A blog reader recently asked me about an intriguing passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he says that “To live is Christ, to die is gain” (1:21) and then goes on to say that he is not sure “what to choose” — to “depart to be with Christ” or “to remain in the flesh” (1:22). Choose?
Most people have never looked at the passage carefully, but as often happens, have simply skirted over it without paying it much attention. But think about it. What is Paul saying exactly? In what sense does he have a “choice”? Is he thinking about taking matters in his own hands? Isn’t that the ultimate sin?
I talk about the matter briefly in my textbook on the New Testament. Here is what I say there:
In an intriguing book that discusses suicide and martyrdom in the ancient world (A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christians and Jews in Antiquity. HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) Arthur Droge and James Tabor argue that the modern notion that suicide is a “sin” stems not from the Bible but from the fifth-century Saint Augustine. Prior to Augustine, suicide per se was not condemned by pagans, Jews, and Christians. On the contrary, in certain circumstances it was even advocated as the right and noble thing to do. Indeed, several famous classical authors spoke of self-inflicted death as a “gain” over present afflictions, one that should be accepted joyfully.
The protagonist of Sophocles’s play Antigone, for example, says, “if I am going to die before my time, I count it gain. For death is a gain to one whose life, like mine, is full of misery.” She ends up, then taking her own life. So too in a famous passage in Plato’s Apology, Socrates, prior to ending his life by drinking hemlock, reflects that “the state of death is one of two things: either it is virtual nothingness… or it is a change and a migration of the soul from this place to another. And if it is unconsciousness, like sleep in which sleeper does not even dream, death would be a wonderful gain.”
It is striking that in Philippians, Paul indicates that for him “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21). Is he contemplating suicide? Before making a snap decision that he could not have been (on the ground that suicide is a sin), it is important to remember that there were numerous instances of self-death that were “approved” in ancient texts: pagan (e.g., Socrates), Jewish (e.g., the martyrs discussed in the Maccabean literature), and Christian (e.g., early martyrs; and cf. Jesus himself, who is said in the Gospel of Mark to have “given his life” and in John to have “laid down his own life”).
Even more important, we should notice how Paul himself talks about the possibilities of life and death in Philippians: “If it is to be life in the flesh, this would be a good work for me, and I do not know which to choose (the Greek word here does not mean “prefer,” as in some modern translations, but actually “choose”!), but I am constrained by the two things, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is much better, but to remain in the flesh is more nece3ssary for your sake” (1:22-24).
Paul seems to be debating his options – whether to depart and to be with Christ or to stay with the Christians. Some interpreters have taken this to mean that he’s deciding whether to mount a spirited defense on his own behalf when put on trial (he is in prison at the time) – on the assumption that failing to do so would lead to his execution. But Paul says nothing about an upcoming trial for a capital offense and seems to assume that he will be able to visit the Philippians shortly (2:24). And it may be pressing the matter too far to think that Paul could control not only his defense but also his own sentencing (and if he did think in any event, that he could ensure that someone else would execute him, wouldn’t that simply be another way of inflicting his own death?).
Could it be, then, that when Paul debates whether he should “choose” life or death that he is contemplating the real benefits of taking his own life? And that he rejects that option – not because it was a sin, but because he could still accomplish some good among his followers in Christ?