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A Biblical Vision

A Brief Case for the Beatific Vision’s Biblical Warrant

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,[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4]

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.

“But Then Face to Face”

The logic of 1 Corinthians 13 works in much the same way as 1 John 3. Like John, Paul is encouraging present obedience motivated by future promises. Unlike 1 John however, Paul is not overly concerned with addressing his audience with a kind of perfect tenderness. If John’s audience was burdened with a crippling loss of confidence, marked by fear and timidity, Paul’s audience was burdened with the opposite: a misplaced confidence in themselves. With typical Corinthian swagger, the Corinthian Church boasted in the impressive manifestations of spiritual gifts in their midst (cf., 1 Cor 1:7). In chapters 12-14, Paul addresses their hubris and unruly exercise of these gifts. While he does not discourage the church from exercising these gifts, and indeed even charges them to “earnestly desire” them (1 Cor 14:1), he boldly confronts their disordered priorities. In chapter 13, he elevates the centrality of love as more important (and more enduring) than powerful external displays of spiritual gifts (“If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol” [1 Cor 13:1].).

Were their values rightly ordered according to heavenly realities, the Corinthians would realize that the spiritual gifts of prophesy and knowledge, for example, are temporary means to the enduring gift of love (1 Cor 13:8-11). Love for Christ—and by extension, all those who are in Christ—is, for Paul, the apex of all our activity. And this love finds its zenith in one single heavenly reality: seeing Christ “face to face.” “For now we see in a mirror dimly,” says Paul, “but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). On this verse, Calvin draws out the comparative element of Paul’s logic:

For we have in the word (in so far as is expedient for us) a naked and open revelation of God, and it has nothing intricate in it, to hold us in suspense, as wicked persons imagine; but how small a proportion does this bear to that vision, which we have in our eye! Hence it is only in a comparative sense, that it is termed obscure.[5]

For Paul, creation itself (which “declares the glory of God” according to Psalm 19:1, and whereby God’s invisible attributes are “clearly perceived” according to Romans 1:20) and the special revelation of the Scriptures (who are “a naked and open revelation of God”) both give us a glimpse of God merely as “in a mirror dimly.” In saying this, Paul is not implying that general and special revelation are somehow deficient or inaccurate. His comparison does not disparage the revelation of God we have before “the perfect comes.” Quite the opposite. The logic works thusly: if so great a revelation of God has been given to us now, how much more splendid will that vision be wherein we see him face to face? Such a vision, by comparison, renders the “naked and open revelation of God” a dimly lit mirror image of God. And it is in this face-to-face beholding that love endures forever. If such is our future, reasons Paul, should we not prioritize love for God and for the saints above everything else? Ought not our future hope of beatific vision motivate love today? To answer in the negative is to create a massive disjunction between who we are and who we will be. For Paul, then, the loving beatific vision of God is the telos of all our earthly obedience.

“Until the Day Dawns”

Another fascinating cluster of passages that instruct us regarding the beatific vision come to us through 2 Peter 1:16-21. Peter writes this letter toward the end of his life, and so this is his “final word” to the church.[6] He feels compelled to leave his readers with “reminders.” In this way, he is paralleling Moses and the book of Deuteronomy, urging his readers to remain faithful and to “enter into the heavenly Promised Land,” so to speak. This is why “remembering” is such a crucial aspect of this letter. So, the occasion for 2 Peter is twofold: first, the end of Peter’s life is at hand, and second, the end of history is approaching. As Peter is finishing his pilgrimage of this earth, leaving followers and students behind, he wants for them to stay faithful to the end, with their hope set on the resurrection of the dead; the New Heavens and the New Earth, and endless communion with Christ. As if to say, “I’m not going to be with you much longer, so before I leave, let me remind you to keep your eye on the prize—keep your hope secure in Christ and keep steadfast in your pursuit of godliness until you cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land.” Second Peter 1:16-21 in particular includes one angle of this motivation for faithfulness: Peter entices them with the majesty of Christ. He showcases how breath-takingly beautiful and awesome and glorious Christ is.

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice born from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Pet. 1:16-18).

