The Beatific Vision
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see God?
If you haven’t had this thought before, think about it for a second with me.
Let’s rephrase the question, have you ever wondered what it will be like to see God? Of course, no one can see God and live (Ex 33:20), but what about the new resurrected humanity? Will things be different? Will we be changed in such a way that we’ll then be able to see God?
If God is Spirit (Jn 4.24), and if we affirm that God is non-corporeal and lacks spatial limitations, being present with me and you simultaneously, how can anyone ever see God, even with redeemed eyes?
I’m not sure what the answer to this is—and how could I really in the first place?—but I have a few thoughts about this that have continued with me for some time. So I’d like to share with you my main thought about this issue.
We’re not going to see God.
That’s right. I’m not sure that we’ll ever see God (I could be wrong and I’ll gladly be proved wrong one day), but my hunch is that we’re actually getting close to the heart of something really significant here—the full beauty of the incarnation.
Here’s how my silly little mind conceives things: the Son of God took on flesh so that we may see what true humanity is like, and what true divinity is like as well. The Son “exegetes” the Father (Jn 1:18) and perfectly reveals him to us (Heb 1:1-3). I don’t believe that the Son’s role in doing this is limited to our earthly existence as mortals. Rather, the Son took on flesh so that he might forever reveal the Father to us.
What really makes this all click for me is a little book I read in a college math course (yes kids, God can speak through your math homework). The book is called, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (by Edwin A. Abbott). This book has made such an indelible mark on how I think about Christology—and I’m not exaggerating. I can’t even tell you how many times I have referenced this book in conversations with Atheists, Mormons, and fellow Christians, as I explain my understanding of the mystery of God’s Triunity. I think every student of theology should read this book.
The way that Flatland relates to the present question is by way of an illustration. Imagine that you’re a small point on a two dimensional plane. Imagine as well that you’re mobile and you can move about and do whatever it is that little points love to do, except that you’re limited to that plane surface. As you’re out and about taking a stroll one day you happen to bump into a another point. You’re so very excited and you exclaim, “I love bumping into other points like me!” But the other point, whom we’ll call Jeffrey, is quite bewildered, “Look here pal, I’m not just a point!” Unknowingly, you had assumed, by reference to the commonality that you perceived between you and Jeffrey, that he was the same sort of point as you, but in reality, Jeffrey is a three-dimensional cube and you had simply seen one small bit of the side of him that was seated on your plane. You couldn’t tell the difference, and after looking all around you still can’t. “And what’s this three-dimensional thing you’re on about?” you ask. Jeffrey tries to explain it to you, but you just can’t imagine what he’s talking about. You have no frame of reference outside of your two-dimensional plane. Yet, you are able to enjoy a great friendship with Jeffrey because he relates to you as a point. And you don’t know the difference.
The point of the illustration as it relates to God more generally is pretty obvious; God is beyond us and we cannot comprehend him, yet he has made himself known through Jesus. Yet I want to think of this illustration in terms of the Beatific Vision—the vision of God—and suggest that “points” don’t become “cubes.” As a point of contrast, note this famous line from C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces (p. 294):
I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? —Orual
The quote is absolutely brilliant and if you know the story it is layered with rich meaning. Yet this quote conveys the sort of upward movement towards seeing God that I think is inappropriate. Humans remain humans and God remains wholly Other. Thus, the movement of the Beatific Vision, as I see it, is not upward in a transformation–of–humanity–to–see–God (i.e., “till we have faces”), but rather the movement is downward, with the condescending of the Son to take on flesh; to reveal himself to us where we’re at, in all of our human frailty. God has made himself known chiefly in his Son and thus God can be knowable and touchable and visible. I believe that for all of eternity our vision of God will be the face of Jesus— where the glory of God is displayed (2 Cor. 4.6)—when we finally know as we’re known and see him face to face (1 Cor. 13.12).