Can the Bruce/Thrall Interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:1–10

Account for Romans and Philippians?

Presented at the SBL: Second Corinthians: Pauline Theology in the Making Consultation (2008)

Ken Schenck


The idea that Paul might have undergone some shifts in his eschatological beliefs and expectations in between 1 and 2 Corinthians is not a new one.  C. H. Dodd of course suggested in his 1934, “Mind of Paul,” that “somewhere about the time of II Corinthians” Paul might have undergone “an adjustment, so to speak, of the eschatological time-table.”[1]  While in earlier letters like 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians he expected to be alive at the parousia, Dodd suggested that “the extreme danger of death in which he had recently stood had helped to alter his outlook in this respect.”[2]  Dodd here alluded to Paul’s sense that he had come very close to dying as a result of his mission in the city of Ephesus (2 Cor. 1:8-10). 

A related suggestion of development at this juncture is often associated with F. F. Bruce.  In Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, Bruce agrees with Dodd that after Ephesus, Paul “henceforth treats the prospect of his dying before the parousia as more probable than otherwise.”[3]  Bruce, however, suggests an additional development that Dodd did not, namely, that Paul now thinks believers receive their spiritual bodies immediately at death rather than at the parousia.  “Paul no longer thinks of waiting until the parousia before he receives” the spiritual body of 1 Corinthians 15.[4]  More recently, Margaret Thrall has taken this position in her exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10.[5]  After painstakingly cataloging the interpretive options for each moment in Paul’s train of thought, she finally concludes that, by the time of writing 2 Corinthians, Paul had apparently come to believe that we receive a sw=ma pneumatiko/n at death.[6]  The backdrop of this discussion is of course the overwhelming consensus that 1 Corinthians 15 depicts believers receiving their spiritual bodies at the parousia (e.g., 15:23).  Similarly, 1 Thessalonians speaks of the dead in Christ rising at the time of the parousia (e.g., 4:16).  If 2 Corinthians 5:1 pictures believers receiving their spiritual bodies at death, then Paul has shifted somewhat in his thinking in the short space of time between 1 and 2 Corinthians. 

One way to test this hypothesis is to look at Paul’s letters after 2 Corinthians to see if they reflect such a change in perspective.  In particular, we would also expect Philippians and Romans to differ from 1 Corinthians in the way they refer to resurrection, if Thrall’s interpretation is correct.[7]  Accordingly, after a brief summary of Margaret Thrall’s argument for development in Paul’s thought between 1 and 2 Corinthians, we will proceed through Philippians and Romans to see whether they corroborate the idea that believers who die before the parousia receive their resurrection body immediately at death.  What we will find is that Paul nowhere says anything in these letters that would contradict such a shift, while certain themes emerge in these writings that might support such a shift in emphasis on Paul’s part.  We end with a brief suggestion for what might have catalyzed such a development in his thought.


Thrall’s Interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10

The driving force behind Thrall’s entire interpretation of this passage comes immediately in 5:1.  Paul says that “if our earthly oi0ki/a tou= skh/nouj should be destroyed, we have an oi0kodomh/ from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens.”  The key interpretive decisions lie in determining what the two “houses” in question are and, especially, what the exact connotation is of the present tense, “we have.”  The suggestion that the odd phrase oi0ki/a tou= skh/nouj might refer to our earthly bodies in some way is not particularly controversial.[8]  Greater diversity exists over what the “structure” from God in the heavens might be.  Thrall catalogs nine different options, but sees a reference to a resurrection body as the one that poses the fewest difficulties.[9]

If she is correct on these two key decisions, the present tense of e1xomen becomes the key interpretive problem.  In what way do believers “have,” present tense, a resurrection body if they die?  Is Paul speaking proleptically, in reference to a spiritual body we receive at the parousia?  Or does he really now mean that we have such a body immediately at death?  Initially, Thrall only concludes provisionally that Paul refers to receiving this new “house” at death, as well as that the “building” in view is the sw=ma pneumatiko/n of 1 Corinthians 15. 

It is not until she comments on 5:8 that Thrall reaches a final conclusion on the issue.  She has argued that 5:6 refers to confidence in the face of death: “We are always bold, also knowing that being at home in the body, we are away from the Lord.”  The context of the previous chapter and the beginning of 2 Corinthians 5 is about courage and endurance in the face of suffering.  Thrall thus concludes of 5:6 that, “since the risen Christ dwells in heaven, the believer whilst on earth is not present with him in the same sense as he hopes to be after death.”[10]  In this light, 5:8 surely reflects “a positive preference for departure from bodily existence and transition to the home with the Lord.”[11]  Thrall thus concludes that being home with the Lord is something Paul is saying happens immediately at death.  Accordingly, she concludes it very likely that 5:1 expresses a hope for the sw=ma pneumatiko/n at death, a development from Paul’s thinking in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15. 

