What Does Paul Say About the Afterlife?
Rev. Dana Horton
In an earlier post, we examined what Jesus said, and more importantly, did not say about the afterlife. Let’s do a compare and contrast with Paul.
Why is it important to examine Paul’s beliefs?
- Jesus and the apostles were all Jewish. And without Paul, the teachings of Jesus might have either been lost or incorporated solely into the Jewish religious tradition. Paul preached the gospel of Jesus to the Gentile rabble in the early Christian movement. This was not without controversy. But we digress.
- Without Paul, Christianity would certainly not have developed as a separate religion.
How does Paul’s view of the afterlife differ from Jesus?
- Paul taught that only those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah would be raised to be with God. Jesus, on the other hand, was more inclusive: Anyone who lived a good life would be raised to be with God.
But what if someone never heard of the gospel of Christianity? Or had a different religious belief system that was just as valid as Christianity?
- That is a problem that Paul never seems to address. It also has provided employment opportunities to a lot of missionaries over the years.
What challenges did Paul face that Jesus did not?
- Jesus said that the end of times was imminent. And Paul adopted that same line of apocalyptic thinking when he began his missionary work. But things got complicated when people in the early church congregations started dying before the messiah returned.
- That’s when Paul figured out he had to come up with a theological system where the body could die, and yet come back again ‘at the end of times’. He used the example of Jesus’ resurrection as ‘proof’ that the body could do this.
But that raises the further question: Which body comes back?
- Understandably, it is not great marketing if the listener thinks he is coming back in his achy, tired old body. But Paul fixes that by saying it will be an entirely new spiritual body, just like Jesus.
Do we come back right away, or after an interim period?
- This is important, especially if that interim period is a few million years. Paul is a little unclear here. Some interpreters think Paul says we go straight to heaven with a temporary body to wait it out until the end of times. Other interpreters think Paul says we have no body (physical or spiritual) and therefore are naked and dead until the second coming. But we won’t know we are naked and dead, so it won’t matter.
What about eternal punishment?
- Consistent with Jesus, Paul says that the ne’er-do-wells will not necessarily be tormented in some kind of hell forever. He seems to indicate they will be destroyed at the end of times. And it will be painful. But it does not last forever. If you are a bad person, you cease to exist. Period.
In Paul’s thinking, how does the body come back to life?
- Paul has to straddle two ideologies here. In the Jewish tradition, the soul and the body are inseparable; and it is the body that is the focus of the afterlife. In Greek Gentile thinking, the soul is separate from the body; and it is the soul that is the focus of the afterlife.
- Here’s how Paul reconciles these two viewpoints:
- First, Paul firmly argues that Jesus was resurrected. There is no debate here. It is just a ‘given.’ And Paul uses that example as the basis for how everyone (well … everyone who believes in Jesus as the Christ) will be resurrected.
- For Paul, resurrection means that physical bodies will be transformed into spiritual bodies. They are both called ‘bodies,’ but we probably will not be able to recognize this great new spiritual body. That helps explain why several people who met Jesus after the resurrection did not recognize him.
- This type of thinking is different from what we read in Luke (written much later than Paul’s letters). Luke appears to be fixated on the actual resuscitation of a physical body.
Is this useful knowledge?
- For those raised in more of a fundamental Christian structure in the western world, this information may provide solace that neither Jesus nor Paul preached a doctrine of hell and eternal damnation. That should be a relief to some.
- But we also acknowledge that the early Christian teachings do not provide a consistent description of the afterlife and what we might experience.
Acknowledgment. Much of this information came from a great book on religious thinking about the afterlife entitled Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife by Professor Bart Ehrmann.