Peter reminds his readers that the gospel he shared with them, and the hope of heaven that he called them to, was not the invention of some overactive imagination. They received this message from someone who walked and talked with the Lord Jesus himself. Not only that, Peter himself—the one who “made known to them the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”—saw the majesty of Christ with his own two eyes. As if to say, “The kind of glory you are looking forward to in the second coming is not a pipe-dream: I saw it myself and it was glorious.”

Of course, Peter is describing the transfiguration of Christ (cf., Matt 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36). While it does not often receive very much attention from evangelicals, this sacred event is an important development in the life and ministry of Christ, and indeed, in the whole Bible.[7] Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on what Peter calls, “the holy mountain.” In doing so, these three disciples follow the path of many Old Testament figures, including (most relevantly, Moses and Elijah).

For Moses, the “holy mountain” experience is described in Exodus 33-34. There on mount Horeb, Moses does the audacious: he asks to see the glory of God. He wants to skip to the end of the story and experience the beatific vision now. And, amazingly, God partially grants this request. He does not let Moses look directly at his glory—unmediated and unprotected—for that would consume Moses. So instead, he hides him in the cleft of a rock and places his hand over his face, and passes by so that Moses can see God’s back.[8] Thus, Moses saw God’s glory pass by. And this experience with God was so awesome that it left Moses’s face glowing with the glory of God. Having been transformed by what he saw, the result was such that Moses had to accommodate his newfound glory. The people of Israel were so terrified by this newfound glory emanating from Moses’s face that they demanded that he put a veil over his face. Like how this sinful people were terrified by the glory of Yahweh, they were terrified by Moses who now looked a little like Yahweh.

Similarly, in 1 Kings 19 we read about Elijah. After his famous standoff with the priests of Baal, he, like Moses, goes up to Mount Horeb and hides himself in a cave (I believe there is good theological and biblical warrant for assuming that by God’s providence and Elijah’s design, this is the same cave within which Moses was hid). Elijah was distraught and thought that he alone was the only faithful one left in Israel, so he went to this spot so that he could get a glimpse of God. His coming to this location was a request to experience God’s glory. And like with Moses, God gracious grants him this request, except where Moses saw the glory of God, Elijah heard the glory of God in a small whisper (and he subsequently hid his face in response).Peter got a foretaste of heaven there on that mountain—a foretaste of the beatific vision—that happy sight of God. Click To Tweet

These are striking parallels: both these men went up on the very same mountain to (probably) the very same spot to experience the glory of God. Both of them were graciously met with an experience of divine glory—Moses saw God’s glory and Elijah heard God’s glory. Both of them were transformed by the experience. And both of them covered their face in response. And now in the transfiguration, both of them appear on the holy Mountain and face Jesus, while Peter and James and John look on.

Notice the Christological and Trinitarian implications. Moses’s and Elijah’s being on the mountain when Christ was transfigured is not merely pointing to the fact that the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled in Christ (the Law being represented by Moses and the Prophets being represented by Elijah), they are also testifying to the divine glory of Christ. Both of these men requested to see the glory of God on the mountain, and here they are, talking with Christ on the mountain. It is as if their request is being fulfilled once again.

Thus, by seeing and hearing the glory of Jesus on that mountain, Peter and James and John saw and heard the glory of the holy Trinity. Descending from heaven, the Holy Spirit manifests himself as a bright cloud. And it is from this glory cloud that the Father speaks and testifies to the glory and trustworthiness and biblical fulfillment of his Son. So, the Spirit—who proceeds eternally from, and is eternally breathed out by, the Father and the Son—with his bright presence gives voice to the Father’s speech, and the testimony from this Trinitarian mountaintop experience is clear: divine glory is revealed preeminently in none other than Jesus Christ. “He is God from God,” as the Nicene Creed says, “Light from Light, very God from very God.” To behold the glory of Christ is to behold the glory of God—the same glory Moses saw, and Elijah heard is the glory James and John and Peter see and hear on that mountain.

