It was one of those moments of true insight, a penetrating flash of understanding that could change one’s perspective. Some seminary colleagues and I were taking part in a roundtable on theology and science. We were gathered for dinner in a pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a pretty impressive group of scholars, of various disciplines, most of them from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one or two from Harvard, several from other colleges and universities in and around Boston.
The conversation drifted to eschatology and the nature of heaven. What will be it like? What will it mean to live eternally in the presence of God? What will we be doing for eternity? Understandably, given the brainpower gathered in the room, most of us were expressing some hope that our work will continue in some sense in heaven. “Surely,” one physicist quipped, “there will be more stuff left to discover.” Nods all around the table. The desire for continuity between the things we love doing now and the nature of our occupation in heaven is surely understandable. The dignity of work had been inculcated in all of us, and most of us assumed that it will continue in heaven. We were too sophisticated for the naïve idea of heaven as a continuous worship service. And yet, we hadn’t reckoned with the most essential thing. It had been staring us in the face, but we couldn’t see it. Once it was pointed out, nothing would ever look the same. “Well, you can just go ask God,” someone said. The domination of an unwitting theological pragmatism makes it hard to swallow such a contemplative pill like the beatific vision. Click To Tweet
Talk about a bucket of cold water dumped on one’s heavenly aspirations. In one swift move, we had all been check-mated. We had been so preoccupied with figuring out what could count as a happy existence in the hereafter that we didn’t account for the most central aspect of that existence – the immediate presence of God. That changes everything. What point will there be to science, when one will share in the knowledge of God, the secrets of the universe within grasp? What need for politics, economics, military? Religion too will become obsolete, and so will sacraments, orders, clergy. Everything will change – can we imagine what that will be like?
The Christian tradition presents the heavenly contemplation of God as the source of our happiness. It thus receives the name “beatific vision.” The disagreement over the nature of the vision should not obscure the consensus among theologians, East and West, over the centrality of the vision in heaven. The end of the Christian life is the eternal and immediate contemplation of God. The domination of an unwitting theological pragmatism makes it hard to swallow such a contemplative pill. We find it increasingly difficult to stop and rest, and just do nothing, to say nothing of prayer or meditation. In the fifteen years that I have been teaching theology in the United States, one of the most common questions I get asked is, “how does this help me in my ministry?” Everything must be evaluated according to measurable learning outcomes. Seminary colleagues will be familiar with this question from the all too pragmatic student course evaluations. We feel the need to justify theological contemplation in some other terms.
We would do well to heed Thomas Aquinas’ lesson, that contemplation of God is an end in itself. More than just a speculation about the future, reflection on the beatific vision informs theological practice in the present. It does so because it anchors the theological task in something that endures forever. An anagogical recalibration is thus operated. Faith and hope will cease, only love will remain. As John puts it, what we will become has not been shown yet, but when he comes we will become like him because we will see Him face to face. (1 Jn 3:2) Such a reflection obstructs the temptation to take our cues about heavenly bliss from what makes us happy in the present. As I learned at the roundtable: everything changes in the immediate presence of God. We would do well to heed Thomas Aquinas’ lesson, that contemplation of God is an end in itself. Click To Tweet
It would be presumptuous to speculate too much about the vision. Yet the Scriptures give us a glimpse into three dimensions of the vision. First, the unquenchable desire to see God face to face will be finally fulfilled. During our pilgrimage in this life, such a vision is denied to even the most upright of us. Even Moses, of whom we read that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod. 33:11), still requests to see the “glory” of God and is denied (Exod. 33:18-20). God explains that no one shall see God and live, which does not imply a punishment, but rather a condition of seeing the face of God. Only upon death and being lifted to heaven, will the saints see God, as John explains in the Apocalypse: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4). Until then, we only see his works, or, to use the Sinai symbolism, the “back” of God (Exod. 33:23).
What it means to see God, however, is by no means easily imagined. Even the apocalyptic Seer catches but a glimpse, and he doesn’t actually have the beatific vision himself. Even if Paul’s rapture to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4) were the beatific vision itself, he is still unable to explain it to us, his readers. Thus, while the Bible does stir our imagination about the visio Dei, we must not mistake its descriptions for literal representations. To see God is a really big deal, and it changes everything. Eastern Orthodox theologians deny that a comprehension of God will ever take place. The essence of God remains hidden even in the vision. What the saints see is the shekinah, the uncreated light of God, which some saints glimpse even in this life. Orthodoxy shuns any hint that the essence of God is apprehensible. The essence-energies distinction frames their position.
