What Did Paul Teach about the Soul?
[ Author: Rich Christian ]
Jehovah’s Witnesses and other sects who teach soul sleep have to ignore several passages of scripture in order to maintain their position. Understandably, there are passages that seem to support this doctrine–Ecclesiastes 9:5 is often brought up in support of soul sleep–but I won’t be addressing them in this article, for the sake of brevity.
Perspective is Everything
Using the word “sleep” as a metaphor for death, doesn’t necessitate the idea of non existence and/or unconsciousness upon death. This metaphor has the perspective of the onlooker in mind. In short, a person who’s dead appears to be sleeping. In the case of one who’s in a coma, they appear to be sleeping also but in some instances they’re consciously aware of their surroundings; knowing who’s near them, hearing entire conversations etc.
From our perspective, they’re totally unconscious, but that might not actually be so! (There’s 1000’s of Near Death Experience accounts that show this) Of course, these two scenarios aren’t equal comparisons, but the point here, is perspective.
I want to zero in on some passages from Paul. His theology was definitely not one of Monism but rather, Dualism. Monism basically states that the only part of us is physical, while Dualism states that there’s an immaterial part of us also, a soul/spirit. Consider this passage from Paul, the man he’s speaking about is himself:
(NIV) 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.
If Paul were a Monist, he wouldn’t have been confused as to whether he was in his body or not when he was caught up to paradise, heaven. It’s important to understand this word used for caught up–the Greek is: harpazō, which means to pluck, pull, seize etc. The same word is in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (1), a passage that is used in support of the rapture teaching.
Going back to 2 Corinthians 12 (verse 1), though Paul speaks about his visions and revelations from the Lord, I don’t believe his harpazō was merely a vision, as aforementioned. One may ask: is the harpazō of 1 Thessalonians 4: 17 a mere vision too? That would be an untenable position.
To be Present with the Lord, When?
Paul made it clear, that to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord upon death (2), which, refutes the idea of soul sleep, dirt napping. Clement, a disciple of Paul, who’s mentioned by name in the Bible (Philippians 4:3) is listed among those whose names are in the book of life, taught this also.
Though Clement’s writings aren’t on par with the Bible, they’re not infallible, nevertheless he was a true Believer according to Paul himself. He wrote that both Paul and Peter departed to the place of glory and went into the holy place. This holy place, most certainly wasn’t a state of unconsciousness in a metaphorical grave, but rather, where the Lord is!
“Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.” (Clement, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter V)
Let’s think through this for a moment, what is Paul telling his audience, that to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord? Is he really speaking of a time in the distant future? One who subscribes to the soul sleep position, will say yes, asserting that some day Paul will indeed be with the Lord, but not until the resurrection. However, I believe he’s speaking in immediate terms here, i. e. upon death.
(NIV) Philippians 1:23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
Consider this: Paul is stuck in a dilemma, to which he lays out an A/B scenario: either he dies and goes to be with Christ—which is better for him—or he stays alive, which is better for them, his disciples and friends. If we were to assert a third option of: dying and ceasing to exist (for 1000’s of years I might add), it would be better for neither party!
1. (NIV) 1 Thessalonians. 4:17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up (harpazō) together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
2. (NIV) 2 Corinthians 5:8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.