What does it mean to be absent or away from the body?
In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 we read, "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. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord." What does it mean to be absent from the body?
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Verse 8 notes the clear contrast. "Away from" or "absent from" the body is contrasted with remaining on earth and serving others. To be absent from the body, then, is to physically die. Paul considered death a sort of blessing because it would be much better in God's presence as a believer in heaven rather than suffering for Christ on earth. However, he also knew that God would determine the days of his life and that until then it was best to continue serving others in the name of Christ.
Paul shared a similar sentiment in Philippians 1:21-24. In this context, he was under house arrest in Rome, suffering for his faith in Christ. He wrote, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account."
In this passage, Paul considered this life as an opportunity to serve Christ, despite the difficulties that were included. He saw earthly life as a blessing even with hardship, and death would begin a time that would be even better. Both service to Christ in this life and anticipation of heaven were considered positive aspects for Christian living.
Also, as a result of this mindset, Paul could live without fear of death. While it is natural to fear the end of one's life, Paul taught that the Christian could live boldly and with confidence because this life is not all that exists! The best is yet to come for the Christian, with the end of this life beginning one's eternal life in the presence of the Lord.
Unfortunately, some have sought to interpret the phrase "absent from the body" as a reference to the concept of soul sleep. In this view, when a Christian dies, his or her soul "sleeps" until the end of time when all believers will later be with Christ forever. Yet this directly contrasts with the mindset "to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). How would soul sleep be "gain"? Instead, Paul looked forward to the end of this life when he would forever be in Christ's presence. His soul would be in heaven with God, absent from his earthly body, awaiting the final resurrection and a glorified body.
The New Testament often speaks of the death of believers as those "asleep" in Christ. Believers don't simply die and disappear; they end this life and experience a much greater, eternal life with the Lord in heaven the moment this life ends. As Jesus promised the thief on the cross who believed in Him, He said, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
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