Saint Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians about a year before he died in prison at Rome. In the letter he states concisely what he believes the human heart most longs for, that is, the meaning of life: “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.”
Paul wasn’t suicidal but he did have a death wish, so to speak, only because he wanted to be configured to Christ in eternity in a way he never could do in mortality. Christianity does something that no other religion or philosophy in the world can do: it unifies how we live on earth with how we will live in heaven. Our faith gives us a reason to live and a reason to die. Paul did not fear death because he knew it was a means to an end, to be with Christ which was “far better.”
For the pagan in Paul’s day death was the destroyer of life. The afterlife was a shadowy and joyless existence, an endless waiting around but nothing ever changed. Life on earth was painful, especially for the poor and the marginalized, but a good death, the ancients believed, could assuage that pain by putting an end to an individual’s earthly suffering, though the antidote was equally abysmal.
Paul saw death as being like the birth of a child, an emergence from the womb of time to the limitlessness of eternity. Because of Christ’s resurrection, Christians no longer have to wait around the town square like the hungry workers in the gospel looking to get hired (Mt 20:1-16a). It is our choice as to how we use the time God gives us, hopefully by preparing for heaven. To distract ourselves from the wiles of humanity many of us pad ourselves with creature comforts to avoid the inevitable pain of being human, as if through externals we can sideswipe the meaning of life, to be in Christ, even as we condemn ourselves to a semi-permanent state of spiritual stagnation. This is not the type of Christianity Paul practiced (exactly the opposite) and this understanding of salvation he impressed upon the members of all the churches to which he ministered.
Paul was a Roman citizen. He knew he would be executed. Christians who refused to worship the emperor or their gods were charged with treason, a capital offense. Precisely for this reason did Paul hand himself over to the authorities in Jerusalem and he was transported to Rome where he spent two years under house arrest, all the while teaching and evangelizing those who visited him in prison. And he kept writing. The Philippian church, in fact, all his churches, needed his continual support. To remain alive for their sake was to sacrifice what Paul most wanted: an eternal union with Christ in heaven. It is clear what he preferred, though he claimed to be conflicted. “I long to depart from this life and to be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.”
The Greek verb Paul uses for “to depart” is analuein, which coveys a more vivid image. Analuein was a word used to describe breaking camp, taking down the tents, packing up the gear, and moving on. It also described a ship leaving port, the sailors untying the mooring ropes, raising the anchor and the sails, and putting out to sea.
Ultimately the Apostle’s choice as to whether he remained alive or went home to heaven was made for him by his executioners. Paul died as he lived, in Christ. For him it was a win-win situation. To the Romans he wrote, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord” (14:8). If we are to be practitioners of the spirituality Paul endorsed then a decision must be made daily as to whether we live for the Lord or die in our sins. Either we die while we live or we live while we die. What matters is whether we make the choice for ourselves or leave it up to somebody else, which will ensure a shadowy existence. Jesus said, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down by my own accord. I have the power to lay it down and the power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father” (Jn 10:17-18).