The difficulty with this interpretation is not at all Thrall’s line of reasoning or with the inner logic of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 thus interpreted.  The problem is relating this interpretation to Paul’s earlier writings, which it is agreed see the resurrection body conferred at the parousia.  Compounding the issue is the proximity of time between 1 and 2 Corinthians, which of course are both written to the same location within a span of not more than two or three years.  As we have suggested, however, the Bruce/Thrall line of interpretation would gain significant strength—or be easily discarded—if the letters that followed 2 Corinthians reflected not a different eschatological outlook but rather that of 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians.  It is to these letters that we now turn. 


Resurrection in Philippians

Philippians either dates to the time just before 2 Corinthians, during some Ephesian imprisonment, or else, as traditionally held, it dates to a Roman imprisonment a few years later.  We favor an Ephesian provenance, matching the tone of 2 Corinthians 1:8 with the situation pictured in Philippians 1:19-26.  In either case, Philippians dates after 1 Corinthians and, assuming the validity of Thrall’s interpretation, is a prime candidate to reflect the shift in thinking that she supposes took place.  We treat it first here in deference to our reconstruction of Pauline chronology, although its exact date is not material to the issue at hand.

At least initially, Philippians does not disappoint.  Indeed, apart from the possibility of 2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:23 provides us with the only clear indication in the entire Pauline corpus that Paul believed in any kind of conscious existence for a believer in between death and the parousia.  The proposed development in Paul’s thinking usually focuses on his sense of the imminency of the parousia and the timing of the resurrection body, but at stake also is a change in the way Paul viewed existence between death and resurrection.  In 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the metaphor of sleep for the state of the dead prior to the resurrection.  “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, concerning those who are sleeping, so that you do not mourn the same as those who do not have hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).  “We will not all sleep but we will all be changed … and the dead will rise incorruptible” (1 Cor. 15:51-52).  In each case, Paul uses the metaphor of sleep for those who are dead, a metaphor that he never uses again after 1 Corinthians. 

Further, he depicts the existence of those who have no hope of resurrection at the parousia as a hopeless existence.  Those who do not rise “do not have hope” in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, and the alternative to resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:19 is not a blessed afterlife, but instead Paul suggests that “if in this life alone we have hoped in Christ, we are more pitiable than all mortals.”  “If Christ has not been raised…, then those who have slept in Christ have perished” (15:17-18).  In both 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, Paul has no category for meaningful existence after death except resurrection at the parousia for those in Christ (15:23).  Indeed, he does not speak of any eternal punishment for the wicked in these letters nor of a general resurrection, not even for the heroes of the Jewish Scriptures.[12]  Only the dead in Christ are said to rise.[13]

When we come to Philippians 1:23, however, the tone is quite different.  Now dying before the parousia is considered much better than staying alive: “I am torn between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”  Admittedly, Paul was not contrasting death with remaining alive in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians but rather death without the hope of resurrection to death with such hope.  Nevertheless, as Thrall puts it of both 2 Corinthians 5:8 and this verse in Philippians, “it is not clear why Paul should express a preference for death followed by a period of ‘sleep’ for the spirit, which is the prospect envisaged in 1 Th 4.13 and 1 Cor 15.18.”[14]  A development in Paul’s understanding is thus quite defensible here.  Paul goes from having little or no sense of any conscious existence between death and resurrection to a sense of blessed existence with Christ in heaven between death and the parousia.  Such a shift fits well with Thrall’s understanding that 2 Corinthians 5 now pictures a person in Christ receiving the spiritual body of 1 Corinthians 15 immediately upon death.

A second passage in Philippians on the resurrection body coheres with either understanding of 2 Corinthians 5.  Philippians 3:20-21 speaks of the transformation that will take place for living believers at the parousia.  “For our citizenship exists in heaven, from which we also await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our humiliation to be conformed to the body of his glory according to the working of the one who is also able to subject all things to him.”  Paul is not referring to resurrection here but to the transformation of those who are alive at the point of Christ’s return.  Thrall does not suggest that Paul’s understanding of this transformation has changed substantially or that Paul’s understanding of the sw=ma pneumatiko/n in general has changed.  Thus these verses also do not conflict with Thrall’s interpretation of 2 Corinthians.

