By ALEX BROWN and ANDREW McGOVERN | Published April 5, 2023
What will it be like … after?
There will always be times when the inevitable presents itself in our lives. We have probably all experienced a death of a friend or family member whether close or distant, suddenly or expectantly. In our own lives this has happened recently. These can be occasions to reflect on one of the biggest questions humanity contemplates—what exactly happens after we die?
As Christians we believe in this promise of heaven, but what is heaven? Is it a place? Will we like it there? What will we be doing?
We don’t know about you, but we imagine that sitting on a cloud playing a harp would get pretty old after a while… not to mention for all eternity. We recently shivered in confusion thinking about what being alive for eternity would look like and think there are strong reasons to believe in heaven.
To be clear from the start, this is not a fear of the Greek story of Tithonus who had eternal life but not eternal youth where we devolve into a decrepit, shriveled raisin. The Christian message is unambiguous about a glorified, bodily existence to be given after what we call the Resurrection at the end of time. Really, when it comes to looking at what heaven is and what it will be like for us, there are two big theological terms we need to understand: the beatific vision and deification.
These concepts, rooted in Scripture and church tradition, refer respectively to: the joy and glory of seeing God in all his greatness, and becoming like him in all his goodness and beauty. Like growing in any relationship, this involves seeing the beloved and being loved so let’s take a few minutes to unpack these important concepts one at a time.
St. Paul was hinting at the beatific vision when he said, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” (1 Cor. 13:12). Paul follows this with one of the most familiar and beloved lines in all of Scripture: “So faith, hope, and love remain… but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13). These two verses are intimately tied together.
In his discourse on the virtue of love, St. Paul speaks of the outcome of love, that is, seeing God face to face. Love leads us to this face-to-face encounter with God. St. Paul echoes the words of the Lord who promises that the pure in heart shall see God. (Mt. 5:8).
So what does it mean to see God face to face? I don’t know about you, but this sounds pretty intense to me, or perhaps downright frightening.
We must first understand that the nature of the beatific vision is far more than simply seeing an object as we would see a book in front of us on a desk.
Doctor of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas is clear in his treatment of the blessed in heaven that even after the bodily resurrection, we will not see God’s essence with the eyes of the body. (Cf. Summa Theologiae Supp. q. 92, a. 2. Hereafter cited as ST.) Rather, the beatific vision is the essence of God being poured into the intellect of the blessed themselves. We can only imagine what this will be like, but picture a waterfall being poured into a small pool, infinitely more than the pool can hold yet the pool is not destroyed but sustained and made complete by this outpouring. This results in a union of God and man in his soul.
St. Thomas gives us another illustration, “the union of the body with the soul is an illustration of the blissful union of the spirit with God.” This brings us to a second term, deification.
Very simply, the doctrine of deification can be summed up in a pithy phrase: What Christ is by nature, we become through grace.
Through the beatific vision, our nature as a rational creature with free will is elevated to intimate union with God who is love itself. As the eternal son assumed a human nature to his person and forever united humanity to the divine, humankind is now able to come to union with the divine through grace. We participate in God and are filled by his essence, his very being. This union results in a deified nature that perfects us and allows us to be in communion with God.
The final point—one we cannot emphasize enough—brings us the perfect joy and happiness we all seek, the “final end” as St. Thomas calls it. “Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.” (ST Ia-IIae q. 3, a. 8.)
Humanity was created for this, and Christ became incarnate for this to come into perfect union with God. What was lost through Adam’s original sin is returned to man through Christ. But more than that, Christ does not simply bring us to the state in which we lived in Eden—he elevates us past that into a deified state where we reside in perfect communion with God and the other blessed individuals for all eternity. It’s a perfect happiness we call beatitude. This beatitude will carry us for all eternity with God.
Until then, we have ventured into some deep “theology,” or the study of God, that may have raised more questions. In our next piece, we will explore what we know about other aspects of heaven and the joy in our body and soul that we will have there.
Brown is a computer science teacher and amateur theologian, and McGovern is a doctoral candidate in theology.