Seeing Him Just as He is: The Beatific Vision

Dec 16th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

When seeking to attain an end, one must keep that end in one’s mind and heart, and ensure that one’s understanding of it is as accurate as possible, to ensure attaining that end. That is no less true in the Christian life, which has heaven as its end. But what is heaven? Is it a garden of earthly delights? A perpetual feast? A planet of our own? A return to the Garden of Eden? Protestant and Catholic accounts of heaven agree that the saints will be in the presence of God in resurrected and glorified bodies, without any suffering, death or sin. Protestant descriptions of heaven typically depict heaven as a place in which sorrow, pain, sin and death have been removed, so that with resurrected bodies the saints eat and drink and fellowship with the incarnate Christ and all the other saints forever on a renewed earth. The Catholic teaching concerning the Beatific Vision is typically not included in Protestant accounts of heaven. That is because Protestant theology has generally not conceived of grace as a participation in the divine nature, and thus has not seen heaven as a culmination of theosis or insertion by participation into the divine life. Hence in Protestant theology the happiness enjoyed by the saints in heaven is not God’s own happiness.

I explained here recently that “Reformed theology presently has no middle position between mere covenantal [i.e. extrinsic] union, and a fusion that obliterates the Creator-creature distinction.” In “Nature, Grace, and Man’s Supernatural End: Feingold, Kline, and Clark,” I wrote:

One problem with a merely covenantal notion of union with Christ is that it reduces heaven to the equivalent of Abraham’s bosom. (Luke 16:22) A merely covenantal union with Christ is what we have now in this present life, and what the saints in Abraham’s bosom had as well. It is not the Beatific Vision. Hence if [Scott] Clark holds that in the eschatological consummation our union with Christ is only covenantal, and not ontological, then his position denies the possibility of attaining heaven, and offers to men in its place something infinitely lower. But if he admits that in the consummation our union with Christ is ontological, then he has no principled reason for claiming that grace cannot be a participation in the divine nature in addition to divine favor.

In other words, the difference between the Protestant and Catholic conceptions of grace (see here) leads to different conceptions of what heaven is and what is our essential happiness in heaven. If grace is mere favor, and union with God is only covenantal, then the happiness of heaven is having Christ and the saints near us forever, and being free from sin in our souls, and free from suffering and death in our bodies forever. But if grace is a participation in the divine nature, then the essence of eternal life is union with God in the Beatific Vision, which is not everlasting existence, but is eternity itself, namely, the “simultaneously-whole and perfect possession of interminable life.”1 Any Protestant conception of ‘heaven’ without the Beatific Vision is something like Abraham’s bosom or the Garden of Eden, and is infinitely surpassed by the supernatural happiness of the Beatific Vision, God’s own infinite happiness. But that supernatural end requires grace as a participation in the divine nature, not merely divine favor. (Cf. Scott Clark’s claim that grace is merely divine favor.)

On December 14, Professor Lawrence Feingold of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology and author of The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas and his Interpreters and the three volume series The Mystery of Israel and the Church gave a lecture titled “The Beatific Vision” to the Association of Hebrew Catholics. This is the last lecture in his series on God’s gracious elevation of man to the divine life. The audio recordings of the lecture and of the following Q&A session, along with an outline of the lecture and a list of the questions asked during the Q&A are available below. The mp3s can be downloaded here.

Lecture: The Beatific Vision

Spe Salvi (1′)

Eternal life is not merely continuing to live forever
Most people don’t have the faintest idea of what eternal life is.

Lawrence Feingold

What eternal life is not (4′)

Our final end has to involve a relationship of love with someone who transcends us (14′)

What eternal life is (14′)

Why our final end can lie only in God (15′)
Objective end and subjective end (18′)

Three different ways of knowing and loving God (20′)

Knowing God perfectly requires seeing God through the Logos (26′)

The Beatific Vision is infinitely above what we can presently imagine or conceive (29′)

He enlarges the receiver, so it can receive the living God (32′)
Sanctifying grace, the seed of glory (33′)

Growing in this life in our awareness of our ignorance of heaven (35′)

The essence of heaven (36′)

Dante on heaven (38′)
1 Cor 13 (39′)
Psalm 36 (45′)

cf. Mt. 5:8; 18:10; Ps. 17:15; 1 Jn. 3:2

Perfect love — spousal love, total self-giving (46′)

St. John of the Cross (51′)

Heaven is being inserted into the Trinitarian Life (56′)

Eucharist as the image of heaven (59′)

Eternity [not time without end] (62′)

Who receives the Beatific Vision? (65′)

The Last Judgment (69′)

The New Jerusalem (74′)

Questions and Answers

1. Is sanctifying grace finite? (1′)

2. Is time in purgatory endless days? (5′)

3. In this life one of our greatest pleasures is discovery. Will discovery be part of the beatific vision? (7′)

4. On Mt. Tabor, three of the Apostles were privileged to see Jesus in His glorified state. Was that a glimpse of the beatific vision, or a glimpse of his glorified body? (9′)

5. Is there any change or growth within the beatific vision? (12′)

6. Why is it then that we need a Last Judgment if we’ve already had a particular judgment? (17′)

7. In that returning back to God what we’ve received from Him, could that be understood like a person who has been blessed by education or medicine to be a teacher or a doctor, in order to give that gift back? (18′)

8. What is a vomitorium? (19′)

9. Do the parents stand in for the child in asking for faith [at the child’s baptism], because they are in the mystical body, because they have the sacrament of marriage, or something else? (20′)

10. How do we know that there is an ultimate good instead of an ultimate frustration? (21′)

11. What part will the resurrected body have in the beatific vision? If the beatific vision is our essential happiness, why do we need the resurrection of the body? (26′)

12. Is the state of heaven for those souls now in heaven less perfect or less complete because the Last Judgment has not occurred? (28′)

13. Did God change in the incarnation? If God is immutable, how could He become man? (29′)

  1. Summa Theologica I. Q.10 a.1. []
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  1. Bryan,

    Thanks for sharing with us Dr. Feingold’s series on grace and salvation. I particularly enjoyed this final installment. We will be praying for you during your “sabbatical” from CTC, asking for God’s blessing upon yourself and your endeavors.


  2. I have enjoyed the Feingold lectures of the last few years so very much (listen to them nearly every work day on my 30 minute commute to and from work). I think they could be effectively used in parishes or home groups as an engaging and systematic way to foster adult formation (a huge weak spot in the Church) – like a bible study, only better, because it presents God’s revelation by drawing together all three proximate strands: Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium. We need to get heaven right in our catechesis, since evereything else in philosophy and theology and moral action is ultimately ordered to that end. If the end is confused, it is hard to motivate people to consider or practice the means.

    Pax Christi!


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