We hear St Paul stating in Phil. 1:20-24 (NRSVCE):

For me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard-pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.

Elsewhere, St Paul writes in 2 Cor. 12:7:

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.

There are different schools of thought on what the Apostle meant by 'thorn in the flesh'-- whether it referred to a physical ailment or was a euphemism for 'distractions of the flesh '. Anyhow, one can be pardoned for suspecting that St Paul had, at least for some time during his post-conversion life, a death wish.

My question therefore is: According to Catholicism, did St Paul have a death-wish?

  • 3
    What on earth is a 'death-wish' ? It needs to be defined. 'Desiring to depart to be with Christ' cannot be equated with despair and thoughts of self-harm.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 1, 2022 at 10:08
  • 1
    I think this is a good question, I got the feeling from reading Acts that he could have gone free if he wanted to, but he really wanted to testify to the emperor.
    – Peter Turner
    Dec 1, 2022 at 14:38

1 Answer 1


Did St Paul have a death-wish?

Here follows the abstract that the OP referenced in his comments on St. Paul’s Biblical death wish:

Abstract: A biblical death-wish: Paul celebrating dying in Philippians 1:21 Death features as an important concept in the Pauline writings in the New Testament for a number of reasons. However, the intriguing way in which the apostle at times addressed death as positive notion in itself, was traditionally related to Paul’s theological convictions and his understanding of the death of Christ in particular. The remarkably pointed way in which Paul positively celebrated death in Philippians 1:21 borders on invoking a martyrological paradigm, and raises questions about his convictions regarding life, and bodily existence in particular. Interesting analogies emerge when Paul’s celebration of death is compared in a concluding section with contemporary, popular instances where death is – even if for different reasons – presented as “gain”.

1 INTRODUCTION: DEATH IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, AND BEYOND It is almost a cliché to claim that death has been a major topic of interest and discussion in human societies from the earliest times. It is certainly true that death and also with what lies beyond death (cf recently Segal 2004), feature prominently in the New Testament, reflecting the interests of these documents but also representing the reflections of a certain era. The human fascination with death, and its inevitability, as well as what lies beyond the grave, has existed throughout human history and has been addressed in a multiplicity of myths and explanations. In a recent, popular novel by Elizabeth Kostova (2005) it is not the sensationalist account of the Dracula figure which features most prominently but the fascination with the end of life, or its prolongation by joining the ranks of the un-dead. Even stronger in focus, is how the Dracula myth unfolds amidst Medieval Christianity and its, mostly bitter, engagement with Islam - Count Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler is portrayed as having an intricate and uneasy but nevertheless constructive relationship with the (Eastern Orthodox) church. Also recently, in a statement which reflects human fascination with death, as much as human frustration with scientific ineptitude to provide explanations of death – and expressed in modern commercial metaphor – Ivan Illich is quoted as saying that the certainty of death is “the ultimate form of consumer resistance” (Parkes et al 2003:4). – A biblical death-wish: Paul celebrating dying in Phil 1:21

St. Paul may have had a death wish only in the sense that it would bring him closer to the Ultimate object of why we are living here on earth: the Beatific Vision.

This would naturally imply that he did not deliberately seek out death, nor was he afraid of sufferings, torture or death that would come his way. Paul was not afraid of martyrdom, and Scriptures can bear this out.

If a Death Wish of St. Paul could be in the form that the Gospels express and not in the general term as what the term means:

the conscious or unconscious desire for the death of another or of oneself

called also destrudo

St. Paul may have desired death in the sense that he wished to be united to Christ, but he did not have a death wish per say in order to be self destructive. That much is clear. Desiring to die to be with God is not a death wish as the term is normally used in, at least in the modern usage of the term.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has St. Paul expressing his desires to see God, but in order to do that he must die first. It is a reality he faced and accepted. But he did not have a death wish in the sense that the phrase would generally imply. He did not deliberately seek out to die.

1011 In death, God calls man to himself. Therefore the Christian can experience a desire for death like St. Paul's: "My desire is to depart and be with Christ. " He can transform his own death into an act of obedience and love towards the Father, after the example of Christ:

My earthly desire has been crucified; . . . there is living water in me, water that murmurs and says within me: Come to the Father.

I want to see God and, in order to see him, I must die.

I am not dying; I am entering life.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

J. Punt writes more on making notes about death as suicide. Only Judas ever committed suicide and the New Testament writers put him in a very bad light.

3.3 Death as suicide in Philippians?

The way in which Paul put his dilemma regarding dying forward in Philippians 1:21-26 has led some scholars (cf Droge 1988:262-286) to believe that Paul considered suicide26, reflecting Greco-Roman philosophical arguments on the appropriateness of suicide which were often linked to the discussion of the death of Socrates. Religiously motivated suicide is a rather sensitive issue in the history of Jewish and Christian thought, and was of course not unrelated to issues of martyrdom and redemptive suffering generally. Both in the sense of wishing to escape earthly troubles and the mortality of the body in particular, as well as the longing for immortality by reuniting with the divine meant that, with sufficient warrant and reason, suicide was not necessarily perceived in a negative sense in the contemporary Greco-Roman context27. In both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, stances towards suicide did not amount to the negative reputation suicide gained later in the church’s theological arguments28.

The case for Philippians 1:21 reflecting a suicidal Paul hinges on the interpretation of 1:22 and 1:23, since in the former his ability to choose (ti, ai`rh,somai) argues against his imminent execution by the authorities29, and the latter his having a strong desire to depart or die (th.n evpiqumi,an e;cwn eivj to. avnalu/sai)30. While it can be admitted that Paul did not reject suicide per se (Droge 1992:225-231), it is a question whether Philippians 1:21-26 should be understood in the sense that Paul did not consider it the appropriate time for taking his own life.

In short, theories about Paul’s perceptions on and inclinations towards martyrdom and the related notion of religiously motivated suicide are informative and helpful for moving the argument beyond the tepid traditional notion of union with Christ as rationalisation of death. But these theories are also not exhaustive of Paul’s rationale for advancing his own death or sufficiently textually grounded to warrant them as sufficient explanation of Paul’s positive perspective on his own death. - A biblical death-wish: Paul celebrating dying in Phil 1:21

In the end this death wish idea is a very loose and modern topic of discussion and is used by contemporary authors to deal with their own personal interpretation and perspectives on this due to circumstances in their personal life. Their reasoning is anything but Catholic.

All in al, J. Punt’s abstract is not too bad and I can see how some could take some of the themes he bring up as Christian. He work is more positive than negative, but the term Death Wish is definitely misleading to most. The real death wisher glorifies self and self-destruction, which in itself is not Catholic.

I can see how this term and bad interpretation of Phil 1:21, could be used to bolster the fight for assisted suicide, which the Church unequivocally condemns as immoral.

The Church has always steadfastly condemned suicide; so any such interpretation in favour of suicide would equally be condemned:

21 For to me, to live is Christ; and to die is gain.

22 And if to live in the flesh, this is to me the fruit of labour, and what I shall choose I know not.

23 But I am straitened between two: having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better. - Philippians 1:21-23

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