Five responses to a misused text.
Jefferson Vann suggests five responses conditionalists might give when someone asserts that 2 Corinthians 5:1 teaches innate immortality.
Those who teach that Christians survive death and are immediately lifted to eternity often quote 2 Corinthians 5:1 as a basis for that teaching.
2 Corinthians 5:1 (CSB) For we know that if our earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal dwelling in the heavens, not made with hands.
Matthew Henry, for example, comments on this verse:
“Death will strip us of the clothing of flesh, and all the comforts of life, as well as end all our troubles here below. But believing souls shall be clothed with garments of praise, with robes of righteousness and glory.”1
Like other traditionalists, Henry sees this verse as a guarantee of conscious survival of death, and an immediate transfer to glory. We conditionalists see no such teaching in scripture— not even in this text. We believe in what Paul is saying, but interpret it quite differently.
Here are some ways a conditionalist might respond that would show our respect for this text, but also imply that the author never intended it to teach innate immortality.
The eternal dwelling is the resurrection body
I think we can all agree that the earthly tent that Paul speaks of here is the present physical body. We can also all affirm that this present physical body is mortal. Previously in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul described the change that must take place.
1 Corinthians 15:53-54 (CSB) 53 For this corruptible body must be clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal body must be clothed with immortality. 54 When this corruptible body is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal body is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: Death has been swallowed up in victory.
It doesn’t take a wild leap of exegesis to discern that the earthly tent of 2 Corinthians is the corruptible body of 1 Corinthians. Paul has simply stated the same idea using a different metaphor. He is still teaching the same thing. In his first letter, he taught the Corinthians that they are mortal and need a resurrection to change that. They possess mortal bodies and need to be reclothed with immortal ones. He taught exactly when that resurrection would happen. He said it would take place “en te parousia autou” (at his coming).2
Now, if Paul taught the Corinthians that we will receive immortal, glorified bodies at Christ’s return, how can he be teaching something else to the same church in his next letter? If Paul now teaches that believers will receive glorified bodies when they die, then isn’t that an instance of the apostle changing his mind?
Some might argue that it isn’t the body Paul is referring to in 2 Corinthians. He is referring to the release of the believer’s immortal soul. They would say that a believer continues to live after his body dies, and will receive a new body at the resurrection. They would insist that believers will experience a conscious and blessed intermediate state.
But that doesn’t fit what Paul says in 2 Corinthians. He says categorically that he does not want a conscious intermediate state. He will not be satisfied with a mere disembodied soul. That would be like being naked.
2 Corinthians 5:2-4 (CSB) 2 Indeed, we groan in this tent, desiring to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 since, when we have taken it off, we will not be found naked. 4 Indeed, we groan while we are in this tent, burdened as we are, because we do not want to be unclothed but clothed, so that mortality may be swallowed up by life.
Paul was still teaching the same doctrine: the believer’s promise of resurrection. In 2 Corinthians, Paul focuses on the permanence of the new resurrection body by comparing it to the temporary nature of our present mortal body: our earthly tent.
Compared to our present body, the resurrection body is “a building from God, an eternal dwelling in the heavens, not made with hands.” Paul was not saying that our disembodied souls go to heaven. He was saying that our resurrection bodies will come from heaven. He did not say our souls are eternal. He said our new bodies will be eternal.
The subject of Paul’s teaching is the resurrection.
Let’s look again at the structure of this verse. It begins with words reminding the Corinthians of something they know (Greek oida). Paul is merely alluding to his statement in the previous chapter.
2 Corinthians 4:14 (CSB) For we know (Greek oida) that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you.
So, both the previous letter Paul had written to the Corinthians and the previous reference in the same letter verify that the subject matter at hand is the resurrection.
The resurrection has always been a major theme in Paul’s writing and teaching. When he spoke to Gentile audiences, he talked about resurrection so much that people thought he was talking about two gods: Jesus and Resurrection (Acts 17:18).
Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection harvest.
I suppose that if one only had 2 Corinthians 5:1 it would seem to imply some kind of continuous existence after death. But we are blessed with all of Paul’s teaching on the subject. And Paul’s teaching in context argues against that idea. For Paul, if there will be no resurrection, then we believers are without hope.
1 Corinthians 15:19-20 (CSB) 19 If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. 20 But as it is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection draws upon the image of the harvest festivals of the Old Testament. The beginning of harvest was celebrated by the feast of Firstfruits. But the full harvest was celebrated later.
Exodus 34:22 (CSB) “Observe the Festival of Weeks with the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of In-gathering at the turn of the agricultural year.
When Paul said that Christ is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” he was pointing out two phases of resurrection harvest. Jesus’ resurrection pointed to a great ingathering harvest.
Paul expected a resurrection like Christ’s.
Romans 6:5 (CSB) For if we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of his resurrection.
Paul could face the suffering and persecution of this life because he saw Christ as his example. Knowing that Jesus was raised from the dead made all the difference for him, because he set his hope on a resurrection like his. Jesus ‘ resurrection was not a release from the body, but a new, permanent physical life. That was Paul’s goal (Philippians 3:10-11).
Mistreatment of the text.
Using 2 Corinthians 5:1 to teach conscious survival at death is misappropriation of the text. It is reading into the text what one might want it to say. It ignores Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians. It replaces Paul’s resurrection theology with a pagan substitute. It takes a great passage on the hope of the resurrection and turns it into a promise of something else. Evangelicals who treat the verse in this way are not being faithful to the gospel.
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