Absent from the Body, Present with the Lord?
I want to address two statements by the Apostle Paul that are commonly known by the phrase, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.”
The first of these is in 2 Corinthians 5:8 which states, “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”
The second of these is in Philippians 1:23 which states, “For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better.”
In both these verses there is more context to consider, and it is basically that Paul is contrasting the mortal body we have on earth with the immortal body that we will have in eternity. In both passages he is expressing his contentment to be in his mortal body so he can minister but also expressing his longing to be in his immortal body so he can be with his Lord.
The sentiment here is simple: whether we live or die, we win. If we live, even in our mortal bodies, we win because we can still help and minister to others. If we die, we will eventually get our immortal bodies and we’ll get to be with the Lord Jesus, and that is a big win.
There is great comfort in these verses for someone who has lost a loved one. As a chaplain I often hear family members stand by the bedside of a deceased loved one, and they will say, “They are in a better place” or “They are with Jesus” or “They are rejoicing in Heaven.” The family is simply finding comfort that their loved one is absent from the body and present with the Lord.
When I am present with the family at this most difficult time in their lives, I will affirm their statements of faith and support them through these early moments of grief. I have no gumption to get theological and present a Bible study on the timeline of events between one’s death and one’s actual entrance into Heaven.
The phrase that we know from Paul as, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord” does bring comfort, but it is not meant to be a proof text for a study of the biblical timeline of events between one’s death and one’s actual entrance into Heaven.
When I was a child growing up in Northwest Ohio, my family often vacationed in the South and I became obsessed about one-day living there. I would often say “I am going to move South.” It wasn’t a statement explaining the timeline of events for the 12-year old me on how I would get to the place of living in the South. It was a simple big-picture statement of the end result.
When Paul states, in effect, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord” he is stating the end result. At death our body returns to dust, our spirit returns to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7), and in actuality we await the resurrection at the return of the Lord. Immortality is not gifted to us until the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17; 1 Corinthians 15:51-54; 2 Timothy 4:6-8).
A lot of people do not realize what the Bible actually says about the process from mortality to immortality, but they at least find comfort in the end result — being with the Lord.