We Will See His Face

What Is the Beatific Vision?

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. —Matthew 5:8

What will it mean, in the end, to see God? This longing, knit deep into the fabric of our being, is at once one of Scripture’s great promises and puzzles.

In the Beatitudes, Christ himself pledges this greatest of all sights to the pure in heart (Matthew 5:8). Among the most famous lines penned by the apostle Paul, we have, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Hebrews tells of a “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). And in the final chapter of holy writ, the Apocalypse promises of the people of God, “They will see his face” (Revelation 22:4).

Christians have long called this great promise “the beatific vision,” meaning “the sight that makes happy.” As creatures who seek happiness, this is the great Happiness to come, the moment when we, at last, stand face to face before our God to perceive him visually and immediately and more.

Yet with it is a pronounced enigma. As we thumb through the pages of Scripture, we might speak of a marked “doctrine of divine invisibility.” The apostle John rehearses both in his Gospel prologue and again in his first letter, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12). Hebrews commends the cause of Moses’s endurance being his “seeing him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27). Paul refers to “the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) — divine invisibility being no flaw but an “honor and glory” of the uncreated, immortal, invisible God (1 Timothy 1:17), “who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16).

Tension in Scripture and History

Whether we humans physically can see God or not — and if so, how — is a tension and dynamic that runs through the progress of redemptive history, and is at the very heart of the story line itself. On the one hand, Moses, Aaron and his sons, and seventy of the elders of Israel “saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. . . . They beheld God” (Exodus 24:10–11). Still, soon thereafter, when Moses has asked, “Show me your glory,” God says, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:18, 20). More seems to be happening here than “feet, yes; face, no.”

“To see Jesus in glory will be the sight of God for which we have so long ached.”

And what are we to make of the patriarch wrestling at night with that enigmatic divine-human figure? Jacob testifies, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Genesis 32:30). So we find the same surprise in Deuteronomy 5:24: “This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live.” In the same vein, the prophet Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! . . . For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5; see also Judges 6:22–23; 13:22).

Even if, without exception, the various theophanies to God’s ancient people fall short of revealing the face of God unmediated, “as he is,” we do observe a progress over time, and starkly so in comparing the old covenant to the new. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes it plain, writes Hans Boersma, that “our spiritual vision of Christ today is more glorious than that of Moses” (Seeing God, 390). There was indeed glory in that first covenant, “such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’s face because of its glory” (2 Corinthians 3:7). Yet the new has “even more glory” (2 Corinthians 3:8). In fact, the new “must far exceed it in glory” (2 Corinthians 3:9) — so much so that “what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it” (2 Corinthians 3:10).

And even now, in Christ, “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18), as we “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), we await a day when the former will give way to the latter. Some great sight approaches.

What Will We See?

Puzzling as the riddle can be, we dare not overlook — as strikingly many in church history may have — the bracing clarity of the apostles in a handful of New Testament texts.

The majestic opening lines of Hebrews hails Christ as the visible manifestation of the Godhead: “the radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3). As does Paul in his Christ hymn in Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). In the incarnation, the divine, immaterial, invisible God has become human, physical, and visible. And if we were to wonder whether Christ might be God in part, not in full, Paul writes, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19), and again, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

Seeing Jesus is to see God is so surprising a revelation, and so counter to human expectations, that we’re prone to read right past it. Indeed, many seemingly have. Even one so careful as Calvin, who affirms that “all revelation of God in history is Christological,” that “when God stoops down into history, he always does so in Christ,” did not “extend his Christological treatment as far as he might have . . . [but speculated] that in the eschaton we will no longer see God in Christ,” says Boersma. However, he adds, “Puritan theologians such as Isaac Ambrose, Thomas Watson, and John Owen did not follow Calvin in this, and also Jonathan Edwards had a more consistently Christological approach to the beatific vision” (277).

Whose Face?

The man Christ Jesus is the gloriously invisible Creator now made gloriously visible as a creature — and perhaps none strikes that particular emphasis so clearly, and frequently, as the apostle John. He follows immediately his prologue concession, “No one has ever seen God,” with this: “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). That is, no one has seen God apart from his Son. And the revelation of God himself in the person of Christ is so rich, so full, so extensive that all other revelations of God are hereby relativized. “He has made him known” — period. No qualifications, at least not here.

“The beatific vision will not be momentary or static, but eternal and dynamic — ever clearer and deeper.”

In John 12, he adds the explosive commentary on Isaiah 6 and Christ, that the prophet “saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41). In John 14, the disciple Philip essentially asks his master for the beatific vision: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (John 14:8). Jesus replies, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

John’s first epistle contains one of the most important assertions: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). He speaks here of both God and Christ. Christ will appear, and Christ is God, and when we see him — God in Christ — we will “see him as he is.” For finite creatures, what more of God might there be for us to see than God himself having entered into our world, having put on our flesh and bone, and now transfigured in the glorified humanity of the world to come and presenting himself to us in love? In that moment, there could be nothing more. There could only be eternity to come to keep seeing ever more.

Revelation 21–22 confirms the centrality of Christ in our coming climactic beholding of God. The new heavens and new earth “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). There is a singular lamp for the divine glory that gives light to our eyes in the age to come: the Lamb. So too, in the next paragraph, the God of heaven and the Lamb who was slain have come together so tightly in the progress of the apocalyptic vision as to be one. There is a singular throne, not two (22:1, 3), and singular “his” and “him” and “face” when John asserts, “His servants will worship him. They will see his face” (Revelation 22:3–4).

To see Jesus in glory will be the sight of God for which we have so long ached.

Our ‘Struggle’

Yet as plain as it may seem in some regards, why is it that so many Christians throughout the ages have had such seemingly different instincts, or at least struggled to be satisfied that seeing Jesus will be enough, that the God-man himself is the essence of the beatific vision and not some additional sight around or past or beyond Christ?

Even those theologians who have taken most earnestly that seeing Jesus is to see God struggle with this doctrine. It pushes us to the very brink of biblical revelation and ongoing mystery. In fact, we might do well to beware those who don’t struggle in some sense but purport to see it all plainly. Even in John Owen, as staunch a defender as any of a thoroughly Christological approach to the beatific vision, scholars identify an instance or two of equivocating.

“The infinite God will never be done showing us the immeasurable riches of his grace or the full vista of himself.”

As we see in 1 John 3:2, our seeing God in Christ involves not only object, as we know from physical sight, but also subject and medium. Our seeing him correlates with being like him. Not only might there be obstructions in the field of vision that need to be removed, but also cataracts in our own eyes. Add to that the reality of Creator and creature, that the object is infinite, while the subject finite. Especially significant here is the acknowledgement that the beatific vision, as much as we may long for that coming first instance, will not be momentary, or static, but eternal and dynamic — ever increasing, ever progressing, ever clearer, ever deeper.

Never Boring

More than simply our physical seeing, the beatific vision begins in our being seen, and being transformed, even somehow becoming, while ever creatures, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). God’s rescue of his people, “rich in mercy” and in “great love” (Ephesians 2:4), means that “in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).

The infinite God will never be done showing us the immeasurable riches of his grace, or the full vista of himself, coming to us in love, not wrath.

Our “sight” of God, in Christ, will be both immediate and continue to ripen forever. It will never become static and, as Edwards writes, never boring: “After they have had the pleasure of beholding the face of God millions of ages, it will not grow a dull story; the relish of this delight will be as exquisite as ever” (“The Pure in Heart Blessed,” Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2).

We will indeed see God. We will see Jesus. And it will not end there. That great “sight that makes happy” will continue to do so, and ever more, for all eternity.