What Will It Mean To See God?
I shall rise from the dead.... I shall see the Son of God, the Sun of Glory, and shine myself as that sun shines. I shall be united to the Ancient of Days, to God Himself, who had no morning, never began.... No man ever saw God and lived. And yet, I shall not live till I see God; and when I have seen him, I shall never die. John Donne
“O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).
We may imagine we want a thousand different things, but God is the one we really long for. His presence brings satisfaction; his absence brings thirst and longing. Our longing for Heaven is a longing for God—a longing that involves not only our inner beings, but our bodies as well. Being with God is the heart and soul of Heaven. Every other heavenly pleasure will derive from and be secondary to his presence. God’s greatest gift to us is, and always will be, himself.
God says his intention is that “in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). Those who know God well have only begun to know Him! Those who imagine they will tire of praising God in Heaven have not yet begun to grasp who God is, and the magnificent inexhaustible character of his wonders and joys.
A million years after he fashions a new universe (Revelation 21:1-4), we will know more of him than we’ve ever known. As we learn of Him throughout eternity we will never begin to exhaust the wonders of who He is.
The Beatific Vision
Ancient theologians spoke of the “beatific vision.” The term comes from three Latin words that together mean “a happy-making sight.” The sight they spoke of was God Himself. Revelation 22:4 says of God’s servants on the New Earth, “They will see his face.” To see God’s face is the loftiest of all aspirations—though sadly, for most of us, it’s not at the top of our wish list. (If we understand what it means, it will be.)
To be told we’ll see God’s face is shocking to anyone who understands God’s transcendence and inapproachability. In ancient Israel, only the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies, and he but once a year. Even then, according to tradition, a rope was tied around the priest’s ankle in case he died while inside the Holy of Holies. Why? Well, God struck down Uzzah for touching the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:7). Who would volunteer to go into the Holy of Holies to pull out the high priest if God slew him?
When Moses said to God, “Show me your glory,” God responded, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you. . . .” But, he said, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live. . . . When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen” (Exodus 33:18-23).
This is the wonder of our redemption—to be welcomed into the very presence of our Lord and to see him face-to-face. What will we see in his eyes? Though we cannot experience its fullness yet, we can gain a foretaste now: “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19); “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16, ESV).
Face of Father and Son
David says, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: 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 seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). David was preoccupied with God’s person, and also with God’s place. He longed to be where God was and to gaze on his beauty. To see God’s face is to behold his beauty, which is the source of all lesser beauties.
God, who is transcendent, became immanent in Jesus Christ, who is Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). God the Son pitched his tent among us, on our Earth, as one of us (John 1:14). So whenever we see Jesus in Heaven, we will see God. Because Jesus Christ is God, and a permanent manifestation of God, he could say to Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Certainly, then, a primary way we will see the Father on the New Earth is through his Son, Jesus.
Jonathan Edwards emphasized Christ as the member of the Godhead we will see: “The seeing of God in the glorified body of Christ is the most perfect way of seeing God with the bodily eyes that can be; for in seeing a real body that one of the persons of the Trinity has assumed to be his body, and that he dwells in forever as his own in which the divine majesty and excellency appears as much as ‘tis possible for it to appear in outward form or shape.”
Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Near the end of The City of God, Augustine addresses whether we will see God with physical eyes—or only with spiritual eyes—in our resurrection bodies: “It is possible, it is indeed most probable, that we shall then see the physical bodies of the new heaven and the new earth in such a fashion as to observe God in utter clarity and distinctness, seeing him everywhere present and governing the whole material scheme of things. . . . Perhaps God will be known to us and visible to us in the sense that he will be spiritually perceived by each of us in each one of us, perceived in one another, perceived by each in himself; he will be seen in the new heaven and earth, in the whole creation as it then will be; he will be seen in every body by means of bodies, wherever the eyes of the spiritual body are directed with their penetrating gaze.”
Will the Christ we worship in Heaven as God also be a man? Yes. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday [when he lived on Earth] and today [when he lives in the intermediate Heaven] and forever [when he will live on the New Earth, in the eternal Heaven]” (Hebrews 13:8). Christ didn’t put on a body as if it were a coat. He didn’t contain two separable components, man and God, to be switched on and off at will. Rather, he was and is and will be always a man and God.
When Christ died, he might have appeared to shed his humanity; but when he rose in an indestructible body, he declared his permanent identity as the God-man. J. I. Packer writes, “By incarnation the Son became more than he was before, and a human element became integral to the ongoing life of the Triune God. . . . Christ’s glorified humanity, which is the template and link for the glorification that is ours, must go on forever.” This is a mystery so great it should leave us breathless.