In the West, under the towering influence of Aquinas, the vision amounts to an immediate intellectual seeing of the essence of God. We will immediately see the essence of God, without the mediation of the works of God. Such an intellectual vision is not a comprehension, as Aquinas is determined to stress. Rather, depending on each person’s capacity for this vision, some will have more, others less, understanding in this vision. This is Aquinas’ explanation for the mansions and rewards in heaven (Jn. 14:2). This is a point of no small importance, because it defines our heavenly happiness entirely in terms of the vision of God. We will return to this point below.
Beholding the glory of Christ
A second dimension of the vision is the immediate reunion with Christ. I would like to call this the heavenly consummation of the marriage that Christ has contracted with us upon the cross. We are not talking here about two objections of vision, one the divine essence and the other Christ. Rather, it is one and the same vision, under an intellectual and a sensible operation, respectively. The essence of God, being immaterial, is not visible with the physical eyes. And yet the resurrection of our bodies is essential to our happiness in heaven. But why would this be the case, if God will be seen through our intellectual vision? Aquinas explains that our happiness increases through seeing God also in the things he has made, but supremely in the face of Jesus Christ: “our body will have a certain beatitude from seeing God in sensible creatures; and especially in Christ’s body.”
Not only does the glory of God shine supremely in the face of Christ, but the transfigured face of Christ is instrumental in our appreciation of other creatures’ own reflection. As John Owen explains, “This beholding of the glory of Christ given him by his Father, is, indeed, subordinate unto the ultimate vision of the essence of God. What that is we cannot well conceived; only we know that the ‘pure in heart shall see God.’ But it has such an immediate connection with it, and subordination unto it, as that without it we can never behold the face of God as the objective blessedness of our souls. For he is, and shall be to eternity, the only means of communication between God and the church.” It is specifically through and in the humanity of Jesus Christ that God is given us. To put it in distinctly trinitarian terms, we are adopted as children of the Father precisely through marriage to his Son. In heaven, the marriage is finally consummated, and the love of Christ for the Father, which is the Holy Spirit, is perfected in us. In heaven, our marriage to Christ is finally consummated, and the love of Christ for the Father, which is the Holy Spirit, is perfected in us. Click To Tweet
The Son is still coming forth from the Father and giving this existence to a human nature, even in heaven. He is still on mission. The difference is that those in glory behold his mission from the opposite direction. By having a vision of the divine essence, we gaze on the mission downwards, as it were, rather than, dazed and blinded, upwards. We no longer gaze upon the sun, resulting in the blurring of our vision of everything else. Rather, we look down from the sun and see everything in its light. The missions of the Son and the Spirit do not end upon the commencement of the beatific vision. The Son continues to come forth from the Father in a human nature. The Spirit continues to be poured into our hearts as the love of the Father and the Son.
Glory by grace
This brings us to the final dimension of the beatific vision, the enjoyment of other persons and of God’s creation. To what extent can we derive any joy from the presence of other persons in heaven, given that we will enjoy God himself? What good can still rapture us in other creatures, while we have a continuous feast on Goodness itself? Much current theology is correcting what it perceives to be an overly Platonized imagination of heaven. Most recently, Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz wrote that “One’s intellectual sensibilities would have to be formed in Plato’s school to miss the sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the lively and vivid materiality of the New Jerusalem.” These authors are surely right that creatures in the New Jerusalem are not simply “transparent”, but rather “translucent,” when they are indwelled by God and that, “not to enjoy [them] would be to despise God’s gifts and dishonor the God who shares with the world not just God’s holiness, rule, and benefits but also God’s glory.”
This is surely right: our beatitude will consist partly of the enjoyment of God’s glory reflected in other creatures. And yet it is the glory of God that takes pride of place. Creatures only have glory by grace, not inherently, not absolutely. This orients our sense of value even in the present: to enjoy particular beings is to love the divine universal goodness that resides in them. It is neither to cynically treat creatures as means, nor to idolize see them as absolute ends.
Once I heard someone say that we will spend eternity learning each other’s languages. Or, that we will feast on world cuisine. Naturally enough, everyone imagines heaven in a certain way. But it won’t take much to realize the inadequacy of these pictures. Why learn other human languages, if we will speak with angelic tongues (1 Cor. 13:1)? How does, say, world cuisine, taste by comparison to the nuptial feast (Mt. 22:2; Rev. 19:9) thrown by the Father for his Son, who turns water into wine?
On that night in Cambridge, what seemed so natural to me was easily exposed as misguided.
 Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles: Book 3: Providence: Part I (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 58.2.
 Aquinas, Summa theologica (5 vols. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1920), Suppl., q. 92, art. 2, ad. 6.
 Owen, Glory of Christ. Volume 1 of The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 385-6.
 The Home of God: A Brief History of Everything (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2022), 225.
 The Home of God, 225.