Paul’s Eschatology in Philippians

The main question vis-à-vis eschatology in Philippians is when did Paul expect the resurrection of believers, the completion of salvation, and Christians’ presence with Christ? Evidence seems to indicate Paul thought the completion of salvation and the resurrection of believers would not occur until the Day of the Lord/Christ (Phil 1:6, 10, 28; 2:10-11, 16; 3:20-21; 4:5). Evidence also seems to indicate Paul thought that upon death he would immediately be with Christ (Phil 1:21-23), which seems to contradict Paul’s presentation of his eschatology in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. What did Paul believe at the time he wrote Philippians?

Scholarship has answered this query in numerous ways. First, some have explained Phil 1:21-23 as Paul’s attempt to deal with the delay of parousia (i.e., from his belief of the imminence of the Second Coming in 1 Thessalonians to what he thought when he wrote Philippians).[1]

Second, others hold Paul’s eschatology developed and that Paul believed in a resurrection immediately after his death, but his understanding of the imminence of the parousia did not falter:

Udo Schnelle posits: “The singular formulation ‘if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead’ (3:11), with its double use of ἐκ. . ., likewise points to an early resurrection immediately after death. . . By now it has probably become clear that in central areas of Paul’s eschatology, we can speak of transformations, that is, of progressive steps in the apostle’s thought that correspond to the changing historical situations with which he was dealing.”[2]

Third, others purport Paul’s statements in Philippians indicate he believed Christians went to an “intermediate state” between death and resurrection, and then returned to some form of their resurrected bodies at the parousia: N.T. Wright notes of Phil 1:23 and its relationship with Phil 3:20-21: “What we have here, therefore, is a reinforcement of what we saw in 1 Thessalonians 4: between death and resurrection, Christians are ‘with the Messiah’.”[3] Thus for Wright, Paul always believed in an intermediate state where Christians are with Christ until his return.[4]

Fourth, others note the problem of Paul’s eschatology in Philippians but suggest Paul lived with the tension, for Jews in the Second Temple Period did. Andrew Lincoln suggests:

“For Paul the relationship of union with Christ cannot be broken by death but will continue in an even more intimate way where Christ now is, that is, in heaven.”[5] And, “It is clear from a comparison of Philippians 1:23 with 3:20, 21 that the state into which Paul will enter at death is far better, bringing with it a greater closeness of communion with Christ, and yet that it is still a state of expectation, less than the fullness of redemption described in 3:20f.”[6]

Lincoln finds commonalities between Paul’s eschatology in Philippians and Jewish apocalyptic eschatology: “In Jewish apocalyptic writings also one can find a combination of a concept of an intermediate state in heaven with the expectation of the resurrection of the dead.”[7]

Similarly, Paul Hoffmann posits:

“For the assessment of the history of religions parallels, the result is methodologically fundamental that with Paul the saying of immediately being with Christ at death remains connected with the eschatological expectation of salvation.”[8] And, “Both expectations are not exclusive with Paul. Rather, they stand side by side. He did not sense a problem.”[9]

Hoffmann notes Paul’s eschatology must be understood from a Jewish history of religions’ school perspective: “Hope of the Resurrection and heavenly bliss stand side by side,”[10] and, “Between the two conceptions, no balance is attempted.”[11]

Fifth, some hold there is no contradiction in Paul’s eschatology. The statements about the future eschaton and resurrection apply to all believers, and Phil 1:21-23 applies only to Paul. Albert Schweitzer purported: “Thus it is not Paul’s general doctrine of death and resurrection which changes. It is only that he expects, on the ground of his own self-consciousness, that in case of his dying a martyr-death a special kind of resurrection will be vouchsafed to him.”[12] More recently, Jerry Sumney advocates:

“The approach to this dilemma that best suits Paul’s theological outlook and apostolic consciousness makes a distinction between what Paul expects for himself and a select company, and what he expects for other believers. He draws this distinction not on the basis of arrogance, but from Jewish martyrdom traditions present within the church from its earliest days. Within this tradition, the fate of martyrs differs from that of others. While others ‘sleep’ (i.e., remain unconscious), martyrs are already in heaven with God. In 4 Macc 17:17-18, martyrs are before the throne of God immediately following death. Martyrs are granted this place because their service to God, their testimony, requires exceptional treatment. Thus, their post-mortem, but pre-eschaton, state differs significantly from the state of others, even others who are faithful to the covenant but do not suffer martyrdom.”[13]

There are major problems with the first view, for, according to Philippians, Paul continued to believe in the imminence of the parousia (Phil 4:5).[14] Taking Phil 4:5 seriously, we can re-read Philippians and Paul’s comments about the Day of Christ Jesus and vengeance upon those who oppose the Philippians as imminent: Phil 1:6, 10, 28; 2:10-11; 3:20-21.[15] According to Paul, the following events would occur on that Day:

(1) The presentation of the Philippians as blameless and pure (Phil 1:10), which is the end result of God’s work among them (Phil 1:6), and something about which Paul desired to boast (Phil 2:16); (2) the bowing of every knee and the confessing of every tongue that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11); (3) the destruction of those who opposed the Philippians (Phil 1:28); and (4) Christ Jesus’s transformation of the Philippians’ humble bodies into bodies like his (Phil 3:20-21). Presumably, because the heavenly politeuma currently exists in heaven as Paul wrote the letter (note the present tense of ὑπάρχω) and the Philippians are awaiting their savior from it (ἐξ οὗ), Christ Jesus would return to earth, which would occur soon (Phil 4:5).

