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Paul now begins a personal reflection on these two alternatives, whose point seems easy enough. If he had a real choice between the two, he would choose execution, for clear christological and eschatological reasons. But he gets there by a somewhat circuitous route.
Verse 22 is a clear follow-up to verse 21. Picking up on the first clause (to live is Christ), Paul assesses what its outcome will mean for him in the body (literally "flesh"), namely, fruitful labor. But rather than follow that up with a similar sentence ("if it means death"), he jumps ahead to reflect on what he might do if he in fact had a real choice in the matter. "I simply cannot say," he says; indeed, I am torn between the two, since it means Christ in either case.
The tension arises between Paul's "on earth" passion of serving Christ on behalf of others ( fruitful labor) and his personal desire finally to be with Christ "in heaven." After all, all of present life is given to "knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (3:8) while at the same time pressing "toward the goal of winning the prize" of knowing him finally and completely (3:14).
Thus for Paul personally, to depart and be with Christ . . . is better by far. But what he understands by this is not fully clear, so this is a clause around which considerable theological ferment has boiled. At issue is the question of consciousness, for which in Paul we have no direct evidence one way or the other. On the one hand he uses the metaphor of sleep for Christians who have died; on the other hand the implication of a passage like this is that he expects to be consciously with Christ—since depart ( leave the body) and remain in the body and the strong feelings expressed in these sentences make very little sense otherwise.
That such a view exists in some tension with belief in a future bodily resurrection is probably to be resolved in terms of the inherent tension between the "spatial" and "temporal" elements in Paul's eschatology. His present existence "in Christ" makes it unthinkable that he would ever—even at death—be in a "place" where he was not with Christ. Hence death means heaven now (the "spatial" dimension). At the same time, a person's death does not usher him or her into "timeless" existence; the bodily resurrection still awaits one "at the end" (the "temporal" dimension).
Ultimately this matter lies in the area of mystery. At issue is the interplay between time and eternity involved in the implied period of time between death and resurrection. From our human perspective, earthbound and therefore timebound as we are, we cannot imagine timeless existence; yet from the perspective of eternity/infinity these may very well be collapsed into a single "moment," as it were.
In any case, Paul understood death as a means into the Lord's immediate presence, which for him and countless thousands after him has been a comforting and encouraging prospect. Very likely he also expected such gain to include consciousness, and for most believers that too has been a matter of encouragement—although such a conclusion goes beyond the certain evidence we possess from Paul himself.