Job, in his anguish, cried out in a vision of striking clarity: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27). The anticipation of seeing God face-to-face, in our resurrected bodies, is heartfelt and ancient. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18, ESV). Our own beauty will increase as we behold God in his glory.
We need not wait till the New Earth to catch glimpses of God. We’re told his “invisible qualities” can be “clearly seen” in “what has been made” (Romans 1:20). Consider the trees, flowers, sun, rain, and the people around you. Yes, there’s devastation all around us and within us. Eden has been trampled, burned, and savaged. Yet the stars in the sky nevertheless declare God’s glory (Psalm 19:1), as do animals, art, and music. But our vision is hampered by the same curse that infects all creation. One day both we and the universe will be forever cured of sin. In that day, we will see God.
Seeing God: Our Primary Joy
In Heaven, the barriers between redeemed human beings and God will forever be gone. To look into God’s eyes will be to see what we’ve always longed to see: the person who made us for his own good pleasure. Seeing God will be like seeing everything else for the first time. Why? Because not only will we see God, he will be the lens through which we see everything else—people, ourselves, and the events of this life.
What is the essence of eternal life? “That they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Our primary joy in Heaven will be knowing and seeing God. Every other joy will be derivative, flowing from the fountain of our relationship with God.
Jonathan Edwards said, “God himself is the great good which they are brought to the possession and enjoyment of by redemption. He is the highest good, and the sum of all that good which Christ purchased. . . . The redeemed will indeed enjoy other things . . . but that which they shall enjoy in the angels, or each other, or in anything else whatsoever, that will yield them delight and happiness, will be what will be seen of God in them.”
Asaph says, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). This may seem an overstatement—there’s nothing on Earth this man desires but God? But he’s affirming that the central desires of our heart are for God. Yes, we desire many other things—but in desiring them, it is really God we desire. Augustine called God “the end of our desires.” He prayed, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Suppose you’re sick. Your friend brings a meal. What meets your needs—the meal or the friend? Both. Of course, without your friend, there would be no meal; but even without a meal, you would still treasure your friendship. Hence, your friend is both your higher pleasure and the source of your secondary pleasure (the meal). Likewise, God is the source of all lesser goods, so that when they satisfy us, it’s God himself who satisfies us. (In fact, it’s God who satisfies you by giving you the friend who gives you the meal.)
Whenever I speak of the wonders of Heaven and longing for Heaven and the multifaceted joys of the resurrected life in the new universe, some people respond, But our eyes should be on the giver, not the gift; we must focus on God, not on Heaven.
This approach sounds spiritual, but it erroneously divorces our experience of God from life, relationships, and the world—all of which God graciously gives us. It sees the material realm and other people as God’s competitors rather than as instruments that communicate his love and character. It fails to recognize that because God is the ultimate source of joy, and all secondary joys emanate from him, to love secondary joys on Earth can be—and in Heaven always will be—to love God, their source.
Though Christoplatonism frowns upon the pleasures of the physical world, mistaking asceticism for spirituality, Scripture says we are to put our hope not in material things but “in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). If he provides everything for our enjoyment, we shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying it, should we?
Paul says it is demons and liars who portray the physical realm as unspiritual, forbid people from the joys of marriage, including sex, and “order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:3-5).
Because of the current darkness of our hearts, we must be careful not to make idols out of God’s provisions. But once we’re freed from sin and we’re in God’s presence, we’ll never have to worry about putting people or things above God. That would be unthinkable. (Were we thinking clearly, it would be unthinkable to us now.)
God isn’t displeased when we enjoy a good meal, marital sex, a football game, a cozy fire, or a good book. He’s not up in Heaven frowning at us and saying, “Stop it—you should only find joy in me.” This would be as foreign to God’s nature as our heavenly Father as it would be to mine as an earthly father if I gave my daughters a Christmas gift and started pouting because they enjoyed it too much. No, I gave the gift to bring joy to them and to me—if they didn’t take pleasure in it, I’d be disappointed. Their pleasure in my gift to them draws them closer to me. I am delighted that they enjoy the gift.
Of course, if children become so preoccupied with the gift that they walk away from their father and ignore him, that’s different. Though preoccupation with a God-given gift can turn into idolatry, enjoying that same gift with a grateful heart can draw us closer to God. In Heaven we’ll have no capacity to turn people or things into idols. When we find joy in God’s gifts, we will be finding our joy in him.
