1. After death we shall begin to exercise our status as members of the divine family in a new way. This life is a pilgrimage and death a homecoming to the Father’s house, a house which Jesus prepared for his followers (see Jn 14.2–3). The human love between Jesus and his friends causes both him and them to long for this reunion (see Jn 16.20–22; Phil 1.23).
2. By being with Jesus, his friends will share in a mature way in the divine life which naturally belongs to the Word of God: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3.2). St. Paul parallels this statement, emphasizing the difference between present immaturity and heavenly maturity: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor 13.11–12). God’s human children will then be grown-up members of his family.
3. In 1336 Pope Benedict XII defined that this heavenly knowledge of God will be intuitive and face-to-face vision, without the mediation of any creature. The divine essence, God himself, will show himself openly and clearly. The blessed will take great joy in this experience of God; by it they will possess eternal life and peace (see DS 1000/530; cf. S.t., 1, q. 12, aa. 1–7; S.c.g., 3, 25–63).
4. Sometimes this doctrine of the beatific vision is understood in a way which would make our sharing in divine life a limited sort of activity, appealing perhaps to intellectuals but not to many others. Heaven is thought of as consisting in an endless gazing upon the divine essence, an individual and ecstatic act of contemplating a magnificent object.
This conception of vision is impoverished by a Neoplatonic theory of the ultimate principles of reality, and by the assumption that the human intellect as such will be perfected by grasping these principles.9 In other words, it assumes that human fulfillment is in the exercise of one human capacity, and this limitation precludes a richer intimacy with God. But since God is the source of everything beautiful, delightful, and satisfying, a human experience of him in himself will fulfill every good desire and more (see S.t., 1–2, q. 4; S.c.g., 3, 63; but cf. S.t., 1, q. 62, a. 9; 1–2, q. 3, a. 8; 2–2, q. 181, a. 4). Nor need such an experience be purely static and passive, for God’s life is not simply the being of an intelligible object.
5. Scripture offers a far richer prospect of heaven than this. Perhaps most important, it insists upon the mysteriousness of the vision of God. “It does not yet appear what we shall be” (1 Jn 3.2); it is “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (1 Cor 2.9). In this life we live in the Church’s womb, as it were, no more able to fathom heavenly experience than an embryo is to anticipate mature human relationships.
6. It is significant, too, that in Scripture “see” and “know” usually have a richer connotation of total personal experience than in everyday speech or in expressing a narrow concept of the beatific vision.10 In John, “to see” often means to experience or to participate in (see Jn 3.3, 36; 8.51). Eternal life, even here and now, consists in knowing God and Jesus Christ (see Jn 17.3).11
7. Nor does Scripture express heavenly intimacy with God in cognitional terms alone. Jesus went to his Father’s house to prepare a dwelling for his followers (see Jn 14.2–3). God’s family on pilgrimage is traveling home and will live there at peace in the family dwelling (see Heb 4.10–11; 11.13–16). God’s family will enjoy a refreshing sabbath (see Rv 14.13), but this need not be thought of as inactivity. Rather, it will be like a vacation after labor. The family reunion will be a fulfilling living-together (see Rv 21.3–4).
The desire to “see” God is not peculiar to the New Testament (see Ex 33.18–23); in the Old Testament context, one can hardly suppose that the experience sought was an exclusively intellectual vision. “Know” often is used to mean experience (see Ez 25.14). A husband knows his wife in having sexual intercourse with her (see Gn 4.1, 17, 25). To know God often means to recognize his status and authority, to adhere to him (see Jer 31.34; Hos 4.1–2). Similarly, for God to know someone is for him to establish a special relationship with that person (see Jer 1.5).
Beatific knowledge of God cannot be restricted by our experience of the limits of our human capacities. The beatific vision is a sharing in the intimacy of the Trinity (see Mt 11.25–27; Lk 10.22; Jn 10.14–15). This knowing will involve likeness to God; it is God’s own knowing shared by his adopted children (see 1 Cor 13.11–12; 1 Jn 3.2). To enjoy this intimate, active communing with God, one must share in his own nature.12 How, then, can we be on the right track if we think of the beatific vision as the exercise of capacities which belong to human nature? To the extent that the measure of this beatific knowing is God’s own knowing, we do not know what it is in itself, since concepts drawn from anything else do not yield understanding of God in himself.
To suppose that the beatific vision is properly a fruit of the divine nature in which created persons are made to share is not to exclude from eternal life an appropriate and fulfilling exercise of human capacities. As God, our Lord Jesus certainly lived his divine life fully throughout his earthly life. Yet the Church teaches that during Jesus’ earthly life his human soul also enjoyed the knowledge the blessed will enjoy in heaven (see DS 3645/2183, 3812/2289). If we think of the beatific vision essentially as an exercise of human capacities, it becomes difficult to understand how Jesus lived the human life he did.13
9. On Augustine’s Neoplatonism: Robert J. O’Connell, St. Augustine’s Early Theory of Man, A.D. 386–391 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968), esp. 203–26. On the influence of this Neoplatonism on Augustine’s conception of the vision of God and his understanding of nature and grace: Eugene TeSelle, “Nature and Grace in Augustine’s Expositions of Genesis I, 1–5,” Recherches Augustiniennes, 5 (1968), 95–137.
10. See Rudolf Schnackenburg, “Vision of God,” Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, 947–52.
11. An exegesis of 1 Jn 3.2 which utterly rejects the metaphysical interpretation of an intellectual vision of the divine essence: Matthew Vellanickal, The Divine Sonship of Christians in the Johannine Writings, Analecta Biblica, 72 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1977), 340–47.
12. The position taken here departs from Thomism and the intellectualism common in the Western tradition. But it is close in some ways to the thinking of some of the Fathers of the East and was developed in Orthodox theology by Gregory Palamas. He distinguishes God’s essence and energies, the latter not being a creature but communicated divinity; he also rejects the Western view that human capacities are made for the vision of God. See V. Lossky, The Vision of God (Bedfordshire, Eng.: Faith Press, 1963), 9–27 and 124–37.
13. In current theology many questions are being raised about the received teaching concerning the beatific knowledge of Jesus as man during his earthly life. An introduction to this discussion: E. L. Mascall, Theology and the Gospel of Christ: An Essay in Reorientation (London: SPCK, 1977), 121–94, esp. 160–69. If, as I suggest, the heavenly vision of God is not in any case an exercise of specifically human capacities, then the received teaching is preserved and the difficulties about the knowledge of Jesus dissolved.