Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Hamlet & Paul on Living & Dying

Anybody want to slog through my latest quirky term paper? We had to write on Philippians 1:21 and for some reason Hamlet kept running through my head. So I kind of went with it...

Contrasting Hamlet & Paul

More than 1,500 years after the Apostle Paul penned Philippians, William Shakespeare wrote the play Hamlet which remains a timeless depiction of man’s inner struggle with morality and death. What philosopher hasn’t asked: “To be or not to be: that is the question…”? Turns out the answer to the dilemma lies in Philippians where Paul might have asked something like this: “To be here or there: that is the question….” Still it was essentially the same burden—Am I better off dead or alive?—that both Paul and Hamlet ponder. But at the heart the predicament, we find much contrast.

Differing Perspectives pn Morality and Mortality

For Hamlet, death might end a tortuous moral battle he called “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to…” Caught in a quandary—should he avenge his father’s death or extend forgiveness?—Hamlet is haunted and confused. As he contemplates the possibility of respite in death, he faces terrifying uncertainty:

But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?[1]

As Hamlet considers his earthly demise, he contemplates a nebulous eternity. He remains thus tortured in the present and devoid of certain hope for the future. Had Hamlet’s character encountered Philippians, he might have been spared some of the angst over how best to live and what to expect after death: For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)[2]

Paul’s struggle with morality and apprehension over death is behind him. He writes to the church in Philippi as a new man. (Eph. 4:24) Still aware of his limitations (Romans. 3:9, Eph. 3:8), he knew that his sins were forgiven and his destiny was secure (Romans 5: 1-2).

While Hamlet wrestles with his conscience, Paul was at a place of growing sanctification and joy in Christ. In Hamlet, we see a struggle “between a rock and a hard place.” In Paul, we see a spirit of victory in life and death. The eschatological uncertainty haunting Hamlet was resolved for Paul in Christ. And there was no moral ambiguity but clarity (Eph. 5). Paul’s sights were set on eternity (Romans 8:25); Hamlet’s on temporal relief.

Matters of Life and Death

When we contrast Hamlet with the Apostle Paul, we are given a window into two universal and timeless options for confronting life and death. In Hamlet, we find the absence of freedom in Christ and the resulting torment of surround-sound uncertainty. In Paul, we find liberation in Christ and the capacity through faith to endure all things with purpose and joy. How is this possible? It is in Philippians 1:21 that Paul reveals the secret to his ever-enduring hope and joy: For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Contextual Analysis of Philippians 1:21

Scholars believe that Paul was a prisoner in Rome when he wrote Philippians.[3] Text indicates that he faced considerable uncertainty about his fate—whether he will live or die—as he awaited legal proceedings for preaching the Gospel of Christ (vs. 20). While in prison, Paul realized that the church in Philippi needed encouragement and continued pastoral guidance. So he penned a “thank you” letter to his supporters in Philippi for their loyalty, prayers and financial support.[4] He also wrote to encourage and counsel them.[5]

Though physically restricted, the Spirit continued to work through Paul’s mind and his words to advance the Gospel throughout the prison system and beyond (vs. 13). Paul is encouraged that fellow Christ followers have been emboldened to preach by his example (vs. 14). Even those with selfish motives become able messengers of the Word (vs. 15-18). Paul knows the power of prayer and the Sprit of Christ are at work toward a positive outcome despite his personal sufferings (vs. 19). He pins his hopes on his ability to endure for Christ, that the Lord would be exalted whether he lives or dies. (vs.20)

In verse 21, Paul magnifies the passion and purpose he expressed for Christ in verse 20. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (vs. 21) presents a powerful if not stunning equation. For Paul, Christ was life itself![6] Quoting legendary English minister Charles Spurgeon: “In the words of an ancient saint, he did eat, and drink, and sleep eternal life. Jesus was his very breath, the soul of his soul, the heart of his heart, the life of his life.”

So, Christ consumed Paul’s life. What of death? Paul writes in verse 21: “… to die is gain.” What kind of a man would aspire to death? In Hamlet, we see death contemplated and feared. In Paul, we see death contemplated and coveted!

According to commentary of this passage by Matthew Henry, death represents loss and uncertainty to the unsaved. But for the believer, it marks the end of suffering [7] and a transition to eternal life spent in the presence of the Lord.[8] It is this faith that joyfully sustains Paul despite his unsettling circumstances.

In the classic theological treatise On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius wrote: “Before the divine sojourn of the Saviour, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Saviour has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing….” [9]

It is this bold if not cheerful outlook on mortality described by St. Athanasius that the Apostle Paul exhibits. For Hamlet, death was desirable if suffering didn’t follow him into the afterlife. For Paul, death was desirable because it promised a certain end to suffering and so much more.

While Hamlet struggled both with living in this world and worrying about the next, Paul had a different issue. His struggle was between serving Christ here and enjoying him elsewhere.[10]

A Model for Inner-Conflict Resolution

What can we learn from the models of conflict resolution when we compare Hamlet to Paul? In Hamlet, the prose is thick and needy. It’s the picture of abject turmoil and confusion. You can almost see him wringing his hands and wrinkling his forehead as a dot matrix of sweat forms. In Paul, while there is exclamatory emotion (vs. 22) and a serious unresolved matter, we see clarity of thought and decisiveness as he works out a solution through thoughtful analysis of the options.

