“People like Saul were not primarily interested in the state of their souls after death; that was no doubt important, but no doubt God would have the matter in hand. They were interested, urgently, in the salvation which, they believed, the one true God had promised to his people Israel.”
—N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 118.
How do we estimate what a person is primarily interested in? Perhaps by seeing how often they return to the subject, or what they mention on important occasions. And perhaps, also, by the manner in which people write about things: is it detached, or is it impassioned — “urgent,” as Wright says?
How do we decide whether a person thinks that something is important for him but is nevertheless a matter that he is not primarily interested in? How does one weigh that kind of thing? That’s more difficult, I suggest, because many things may be important for a person that he does not keep talking or writing about. He may only talk about such things when they are challenged or when he is asked a question about them. Such people may be intensely personal, or private. So it’s not altogether easy to test Wright’s claim about Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles (as Saul became), and what was important for him.
However, we can say this much: There are numerous occasions in which Paul writes about the destiny of his self after death and about the destiny of Christians more generally. Writing to Timothy, he refers to the crown of righteousness that the L ord, the righteous Judge, will award to him on that final day (2 Tim. 4:8). And more generally, he argues at length to the Corinthians that the resurrection of Christ is the key to their own resurrection. For if Christ is not raised, we are yet in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17). Bearing in mind his teaching in this passage, when Paul thinks of “the soul after death,” he clearly does not mean “the soul in exclusion from the body.”
What about his desire to be with Christ and so not to remain in the body? (Phil. 1:23). And what about the marvelous passage in Philippians 3 expressing his determination to gain Christ and to be found in him, not having a righteousness of his own but that which come through faith in Christ; this looks intensely personal, does it not?
But of course, the importance that Paul attached to the state of the soul after death (in 2 Cor. 5:6, for example) was also one way of expressing his concern for the salvation of Israel. L ook at Romans 9:2, where Paul writes movingly of his “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” for his people the Jews, being willing to be “accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (v. 3), for a further example of this. The expression “cut off from Christ” seems pretty comprehensive. Charles Hodge says that the word accursed “applied to all those who were regarded as deservedly exposed, or devoted to the curse of God.” The plight of the Jews was such that Paul ha rbored t he w ish that he himself might be accursed for their sake.
There is another way of understanding what Wright says. Perhaps he is hinting that there is no tension in Paul between his concern for his own individual, personal destiny and his concern for the destiny of other people. Here the evidence is rather mixed, or unclear. This is because we might take “Israel” to refer to the Jewish nation, or we might take it to refer to those whom Paul called “inward” Jews — those whose hearts were circumcised (Rom. 2:29), the “Israel of God.” Paul’s concern for the salvation of such people is unbounded, but as we have seen, though he says that he could wish that he himself were accursed for his own people, the Jews, he did not actually call upon God to curse him for their sake. There was certainly tension between Paul’s concern for himself and his fellow Christians, and his concern for his “own people.”
There may also be something of a false antithesis that Wright is posing in the quotation at the top of this piece. Why must we choose one option to the exclusion of the other? In this case, only if Paul did. But did he?
Why not both together, at once? Why may not Israel’s salvation, however this is understood, whether of what remained of ethnic Israel or of the “true Jews” variety, be a corporate salvation that is composed of saved individual people? Is this not how, guided by the New Testament, we usually understand these things?
Further, why may not the state of a person’s soul after death be one way, perhaps the chief way, in which the salvation that the one true God had promised to His people Israel was to be, or is, realized? Thus, God’s “promised salvation” and the “state of the soul after death” may on some occasions be two ways of saying the same thing.