Taken from his 1988 classic, Eschatology, which remains a leading text on the “last things” — heaven and hell, purgatory and judgment, death and the immortality of the soul.
Let us move on to the Pauline writings. It has become customary to distinguish two phases in the development of Paul’s eschatological thought: an early phase, in which he expects to experience the resurrection and the parousia personally, and a later phase, in which such expectations are gradually eliminated while the question of the intermediate state becomes all the more urgent and meaningful. There is much to be said in favor of such an evolution in Paul’s thinking.
However, Hoffmann has shown that Paul’s ideas about the intermediate state and the resurrection were not affected by it, but remained the same throughout. Because the image of sleep which appears in these texts crops up time and again from Luther to the Dutch Catechism, Hoff man’s analysis of the semantic field of the language of sleep is especially important. Sleep was a euphemism for dying, and for being dead.
Found in both the Jewish and the Hellenistic sphere, it was capacious enough a metaphor to find room for a variety of somewhat different contents. It comprised the idea of unconsciousness, as well as the more positive notion of the peace enjoyed by the just as distinct from sinners. So far as Paul is concerned, Hoffmann shows that his use of the word is uncommitted as between those various contents. So no inferences can be drawn about his views of the condition of the dead.
In his correspondence with the church at Thessalonica, the only eschatological issue Paul addresses is that of the future resurrection. In writing to Philippi, on the other hand, Paul, faced with imminent danger of death, looks steadily at his own destiny and at what will follow death. Yet Philippians is familiar with the same mode of thinking as that in First Thessalonians and, most importantly, both letters argue from the same foundational premise, namely, from Christ, who guarantees the life of those who belong to him.
A careful examination of the formula “the dead in Christ,” found in First Thessalonians 4, 16, leads Hoffman to the following judgment:
To me it seems by no means improbable that the idea of communion with Christ as the determining factor in the death of Christians, found in Philippians 1, 23, is already adumbrated here. Neither in Philippians nor in First Thessalonians are resurrection and intermediate state mutually exclusive. Judaism had bound both firmly together.”
It seems to me that the profound link between these two Pauline letters in this regard is even clearer in First Thessalonians 5, 10 where the apostle refers to Christ as he who died for us so that “whether we wake or sleep we might live with him.” Evidently, then, it is not “waking” or “sleeping,” earthly “life” or “death” which make the decisive difference but life in communion with Christ or in separation from him.
The hardest nut to crack among the texts debated in this context is 2 Corinthians 5: 1-10:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.
None of the numerous interpretations can be called satisfactory in every respect. However, although a number of detailed points will probably always remain controversial, the meticulous textual analysis found in both Hoffmann’s work” and in Bultmann’s commentary on this Letter, agreeing as they do in all essentials, seems to offer a reliable guide to the general thrust of the text. These writers hold that Paul is not offering an express judgment of either a positive or a negative kind about the intermediate state. Rather is he emphasizing the Christian hope for salvation as such, a hope which lies in the Lord and has its focus in our own resurrection?
The foil to Paul’s remarks must be located in the “afflictions” suffered by the disciples and listed in chapter 4 of the Letter. What this means is that the text has nothing of direct relevance to contribute to our discussion. However, the scholars we are following also arrive at a second conclusion which is of indirect importance for us. Despite what a number of exegetes allege, Paul does not say that he is afraid of dying — afraid dying, that is, before the Parousia. It is true that he rejects the Gnostic idea that “nakedness” of soul is a salvific good, pushing it aside without a word of discussion as inhuman and untrue. But fear of the intermediate state as a time of nakedness is notable by its absence. As Bultmann puts it:
“Tharrein means we face death with confidence, and eudokomen mallon that we even welcome it! Nothing better could happen, us! … The intrepid zeal to serve the Lord not only knows more fear of death; there is even a touch of longing for death.”
How can such an attitude be explained without invoking Paul’s certitude, expressed in Philippians 1, 23, that even now, to die means to “be with Christ.” A profound isomorphism unites Second Corinthians 5, 6–10 to Philippians 1, 21-26, something especially clear if one concentrates in particular on v. 8 of the Corinthian text and v. 21 of the Philippian. In both cases, the truly desirable thing is being at home with the Lord: already, now, as soon as possible.
Yet in both cases, to speak in the accents of Bultmann, it is also clear that faith banishes not just fear of death, but its opposite, the growing yearning for death, as well. For faith can give even to the burden of “wasting away … daily” the radiance that belongs to being allowed to “please him.”
What makes all these texts, but notably Second Corinthians, so opaque from our viewpoint today is the fact that Paul makes no attempt to develop an anthropology which might clarify this hope in its diverse stages but simply argues from the side of references to Christ. It is Christ who is life: both now and at any point in the future. In the presence of such a certainty, the anthropological “substrate” of Paul’s thinking lies necessarily outside his focus of attention, in shadow. To Paul this must have been unproblematic, since he shared the common presuppositions of his fellow Jews. His task was simply that of formulating the novel element, the reality of Christ and relationship with him, in all its dramatic importance.
In consequence of these reflections, we can afford to be brief in dealing with Philippians 1, 23. For Paul, life in this world is “Christ,” but death is gain, since in the “dissolution” of all that is earthly, death means “being with Christ.” An inner freedom springs from this knowledge, a fearless openness in death’s regard and also an uncomplaining — no, more — a joyful readiness for further service.
In an earlier generation of scholars, it was believed that this text was inexplicable save by the intrusion of “Hellenisation” into the apostle’s thought processes. Today we understand that there is no break whatsoever vis-a-vis Paul’s earlier affirmations.
What he says in Philippians 1 he could already have proclaimed in First Thessalonians, had he seen an opportunity for doing so.’
What is happening before our very eyes is not that Hebrew “monism” is yielding to Greek “dualism,” but that a preexistent Jewish heritage is receiving its proper Christological center. The transformation went so far that it already reached the idea which John would express so graphically: “I am the resurrection and the life.”