Beatific Vision

views updated Jun 27 2018


The supernatural act of the created intellect by which the beatified angels and souls are united to God in a direct, intuitive, and clear knowledge of the Triune God as He is in Himself. This direct, intuitive, intellectual vision of God, with the perfection of charity necessarily accompanying it, is the consummation of the divine indwelling in the sanctified spirit or soul, for by this vision the blessed are brought to fruition in such a union with God in knowledge and love that they share forever in God's own happiness (see god, intuition of).

Faith seeks understanding of the beatific vision in terms of its possibility, its existence, its nature, its characteristics, and its relation to the other mysteries of salvation revealed by God. This article approaches the mystery under each of these facets.


When the question arises as to the possibility of the beatific vision, a distinction must be made between the natural possibility of an intuitive vision of God by intellectual creatures and the supernatural possibility of such a vision.

Impossibility on the Natural Level. No creature can by its own natural powers alone attain to the intuitive vision of God. Sacred Scripture shows that the only knowledge of God possible to the natural powers of man is that drawn from creatures and is indirect, analogous knowledge (Wis 13.19; Rom 1.1821). Intuitive knowledge of God as He is in Himself is proper only to the Blessed Trinity (Jn 1.18; 6.46; Mt 11.27; 1 Cor 2.11), and God is essentially invisible (1 Tm 1.17), dwelling in light inaccessible to man (1 Tm 6.16; Jn 1.18). Moreover, the intuitive vision of God promised to man after death is expressly said to be linked to the order of grace (1 Jn 3.2; Jn 17.23; Rom 6.23).

The Church has insisted in its ordinary and in its solemn magisterium that the vision of God transcends the natural power of man. Eunomius, the leader of one of the Semi-Arian sects of the 4th century a.d., taught that man by his own natural intellectual power can come to a comprehension of the divine essence as it is in itself. In their refutation of Eunomius, St. Basil the Great [Eun. 1.4;12.14 (Patrologia graeca, ed. J. P. Migne 49:540, 544)] and St. Gregory of Nyssa (Eun. 12, PG 45:944; Mort., PG 46:513; V. Mos., PG 44:317) emphasized the eminently supernatural character of the intuitive vision of God and the incomprehensibility of God to any creature. The Council of vienne (a.d. 131112) condemned the teaching of the beguines and the Beghards that the soul does not need the light of glory to elevate it to the vision of God but is able to attain to this happiness by its own powers (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 894, 895). N. malebranche (16381715) and V. gioberti (180152) both eliminated the supernatural character of the intuitive vision of God in their teaching that the first act of the intelligence is a natural intuition of being, which is so identified with God that the created intelligence knows God Himself intuitively and properly as object. Their philosophical-religious system, known as ontologism, was condemned by a decree of the Holy Office in 1861 (Denzinger 284147). In their solemn definitions of the existence of the beatific vision, Pope Benedict XII and the Council of Florence both teach that only those who have been reborn supernaturally in grace see God after death (Denzinger 100002, 130406).

St. Thomas Aquinas points up the reason why the intuitive knowledge of God as He is in Himself is impossible on the natural level for any creature in the following argument. The knowledge of every knower is proportioned to the mode of being of the knower. Now God alone is self-subsistent being. Therefore to know self-subsistent being is natural only to the divine intellect. On the other hand, since neither angels nor men are self-subsistent beings, their created intellects cannot know God as He is in Himself by their natural powers (see Summa theologiae 1a, 12.4; 1a, 64.1 ad 2; 1a2ae, 5.5; In 2 sent. 4.1.1; 23.2.1; In 4 sent. 49.2.6; C. gent. 3.49, 52; De ver. 8.3; De anim. 17 ad 10; In epist. 1 ad Tim. 6 lect.3).

Possibility on the Supernatural Level. The beatific vision is strictly supernatural in every aspect. Therefore, the very concept of the beatific vision so transcends the natural cognitive power of any created intellect that it can be known only through divine revelation, and after the existence of such vision has been revealed, its nature still remains impenetrable by the mind of man in this life, even by the mind enlightened by faith. Further, the beatific vision is a wholly gratuitous gift from God in no way demanded by the natural requirements of a created nature. Once God has revealed the mystery of the beatific vision as man's ultimate end, however, reason illumined by faith can contemplate the fittingness of such a vision in terms of man's intellectual openness to truth in general and of the human desire to see God.