There are major problems with the second, third, and fourth interpretations in that those who hold those views assume that in Phil 1:21-23 Paul is referring to all Christians and not only to himself. It is important to note how Phil 1:21-23 begins. Paul starts the discussion of his possible execution with an ethical dative or a dative of feeling: Ἐμοὶ.[16] It seems that it was not Paul’s intention to include all individuals in his thought process about his future, i.e., whether he would live or die. Paul’s comments in Phil 1:21-23 are very contextual and only apply to Paul, i.e., “if I remain in the flesh, this is fruitful work for me. And what I will choose, I do not know. I am pressed hard between two choices. I have the desire to depart and to be with Christ.” While it is a very pastoral thought and one can see the desire to opt for an interpretation that applies Phil 1:21-23 to all believers, the Greek and Paul’s rhetoric suggests we think about this passage only in terms of Paul. It appears, therefore, that Paul did hold to some form of a martyr eschatology.

[1]. Eve Marie Becker, “Die Person des Paulus,” in Paulus: Leben, Umwelt, Werk, Briefe (ed. Oda Wischmeyer; Tübingen: Franke Verlag, 2012), 140; H.J. Schoeps, Paul: The Theology of the Apostle Paul in Light of Jewish Religious History (trans. Harold Knight; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), 101.

[2]. Udo Schnelle, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (trans. Eugene Boring; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 586.

[3]. N.T. Wright, Resurrection and the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 226. Cf. also F.F. Bruce, Paul Apostle of the Heart Set Free (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 235; Paul Christoph Böttger, “Die eschatologische Existenz der Christen,” ZNW 60 (1963): 244-63.

[4]. Wright, Resurrection, 227. Wright also incorreclty conjectures that Paul’s eschatological discourse was influenced by emperor worship.

[5]. Andrew Lincoln, Paradise and Not Yet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 104.

[6]. Lincoln, Paradise, 106.

[7]. Lincoln, Paradise, 105.

[8]. Für die Bewertung der religionsgeschichtlichen Parallelen ist die Erkenntnis methodisch grundlegen, daß bei Paulus die Aussage des unmittelbar im Tode einsetzenden Mit-Christus-seins mit der eschatologischen Heilserwartung verbunden bleibt. Paul Hoffmann, Die Toten in Christus: eine religionsgeschichtliche und exegetische Untersuchung zur paulinischen Eschatologie (Münster: Verlag Aschendorff, 1966), 315.

[9]. Beide Erwartungen schließen sich bei Paulus nicht aus; sie stehen vielmehr nebeneinander, onhe daß er das als ein empfände. Hoffmann, Die Toten, 315-16.

[10]. Auferstehungshoffnung und himmlische Seligkeit stehen nebeneinander. Hoffmann, Die Toten, 315-16.

[11]. Zwischen den beiden Vorstellungen wird kein Ausgleich versucht. Hoffmann, Die Toten, 316.

[12]. Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (trans. William Montgomery; London: Adam & Charles Black, 1953 [Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus]), 136.

[13]. Jerry Sumney, “Post Mortem Existence and Resurrection of the Body in Paul,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 31 (2009): 24. Sumney, however, fails to mention Schweitzer in his article.

[14]. So Schnelle, Paul, 586; Schweitzer, Mysticism, 135. Contra Becker, “Die Person,” 140; Schoeps, Paul, 101. Interestingly, on the same page Schoeps contradicts himself. He provides Phil 4:5 as evidence for the imminence of the parousia in Paul, but then Phil 1:23 as evidence for Paul’s development of immediate resurrection after death because of the delay of the parousia.

Cf. Paul’s other comments about the Second Coming: 1 Cor 1:7-8; 4:5; 1 Cor 15:20-28; Col 3:3-4; Rom 1:9-10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23; 2 Thess 1:5-10; 2:1-2, 8; 1 Tim 6:13-16; 2 Tim 4:1; Tit 2:11-14; etc.

[15]. Phil 1:6, 10; 2:10-11 = Rom 2:5, 16; 1 Cor 1:8; 3:13; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 1:10; 2:2.

Phil 1:28 = Rom 2:6, 16; 3:6; 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10; 1 Thess 5:9-10; 2 Thess 1:5-10.

Phil 4:5 = Rom 13:12.

[16]. See BDB § 192; Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 146, “The dative substantive indicates the person whose feelings or viewpoint are intimately tied to the action (or state) or the verb.”

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