Returning to 2 Peter, the connection between the transfiguration and the beatific vision becomes clear. Peter reminds his readers of this crucial event to confirm his authority, and he does so within the context of his final letter to them. Everything he writes in this letter is self-consciously written within the shadow of God’s heavenly mountain. In other words, this story is recounted in service to his exhortation to stay faithful as they look forward to their hope of heaven (see the end of verse 19 “…until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”). Isn’t it interesting that as Peter’s days on earth come to a close, he finds his mind returning to this moment of his life, when he saw Christ transfigured on the holy mountain? Is this not because he saw, on that mountain, a preview of coming attractions? He got a foretaste of heaven there on that mountain—a foretaste of the beatific vision—that happy sight of God.

Primed and Ready for the Beatific Vision

There is so much more we could provide by way of biblical support for this crucial doctrine, but in closing, it is worth mentioning that while evangelicals (particularly of the reformed variety like myself) may be unfamiliar with the doctrine of the beatific vision consciously speaking, they are probably already primed and ready to embrace it. In fact, they may even sort of believe it without knowing as much. We would do well to recover this richly biblical doctrine for the good of our own souls. Click To Tweet“Christian Hedonists,” who have learned from John Piper that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him”—those who have come to agree with Piper that the chief delight of the soul is “seeing and savoring Christ”—are ready to embrace the beatific vision. If you have learned from Lewis to ache for “the stab of joy,”[9] to reject playing with mud-pies in the slums for the sake of a holiday at sea,[10] and to go joyfully “further up and further in” to Aslan’s country forever, you are ready to embrace the beatific vision. If you have learned from Jonathan Edwards that heaven is “a world of love,” you are ready to embrace the beatific vision. If you have learned to pray with Augustine, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee,”[11] you are ready for the beatific vision. All of these lessons that so many reformed evangelicals have learned traffic in the blessed hope of the beatific vision. We would do well to recover this richly biblical doctrine for the good of our own souls.


Endnotes

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).

[1] 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).

[2] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: UK, Calvin Translation Society, 1855), 206.

[3] Thomas Andrew Bennett, 1-3 John: The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021), 57.

[4] 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.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle, vo. 1, (Edinburgh, UK: The Calvin Translation Society, 1848), 431.

[6] I am taking Petrine scholarship for granted here, in part because exhaustively arguing for it is beyond the scope of a magazine article like this, and also because none of the arguments for Petrine authorship are all that convincing, since (a) they are predicated questions of dating that often assume what they are trying to prove, (b) they take for granted that the real Peter could not have possibly been influenced by the real Jude, and vice versa, and (c) the extreme stylistic difference between 1 and 2 Peter precludes that the author could be the same (imagine arguing that either the author of the Narnian books or the author of The Discarded Image had to be pseudepigraphal by the same logic). The best argument of Petrine authorship for a biblical inerrantist like myself is found in 2 Peter 1:1: “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ…” I rest my case there.

[7] Many thanks to Patrick Schreiner who let me peek at an early draft of a forthcoming volume on the transfiguration he is working on. Some of the insights within this section are gleaned from his book. I encourage you to buy it the moment it becomes available.

[8] There is some warrant for rich Christological symbolism here as well. We have been provided mediation to behold God’s glory without thereby being consumed as well: Christ—the Word-made-flesh—is the “rock” within whom we hide so as to see divine glory in a manner that befits our creatureliness.

[9] See C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando, FL: Harvest, 1958).

[10] See C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (HarperCollins, 2001).

[11] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, book I, 1.5.

Samuel G. Parkison

Samuel G. Parkison (PhD, Midwestern Seminary) is Associate Professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Abu Dhabi Extension Site at Gulf Theological Seminary in the United Arab Emirates. Before coming to GTS, Samuel was assistant professor of Christian studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and pastor of teaching and liturgy at Emmaus Church in Kansas City. He is the author of Revelation and Response: The Why and How of Leading Corporate Worship Through Song (Rainer, 2019), Thinking Christianly: Bringing Sundry Thoughts Captive to Christ (H&E, 2022), and Irresistible Beauty: Beholding Triune Glory in the Face of Jesus Christ (Christian Focus, 2022).

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