Obediential Potency. The supernatural elevation of the intellects of men to the intuitive vision of God involves no contradiction, for the proper object of the created intellect is the intelligible. A being is intelligible, however, insofar as it is in act. Therefore, God, who is pure act, is in Himself infinitely intelligible. That God is unknowable as He is in Himself to created intellects that do not have the light of glory is because the very perfection of His intelligibility is blinding to the unaided intellectual faculty of angel or man. Because this same intellectual power is spiritual, however, and so able mentally to abstract the form from the concrete existent and to consider the concrete form and its existence in abstraction, this same created intellect is open to being elevated by divine grace to the contemplation of God, who is subsisting existence. This is often referred to as an obediential potency for the beatific vision. That such a potency be actuated, however, depends entirely upon the divine omnipotence and initiative, and is above the natural exigency or active potency of any creature (see St. Thomas Aquinas, ST 1a, 12.1; 12.4 ad 3; 85.1; 86.2; 87.3; 1a2ae, 3.8; 5.1; 2a2ae, 8.1; In 4 sent. 46.2.1; C. gent. 3.51, 54, 57; De ver. 8.1; Comp. theol. 104; In Mt. 5.2; In Joann. 1.2).

Nature and Grace. The fittingness of the beatific vision as evidenced by man's natural desire to see God is a very delicate question because it concerns the relation between the natural and the supernatural. Michel de Bay (baius) and the Jansenists claimed that in the state of original justice man's natural desire of the vision of God was efficacious in such a way that the beatific vision was due to human nature and natural for man (see jansenism). This erroneous position was condemned by Pope St. Pius V in 1567 (Denzinger 190305, 1921, 1923, 1926; see exomnibus afflictionibus) and Gregory XIII in 1580. Implicit in these papal condemnations is the affirmation of the Church's teaching that grace and its consummation in the beatific vision are always strictly supernatural and never due to the natural exigencies of any created nature.

St. Thomas Aquinas uses the argument of man's natural desire for the vision of God in support of the possibility of the beatific vision many times in his theological writings, but always in the context of the divine revelation that man is ordered to the beatific vision as his ultimate end, and that this end, which is supernatural to man in every way, is a matter of faith (see ST 1a, 12.1, 46;38.1; 43.34, 6; 1a2ae, 5.56, 7 ad 3; 62.13; 63.3; 109.5;110.1; 112.13; 114.2, 5; 2a2ae, 6.1;24.23; C. gent. 3.5054; Comp. theol. 104106; In Mt. 5.2; In epist. 1 ad Cor. 13 lect. 4; In epist. ad Rom. 5 lect. 1; In epist. ad Heb. 13 lect. 3). St. Thomas analyzes the God-given ultimate end of man in ST 1a2ae, 15. In question two, he approaches the problem of perfect happiness in terms of man's will, which necessarily desires happiness and seeks that which will perfect man and bring him happiness, although many err in regard to that in which their perfect happiness will be found. He shows that because the will is open to universal good, not all particular limited goods together will satisfy man's desires. Man can find perfect happiness only in God, who is infinite Goodness, for infinite goodness alone will so satisfy man's desire for good that nothing more can be desired. In question three, St. Thomas considers happiness in terms of that human operation by which man can attain God. Although the good that alone can satisfy all man's desires will be the uncreated goodness of God, still man's attainment of that good must be an operation of man if it is to be his happiness. Since God is a spirit, however, this operation can only be that of one of man's two spiritual facultiesintellect or will. The will is a blind faculty that never takes possession of the good it desires directly, but does so through some other faculty and then rests in the enjoyment of the good attained. Therefore, the will takes possession of infinite Goodness through an act of the intellect, and it will be in this act of the intellect that happiness will be found essentially. If man is to be perfectly happy, this act of the intellect must be the contemplation of the divine essence itself, for only such contemplation will satisfy man's desire to come to the knowledge of the first cause of the created effects that cause wonder in him. God, the creator of man, would not put in man a natural desire that could in no way be fulfilled. Without the contemplation of the divine essence, however, man would be left with an unfulfilled desire. St. Thomas is always insistent, nevertheless, that this desire can be fulfilled only by a gratuitous, supernatural elevation of man to the order of grace and glory. According to St. Thomas, the very existence of the beatific vision as man's ultimate end can be known only through divine revelation and must be believed by divine faith. His argument from the natural desire to see God is not given as proof of the existence of the beatific vision, but as an argument from reason to indicate the harmony existing between nature and supernature in the providence of that God who is the author of both the natural and the supernatural orders. Man's created openness to the supernatural gift of the vision of God involves no contradiction.

The meaning of this natural desire for the vision of God has been much debated. Some (e.g., Ferrariensis, D. Báñez, John of St. Thomas, and many modern Thomists) speak of a conscious, elicited desire, which is conditional and ineffective without grace. Others (e.g., Domingo de Soto, John Duns Scotus, Durandus, Gregory of Valencia, H. Noris, G. Berti, and an increasing number of moderns among Thomists) consider this desire to be an innate, natural, but inefficacious desire that is reducible to the desire for happiness, but without a realization that happiness will be found only in the vision of God; hence, no conscious desire for such a vision. The second opinion would seem to be closer to the truth.