If Philippians would pose any challenge to the development hypothesis, it would come in 3:8-11, where Paul says, “I consider [whatever was to my gain] as dung in order to gain Christ… to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if somehow I might attain to the resurrection, the one from the dead.”  In 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection of the dead, other than that of Christ, uniformly refers to the rising of the dead in Christ at the parousia.  It might thus seem a bit odd, at least at first glance, to think of the resurrection of the dead here as something that would take place immediately at death.  Would the Philippians understand the verse that way, particularly since Paul would have founded the church before he wrote 1 Corinthians?  If, however, Paul has undergone a shift in his thinking on when a person receives the sw=ma pneumatiko/n, then presumably Paul is longing here as an individual to attain a resurrection body immediately at death. 

At the same time, Paul’s wording here is somewhat unique and bears notice.  For example, the word for resurrection he uses is e0cana/stasij, a hapax legomenon in the New Testament.  Indeed, with the possible exception of this passage, Paul never uses the word a0na/stasij in reference to what will take place to believers at the parousia in any of his undisputed writings after 1 Corinthians 15.[15]  His expression in Philippians 3:11 is also to a resurrection e0k nekrw=n, whereas in 1 Corinthians 15 he speaks uniformly of the a0na/stasij nekrw=n (1 Cor. 15:12, 13, 21, 42 [tw=n nekrw=n]).  Finally, the most likely Greek reading uses an articular construction to modify resurrection: th\n e0cana/stasin th\n e0k nekrw=n.  Gordon Fee has plausibly suggested that the reason is to distinguish the resurrection Paul has in mind here—the one out of the dead—from the power of Christ’s resurrection he has just mentioned in 3:10, which Fee believes relates to a power Christ’s resurrection gives believers in this life.[16]  The idea that the “power of his resurrection” might primarily relate to this life is supported by the passages we will look at in Romans subsequently and coheres with the kind of shift Thrall suggests took place around the time of 2 Corinthians.

We thus find some interesting aspects to Paul’s comment in Philippians 3:11 that make its timing less than certain.  The nature of the attributive construction with e0cana/stasij makes it quite possible that Paul is talking of his individual resurrection rather than a general event of the resurrection of the dead, as in 1 Corinthians.  The grammatical construction is different.  In the verses that follow, Paul seems to refer to such resurrection as an “upward call” (3:14) and continues to speak of such an experience in relation to himself as an individual.  Contrary to the majority of interpreters, such an upward call seems to be that which in 3:12 Paul says he has not already received, as well as that which he is pursuing and toward which he is reaching out (3:13).  The possibility that he might see such an upward calling taking place at death is perhaps slightly strengthened by his reference to it as “being perfected” in 3:12 (tetelei/wmai).  4 Maccabees 7:15 provides a potentially helpful parallel, where the author says that the “faithful seal of death perfected” Eleazar.  4 Maccabees can speak of such perfection at death for him because he “sailed into the harbor of the victory of immortality” (7:3).

Philippians 3:11 thus might easily refer to an individual experience that Paul hopes to undergo at death.  Commentators regularly argue that Paul is not really expressing doubt that he will be a part of the resurrection.[17]  While they are surely right about Paul’s state of mind, they generally ignore the fact that the resurrection train of thought seems to continue in 3:12-14.[18]  Nevertheless, what is even more significant is the apparent connotation that not all will be resurrected in the first place, a connotation that continues from earlier writings like 1 Corinthians, where Paul exclusively speaks of the resurrection of the dead in Christ.  These observations probably call for some significant rethinking of Paul’s understanding of the resurrection in general.[19]


Resurrection in Romans

Romans poses even fewer problems for the Bruce/Thrall interpretation than Philippians did.  At the same time, it points toward some other shifts that cohere well with the kind of trajectory the developmental hypothesis indicates.  On the one hand, Paul seems to retain his sense of transformation for those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return, as we would expect.  Contrary to Dodd’s version of the developmental hypothesis, Romans does not reflect a significant shift in Paul’s sense that Christ will return sooner rather than later.  Paul speaks of the Day of Wrath (2:5), the revelation of the sons of God (8:19), and the liberation of the material creation (8:21) as potential experiences of the audience.  Nowhere in his discussion of this multifaceted event does Paul give any indication that he or his audience will almost certainly die before it takes place.  He does not use the word a0na/stasij in Romans, nor as we will see does he clearly speak of believers rising from the dead. 

