I’ve been reading Hans Boersma’s helpful and interesting book Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Eerdmans 2018). For a while I’ve been wanting to learn more about this intriguing and often neglected doctrine, so now I’m finally getting around to it.
The beatific vision is widespread throughout the early and medieval church, East and West, and into Protestantism (especially the Reformed tradition). Yet many evangelical today have never heard of it, or misunderstand it. As Kyle Strobel puts it, “few doctrines are as ‘standard’ in the history of theology, and ignored in contemporary theology, as the beatific vision.”
So here, drawing from the work of Boersma and a few others like Strobel, I offer some reflections regarding what this doctrine means and entails, in the spirit of rehabilitating it somewhat among those who (like me) have been curious about it.
1) The beatific vision is not done with our resurrected eyeballs.
Now, this point is sometimes disputed, and some have spoken of the beatific vision as necessarily tied to bodily vision. This view in turn requires that the beatific is unavailable during the intermediate state, but awaits the final resurrection (this was Calvin’s view, and it has been a point of dispute in the Roman Catholic tradition). Others in the Puritan tradition like Richard Baxter and Thomas Watson maintained the beatific vision involves the sight of both body and soul.
But more commonly, the beatific vision has been conceived of as a spiritual, not physical sight. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “the Beatifical vision of J[ahweh] is not a sight with the Eyes of the Body but with Eye of the Soul” (quoted in Boersma, 365). Thomas Aquinas argued at length for the same view, claiming in the Summa Theologica that in heaven “God will by no means be visible to the bodily sense.”
So why do we use the metaphor of sight to describe this heavenly apprehension of the divine? Ultimately because of the language of Scripture (Psalm 11:7, 17:15, 27:4, Revelation 22:4, etc.), but perhaps also because vision generally indicates a more immediate, direct kind of perception than other senses. As Edward Pace put it, “it is called ‘vision’ to distinguish it from the mediate knowledge of God which the human mind may attain in the present life.”
2) The beatific vision is more than seeing the ascended flesh of Christ.
Now, this point is disputed as well, and parsing out the nuances gets complicated quickly. Protestants, for instance, with the exception of Francis Turretin, have generally emphasized the beatific vision as mediated through Christ. Boersma himself suggests a more Christologically oriented beatific vision (409-420), and there is evidently some precedent in the early tradition for this. And, most certainly, we don’t want to set our knowledge of Christ at odds with our knowledge of the Godhead. Even in his earthly life Jesus can say “whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Nonetheless, the beatific vision has typically been understood as less like what Paul experienced on the Damascus road, and more like what Moses experienced on Mt. Sinai. In fact, when Augustine commented on Numbers 12:8 (“he beholds the form of the Lord”), he interprets Moses’ experience here at his obtaining in this life what all believers inherit in heaven. Augustine also evidently thinks Paul had the same experience as referenced in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (see the discussion in Boersma, 112-117).
So, if in the beatific vision we are seeing something not tantamount to the incarnate and glorified flesh of Jesus, what precisely are we seeing? Not all theologians have gone as far as Thomas Aquinas in claiming that “God will be seen in His essence by saints in heaven” (though this is one standard view). Some, worrying about maintaining God’s transcendence and incomprehensibility, will say that we see God personally rather than essentially; we see God pro nobis (for us) rather in se (in himself). A stricter qualification that is sometimes offered is that we see God as he is in himself, but not as he sees himself. However we exactly parse this, the fact remains that the beatific vision has generally been taken to refer to seeing, in some sense, God Himself. Even Calvin, as Boersma ackowledges, “adopted the medieval consensus that the eschatological promise of seeing God face-to-face, as he is (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12, 1 John 3:2), entails a vision of the divine majesty in se” (277).
3) The beatific vision achieves the permanent happiness that is our end.
The beatific vision is understood as the ultimate end of human nature. It is why we exist. It relates to human nature the way the destination functions for those in a race. It is the ultimate and final human experience, resulting in a perfect and permanent happiness. (Perhaps one reason that the beatific vision has dropped out somewhat in the modern era is that we have lost any sense of teleology and purpose to the material world. Thus, Boersma treats the beatific vision especially in relation to the sacramental ontology that he sees as its “plausibility structure.”)
Theologians have therefore spoken of the beatific vision with alluring and vivid language. Isaac Watson called it “the heaven of heaven” and “the quintessence of happiness.” Edwards writes that “the pleasure of seeing God is so great and so strong that it takes the full possession of the heart; it fills it brimful, so that there shall be no room for any sorrow, no room in any corner for anything of an adverse nature from joy. There is no darkness can bear such powerful light” (quoted in Boersma, 366). At the same time, and in contrast to criticisms that beatific vision implies a static and overly intellectual view of heavenly experience, theologians often speak of the beatific vision in dynamic terms as an infinitely progressive, expanding reality (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of “eternal progress” in the being of God). This is something of the paradox of the joy of heaven: it is perfect, yet always increasing.
I find this whole way of thinking a refreshing and happy alternative to modern views of humanity, in which human nature and rationality are explained as an evolutionary spinoff, without any ultimate purpose or goal. Perhaps that is one reason why I personally find this doctrine so intriguing.
A Doctrine Ripe For Retrieval
The beatific vision seems to be an area of theology that contemporary evangelicals could benefit from engaging more. Historically, it has been widely embraced among Protestants, though some, like John Owen, have offered significant qualifications to it. But you don’t have to read Aquinas’ Summas to encounter it; you can find it in Edwards sermons, or in Charles Wesley’s hymns:
no angel tongues can tell thy love’s ecstatic height,
the glorious joy unspeakable, the beatific sight.
Certainly, it would be unhelpful to set the beatific vision at odds with other metaphors and images for heavenly life. And there are other objections to the beatific vision that I have not addressed here (e.g., it derives too much from Platonic thought, it tends toward deification and the blurring of the Creator-creature distinction, etc.). Nonetheless, it seems to be a doctrine that is ripe for retrieval: catholic in its heritage, and timely in its implications.