Only through divine supernatural revelation could man know that he is ordained to the intuitive vision of God in heaven.

Vision of God in the Old Testament. "To see" and "to know" in Biblical terminology often express a relation of nearness to someone in which there is an experience of the other person's presence. Because the eye is the principal instrument of knowing, the theme of vision is used to express the ineffable experience of the presence of the hidden God in a theophany. In the Old Testament one reads that Jacob saw God (Gn 32.31) and Moses and the 70 elders beheld the God of Israel (Ex 24.1011; Nm 12.8; Dt 34.10). Likewise it is asserted that Isaiah "saw the Lord" (Is 6.1). In every instance, however, the context indicates that a theophany is meant, not an intuitive vision of the divine essence. To Moses' plea of "Do let me see your glory," Yahweh answered "I will make all my beauty pass before you but my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives" (Ex 33.1820). Both the Old and the New Testaments teach that man cannot see God in this life (Ex 33.20; Jgs 6.2223; 13.22; Is 6.5; Jn 1.18; 5.37; 6.46; 1 Jn 4.12; 2 Cor 5.7).

Although the theme of happiness goes through the whole of Biblical revelation, from paradise lost to paradise regained, nowhere in the Old Testament is there an explicit revelation that man's ultimate happiness will be found in an intuitive vision of God. Nevertheless, two positive aspects are to be noted in Israel's expectation of the happiness reserved for those who are faithful to Yahweh. In the first place, this happiness will be real, involving the whole man. Second, this happiness will be found not only in the possession of terrestrial goods in a transfigured earth, but most of all in a life lived in the divine presence [see Ps 15(16).711; 16(17).15; 35(36).910; 48(49).16; 72(73).2328; Is 2.15; 25.19; 35.110;40.111; 60.122; Jer 31.3140; Ez 36.2636; Hos2.2025; Wis 4.417; 5.116].

In the measure that the messianic expectation develops, Israel desires to see the manifestation of God that brings salvation (see, e.g., Is 40.5; 52.10b; Mal 3.2), but in these texts one still has only the signs of God's presence. Intimations were given, however, that man was destined for a union with God that would transcend the happiness the just Israelite found in the presence of God in His temple in Jerusalem. Psalms 15 (16) and 72 (73) especially pose the problem of the permanence of the joy with Yahweh and voice the hope of being always in the divine presence. Ps 15 (16).11 would seem to indicate that one comes to the face of God in order to enjoy God alone. The faith of Israel in eternal life with God beyond the grave is expressed in Wis 4.717; 5.116; Dn 12.13; 2 Mc 7.9, 11, 14, 23, 36, and Psalms 15 (16) and 72 (73), but the revelation that the just man's happiness would be found in the intuitive vision of God was not given until the Word became incarnate.

Vision of God in the New Testament. When the Son of God, who is Himself the revelation of the Father (see Jn 1.18; 8.19; 10.30, 38; 12.45; 14.7, 9, 11; Col1.15), became for men "God-given wisdom, and justice, and sanctification, and redemption" (1 Cor 1.30), He brought the good news that all who receive Him in faith and love become the sons of God (Jn 1.1213;3.5; Rom8.1517; Gal 4.37; 1 Jn 3.12; 4.15). The revelation of the mystery of the beatific vision is an intrinsic part of this fuller revelation of the meaning of divine adopted sonship in and through the Son; for all who participate in the divine nature will share in the divine inheritance, which is the eternal life of the beatific vision (2 Pt 1.4; Rom 8.1517; Eph 1.314; 1 Cor 13.12; 1 Jn 3.2).

Christ summed up His mission as the giving of everlasting life to all whom the Father had given to Him (Jn 17.2) and then epitomized the meaning of everlasting life with: "Now this is everlasting life, that they know thee, the only true God, and him whom thou hast sent, Jesus Christ" (Jn 17.3). That this knowing is the intuitive vision of God as He is in Himself is clearly expressed by St. Paul in the climax of his hymn to charity: "We see now through a mirror in an obscure manner, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I have been known" (1 Cor 13.12). St. Paul distinguishes two phases in the Christian economy of salvation, marked by the antithesis between "now" and "then." During this life, which is likened to a time of childhood (1 Cor 13.11), the Christian knows God only in part, obscurely, as in a mirror. When the Christian attains to adulthood in adopted sonship, however, he will know God as God knows him; that is, he will know God in His very being albeit not so much as God is knowable. The Apostle further clarifies this knowledge of God by contrasting the obscure, indirect vision in the mirror of his time with the clear vision that comes when the knower is "face to face" with the known. This deliberate juxtaposition of a knowing in part with a knowing as God knows, and of an indirect vision of God through His created manifestations as in a mirror with a direct "face to face" vision through no created medium, emphasizes the difference between "face to face" vision in 1 Cor 13.12 and the intimacy of Moses with God in Ex 33.11; Nm 12.8, which was not the vision of God (Ex 33.20). In 1 Cor 13.12 St. Paul can mean only the clear intuitive vision of the divine essence [cf. St. Augustine, In evang. Ioh. 34.9; 101.5 (Corpus Christianorum 36:315316, 592593); St. Ambrose, De bono mortis 11.49 (Patrologia latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 14:562563); St. Thomas Aquinas, In epist. 1 ad Cor. 13 lect. 4; see also C. Spicq, Agapè 2:94107].