Paul’s language of salvation in Romans, as earlier, thus seems to refer to the escape from God’s wrath that those alive at the time of Christ’s arrival will enjoy.  He uses the idea of glorification in relation to what will happen at that point rather than resurrection.  “We boast in hope of the glory of God” (5:2), just as both Jew and Gentile as sinners are currently lacking the glory of God (3:23).  In keeping with this language is a new emphasis on the Holy Spirit as a transformative power within, a theme that appears dramatically in 2 Corinthians with new features.[20]  2 Corinthians 5:5 speaks of the Holy Spirit as an a0rrabw/n of the life Paul wishes to “swallow up” his mortality, a picture that most interpreters would see as a reference to putting on the sw=ma pneumatiko/n, whenever one believes that might take place.  We thus see in 2 Corinthians the beginning of a relatively new thread in Paul’s thought, in which the Spirit has already begun the process of glorification and transformation that will culminate in our heavenly, spiritual bodies.  “Even if our outward person is decaying, our inward person is being renewed day by day” (4:16).  “We are all … being transformed from glory to glory” (3:18).

We see this motif of present transformation in Romans as well, now linked with resurrection imagery in a way absent from 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians.  We see the power of Christ’s resurrection (Phil. 3:10) quite clearly in Romans, especially Romans 6 and 8.  Romans 6:4 makes the baptism of a believer a participation in Christ’s death, but it does not pair up Christ’s resurrection with some future resurrection.  Rather, it pairs Christ’s resurrection with us walking “in newness of life” (cf. also 7:6).  The context is the question of whether a Christian should remain in sin, so the reference to newness of life is surely a reference to living a life that does not continue in sin, with “walking” as a Jewish expression for behavior (thus hklh).  The rest of Romans 6 bears out this interpretation.

Romans 6:5, the following verse, thus likely refers to a new way of living as well when it speaks of us becoming united with the likeness of Christ’s resurrection.  6:6 goes on to speak of our “old person” being crucified so that we are no longer enslaved to sin, an image that the rest of Romans 6 again relates to the concrete presentation of our members in this life as instruments of unrighteousness (e.g., 6:13).  Believers have thus already been brought from death to life in that sense (6:13).  The result is zwh\ ai0w/nioj, a phrase that Paul never used in 1 Thessalonians or 1 Corinthians but that now appears several times in Romans and 2 Corinthians.[21]  One should not make too much of this shift in terminology, although the transition from language of future resurrection to eternal life in relation to believers could have some significance for our question.

A final passage of interest in Romans is 8:10-11.  At first glance, 8:11 might seem to be a standard reference to the future resurrection, and certainly it could have overtones of coming resurrection: “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also give your mortal bodies life through his Spirit that dwells in you.”  The immediate train of thought, however, along with the broader context of Romans 8, pushes us to see this giving of life to our mortal bodies as power over one’s flesh in this life.  Robert Jewett, for example, notes that Paul’s choice of zwopoie/w rather than e0gei/rw points more toward a focus on God’s action toward the living rather than future resurrection.[22]  Further, 8:10 is the final element of a chiasm, every other element of which refers to life in this world:

A   You (pl) are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.


B   And if someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person is not his.


B'  But if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is life because of righteousness


A'  And if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also give your mortal bodies life through his Spirit that dwells in you.


While 8:10 does involve a change in tense, the chiastic return to the indwelling Spirit of God points toward life in this world, not least because the notion of the indwelling Spirit within us at a future resurrection seems problematic.

The context before and after 8:9-11 also leads us to see the giving of life in reference to power over one’s flesh in this life.  Such a meaning is clear in 8:12-13 that follow: “Therefore, then, we are debtors, not to the flesh to live according to flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you are about to die.  But if by the Spirit you are putting to death the practices of the body, you will live.”  These verses clearly refer to living in this world.  Further, while the precise connotations of the verses that precede 8:10-11 are debated, the most likely reading also sees them in terms of the concrete empowerment of the Spirit to free individual believers from enslavement to sin and, thus, to righteous living in this life.  The dikai/wma of the Law is fulfilled in those who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (8:4).  The behavioral connotations of walking preclude some sense of the righteous requirement of the Law merely being fulfilled in Christ rather than in the actions of the person with the Spirit.  The parallel in Galatians 5:16 reinforces this sense of concrete performance in this life through the power of the Spirit: “Walk in the Spirit and you certainly will not fulfill the desire of the flesh.”  We conclude, therefore, that the giving of life to the mortal bodies of believers in 8:11 is not a reference to future resurrection but to freedom from the power of sin over one’s flesh in this world.  We thus do not find any clear instances of resurrection language in Romans that refer to the collective rising of dead believers at the parousia.


