Excursus: The Beatific Vision

On more than one occasion over the course of this series on universalism, I have mentioned the Beatific Vision.  Despite this, I have never elaborated or discussed the concept at length.  As I was working on a follow-up to the last post, though, it occurred to me that the subject of the Beatific Vision was becoming increasingly relevant.  Rather than try to  unpack the notion there, I decided to give it a post of its own.

The Beatific Vision is a term in Catholic theology which, simply put, means seeing God as He is.  Of course, “seeing” is a metaphor here.  It means, more precisely, the full experience of God in His full divinity.  This is said to be the final goal of the saved.  Those who are in heaven, human and angel, have this experience of God perpetually.  In fact, to say that the saints and angels are “in” heaven is inaccurate.  Heaven is not a place, but a state of being–and that state of being is exactly the one that ensues from the Beatific Vision.

The Beatific Vision is the final phase of the process of theosis, or divinization.  That could easily take a post in itself, but I’ll discuss it but briefly.  The typical popular view of heaven is either that the righteous, upon death, become angels; or that the righteous go to a place of perfect happiness, usually visualized either as sitting on a cloud playing a harp, or as sort of the ultimate summer resort.  All of these pop-culture views fall woefully short.  The saved may become like angels (cf. Luke 20:35-36), but they do not become angels.  Angels–bodiless intelligences–are a different type of being from humans, who even in the afterlife are embodied minds (albeit the bodies in the afterlife are imperishable, spiritual bodies).  Likewise, heaven is far beyond the poshest materialistic fantasy of an eternal dinner party.  The destiny of the saved is in fact to become like God–hence divinization.  They do not become little “gods” as in Mormon eschatology.  Rather, the saved are immersed in the Divine and come to share and participate in the Divine nature.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it (quoted from here):

The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”

One important thing follows from this divinization effected and completed by the Beatific Vision.  It is said that sometime in the beginning of time–or even before time as we know it–some of the spirits of the Pleroma (what we call “angels”) rebelled or in some manner fell away from the presence of God.  These rebels became what we call “devils” or “demons”, their leader traditionally being called “Lucifer” and, after his fall, “the Devil”.  The rest of the angels remained unfallen.  Now sometimes people will speculate about the unfallen angels.  Could one or more of those angels fall later on?  In short, the demons made their choice early on; but the angels have free will, after all.  Could some of the unfallen angels fall at any time?  This is in fact the premise of the old movie The Prophecy.  Similarly, both Wings of Desire and its American remake City of Angels speculated on the idea of an angel falling by choice–though in both of these movies the “fall” in question was not a fall from Heaven to Hell, but from the angelic to the human state.

The traditional answer given by theologians is that immediately after their creation the angels had a natural knowledge of God, but not the Beatific Vision.  By “natural knowledge” I mean that they had a direct intuitive understanding of God in a way we don’t.  Humans think discursively–we take in information through our senses, make inferences, draw conclusions, and come through a process of thought to knowledge.  Angels, it is said, being pure minds with no bodies, know directly by means of the ideas (in the Platonic sense) placed in their minds by God at their creation.  In short, instead of having to learn what “dog” means, as a human child does, for example, an angel immediately and perfectly understands the concept of “dog”.  Likewise, rather than having to philosophically or theologically speculate as to the existence of God, angels directly and intuitively know that God exists, just as surely as we know that we ourselves exist.

This knowledge, though, is natural knowledge.  The angels know that God exists, and they were in a sense in God’s presence.  However, they did not have the supernatural knowledge of God-as-He-is which we mean by the Beatific Vision.  Rather, it is said that the Fall of Lucifer and his followers was a sort of test.  He and his failed it, obviously; but the angels who remained loyal to God passed.  It is said that after this, the angels were rewarded with the Beatific Vision.  As we’ve seen, the Beatific Vision is full knowledge of God as He is, a participation in the Divine nature.  One corollary of this is that those who experience the Beatific Vision take on certain properties of God, not least of which is the ability to make eternal irrevocable decisions.

I discussed at length–an entire series, in fact–whether a finite being, such as a human, could make an irrevocable decision and keep to it for all eternity.  The motivation was that theologians who promote the traditional view of hell (TVOH) often argue that the damned not only choose hell by their free actions and choices, but that such a choice is eternally irrevocable once a soul goes to hell.  I was suspicious of that notion and so I examined it.  In the end, I wound up rather baffled, and had to admit that there seemed to be no way to settle the issue one way or the other.  My inclination is to think that God can ultimately bring about a change of heart by those who have “chosen” hell–see here–but that’s not the main issue here.  As I pointed out in the course of the series on free will, God is the exception.  A truly free finite, time-bound being may or may not be able to make an eternal, irrevocable decision.  As I said, it seems to be a toss-up.  God, however, is infinite and beyond time altogether.  Thus, when He acts, He acts in an eternal and unalterable moment.  This fits in with the traditional conception of God as eternal and changeless.