God-Given (Derivative) and Secondary Joys
All secondary joys are derivative in nature. They cannot be separated from God. Flowers are beautiful for one reason—God is beautiful. Rainbows are stunning because God is stunning. Puppies are delightful because God is delightful. Sports are fun because God is fun. Study is rewarding because God is rewarding. Work is fulfilling because God is fulfilling.
Ironically, some people who are the most determined to avoid the sacrilege of putting things before God miss a thousand daily opportunities to thank him, praise him, and draw near to him, because they imagine they shouldn’t enjoy the very things he made to help us know him and love him.
God is a lavish giver. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). The God who gave us his Son delights to graciously give us “all things.” These “all things” are in addition to Christ, but they are never instead of him—they come, Scripture tells us, “along with him.” If we didn’t have Christ, we would have nothing. But because we have Christ, we have everything. Hence, we can enjoy the people and things God has made, and in the process enjoy the God who designed and provided them for his pleasure and ours.
God welcomes prayers of thanksgiving for meals, warm fires, games, books, relationships, and every other good thing. When we fail to acknowledge God as the source of all good things, we fail to give him the recognition and glory he deserves. We separate joy from God, which is like trying to separate heat from fire or wetness from rain.
The movie Babette’s Feast depicts a conservative Christian sect that scrupulously avoids “worldly” distractions until a woman’s creation of a great feast opens their eyes to the richness of God’s provision. Babette’s Feast beautifully illustrates that we shouldn’t ignore or minimize God’s lavish, creative gifts, but we should enjoy them and express heartfelt gratitude to God for all of life’s joys. When we do this, instead of these things drawing us from God, they draw us to God. That’s precisely what all things and all beings in Heaven will do—draw us to God, never away from him.
Every day we should see God in his creation: in the food we eat, the air we breathe, the friendships we enjoy, and the pleasures of family, work, and hobbies. Yes, we must sometimes forgo secondary pleasures, and we should never let them eclipse God. And we should avoid opulence and waste when others are needy. But we should thank God for all of life’s joys, large and small, and allow them to draw us to him.
That’s exactly what we’ll do in Heaven . . . so why not start now?
Seeing God in Everything Good
Sam Storms writes, “We will constantly be more amazed with God, more in love with God, and thus ever more relishing his presence and our relationship with him. Our experience of God will never reach its consummation. We will never finally arrive, as if upon reaching a peak we discover there is nothing beyond. Our experience of God will never become stale. It will deepen and develop, intensify and amplify, unfold and increase, broaden and balloon.”
Beholding and knowing God, we will spend eternity worshiping, exploring, and serving him, seeing his magnificent beauty in everything and everyone around us. Augustine wrote in The City of God, “We shall in the future world see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognize God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual.” In the new universe, as we study nature, as we pursue science and mathematics and every realm of knowledge, we’ll see God in everything, for he’s behind it all.
Many commoners in history would have thought it the ultimate experience to gain an audience with their human king, to meet him face-to-face. How much greater will it be to see God in his glory? There could be no higher privilege, no greater thrill. All our explorations and adventures and projects in the eternal Heaven—and I believe there will be many—will pale in comparison to the wonder of seeing God. Yet everything else we do will help us to see God better, to know him and worship him better.
God promised Simeon, a “righteous and devout” old man who lived in Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s birth, that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. The culminating joy of Simeon’s life was to see Jesus when Joseph and Mary brought him to the temple (Luke 2:25-32). We too have been promised that we’ll see Jesus. As Simeon lived his earthly life in anticipation of seeing Jesus, so should we. All else—in this world and the next—will be secondary to beholding our Lord. To see Jesus—what could be greater? “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
We will see Christ in his glory. The most exhilarating experiences on Earth, such as white-water rafting, skydiving, or extreme sports, will seem tame compared to the thrill of seeing Jesus. (By the way, there’s no biblical basis for believing we will not enjoy such activities as resurrected people on the New Earth.)
Being with him. Gazing at him. Talking with him. Worshiping him. Embracing him. Eating with him. Walking with him. Laughing with him. Imagine it!
Will we ever tire of praising him? Augustine writes, “God himself, who is the Author of virtue, shall be our reward. As there is nothing greater or better than God himself, God has promised us himself. God shall be the end of all our desires, who will be seen without end, loved without cloy, and praised without weariness.”
(This article is condensed from a chapter in Randy’s new book, Heaven, now available in bookstores.)