Heaven on Earth? The Beatific Vision
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). I am captivated by this beatitude. All of them are deeply searching and logical. There is precision in every statement and in every promise. But I am not alone in saying that this particular beatitude holds sway over them all, not in authority, but in fodder for meditation. The divines of history have agreed. The volume of material produced on this beatitude alone surpasses them all and it is not difficult to understand why. As Christians we yearn to see God. There it is. That is what makes this beatitude so inviting, so engaging. Pining for God is our calling, our chief end.
Now, at the present, if you are alive that is, you see God by faith. At present we walk by faith and not by sight. What is more, our “vision” of God now, by faith, is only adequate and apprehensive because the finite is not able to grasp the infinite. However, there will come a day when faith will give way to sight. But of what kind of sight are we speaking? Paul wrote in his first epistle to Timothy saying, “no man has seen nor can see” God (I Tim. 6:16). So, how in the world are we going to see the un-seeable?
Certainly in heaven there will be a seeing that is physical. We shall see Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Second Person of the Trinity, who is the express image and exact likeness of God (Colossians 1:15). Nevertheless, if we want to see God the Father physical sight, even in a resurrected body, won’t do us any good. The physical cannot see the invisible. Thus, how shall the promise of the beatitude be fulfilled which assures the pure in heart that they shall indeed see God?
In his sermon on Matthew 5:8 that great puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards writes, “But to see God is this. It is to have an immediate, sensible, and certain understanding of God’s glorious excellency and love.” For Edwards this seeing will be immediate and direct but not physical. Rather “it is an intellectual view by which God is seen,” says Edwards, “For God is a spiritual being, and is beheld with the understanding.”
Now, there are some if not many among us who believe that the movie is better than the book, or the video is better than the simple song, surely video did kill the radio star. Thus the massive screen image is better than imagination, which is a primary function of the intellect. However, this is only true for those of us living AT (After – Television). Prior to the television era the image was what you thought not what you saw. It is striking that Jesus was referred to as the incarnate “Word” of God, not the incarnate “image.”
Nevertheless, Edwards, contrary to the television generation, believed that “a more perfect way of perception than by the eyes of the body” was the “apprehension of God by the understanding.” Thus, the ultimate glory is not seeing friends in heaven. The ultimate reward (Genesis 15:1) of every Christian is the view of God Himself; the beatific vision; the amor intellectualis Dei. In a sermon on Romans 2:10 Edwards says that this intellectual vision “is the chief bliss of heaven.”
Francis Turretin (1623-87), who has been called the best expounder of Reformed doctrine, helps us to understand this even further. He begins by telling us what the beatific vision is. He writes, “the beatific vision implies the most perfect and clear knowledge of God and of divine things, such as can belong to a finite creature, opposed to the imperfect and obscure knowledge which is possessed here by faith.” Good enough. The heavenly vision of God is the clearest and most perfect knowledge that a finite creature can possess.
Next he writes, “This perfection of the intellect by the beatific vision will be followed by no less a consummation of the will by absolute holiness and by a most pure and intense love to arise from that infinite light and the celestial intuition of it. By it we will cleave so unchangeably to God that we shall in a measure be transformed into him by a participation of the divine nature.” Here Turretin is saying that upon seeing God we will wholly inherit what became ours at the time of our conversion.
Turretin makes a further comment that is in keeping with the beatitude though he does not quote it at this particular point. The beatitude says that the pure in heart shall see God. Turretin says that the beatific vision shall produce a love for God within us that is absent of impurity. “It will arise from the possession of God himself,” says Turretin, “which, as he is the supreme good, embraces the universality and perpetuity of all blessings. Whatever is desired will be present there, nor will anything be desired which is not becoming. God will be seen without end, loved without cloying (ever overindulging), praised without weariness.”
Perhaps one further thing may be added as we ponder our celestial home and Him who is our reward. This short pilgrimage is simply preparation for heaven. We are, as it were, growing ripe for heaven. Now, glorification and rewards as a result of God’s free grace will not come until the end of the world. But when they do we, glorified yet imperfect, shall continue to make new discoveries. In heaven there is eternal progress in knowledge and holiness for the glorified saint and it will be a time of eternal rejoicing. In a miscellaneous writing Jonathan Edwards agrees when he writes, “Happiness of heaven is progressive and has various periods in which it has a new and glorious advancement and consists very much in beholding the manifestations that God makes of himself in the work of redemption.”
The pure in heart shall certainly be happy in heaven. The strivings for purity of the person professing to be saved by grace alone only prove that they long for the time when their desires shall be wholly pure. For now their flesh often fails them and they often need to beat their body and make it their slave but there it shall be different. In heaven they shall tire no more but instead with a pure heart long for God without faltering. As much as the finite can they shall see Him as He is and not through a glass dimly.
Perhaps I might finish with a quote from Edward’s sermon on Romans 2:10. He preached to his congregation at Northampton, “They shall see every thing in God that tends to excite and inflame love, i.e., every thing that is lovely, every thing that tends to exalt their esteem and admiration, to warm and endear the heart…they shall see every thing in God that gratifies love…the effects of this vision…are, that the soul shall be inflamed with love, and satisfied with pleasure.” Surely Edwards is simply echoing the Psalmist when he raised his voice to God singing (Psalm 73:25), “Whom have I in heaven but thee?”
Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.