bodies to be like his – when he returns. So, once again, Paul is looking ahead to the return of Christ. He is not speaking at all about the intermediate state.
  • Paul spoke of the Colossians as having a hope laid up for them in the sky (1:5). Was this hope different than that he had been proclaiming in his other epistles? No, not at all. It was the hope of glory.[29] But when will those Colossians (and the rest of us) be glorified? “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”[30] The hope the Colossians had was Christ, who is coming down for them from the sky. Their hope was not going to the sky (or anywhere else) after death.

So, after looking at every verse in the New Testament where Paul discusses the word ouranos, we find that not one of them support the concept that it is a destination that Christians go when they die.

GAINING A REWARD FOR FAITHFUL WORK

But some insist that Paul taught that believers gain their reward for faithful service to Christ at death:

“Death is a homecoming for the Christian. Paul sees it as gain because he sees is as the reward for offering himself as a living sacrifice on this side of the veil.”[31]

  • In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul spoke of two homes: our present home (our present body) and our future home (our future glorified body). But that passage has been ripped from its context and applied to the intermediate state! Traditionalists insist that Paul had another home in mind: a home in heaven between death and the resurrection. But a careful reading of 2 Corinthians 5 shows that Paul stated twice that he was not thinking about the intermediate state. The intermediate state was just that – an intermediate state or condition between life in this home, and life in the next. Paul called that state being naked. He longed for the glorified resurrection body because “by putting it on we may not be found naked.”[32] And then – just in case his readers were not paying attention – he said that believers are presently groaning “because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”[33] Paul never spoke of death as going home.

“For the Christian, death brings a better inheritance, a better fellowship, and a better body.”[34]

  • No, for the Christian, Christ brings all these things. But he will do so at the proper time, and in the proper order. The resurrection order is “Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back.”[35]
  • The Greek mystery cults glorified death, but Christianity did not. For the Christian, death remains a part of the curse upon humanity. The LORD warned Adam that the consequence of sin would be death.[36] Death would not be a gateway to another life or location. It would be punishment for sin. The LORD spoke of death as a prison, with “gates of deep darkness.”[37] Those gates will not be opened until our Savior returns with the keys. That is why John’s vision of Christ in Revelation depicted him with keys in his hand.[38]

“For the believer, when he departs from this life he goes to be immediately in the presence of Jesus Christ and as the believer stands before Jesus he receives his reward.”[39]

  • Not quite. The prophet Isaiah said “Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh; behold, his reward is with him.”[40] Jesus applied that text to himself and his return when he said “behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.”[41] So, according to the Rewarder, our reward is not coming at death, but at his second coming. Who should we believe? I choose to believe the rewarder as to the timing of the reception of his reward.

“while we are on this earth, our life belongs to Christ; after this life, because our life belonged to Him here, we gain the reward of eternal life with Him there.”[42]

  • Yes, our reward will be eternal life. But not only will our reward be when Christ comes, it will also be where Christ goes. He is not coming back to take us to heaven. He is coming back to take his rightful place as the rightful “ruler of kings on earth.”[43] His capital will be the new Jerusalem, which John sees coming down out of the sky from God “like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”[44] To place the bride in heaven when her groom is reigning on earth would be a cruel thing. It would also make it impossible for us to do what the New Testament affirms that we will do. We will reign with him.[45]

“He (Paul) had served the Lord faithfully and now looked forward to receiving ‘a crown of righteousness’ (II Timothy 4:6-8).”[46]

  • Pardon, your slip is showing. Paul was referring to the day of Christ’s return. He specifically stated that the crown of righteousness would be rewarded not only to him that day, “but also to all who have loved his appearing.”[47] We will all receive the reward of eternal righteousness at the same time – not at various times as we each die. The specific day is clear: it is the day of Christ’s appearing (epiphania).

“For every believer there will be one final promotion – Death. That is why we are told not to fear it.”[48]

  • Nowhere ever in Scripture is death called a promotion. It is a curse, a prison, and an enemy.[49] It is never a friend. Paul could not have contradicted himself as an author of Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit to produce God’s infallible word. His assertion that his death would be gain cannot be explained by interpreting it in such a way as to make him recant something that he has already said about death. That would be bad theology. Positing that Paul meant that death would be gain in a way that denies its enemy status is bad hermeneutics.

