Why Won’t Heaven Be Boring?

Recovering the Beatific Vision

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Professor, Gulf Theological Seminary

When I was a Bible-college student in Southern California, some friends and I stayed up way too late talking one night, and our conversation eventually turned to heaven. While I can’t remember what precise words we said, I vividly recall the feeling. As we pondered the glories of the eschaton together, we whipped ourselves up into a flurry of joy, wonder, and longing.

Happier Visions of Heaven

At the time, I recall being captivated by the profound earthiness of the new creation. Like many, while growing up I had somehow absorbed the idea that the final promise of the afterlife was to depart from the real, physical world — the world of food and games and laughter and adventure — to ascend to an ethereal, floaty cloud-place, populated by chubby cherubs with harps. (And yes, I secretly dreaded going to heaven because of how boring such a place promised to be.)

By the time of that late-night conversation, I had thankfully been disabused of that conception. The promise of the afterlife, I had come to learn, was not the obliteration of all things God had previously declared good, but rather their restoration. Their transfiguration. Their glorification. It was not that the material would be swallowed up by the immaterial — as if we were ridding our souls of our flesh and bones — but rather that the mortal would be swallowed by immortal life (2 Corinthians 5:4).

“What makes heaven heaven is not merely that we will experience Earth 2.0, but rather that we will see God.”

I had come to see that everything good in this life would see its heightened and imperishable fulfillment in the next. The promise of the eschaton is not the intermediate state, but rather the resurrection — and not just our resurrection as humans, but the resurrection of the cosmos (Romans 8:18–25; Revelation 21:1–22:5). So, my friends and I let our imaginations loose as we wondered about how the sensations of the physical world we so enjoy now might be magnified and enriched in the age to come. And our blur of excited words was worship.

What I have since come to discover, however, is that even these aspects of the new creation are not final. Those heavenly joys my friends and I fantasized about were, like their present earthly corollaries, the joyous means to the greatest end: the vision of God himself. Theologians call this the beatific vision (or the blessed or happy vision). What makes heaven heaven, in other words, is not merely that we will experience Earth 2.0, but rather that we will see God. Now, if it seems like I am backtracking what I just affirmed and am once again trading an earthy vision of the eschaton for an ethereal one, let me assure you I am not.

Beckoned Through Beauty

The childhood conception of heaven I gladly shed in my early twenties was one of reality diminished. But the beatific vision promises something infinitely more enriched than anything we experience here. It is the ultimate end of our every joyous encounter with goodness, truth, and beauty.

The desire that earthly beauty awakens, for example, is not intended to terminate in the object that awakened the desire. This is why every delight that comes with the experience of beauty is accompanied by a stab of longing for more. When I am struck by the beauty and magnitude of the Grand Canyon at sunset, the longing that such a sight elicits is not satisfied by the visual encounter itself. The greater the enjoyment, the greater the longing. All this is by design: the earthly beauty that arouses our desire beckons us through and beyond to something greater. Earthly beauty constantly calls us not to itself, but through itself to its final source: the God of all Beauty.

This truth is often missed as the context for C.S. Lewis’s memorable line: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (Mere Christianity, 136–37). In saying this, Lewis does not merely affirm that every human has a longing for God that can only finally be satisfied in the age to come. He is saying at least that much, but the immediate context shows that he goes a step further to say that all our longings in this life serve to arouse a deeper longing for enjoyment of God. He writes,

If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. (137)

The beatific vision — or the happy vision — is beatific because it is the vision of the all-blessed God. The one who is infinitely happy in himself begraces us with a participation in his own blessedness. Since the triune God is the plentitude of life and light and love — he ever burns in the white-hot fire of infinite pleasure as Father, Son, and Spirit — the blessing of eternal life is our coming to experience by grace what God is by nature: blessed. And this infinite blessedness is signaled to and previewed through all our earthly joys. God is, through all of them, beckoning us to come “further up and further in.”

Our Unnamed Ache

You are beginning to see now, I trust, that even while the doctrine of “the beatific vision” may sound exotic and alien to your ears, you have already been primed to receive it. It is true that the doctrine has fallen into obscurity in evangelical circles (though it enjoyed near-universal centrality for the majority of Christian history). Even still, the desire for the beatific vision is awakened by all manner of well-known evangelical convictions.

“Earthly beauty constantly calls us not to itself, but through itself to its final source: the God of all Beauty.”

The desire to experience the beatific vision is the deepest longing of the Christian Hedonist, who has been taught by John Piper that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” It is the longing provoked by every immersed reader of the Narnia books who yearns — along with the Pevensies and their comrades in The Last Battle — to go “further up and further in” to Aslan’s country. It is the longing Jonathan Edwards awakens when he opines about heaven as “a world of love.” It is the deep longing of those who have come to pray with Augustine, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” (Confessions, 1.1.5).

We all have been aching for the beatific vision, whether we had language to articulate this desire as such or not.

Where Every Desire Leads

The promise of the beatific vision is that none of our desires aroused in this life is ultimately for naught. None of them is wasted! Even our sinful desires are perversions of God’s good creation. He made us with certain faculties in our souls for longing, and this soulish thirst — even where it has been desecrated by the muddy cisterns of sin (Jeremiah 2:12–13) — is never intended to be utterly extinguished; it is designed to be satiated by God himself. This is why we can never be finally satisfied by anything in this life.

The soul’s cravings are infinitely insatiable because their object is itself infinite. God will never cease to be infinite, and we will never cease to be finite. Therefore, our enjoyment of God will, in the beatific vision, expand perpetually. We will never grow tired of delighting in God, any more than we will grow tired of delighting in anything, for earthly delights are summed up, purified, and perfected in our delight of God.

Every creaturely desire finds its final satiation in this happy vision of God. All the joys we experience in this life, which are ever tinged with the sting of disappointment, are designed to awaken a hunger that will be ultimately satisfied in God. But this state of rest in the happy vision of God — this state of eschatological Sabbath repose — will not be static thanks to God’s infinity and our finitude.

Let me explain. Sometimes we are tempted to lament our finitude, as if our creaturely limitations were themselves a deficiency. But God made us finite on purpose, and in the beatific vision, our finitude becomes a means of joy. Because God is infinitely delightful, and because our delight of him is finite, we can be assured that the beatific vision is a state of perpetual expansion. As we behold God, our joy in him full, our capacity for sight and joy will expand, and our satisfaction of beholding and enjoying him will also expand. We will never grow tired or become disappointed or bored. Our longing will increase in perfect proportion to our satisfaction, so that every “happiest” moment will be topped by the next “happier” one forever.

All roads of desire lead here, to the blessed hope of seeing God. When we become truly convinced of this fact, we pray sincerely with David, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). There are, of course, many questions left unanswered about the beatific vision. But worshipful longing rushes in where intellectual certainty fears to tread. Amen, may it be.