What does it mean to see God?
Human beings are created to see the divine, says theologian Hans Boersma.
What does it mean to see God? Is it a literal vision, along the lines of Moses and the burning bush or Jacob’s tussle with a divine figure in the Hebrew Bible? Or more metaphorical—think of the theologians who talk of “seeing” God in creation or during contemplative prayer? Is it even possible within the confines of worldly creation? Scripture verses such as 1 Corinthians 13:12 say, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” Does this mean that in the hereafter we see God in an unprecedented way?
The answer is yes to all of the above, says Hans Boersma, a professor of theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Delafield, Wisconsin and author of the new book Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Eerdmans). Boersma argues that our whole lives are centered around seeing the face of God, both here and in the life to come. The best way to understand this, he says, is through the beatific vision, or the direct experience of and eternal fellowship with God.
We experience a hint of the beatific vision in the world around us: a conversation with a friend, a walk in the woods, contemplation of scripture. A sacramental worldview, Boersma says, helps us to see God through Christ in creation. But it’s only a taste of the union with God for which we were created.
What is the beatific vision?
To talk about the beatific vision is to use sight or vision as a metaphor for union with God. It’s dwelling with God, a fellowship with God that goes beyond ordinary sight and that takes place in the hereafter and at the very end of human life.
The word beatific comes from two Latin words: beatus, or blessed, and facere, or to make. It basically means to make blessed or to make happy.
The beatific vision, therefore, is a happy-making vision. If God is our happiness, then the vision of God transforms us so as to make us like God, to make us happy the way God is happy.
Early Christians believed that everything we do on earth, in the here and now, is geared toward eternal fellowship with God—eternal seeing of God. Anything that stands in the way of that seeing, that beatific vision, is something we should remove or get out of the way.
In other words, even though we cannot fully experience the beatific vision until the end of time, we should already be training ourselves for that vision of God here on earth. Everything we do has to include that supernatural end of seeing God.
Is the beatific vision in scripture?
There’s all this language in scripture about what happens when we meet with God face to face. In Psalm 27, it says, “Your face, Lord, do I seek” (8). That language comes up several times in the psalms. Psalm 36 says, “In your light we see light” (9). Passages like this suggest that what the psalmist sees as the climax of human existence is to be in God’s presence in the Temple.
This language is also reflected in the New Testament. The most famous example is 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” 1 John 3:2 is another example: “When [God] is revealed . . . we will see him as he is.” Or in Revelation, where there will be no sun or moon or stars because “the Lord God will be their light” (22:5).
All of this language suggests a promise that the vision of God will go beyond anything we have experienced or will experience in the here and now. This biblical testimony points to the contemplation of God as the sacramental reality of all our activities in this life. Anything we do in this life is, as Augustine would have said, penultimate. It’s not that our current actions are negative, but they exist to suggest this future reality.
In other words, human beings long for the eschaton, or the hereafter. This is something that is natural to who we are; it doesn’t come from the outside but is inherent in who we are, ingrained in us. We can say that in our vision today there is a point of contact with who we are meant to be in God in the hereafter.
Why use seeing as a metaphor to describe fellowship with God? Why not another sense such as hearing or touching?
First of all, there’s no way to properly and adequately describe what our final end will be. If we could explain it, we would be there. So any language we use is just a metaphor. But vision is perhaps the most adequate metaphor for talking about our final end and our final union with God. Another way of putting this is to say that the language of vision is more suitable than any other metaphor at acknowledging the centrality of God in our ultimate end.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, there is a basic biblical reason. Scripture often uses the language of sight or vision to talk about experiencing God. In 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13, for example, Paul talks about seeing God face to face: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (12). Paul actually takes this language from the book of Exodus, where Moses is described as speaking to God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (33:11). Throughout scripture there’s this language of intimacy with God through sight or vision. We long for this same intimacy today but cannot fully describe it without metaphor.
Second, the language of vision suggests we will be united with the object of our sight. Think of the way in which you recall someone or something from your past. That vision is entrenched in your memory. You remember it because of a seen experience.
In much of the Christian tradition, vision unites the seer with the seen. It doesn’t leave them separate but actually unites a person who sees with the object of that sight. This makes vision particularly suitable for talking about removing the distance between God and human beings in a way that other metaphors aren’t.
There are other metaphors used for experiencing God in scripture. The Bible talks about hearing God, tasting God, touching God, etc. But none of these other senses are given the same kind of ultimacy as is vision. Likewise, theologians from Origen to Augustine also describe vision as the greatest of the senses, precisely because of its ability to unify the subject and object of sight.
What does it mean to say that we will see God face to face?
