A Biblical Vision
One doctrine that you may never have heard of (but one that you really should know about) is the beatific vision. This “happy vision” or “blessed vision” is the blessed hope of beholding God in heaven, and it is the telos of the human soul. The beatific vision is what Moses was impatient to see on Mount Horeb (cf., Exod. 33:18-23), and it has been the blessed hope of the vast majority of saints down through the centuries. This doctrine is what animated the prayers and contemplations of so many wonderful theologians like Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and John Owen.
Since the beatific vision is seldom addressed in Protestant circles, it may seem to some as though it were a doctrine in search of a biblical rationale. Have we left behind this doctrinal emphasis because of our allegiance to Sola Scriptura? Was our departure from this doctrine simply the necessary consequence of applying our biblical convictions more consistently? Not at all. In reality, the ubiquity of this “blessed hope” in scripture renders the beatific vision hidden in plain sight. Contemporary neglect of the doctrine is no theological necessity on the part of Protestants, but is rather an accident of history (I’m tempted to call the 19th and 20th centuries of theological output an accident since this era is the culprit behind this doctrinal negligence, but I will resist the temptation to lash out). While it is interesting to explore the question of why we sold our theological birthright for a pot of boring and bland eschatological porridge, I will leave that exploration to other contributors in this issue of Credo. Instead, I want to trace out some of the biblical roots of this doctrine to show why we would not be forfeiting our Protestant convictions by affirming this doctrine together with the Great Tradition of the Christian Church.
“The Appearing of Our Lord Jesus Christ”
Let’s begin with Paul’s pastoral epistles, particularly his emphasis on “Christ’s appearing.” In 1 Timothy, Paul instructs his apprentice to “keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:14). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul’s charge to preach the word bears the heavy authoritative force of being “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:1-2), and he promises a crown of righteousness to “all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). Even more explicitly, Paul names this appearing “our blessed hope” in his letter to Titus: “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). To modern ears, there is nothing particularly surprising about this language. Every Christian eschatology looks forward to the appearing of Christ.Paradise is paradise because there we will behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, unencumbered by the obscurity of fallen and unglorified nature. Click To Tweet
But often, modern readers can anticipate this appearing as a means to an end: at the appearing of Christ, we will have glorified bodies and a New Heavens and New Earth to enjoy sinless paradise. However, it is better to view the blessed hope of Christ’s appearing not as a means to an end, but as the end itself. Christ’s appearing does not merely catapult us into paradise; rather, paradise is paradise because there we will behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, unencumbered by the obscurity of fallen and unglorified nature. The blessed hope is not the appearing of Jesus, which gets us something else (were that the case, that something else would be, in a truer sense, our blessed hope). Rather, the blessed hope is the “appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” This is clearly evident in two other important passages regarding the beatific vision: 1 John 3:2, and 1 Corinthians 13:12.
“We Shall See Him as He Is”
In 1 John 3, the beloved apostle seeks to inspire enduring faithfulness in his audience, in part, by assuring them of their place in the family of God. He writes to a congregation that has been battered by the heartbreaking reality of apostacy. The reality of members with whom they once worshipped and fellowshipped departing not only the church but also the faith (cf., 1 Jn. 2:18-19) surely must have left them reeling. If such men and women once believed to be true saints have proven themselves to be “antichrists,” what assurance is there for any professing believer? With pastoral tenderness, John offers this congregation a framework for identifying true belief. After inviting his audience to look for the various fruits of genuine faith, confident they will find ample evidence of the Spirit’s ministry in their lives, he exhorts them to “abide in [Christ], so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 Jn. 2:28). The confidence that arises from this abiding, John says, is appropriate. Like balm applied to an open wound, John marvels at the love of God in adoption: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn 3:1a). And it is within the context of encouraging the hearts of his audience that he calls attention to the central eschatological promise included in their inheritance: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 Jn 3:2-3).The beatific vision of Christ will have a similar affect as the faithful sight of those who behold Christ now. Click To Tweet
For all the mystery that still shrouds the believer’s future glorified state (“… what we will be has not yet appeared…”), John is absolutely confident of one thing: that when Christ appears, “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” As mentioned before, while the mystical nature of this hope can easily elude modern readers, it should not be missed as the central hope of John. On this verse, and particularly John’s description of seeing God “as he is,” Calvin notes, how John
intimates a new and an ineffable manner of seeing him, which we enjoy not now; for as long as we walk by faith, as Paul teaches us, we are absent from him. And when he appeared to the fathers, it was not in his own essence, but was ever seen under symbols. Hence the majesty of God, now hid, will then only be in itself seen, when the veil of this mortal and corruptible nature shall be removed.
According to Calvin, the ignorance of “what we will be” simply adds to the anticipation of the beatific vision. Such ignorance “intimates a new and an ineffable manner of seeing.” Another feature of this promised hope mentioned in John’s epistle that bears immediate is identifiable in the “because” of verse 2. John says that “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” There is a causal relationship between our “seeing” and our “being like him.” As Thomas Andrew Bennett notes, the “theological freight of the text as a whole pushes us to read the second clause as explanatory.” How is it possible for us to be like him? Answer: because we shall see him as he is. “The metaphysics of the idea must necessarily elude us,” Bennett goes on to say,
but the logic is quite familiar to human experience. Bearing witness to great beauty or great ugliness has transformative impact… John imagines that this principle will apply in toto when we are confronted by the unvarnished beauty of Christ at his arrival. Seeing him “as he really is” indicates that up until that time, human eyes will not really have apprehended the full beauty and divinity of eternal life and that when they do, the sight will overwhelm and change them.
Which is to say, the beatific vision of Christ will have a similar affect as the faithful sight of those who behold Christ now. When the satanic veil of unbelief is lifted, those liberated by the Spirit behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and are transformed (cf., 2 Cor 3:12-4:6). And when the veil of fallen and unglorified nature is unveiled at the appearing of Christ, those who behold him will likewise be ineffably transformed.
This excerpt is from the latest issue of Credo Magazine. Read the full article here!
Author’s Note: The lion’s share of this essay is reworked material from chapter six of my book, Irresistible Beauty: Beholding Triune Glory in the Face of Jesus Christ (Christian Focus, 2022).
 E.g., precious little is even mentioned on the beatific vision Robert W. Yarbrough’s commentary on this passage in Yarbrough, 1-3 John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: UK, Calvin Translation Society, 1855), 206.
 Thomas Andrew Bennett, 1-3 John: The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021), 57.
 Ibid., 57. Smalley seems to concur with Bennett on this interpretation. See, Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, and 3 John: Word Biblical Commentary, Revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2006), 139-140.