GAINING LIFE FREE FROM THE CURSE

Some simply deny the reality of death altogether. They assert that when the believer appears to die, he or she will simply live on in an eternal life somewhere unseen, and free from all the troubles of this life.

“The deceased will never know another moment of sickness or pain and will live eternally to worship our Lord.”[50]

“What we call death is a transition from a dying body in a dying world to a world of light and life.”[51]

“to die should be seen as a gain … because it would mean that we would be freed from this trouble-filled life on earth to rejoice in Christ’s presence in Heaven.”[52]

  • It may sound comforting to believe that death is a transition to a better world, but that comfort comes with a price. It is a denial that the better world of which the gospel speaks comes not at death but at our Savior’s return. It denies the reality of death, by making it only the appearance of death. To suggest theologically that death is not real leads to a very interesting conundrum: our eternal life is based on the atoning death of Christ on the cross. If death is not real, then what of his death? With the assertion that death is a mere transition to another life elsewhere, the very basis of our salvation stands challenged.

“death is the retirement of this earthly tent with all its weaknesses and temptations and the unification of the Lover to His beloved.”[53]

  • This statement reflects a misreading of 2 Corinthians 5. Paul did compare our earthly bodies with tents, and envisioned a greater, more permanent “eternal dwelling in the heavens.”[54] He spoke of groaning in this body “desiring to put on our dwelling from heaven.”[55] But the crowd who believes that they will retire to mansions in heaven when they die fail to see that Paul was speaking not of the intermediate state, but of the resurrection. Paul longed not to be unclothed, but to be clothed upon with his immortal body. That did not happen when Paul died. It will happen when Paul is raised from the dead.

GAINING THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST

“living this life with Christ was good, but dying and being in His presence was better.”[56]

“Death is therefore a personal gain for Paul because it means departing the body and being with Christ, and that is better by far.”[57]

“Gaining Christ was Paul’s great passion and goal in all his did. … Paul wanted what would bring the deepest and most lasting satisfaction to his life, namely, being with Christ in glory.”[58]

“Oh to have such an affection for Christ that my life is utterly Christ-centered and my death is a welcome transition to the embrace of my Savior!”[59]

“Christians should view their own forthcoming death as an appointment in Jesus’ calendar, which he will faithfully keep.”[60]

“even in death we gain victory over the grave because when we die and leave this earthly body we still get to be with Him in Heaven if we live for Him on earth.”[61]

“death was to be welcomed as something that brought him closer to the Christ he loved.”[62]

“When our time on earth is over and we die, we will gain eternity with our Lord and Savior.”[63]

“He is either doing the Lord’s work or he is with Christ in Heaven.”[64]

  • Every Christian longs to be in the presence of Christ. But the Bible tells us that we will be with him – not when we die – but when he returns for us. Paul taught that “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”[65] Note that this is the only event in which Paul claims that any believer (including himself) would be “with the LORD.
  • To make death our expectation point – the point in which we expect to be reunited with our Savior – glorifies death. It also steals from the glorious event of the second coming, an event which Christians are told to long for.

What did Paul mean by saying that his death would be gain? Perhaps he was not referring to his personal gain at all. Maybe he was speaking of those who would dare to trust Christ after hearing of his martyrdom. He had already noted that his imprisonment had been instrumental in spreading the gospel:

“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”[66]

So, it could be that Paul, realizing that his imprisonment was advancing the gospel, might suppose that his death as a believer might lead to even more who would be willing to count everything a loss for the sake of Christ. We do not really know his reason for stating that his death would be gain.

Many feel that he was explaining himself when he said that he had a desire “to depart and be with Christ – which is far better.”[67] They see this as Paul explaining that when he died, his soul would depart this earth and he would be with Christ. But that text actually refers to the second coming. The verb analuō is only found in one other place in the New Testament, it describes a master returning from a wedding feast.[68] So, it is just as linguistically appropriate to translate Paul’s words “having a desire for the return, and to be with Christ – which is far better.” That fits with what Paul had taught elsewhere about his hope to be with Christ at his second coming.

Paul divided all Christendom into two categories. Those who are still alive, and those who have fallen asleep.[69] For those of us still alive, we live with the joyful expectation that some day our Savior will burst the clouds and descend upon this world he rightfully owns. But for those in the second category, those saints which sleep, their next conscious moment will be welcoming the returning Christ. From the standpoint of eternity, nothing is lost by those who have died in Christ. Their gravestones and tombs serve to mark lives which had been invested in Christ, and that investment will result in gain for them and their Lord.