In Verse 22, Paul considers the consequences of living and dying for Christ. “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!” (Phil 1:22)

Paul identifies “fruitful labor” for Christ—spreading the Gospel and building the church[11]—as the product of continuing to live (ref. first clause of vs. 21)[12]. But he shifts gears with the question: “… what shall I choose?” as he considers the possibility of death (ref. second clause of vs. 21). He may be offering more insight into his perspective on death in Chapter 2: 17.[13] It is here he uses the imagery of a drink being “poured out” as a sacrifice. Some scholars believe this illustration is Paul’s way of describing the possibility he would be martyred for Christ.[14] So, whether Paul lives or dies, he sees purpose in divine service. Still, he struggles for a preference between the two scenarios (though clearly, the “choice” of death is not his to make.)

In the next two verses (vs. 23-24) we see two sides of the dilemma. In death, Paul would leave his earthly body and be joined with Christ, “…which is better by far;” for him (vs. 23). Paul is confident that there is a place in heaven awaiting him (John 14).[15]Yet, he realizes there is a continued need for his pastoral leadership on earth (vs. 24).

Paul used the word “torn” in verse 23 to describe the inner debate over living or dying for Christ. We might say that Hamlet was also “torn” between living and dying. This was a shared burden between the two. But the heart of the problem is altogether different.

In life or death, Paul wins because he knew he could bring glory to Christ as long as he lived, and he was hopeful if not confident that God would also use his death to further His Kingdom.[16] Contrast Hamlet who loses so long as he continued to live and even, potentially, magnifies this loss into a dark, unknowable afterlife.

In verses 25-26, we see resolution to Paul’s quandary. Having weighed both positive outcomes of life and death, he comes out confidently on the side of living so that growth and maturity and joy will continue to occur in the lives of those to whom he is ministering (vs. 25). He gives us the reason for this in verse 26: “so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.” Chapter 1 concludes in verses 27-30 with a charge to how this overflowing joy will be used as he urges the flock to stand strong ini unity and focused on the gospel of Christ.

Concluding Thoughts

A literary reviewer once called Hamlet a “man for all ages.” Truly, in his inner turmoil we see echoes and outlines of our own modern-day struggle with matters of conscience and the ways in which fear of death manifests and haunts us (middle-age crises, extreme elective surgery, risk aversion, etc.).

But if Hamlet is a “man for all ages,” Paul becomes a “role model for all time.” He was not immune to suffering. But his faith in Christ enabled him to confidently process and resolve areas of internal confusion, and to bear up to challenges and suffering with courage and joy.

It is said by some philosophers and psychologists that altruism is always rooted in ego.[17] The theory is that one never acts purely out of interest for another. In Hamlet, our “man for all ages,” we see self-absorption and uncloaked humanity. In the Apostle Paul, our “role model for all time,” we have a case for altruism overcoming ego: something many experts suggest is not humanly possible. In Hamlet, there is no joy; only loss. In Paul, there is no loss; only joy.

Personal Ownership

As I return to the original question posed by Hamlet ("to be or not to be...), I’m reminded of the time I lost the use of my hands due to nerve damage from a rare and violent response to chemotherapy. Unable to feed or clothe myself or attend to the basic needs of my children, I wondered if I were better off dead or alive. Unlike Paul, I could not find joy in this experience, only despair. I see sketches of my humanity in Hamlet and the person I want to be in Paul. It’s a journey, this walk of ours.

Today I’m in remission and I cling to this life with an overwhelming desire to help my little boys grow to become good men. Is this what Paul felt when he thought of his flock in Philippi? I’m thinking maybe it is.

[1] The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act 3/Scene 1),

[2] Kenneth Barker (gen. ed), The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985.
[3] Kenneth Barker (gen. ed), The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985.

[4] Ronald B. Allen, Notes on Philippians, BE109 OL, Dallas Theological Seminary

[5] Kenneth Barker (gen. ed), The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985.

[6] P-R-E-C-E-P-T A-U-S-T-I-N online, Philippians 1:21,

[7] Online Parallel Bible, Matthew Henry Commentary,

[8] Net Bible Online,

[9] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood NY, 1993, page 57.

[10] Online Parallel Bible, Matthew Henry Commentary,

[11] Kenneth Barker (gen. ed), The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985.

[12] Online Parallel Bible, Wesley Reference,

[13] Online Parallel Bible, Wesley Reference,

[14] Kenneth Barker (gen. ed), The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985

[15] Ronald B. Allen, H. Wayne House, Earl Radmacher, New Illustrated Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville.

[16] Ronald B. Allen, H. Wayne House, Earl Radmacher, New Illustrated Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville.
[17] Raymie State, Reason, Egoism, Freedom, MIT Objectivist Lyceum. 1991

(Photo of Shakespeare statue by krypto; see for restrictions.)

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