For Future Exploration

It would appear, therefore, that the Bruce/Thrall hypothesis coheres well with what we find in the undisputed Paulines written after 2 Corinthians.  Time does not permit further exploration of this developmental hypothesis into the disputed Pauline letters or into the possible causes for such a shift in view.  We might only note in passing that both Colossians and Ephesians speak of living believers already being raised with Christ while still living (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1).  The parousia seems to have retreated almost completely from view.  2 Timothy even indicts two individuals for saying that the resurrection had already taken place, perhaps an indication of a trajectory among some of Paul’s followers further and further away from the notion of a resurrection event.  Also, while Philippians 2:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 may allude to a judgment of some dead, such a judgment only appears explicitly in the Pauline corpus in 2 Timothy (4:1), perhaps also indicative of an area of eschatological development in one segment of the early church.

It is more difficult to induce a reason for a shift in Paul’s understanding of the resurrection, which is no doubt one of the main reasons why the majority of Pauline interpreters have rejected the idea of such development.  The usual suggestion is that Paul began to sense that he would not survive until the parousia and that this reflection led him to ponder more extensively the state of the dead prior to the judgment.  In itself, however, this answer seems insufficient.  Far more likely is that the change resulted from the ongoing dialog over the nature of the resurrection that must have continued between Paul, the Corinthians, and their surrogates in between 1 and 2 Corinthians.  Some have suggested that Paul had misunderstood their view of the afterlife in 1 Corinthians 15, that Paul had assumed they did not believe in any afterlife when in fact they believed in the immortality of the soul.  Whatever the specifics, the likelihood of exchange on the topic between Paul and the Corinthians might easily have led Paul to some modified position that now recognized conscious existence at death in addition to eternal, spiritual embodiment. 

[1] Dodd, C. H., “The Mind of Paul: II,” New Testament Studies (Manchester: Manchester University, 1953), 113, 112.

[2] “Mind of Paul,” 111.

[3] Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 310.

[4] Paul, 312.  Interestingly, Bruce seems to have come to this conclusion under the influence of one of his students, Murray Harris, who has since seemed to abandon the position (The Second Epistle to the Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005], 380).  For Harris’ earlier position, see “2 Corinthians 5:1-10: A Watershed in Paul’s Eschatology?” Tyndale Bulletin 22 (1971), 32-57 and his unpublished PhD dissertation, “The Interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Its Place in Pauline Eschatology” (University of Manchester, 1970).

[5] The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: Introduction and Commentary on II Corinthians I-VII (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994), 356-400.

[6] Second Epistle, 391.

[7] It would be useful as well to see if the disputed writings of Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles seem to fall into some sort of eschatological trajectory, but unfortunately time does not allow for more than a passing comment.

[8] Second Epistle, 360-63.

[9] Second Epistle, 367.

[10] Second Epistle, 386.

[11] Second Epistle, 389.

[12] 2 Thessalonians 1:9 could be taken in reference to eternal punishment.  However, the verse refers to the destruction of living wicked individuals rather than the punishment of the dead and, in any case, the Pauline authorship and dating of 2 Thessalonians is disputed.

[13] The expression “in Christ all will be made alive” in 15:22 hardly refers to a general resurrection, since Paul never has the resurrection of all in view anywhere in the chapter.  The next verse makes it clear that it is the dead in Christ who are made alive.

[14] Second Epistle, 391.

[15] 2 Timothy 2:18 implies a resurrection yet to come in its reference to some who teach falsely that the resurrection has already come.

[16] Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 335n.68.

[17] E.g., Judith M. Gundry Volf, Paul and Perseverance (WUNT 2/37; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990), 257-58.

[18] One wonders if the difficulty here has more to do with the faith traditions of such interpreters rather than the clarity of Paul’s train of thought.

[19] For example, Romans 6:7 says that the person who has died dedikai/wtai from sin.  This verse is usually taken to imply a freedom from sin at death.  Nevertheless, if Paul does not envisage a general resurrection, then we might easily see death as a kind of justification for sin in his view for individuals who will not be resurrected, for example, for those between Adam and Moses who died even though they did not sin “in the likeness of the transgression of Adam” (Rom. 5:14).

[20] We would also date Galatians between 1 Corinthians and Philippians, locating its emphasis on Spirit empowerment over Sin to this same general period (e.g., Gal. 5:16).

[21] Paul also uses the expression in Galatians 6:3, which in n.20 above we date after 1 Corinthians.

[22] So also Robert Jewett, Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 492.