[1] Philippians 1:21.

[2] Philippians 1:20 ESV.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text. (Grand Rapids, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 11.

[4] Richard S. Ascough, Paul’s Macedonian Associations. (Tūbingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 2003), 119.

[5] Jason Roberts, Moments of Victory. (Xulon Press, 2006), 96.

[6] Christian Nwobu, The Seed of Your Words. (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2010), 25.

[7] Ron Rhodes, The Wonder of Heaven. (Eugene Or: Harvest House Publishers, 2009), 132.

[8] Lester Hutson, Philippians: God’s Love Letter. (Lester Hutson, 2007).

[9] Louw-Nida Greek Lexicon: “space above the earth, including the vault arching high over the earth from one horizon to another, as well as the sun, moon, and stars – ‘sky.’ ”

[10] Romans 1:18.

[11] Romans 10:6.

[12] 1 Corinthians 8:5-6.

[13] 1 Corinthians 15:47-49.

[14] 2 Corinthians 12:2.

[15] Galatians 1:8.

[16] Ephesians 1:10.

[17] Ephesians 3:15.

[18] Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1.

[19] Philippians 2:10.

[20] Philippians 3:20.

[21] Colossians 1:5.

[22] Colossians 1:16, 20, 23.

[23] 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

[24] 2 Thessalonians 1:7.

[25] ESV; NASB; NET; HCSB; NRSV.

[26] see also KJV; YLT, and NLT “everything.”

[27] Ephesians 4:8f.

[28] Philippians 3:10-11.

[29] Colossians 1:27.

[30] Colossians 3:4 ESV.

[31] Matt Chandler, Jared C. Wilson, To Live Is Christ to Die Is Gain. (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), 38.

[32] 2 Corinthians 5:3 ESV.

[33] 2 Corinthians 5:4 NET.

[34] Mark Hitchcock, 55 Answers to Questions about Life After Death. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2005), 76.

[35] 1 Corinthians 15:23 NLT.

[36] Genesis 2:17.

[37] Job 38:17 ESV, NET, NRSV.

[38] Revelation 1:18.

[39] Oliver E. Summers. What Is God Up To? – Why Earth? – Why Eternity? (Xulon Press, 2008), 355.

[40] Isaiah 62:11 KJV.

[41] Revelation 22:12.

[42] Darlene Jones, One Day @ A Time. (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2010), 165.

[43] Revelation 1:5 ESV.

[44] Revelation 21:2. NLT

[45] 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6.

[46] Vern E. Spencer, Playing by the Rules. (Xulon Press, 2003), 134.

[47] 2 Timothy 4:8 ESV.

[48] Danny L. Callahan, Triumphant Warriors in a Turbulent World. (Xulon Press, 2008), 101.

[49] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[50] Denise Hamilton, Trials to Treasure. (Xulon Press, 2008), 144.

[51] Randy Alcorn, In Light of Eternity: Perspectives on Heaven. (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 1999), 151.

[52] Gregg Joseph Kretschmer and Jason Christian Ravizza, The Waging War Within – A Devotional for Winning the Daily War. (Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press, 2011), 21.

[53] Bill Rudy, Secrets of the Heart. (Jacksonville, FL: Logos Publishing, 2004), 105.

[54] 2 Corinthians 5:1 HCSB.

[55] 2 Corinthians 5:2 HCSB.

[56] Anthony Weber, Learning to Jump Again. (Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press, 2011), 148.

[57] James P. Ware, Paul and the Mission of the Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books,2011).

[58] John Piper, Desiring God, Revised Edition: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2011), 281.

[59] Will Owens, Unshakable Joy in Uneasy Times. (Bloomington, IN: Crossbooks, 2010), 28.

[60] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology. (Wheaton, IL: Foundation for Reformation, 1993), 248.

[61] Sally Ray Cohran, A Lily of Love. (Xulon Press, 2010), 80.

[62] Alister McGrath, Knowing Christ. (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 2.

[63] Samuel Keith Curran, I-Witness Devotions. (Xulon Press, 2007), 267.

[64] Don Piper, Cecil Murphey, Heaven Is Real. (New York: Penguin Group, 2007).

[65] 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 ESV.

[66] Philippians 1:12-14 ESV.

[67] Philippians 1:23 HCSB.

[68] Luke 12:36.

[69] 1 Corinthians 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15; 5:10.

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