This is another guest post from Dana Horton, following on from his piece What Does Jesus Say about the Afterlife?
What does Paul say about the afterlife?
(5 minute read)
In an earlier post, we examined what Jesus said, and 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 broader Gentile rabble in the early Christian movement. Without Paul, Christianity would certainly not have developed as a separate religion.
- This was not without controversy. But we digress.
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.
- Both Paul and Jesus thought this would occur at the end of times. And they both thought the end of times was imminent.
But what if someone never heard of the gospel of Christianity? Or had a different religious belief system than Christianity?
- That is a problem that Paul never seems to address. It also has provided employment opportunities for a lot of missionaries over the years.
What challenges did Paul face that Jesus did not?
- Although both religious leaders thought that the end of times was imminent, Paul was doing his work 20-30 years after Jesus’ death. And 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 is an older gentleman who 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. No achiness. It’ll be 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 in the ground 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 be punished (and it will be painful), but not forever. If you are a bad person, you will 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 we will come back in. 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?
- This viewpoint 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. That’s another way of saying, “we have no idea.”
Acknowledgement. Just like last week, 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 Ehrman.
Dana Horton is from Ohio, United States and has recently retired as Director of Energy Markets a large utility company. In August 2019, he earned his ministerial license through a New Thought religious organization called Centers for Spiritual Living based in Denver, Colorado. He acted as interim minister at the Columbus Center for Spiritual Living for several months afterward, where he learned a lot more about religious and spiritual organizations. At this time has no interest in returning to any formal religious structure. But he enjoys investigating spiritual principles, how they originated, and how they might be applicable to everyday living.
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