The delay of the return of Christ poses a major problem for Paul’s view of the resurrection. In his earliest letters he clearly expects to still be alive when Christ returns (1 Thesselonians 4:17, I Corinthians 15:51).
But here we are nearly 2000 years later. Can Paul help us?
Well, Paul did deal with a form of the delay of the resurrection. He came to believe that he might well die before it happened.
Paul wrote the letters (or letter) comprising 2 Corinthians between 1 Corinthians and Romans. Something happened during this period that caused Paul to rethink.
“For we don’t want you to be unaware, brothers, concerning the trouble which happened to us in Asia, that we were utterly crushed, beyond our strength, so much that we despaired even of life. Yes, we felt we had already received a death sentence. This was so we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
What was the life-threatening problem in Asia? If the “we” in this passage is not editorial, then it would include Timothy. So it was probably not an illness. The mention of a death sentence supports this, although that could be metaphorical. It was probably a matter of criminal charges, but we can’t be sure.
The point for us is that Paul despaired of life and was forced to trust in God’s promise to raise the dead. In other words, Paul considered, perhaps for the first time, that he might not find himself among the living at the return of Christ.
It seems likely that this lies behind his concern in 2 Corinthians 5:1 about what happens if “this earthly tent we live in is destroyed.” He says that if this body is destroyed we have an eternal house not made with hands that God has prepared for us. This house is “eternal in the heavens.”
Some have assumed that this is a new body that we receive immediately upon death. Some have thought of some kind of “naked” (vs. 3-4) body suited for the intermediate state. Some have thought it is not a body at all, but the new temple or the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. Some have connected it with John 14 and the place with many dwellings that Jesus has gone to prepare for us.
In chapters 3 and 4 Paul has been contrasting the visible and transient with the invisible and eternal. So he continues in chapter 5. Our earthly body is visible and temporary, like a tent. But God has an eternal home for us that is not (yet) visible and is for eternity.
Paul seems to have an intuition about some kind of an intermediate state in verses 2-4. But it is a state of incompleteness and longing. In v. 6 he moves from the images of tent, house, and clothing to the image of home. In this body we are away from the Lord. But our goal and our longing is to be at home with the Lord (v. 8).
I don’t think we can use Paul’s figures of speech to make a detailed description of what happens after death. What was important to Paul was the idea of being at home with the Lord. Yet God meant our life to be embodied. We long to be both embodied and with God. This is what God created us for (vs. 4-5).
So it looks to me like Paul was trying to come to terms with the possibility of dying and being in a state between this body and the new, spiritual body of 1 Corinthians 15. He used to think that Christ would give him that body directly when he returned. But now he figured he might die first. Death meant waiting and longing.
I means that for us as well. But we can still take to ourselves his assurance that his death could not mean oblivion. His mortality, he believed, would be “swallowed up by life” (v. 4).