The hope of resurrection: it’s what keeps Paul going, what should keep all believers going when the challenges of life weigh us down or feel overwhelming. This earthly life we know now, with its highs and lows, its ups and downs, is not the only life there is; there is more. There is better. The New Testament vision is not of a Hallmark-card heaven of endearing little angels, but eternal life in robust resurrection bodies on an earth healed from the ravages of sin.
Can we even imagine it? Paul did, somehow.
But wait…if the resurrection is to be some time in the future, what happens to us after we die?
Frankly, I don’t know.
But Paul does give us a tantalizing hint.
As we’ve seen, Paul is under house arrest in Rome but expects to be vindicated. He knows that the Philippians are concerned about his situation, and he wants to do more than just tell them, “I’m fine.” He wants them to have the same outlook on life and death as he does; he wants them to have the same kind of uniquely Christian hope. Thus, he writes:
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me, yet I cannot say which I will choose. 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 for you. (Phil 1:21-24, NRSVUE)
Paul’s whole life is centered on Christ and the gospel. Death doesn’t end that; quite the contrary, it’s a new beginning, the next chapter in an ongoing story. If Paul lives, he will go on preaching and embodying the gospel. If he dies, he gets to go be with the Jesus he preaches! And with all honesty, he tells them: If I had my druthers, I’d rather be with Jesus. But it looks like it will be better for you for me to stick around for a while. That’s good too.
Oh, how I wish Paul had said more… Here is a man in chains, facing possible execution. He has committed no crime. Yet he writes with joy and hope. Why? Because the worst thing that could happen is the best thing that could happen: Paul would get to be with the Jesus he loves and serves.
We don’t know much about it, but apparently, there is life after death, in the presence of Jesus. And it’s real enough to Paul that he’s itching to go now.
Resurrection is the substance of Christian hope. But to use N. T. Wright’s phrase, resurrection is not “life after death”: it is life after life after death. And to Paul, it’s all one continuous and grand story.
The question for us is, Do we long to be with Jesus now? The more we cultivate that longing, the more robust the hope.