That’s a hard question, because theologians don’t agree on the answer. Thomas Aquinas, for example, insists that we will see God, the divine essence. Then he makes a caveat and says that we will not comprehend the divine essence. But we will see God as God is. According to Aquinas, that’s the promise of scripture.
In that understanding, our vision of God in the hereafter is direct or immediate in a way that our vision of God today never is. Any anticipations of this vision, such as through the sacraments, are marred by this huge dissimilarity. In the hereafter, we won’t need the sacraments; we will see God directly.
Some Protestant theologians, meanwhile, tend to be nervous about using the language of seeing the divine essence. They want to instead emphasize that when humans see God, it’s because God is choosing to manifest to humans— through Jesus, for example.
This view says that we can never see the divine essence. We will never see God apart from Christ. And it places more continuity between seeing God today and seeing God in the eschaton.
Why is the beatific vision important?
Understanding the beatific vision is important because today many Christians seem to have lost this vision of creation as oriented toward its true end: to reveal God.
This polemical heart of my project is somewhat under the surface of my book. I really wanted the book to be a positive rearticulation of the doctrine of the beatific vision. That said, it seems to me that today we are intent on treating the enjoyment of worldly goods as the ultimate end. This gets dangerously close to idolatry.
In biblical scholarship the world is widely accepted to be good. God made the created order good. Then God made us as people to care for the created order. Too often, people conclude from this that the hereafter, the eschaton, is simply a continuation of this created goodness. We often forget that our good creation is oriented toward the hereafter, toward union with God. There’s not only continuity, but also discontinuity between this world and the next.
Today we often treat creation or worldly goods as autonomous, as separate from their goal in the divine being. And when we do this, when we say, “I want to enjoy these things for themselves and not for their purpose in God,” we lose what makes them beautiful or significant or important. So, ironically, we not only fail to see that God is our ultimate end, but we lose the value of these worldly goods as well. When we objectify creation, we separate them from their proper end and cannot understand their sacramental beauty.
What do you mean by “sacramental beauty”?
We are made to see God. Because we are created for the beatific vision, in some way it is already present in us. And that language of “already present” is closely connected to sacramental language.
For example, when I see someone acting in a beautiful or in a particularly good way, I see Christ in that person. The final end of seeing God face to face—the beatific vision—is in some way already present in the beautiful character of my neighbor. Christ is really present in this small “s” sacrament, so we already have some way of foreseeing the ultimate end.
On an even more basic level, when I look outside at the world God has made, the world is a reflection of God. It’s not alien to God—not totally separate. But God is sacramentally present. In other words, the world participates in God, and when we contemplate creation we in some way contemplate God.
These very basic things—seeing the created order, recognizing human acts of virtue—allow us to anticipate the beatific vision. Sometimes this leads to ecstasy, an anticipatory experience of the beatific vision that takes us out of ourselves. It’s a mystical experience, experiencing something of God’s glory apart from our day-to-day lives, a contemplation that sacramentally makes present something of the hereafter.
What’s the difference between experiencing God through these sacraments and the beatific vision?
Our end, our purpose, our longing is for more of God than what is possible in any worldly reality. Think of it like a meal. Here in the present we are offered a wonderful plate of food. We value this meal, we desire it, but it isn’t our final end. Not even the Eucharist is. In the Christian tradition, we understand that the meal we are offered in the here and now points to and reminds us of another meal: true union with God. Ultimately, we will be satisfied in God only through Jesus Christ. When we see God in the hereafter, we’ll be satisfied in a way that nothing on earth can accomplish.
If humanity’s final end is to see God, then what’s the purpose of the rest of creation?
To say that there is something beyond worldly goods is sometimes seen as a betrayal of those worldly goods. And so we ask ourselves: If our final end is the beatific vision, union with God, then what about the goodness of creation? What is the purpose of creation?
First of all, these created objects are not separate from God. Their ultimate end is not to give us satisfaction; to assume so would be to risk idolatry. We also want to avoid saying that all worldly goods will be abandoned in the hereafter and that instead we will find our enjoyment in God.
Instead, it’s important to remember the words of St. Paul in Romans 8:19–23: All of creation has been groaning for liberation along with humans.
We are the priests of creation. And, as such, when we see God face to face we take with us, as Alexander Schmemann puts it, our self-offering—all of creation—and place it before the face of God. And so it is not just ourselves as humans who find fulfillment in the beatific vision, but everything, every object we have enjoyed, everything that God has made.
What do you want people to understand about the beatific vision?
Most important, perhaps, is that God is training us our whole lives to experience the divine. God takes us by the hand, as it were, and tries to get us to open our eyes through the Spirit.
I hope that we may learn, here and now, to see God in the physical creation around us but also in everything we do. And not only to recognize the presence of God, but to see this life as the beginning of our eternal life.
This article also appears in the August 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 8, pages 18—22).
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