Charity, which leads to the vision of God, "never fails," so that in the end there will remain charity (v. 8) and the vision of God (v. 12). This bond between charity and the beatific vision is rooted in the mystery of divine adopted sonship, for the charity of God is poured forth into the hearts of His adopted sons by the Holy Spirit, who is given to them (Rom 5.5). Affective love for God becomes effective, however, only in the love of neighbor (cf. Mt 25.3140; Jn 13.3435; 1 Cor 13.47;1 Jn4.721). Through love of God in neighbor, the Christian is gradually assimilated to Christ (2 Cor 3.18; Eph2.110; 5.12; Phil 2.511) and is prepared for the perfection of sonship in the union of vision (1 Jn 3.2).

Writing of the beatific vision, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many modern exegetes intertwine Jn 17.3; 1 Cor 13.12; Mt 5.8; 1 Jn 3.23; Heb 12.14; Mt 18.1011; and Rv 22.4 [see, e.g., St. Augustine, In evang. Ioh. 34.9; 53.12; 101.5; 111.3 (Corpus Christianorum 36:315316, 457458, 593, 630631); Serm. de Vet. Test. 38.3 (Corpus Christianorum 41:478); In psalm. 84.9.3985; 97.3 (Corpus Christianorum 39:1168, 137374); St. Thomas Aquinas, In Mt. 5.2; In Ioann. 17.1.3; A. Gelin, "'Voir Dieu' dans l'Ancien Testament," Bible et vie Chrétienne 23 (1958) 1112; A. George, "Heureux les coeurs purs! Ils verront Dieu!" ibid. 13 (1956) 78; L. Pirot, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. 1:937; C. Spicq, Agapè 2:103; La Sainte Bible, see cross refs. for 1 Cor 13.12; 1 Jn 3.2; and Heb 12.14].

In His discourse at the Last Supper, Christ spoke of the mystery of the Trinity and of the divine indwelling in those who accept Him in faith and in love (John ch. 1417). He promised that "he who loves me will be loved by my Father and I will love him and manifest myself to him" (Jn 14.21b). But the manifestation of the Son is also the manifestation of the Father, for to Philip's plea that He show them the Father, Christ replied: " he who sees me sees also the Father" (Jn 14.89), for "I am in the Father and the Father in me" (Jn 14.10). The explicit revelation of the beatific vision in "Beloved, now we are the children of God, and it has not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that when he appears, we shall be like to him, for we shall see him just as he is" (1 Jn 3.2) is best understood in the context of this revelation of the mystery of the Trinity and of the divine indwelling in those who are made sons of God in and through the Son. Exegetes differ as to whether the Father or the Son is meant in "when he appears," but the revelation of the vision of God remains untouched by their difference. St. Augustine, who seems to consider this a reference to the appearance of the Father, insists that it also promises a vision of the Son in His divinity, because when "the one God is seen, the Trinity is seenthe Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit There is no difference between the vision of the Son and the vision of the Father" (cf. In psalm. 84.9.5585, Corpus Christianorum 39:116869; Trin 1.13.28, PL 42:840841). Some modern exegetes are of the opinion that "when he appears" refers to the Son. Again, the revelation of the beatific vision remains the same, for the addition of the words "we shall be like him, for we shall see him just as he is " indicates that only those who are like him in divine sonship will see Him as He is. At least at the last judgment all the damned will see Christ in His glorious humanity. The vision promised in 1 Jn 3.2, therefore, is that of His Godhead, for it is reserved to those who are like Him in His divinity. Those who see Him in His divinity, however, see the Father and the Holy Spirit, too, for they see God.

Commenting on the sixth beatitude, "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God" (Mt 5.8), L. Pirot insists that this beatitude refers literally to the "face to face" vision of God. Christ beatifies interior purity. In Hebrew psychology the heart is the seat of thoughts, of emotions, of actions. This cleanness of heart, therefore, connotes a total submission to God in love and in obedience to His law (Pirot, 936). A. George refers to the sixth beatitude as "a summit of revelation" that goes further than all the other beatitudes, for this one announces the Ineffable Presence, the Supreme good, as the reward of those who are faithful sons of God [78; cf. St. Aug., Civ. 20.21.4450 (Corpus Christianorum 48:737); In psalm. 84.9.7485; 85.21.557 (Corpus Christianorum 39:116869, 119394); St. Thomas Aquinas, In Mt. 5.2].

