The God of the Bible is presented as man's greatest good. Asaph writes in Psalm 73, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you." There are a number of different means by which the Bible communicates this reality that God is man's highest good yet one seems to stand in the fore — the embedded desire in man to see God. This seeing of God is often called the beatific vision. It is the fact that God himself is the ultimate goal of human life and that he will be known by the redeemed in heaven in an immediate relationship involving their whole persons. This estate is very often described in the Bible in terms of seeing God. Here I want to show you how this desire to fully take in, as it were, God's glory stands as a deep structural strand throughout biblical revelation and gives us some great insight on the nature of the New Heavens and New Earth.
The Beatific Vision in the Covenant of Works
In the covenant of works, a higher estate of life was held out to Adam. The Westminster Confession describes as much as it defines that life was promised to Adam and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience (WCF 7.2). Where it is true that Adam was in a good estate, it was not yet the best estate. God comes and goes in the garden and isn't there perpetually. The possibility of sin and death loom in the background as an ongoing threat and the tree of life symbolizes there was a higher estate of life — the estate of eternal life — which Adam did not yet have. He could have it by obedience to the covenant. Francis Turretin writes that this better estate “is not to be sought apart from the beatific vision which can be looked for only in heaven.”
We know how that story goes. Adam disobeyed and broke the covenant. God's image bearers, the ones predisposed for communion with God, had marred their current estate of communion and lost their opportunity to gain the higher estate of it. This is a tragic thing in that, as Geerhardus Vos notes, they were indeed God's image bearers which meant that that all the capacities of their soul can act in a way that corresponds to their destiny only if they rest in God. That resting in God could not longer take place... without a redeemer (Gen 3:15). This then sets the trajectory of redemptive history as one wherein this higher estate — the estate of eternal life — must be won by a redeemer. Religion is then cast in that context.
The Beatific Vision in the Psalter
We see this religious hope deeply embedded in the Psalms. There are too many references to note here (see the link below) yet one is significant to note. In Psalm 27:4 David describes his religious impulse in the most basic of terms as he writes, "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." Standing right at the center of David's religion is the desire to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord — to enjoy the beatific vision.
The Beatific Vision in the Prophets
In the religion of the prophets, the mending of the covenant communion bond between Israel and the Lord consummating in a permanent dwelling with the Lord stands as a deep strand of prophetic revelation. One exemplary text to examine would be Ezekiel 37:26-28 which reads, "I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.” Israel longed for this estate of eternal life to take place and the promise of it deeply qualified prophetic revelation. That day would indeed come, when all the capacities of the souls of God's people would act in a way that corresponds to their destiny as they rest in God. The beatific vision would indeed come!
The Beatific Vision Accomplishment of Christ
Now it is significant to mention that the God of the Bible is the God "who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see." (1 Tim 6:16). That is, in the estate of sin and misery, seeing God is out of the question (Heb 12:14). Does this all end in tragedy then? Is the long-awaited hope for the beatific vision stop at a dead end?
Enter, then, the Mediator — the Redeemer. Jesus Christ in his person and work is deeply qualified as being the one who brings people to God — to reveal God to his people (John 1:18, cf. Matt 5:8, Mark 9:2-8, John 14:6, Rom 5:2, 1 Cor 4:6, 2 Cor 11:5-21, Gal 3:13, Eph 3:12). Because of the work of Jesus Christ we have the hope of glory. We have the hope of the beatific vision.
The Beatific Vision in the Consummation
In the New Heavens and New Earth, God’s people dwell with him and bask in his glory in a finally mended communion bond (Rev 21:1-4, 21:22-25, 22:4, 22:5, cf. Num 6:23-27, Isa 60:20, John 17:24). Geerhardus Vos notes this well as he writes, “The enjoyment of heaven is in the first place the enjoyment of God, the visio dei, a ‘beholding of God’… The nearness of God will affect every capacity of man, and every capacity will react to it.” The long awaited desire will be finally fulfilled!
Until then we hope in this glory and are purified in doing so (1 John 3:4). We hope for that day when Christ comes again. When all the capacities of our whole persons act in a way that corresponds to their destiny as they rest in God. Come Lord Jesus!
For more on the subject, visit the Papers section of The Blogustinian and see We Shall Look; We Shall Be Radiant.