Thus, God is quite capable of making a decision and keeping with it forever–where “forever” is our limping, time-bound language attempting to describe the atemporal nature of God.  Now, returning to our subject:  One of the things that happens to those who receive the Beatific Vision is that they are united to God and take on, to the extent a creature can, the properties of God.  One of these is the ability to freely make an eternal and irrevocable choice.  Thus, whereas it is unclear whether or not a human could freely choose eternal damnation and never change his mind, a human–or angel–with the Beatific Vision is, just like God, completely capable of such a choice.  Of course, being united to God, the source of perfect goodness and perfect happiness, the choice that such a human or angel would make would unequivocally be to choose eternally to remain in Heaven–to eternally retain the Beatific Vision.  This choice, moreover, like God’s choices, would be truly and sovereignly free.

Thus, the saints–those humans who are saved–as well as the unfallen angels, not only will not fall, but they no longer are able to fall.  Paradoxically–or so it seems–this inability to fall results not from Divine manipulation or coercion, but is the result of a truly, in fact, perfectly free act of choice.  Thus, the devils were able to fall at the beginning of time; and humans  can and do fall; but the saints and the angels in God’s presence now will not ever fall.

This, of course, raises the question, “Why didn’t God give the angels and us the Beatific Vision in the first place?  No one would ever have fallen in the first place then, and it would have been happily ever after!”  That’s a fair question, and I don’t think it can be adequately answered by us limited humans.  I do have a hypothesis, though, which I’ve touched on before.  In short, in a sense we are not “created” by God as something external to Him, the way a craftsman creates a work of art.  Rather in a sense we are “emanated” from God; or to put it another way, we are part of God’s dream.  Alternately, we are God’s story.  Given that, it seems to me that if God created a being already possessed of the Beatific Vision, that being would not be sufficiently “differentiated” from God, and thus really would lack free will.  It would be a sort of metaphysical sock puppet.  Even God works under limitations.  He wanted beings that would share His Divine nature with Him in an eternal state of perfect happiness and bliss; but He wanted truly free beings who wold freely choose to share in this nature.  In order to get truly free beings, He had to create beings–both angelic and human–which did not have the Beatific Vision.  Then He allowed these beings to choose for–or against–Him.

The angels who chose against Him are Satan and the demons.  Those who chose for Him were rewarded with the Beatific Vision and no longer can fall even in principle.  Those humans who are saved also have received the Beatific Vision, and likewise can no longer fall.  In both cases, this is because both the angels and the saints now have truly, perfectly free will with which they can eternally choose for God.

Now my assertion in the series is that those humans who did not choose for God in this life–the “damned”, if you will–are not eternally damned.  My assertion is that while humans lack the perfect, Divine freedom of those who  have the Beatific Vision, they still, potentially, have true human freedom.  Theologians say that true freedom is not freedom from constraint (though it includes that, as well), but the freedom for making the correct choice–the choice for God.  That is, humans (and angels, too) are said to have been made with a natural longing for, or directedness towards, God.  Anything that gets in the way of that natural longing is in a sense a distortion or, to use a different metaphor, a sickness.  Those who uphold the TVOH would contend that though the sickness and distortion of human nature–what we call “sin”–is in a sense unnatural, it may nevertheless have the last word.  A human may freely damn himself to hell eternally.

I assert that if the sickness of sin could be totally uprooted, the natural direction of human nature–towards God–would naturally assert itself in true freedom, and the soul would choose against damnation and for God.  This healing process of sin is not usually completed in this world.  For those who, however imperfectly, choose for God before death, the post mortem healing is what we call Purgatory.  For those in whom the sickness is so great that they cannot and do not choose for God befoe death, the healing process is what we call hell.  Involuntary, unlike purgatory, and–well, hellish–but not infinite.  After the long and gradual healing process, the “damned” soul is able to make a truly free choice, perhaps for the first time in its existence.  Being truly free now, it chooses for God.  Thus in the end, all attain the Beatific Vision and God is “all in all”.

In any case, the main takeaways from this post are that the Beatific Vision is the full knowledge and experience of God as He truly is; that it was necessary that we be created initially without it; and that those who experience it are no longer capable of falling away from God, though they are truly and perfectly free.  These concepts will all figure in the next post.

Part of the series “Universalism (What the Hell?!)


Posted on 27/01/2018, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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