Teaching of the Church. The intuitive and beatifying vision of God already enjoyed by the Church triumphant is an essential part of the faith and of the eschatological hope of the Church militant [see Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church 4851; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 5358]. In its ordinary and in its solemn magisterium, the Church proposes the mystery of the beatific vision as the revealed ultimate end of man, to be believed by supernatural faith.

Ordinary Magisterium. The best witnesses to the teaching of the ordinary magisterium of the Church in regard to the beatific vision will be found in the writings of the Fathers, who were themselves a part of the Apostolic hierarchy and so of the magisterium. For St. Ignatius of Antioch, the hope of the vision of Christ in His divinity was the incentive for a life given in martyrdom (Rom.6.2; PG 5:692). St. Theophilus of Antioch wrote that "one day God will be contemplated face to face in glory" (Autol. 1.7; PG 5:1036). Although St. Irenaeus of Lyons erred in thinking the beatific vision is not given to the just until their resurrection, still he did teach that eternal life comes to each one from the act of seeing God (Haer. 4.20.47; PG 7:103537). St. Hilary of Poitiers affirms that by the gift of God all the clean of heart will see God (In psalm. 118.38; PL 9:555). St. Basil the Great speaks of a gradual perfecting and strengthening of the mind supernaturally so that the day will come when it will approach the unveiled divinity itself, and says "our mind will be elevated and quickened to the height of beatitude when it sees the oneness of the Word" (Epist. 8.7; PG 32:257259). In his funeral oration for his sister Gorgonia, St. Gregory of Nazianzus rejoices that she sees the vision of glory and the splendor of the most Holy Trinity, which she contemplates and possesses"the whole of it by the whole mind and shining on your soul with the whole light of divinity" (Or. 8.23; PG 35:816). In his funeral oration for St. Basil, St. Gregory looks forward to the day when "together we may behold in greater purity and fullness the holy and blessed Trinity," which he now knows incompletely through images (Or. 43.82; PG 36:604605).

St. John Chrysostom in his first letter to Theodore writes that if Peter was so enraptured in the vision of Christ's glorious humanity, "what will happen when the full reality is presented and it is permitted us to look upon the king Himself, no longer in an obscure manner, nor through a mirror, but face to face; no longer by faith, but by sight" (Thdr. 1.11; PG 47:292). St. Ambrose teaches that the just "have this as reward that they see the face of God and that Light which enlightens every man" (De bono mortis 2; PL 14:562563). Pope St. Leo the Great preached that in the Transfiguration the Apostles saw the royal splendor that belongs in a special way to the nature of Christ's assumed manhood, but while they were in the flesh "they could not look upon and see the ineffable and inaccessible vision of the divinity itself, which is reserved for the eternal life of the clean of heart" (Serm. 51.2; PL 54:311). Pope St. Gregory the Great writes:

We ought to mention that there were some who have held that even in the region of blessedness God is beheld in His glory, but is not seen in His nature. These persons are deceived by the very lack of logic in their investigations, for in that simple and unchangeable essence, glory is not one thing and nature another. God's nature is itself His glory, and His glory is itself His nature. Because one day the Wisdom of God would show itself to those who love Him, He Himself promises the vision of His essence when He says: "He who loves me will be loved of my Father, and I will love him and will manifest myself to him" (Jn 14.21). It is as if He said clearly: "You who perceive me in your nature shall yet see me in my own." He says again: "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God" (Mt 5.8). Hence Paul says: "We see now through a mirror in an obscure manner, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I have been known" (I Cor 13.12). [Moralia 18.54.90; PL 76:9394.]

The book or sermon written by St. Augustine in which he did not mention the beatific vision is the exception, for the saint was absorbed in the mystery of the Trinity and on fire with the desire to contemplate God face to face. St. Augustine teaches that the reward of the just, after their purification, is the clear, intuitive, intellectual vision of the Triune God. By this vision they are made supremely happy forever. Although there are degrees in formal beatitude dependent upon the merits of the just, still all are filled with happiness and all see God as He is, even though none know Him as much as He is knowable [see, e.g., In evang. Ioh. 34.78; 53.12; 76.14 (Corpus Christianorum 36:314315, 457458, 517519); Epist. 92.46 (PL 33:319320); Epist. 147.8.20; 9.21;23.51 (PL 33:605, 606, 620); Serm. 4.46; 23.1618;38.3 (Corpus Christianorum 41:2123, 318319, 477478); De videndo Deo 15.37 (PL 33:612); Trin.1.8.1618; 1.13.28; 14.1719.2325 (PL 42:831832, 840841, 105456); Civ. 20.21.4050; 21.24.125152;22.29.1210; 22.30.99152 (Corpus Christianorum 48:737, 792, 856862, 864866); In psalm. 75.5.3242;78.8.5280; 85.21.159; 97.3.1535 (Corpus Christianorum 39:104041, 115354, 119394, 137374); In psalm. 104.3.140; 109.12.2078; 123.2.1247;139.18.144 (Corpus Christianorum 40:153637, 161113, 182526, 202425)].

Solemn Magisterium. Implicitly the Council of Vienne taught the existence of the beatific vision in its insistence on the necessity of the light of glory for that vision (Denzinger 895). The first definition of the existence and nature of the beatific vision was occasioned by a dispute regarding the immediacy or the delay of the beatific vision for the souls of the just after death. Although the Church's faith in the existence of the beatific vision never wavered, an initial concentration upon the Parousia and the glorious resurrection of the elect tended for a time to obscure the realization of the glorification of the individual saint before the corporate triumph in Christ at the Last Judgment. The clear understanding that the vision of God is given at once to the soul that dies in grace and has been purified, matured only gradually. By the 14th century, however, the immediacy of the beatific vision for the just after death was the common teaching of the Church. Therefore, when in his advanced old age Pope John XXII espoused in several sermons St. Bernard's opinion that the souls of the just must wait until the final judgment to see God, a hot dispute ensued between certain Franciscans who supported the pope's opinion and the Dominicans who defended the traditional position. In the conclusion of his second sermon, Pope John XXII clearly indicated he was speaking as a private theologian, however, and stated that he was open to correction in the matter. He himself earlier, in the bull of canonization of Louis d'Anjou (1317), had said that the soul of Louis had entered heaven to contemplate his God face to face. On his deathbed in 1334, the Pope declared it his opinion that the souls of the just when purified see God and the divine essence face to face so far as the state and condition of a separated soul allows this.

The arguments continued after his death, however, and so, for the peace of mind of the faithful, his successor, Pope Benedict XII, settled the question once for all in the constitution benedictus deus, issued on Jan. 29, 1336. In the Benedictus Deus, Pope Benedict XII"defines by apostolic authority and with a constitution that shall be valid forever" that the souls of all the saints who departed this world before the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the souls of all the saints who die after they have received the sacred Baptism of Christ and have been purified, should they need such purification,

directly after their death and this purification in those needing such purification, even before the resumption of their bodies and the general judgment, after the Ascension of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into heaven, have been, are, and will be in heaven, in the kingdom of heaven and the heavenly paradise, together with Christ and that after the Passion and death of Our Lord Jesus Christ they have beheld and do behold the divine essence with intuitive and face-to-face vision, with no creature mediating in the manner of object seen, but the divine essence immediately showing itself to them without covering, clearly and openly; and that when they see in this way they have full enjoyment of that same divine essence. From this vision and enjoyment the souls of those who have already departed are truly blessed and have eternal life and rest; and the souls of those who will depart hereafter will also see that same divine essence and will have full enjoyment of it before the general judgment. This vision and this fruition of the divine essence do away with the acts of faith and hope in these souls insofar as faith and hope are theological virtues in the strict sense; and after this intuitive face-to-face vision and enjoyment has begun or begins to exist in these souls, the same vision and fruition exists continuously and will continue up to the last judgment and from then on through eternity. [Denzinger 1000, 1001.]

In its Decree for the Greeks, the bull Laetentur coeli, July 6, 1439, the Council of Florence added something to the clarity of the preceding definition in defining that

the souls of those who after the reception of Baptism have incurred no stain of sin at all, and also those souls which after the contraction of sin have been purged, whether in their bodies or when delivered of these same bodies are immediately received into heaven and see clearly the one and Triune God, just as He is, yet one more perfectly than another, in proportion to the diversity of merits. [Denzinger 1305.]


A fruitful doctrinal study of the beatific vision requires that the supernatural character of this vision be emphasized, for the object of the beatific vision is God, the holy and undivided Trinity. Nevertheless, elevated and strengthened by the light of faith, reason is able to penetrate the mystery to some extent from the analogy of sensible and intellectual vision and from the relationship of the beatific vision to the other mysteries of the faith that have been revealed.

The beatific vision is revealed to men as a kind of seeing that is at the same time a supernatural knowing (1 Cor 13.12; 1 Jn 3.2). From the analogy of natural vision, both sensible and intellectual, some light is thrown on the act of vision by which the blessed see God. The vision given by eyesight is an act that, by the activity of the seer and without transforming the seer into the colored object he sees, effects in the seer an actualizing of a color that has its real existence in an external object. A necessary condition for the production of this act is the presence of light and its common action upon the colored object and upon the sense of vision. In fact, light is required for the reception of visual sensation and for the unity of the image produced in the act of seeing. Now the act of intellectual perception of truth is called vision by an analogy with bodily vision. Intellectual perception of truth is an act that, by the activity of the knower and without transforming the knower into the being that he knows, effects in the knower an actualizing intentionally of an essence that has its real existence in an external object. As light is necessary in bodily vision, so also something analogous to light is required in intellectual vision, namely, the "light of truth," which must exist and act not only in the mind but also in the object that the mind knows. Therefore, intellectual vision has a threefold requirement: (1) the intelligibility of that which is known; (2) the power of knowing in the knower; and (3) a union between the knower and the known. How are these three requirements fulfilled in the beatific vision?

Intelligibility of that Which Is Known. God, who is pure act, first truth in being, is most intelligible in Himself and so infinitely knowable. That God is unknowable as He is in Himself to created intellects on the natural level is because of the very excess of His intelligibility, which is blinding to the unaided intellectual power of angel or man.

Power of Knowing in the Knower. The intellectual power of the rational creature is a participated likeness of Him who is the first intellect (ST 1a, 12.2). The connatural object of this created power of intellectual vision, however, is not the divine essence, but created essences; hence, by its own unaided power neither the angelic nor the human intellect could ever see the divine essence. For the vision of God, the created intellect must be elevated and strengthened by a created supernatural gift, the light of glory. The light of glory, which is a new perfection of the intellect itself, replaces the light of faith and gives the created intellect a higher supernatural participation in the Divine Light. St. Thomas does not hesitate to say that by the light of glory the blessed are made deiform (ST 1a, 12.5). Not that the light of glory makes the essence of God intelligible, for He is always infinitely knowable, but rather this light perfects the created intellect for the act of vision in much the same way that a habit perfects a power for its most perfect act. Therefore, the light of glory is in no way a medium in which God is seen but rather one by which He is seen; and such a medium does not take away the immediate vision of God (cf. ST 1a, 12.5; C. gent. 3.53).

Union between the Knower and the Known. That God, who is the object known, be in the knower by His essence so that God becomes one with the knower is impossible, for even though God is present most intimately by His power, presence, and essence to all creatures, no creature can ever be so elevated as to be absorbed into the divine essence. Nor can God be known intuitively as He is in Himself by means of a created idea of God that is united with the mind of the beatified making it to know, for no created idea can be the uncreated as He is in Himself, or express Him as He is in Himself. Yet, God has revealed and the Church has defined that the just see God as He is in Himself. St. Thomas points out that there is a mode of union by way of likeness that makes possible a union between God and the created intellect, namely, that in which one and the same being is the principle of the power of knowing and is also the object known. This mode of union is uniquely possible in the vision of God, for God is the author of the intellectual power of man, and He is the object of vision present to the intellect in the beatific vision. In the beatific vision the divine essence is united with the created intellect in such a way that the act of vision terminates not in any created form, but in the divine essence itself. From this union of the divine essence and the supernaturalized intellect of the blessed one thing is understood, and that one thing is God as He is in Himself. St. Thomas explains the nature of this immediate union between God and the created intellect thus: "The divine essence is existence itself. Hence as other intelligible forms, which are not their own existence, are united to the intellect according to a kind of mental existence by which they inform the intellect and make it in act, so the divine essence is united to the created intellect as the object actually understood, by Itself making the intellect actually understanding" (ST1a, 12.2 ad 3). This is what M. De la Taille, SJ, most aptly called created actuation by Uncreated Act (cf. M. De la Taille, The Hypostatic Union and Created Actuation by Uncreated Act 3033). In the beatific vision God is the quasi form of the act of vision, not as the act informing the human intellect, but rather as the Act terminating the act of the intellect (cf. ST 1a, 12.5; Comp. theol. 105; De ver. 8.1; ST 3a, suppl., 92.1 ad 8; also De la Taille, op. cit., and K. Rahner, "Some Implications of the Scholastic Concept of Uncreated Grace"325346). For this act of vision the creature must be assimilated supernaturally to the Triune God in essence and in operation. In His very gift of Himself to His creature God brings about that assimilation if there is no resistance to Him. In order that His rational creatures attain Him in the beatific vision, God perfects the essence of the soul through the entitative habit of habitual sanctifying grace, which is a created participation in the divine nature that makes its possessor an adopted son of God and a member of the Divine Family. Likewise God elevates the spiritual faculties of intellect and will so that the rational creature may know and love God as He knows and loves Himself. The intellect is perfected by the light of glory, which is simultaneously the created effect of the Uncreated actuation of the intellect by the Object known and the disposition for the act of knowing the Uncreated. The will is perfected for the concomitant act of fruition by infused charity, which abides in heaven in one unending act of love of God. Although all the blessed know God as He is, not any know Him as much as He is knowable. The greater the love in the creature, the greater its participation in the light of glory; and the greater its participation in the light of glory, the greater the perfection of its act of vision (Council of Florence, Denz 1305; St. Thomas Aquinas, ST 1a, 12.6, 1a2ae, 5.2).

In the vision of God the elect participate in a finite way in God's own knowledge. For example, the mysteries of the faith are now known not by faith but by vision, albeit this clear knowledge by vision is never exhaustive of the mystery. In the beatific vision each of the blessed also perceives the exact nature of the divine dispensation pertaining to his own salvation and perfection. The saints in heaven know their dear ones in God even more perfectly than they have or will know them in themselves, and in their vision of God the blessed continue to know and to interest themselves in all that concerns the Church and their dear ones on earth. The blessed also know in the vision of God all that He has created that is of interest to them. Everything other than God as He is in Himself, however, everything that involves the relationship of a creature to God is only secondarily the object of the beatific vision. Man's ultimate end consists primarily in God Himself, and man's beatitude will be in the immediate vision of God and the joy concomitant with the personal possession in vision and love of the Triune God, whose nature is identical with the intelligibility of Himself and with the intellection of Himself.


Happiness is found not only in the act by which the soul takes possession of God in knowing Him as it is known by Him, but also in all the concomitant properties that are consequent upon that act of vision. (1) Comprehension is the first of these consequences of the act of visioncomprehension in the sense of attaining God, to repose in His presence, not in the sense of knowing Him as much as He is knowable, which is possible only to God Himself (ST 1a2ae, 4.3). (2) The beatific vision causes perfect joy to the soul, which now rests in the beloved in an unending act of perfect charity (ST1a2ae, 4.1, 2; 2a2ae, 28.1, 3). (3) The beatific vision brings sinlessness as one of its effects, for since final happiness consists in an intellectual vision of Him who is infinite truth and beauty, and the will then reposes through that act in the possession of infinite goodness, it is psychologically impossible for the will to turn from its adequate object to a created good preferred to the uncreated good now possessed (ST 1a2ae, 4.4). (4) God has promised and the Church has defined that the beatific vision will last forever. Nothing less than eternal beatitude would be perfect beatitude (ST 1a2ae, 5.4). (5) The total person is beatified. Therefore, although it is the soul that alone can take possession of God, since God is a spirit, still the beatified soul will be substantially united to the body after the resurrection, and the joy of the soul will overflow into the body (ST 1a2ae, 4.6).


The mystery of the beatific vision is related to that of grace, for the intrinsic supernaturality of grace is pointed up by its term, the altogether supernatural act of knowing God as He is in Himself. But it is the Triune God who is known in this way; hence the mystery of the beatific vision is intrinsically related to the mystery of the Trinity and of the divine indwelling in the rational creature. Light is thrown on the mystery of the beatific vision by the mystery of the incarnation and redemption, for it is in and by the Son that men become sons of God; they are brought to the consummation of adopted sonship by sharing in the Son's inheritance. The beatific vision in turn casts light on the mystery of the Incarnation, for from the lesser created actuation by uncreated act in the vision of God the mind is helped, by analogy, to a deeper understanding of the grace of hypostatic union, that created actuation of the sacred-humanity of Christ by the uncreated Word of God. Since the beatific vision and the total beatitude of the human person is the goal of the sacramental life, the beatific vision gives a deeper understanding of that sacramental life (see sacraments, theology of). Likewise, the beatific vision gives some understanding of purgatory, for only after the soul has been detached from all inordinate affections and unified in its being (Mt 5.8) is it capable of the total gift of self to God in the beatific vision. The glorifying vision is the key to a glorious resurrection of the dead, for the qualities of the glorified body are due to its life principle, the beatified soul. The beatific vision is also a key to a better understanding of the mediation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for it is her total interiority in God through the beatific visionthe vision that is hers in terms of her fullness of grace and charity and of her total maternal vocationthat is the source of her mediation of grace now [see mary, blessed virgin, ii (in theology)]. Her maternal desires are united to the very power and love of God. And last of all, the perfection of the communion of saints will be found in their vision of God.

See Also: death (theology of); desire to see god, natural; destiny, supernatural; elevation of man; eschatology, articles on; grace, articles on; happiness; heaven (theology of); jesus christ, iii (special questions); light of glory; man; obediential potency; supernatural; vocation to supernatural life.

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[m. j. redle]

Beatific vision

views updated May 29 2018

Beatific vision. The vision of God granted to the redeemed in heaven. The term is used mainly in Catholic theology where it was the subject of much debate in the later Middle Ages. In Islam, the vision of God is the culminating experience of the rewarded in heaven, though the impossibility of seeing God directly is usually defended by affirming that a general manifestation of God is interpreted in the forms of habitual devotion.

beatific vision

views updated May 21 2018

beatific vision the first sight of the glories of heaven; the direct experience of God by those in heaven.