TO ENJOY GOD FOREVER
The Westminster Shorter Catechism, one of the better known catechisms of the Reformation, begins with a justifiably famous question and answer: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” If our lives find their chief end in glorifying and enjoying God, it should not surprise us that the epitome of life in the new heaven and earth will consist in the worship and enjoyment of the true God. The life to come, because it will bring the fruition of human blessedness, will consist in finding joy in God, living before His face.
Consequently, one of the most beautiful ways in which the life to come is summarized in the Scriptures is in terms of the believer’s vision of God. In the traditional language of Christian theology, the joy of heaven will consist essentially in the contemplation (visio), knowledge (comprehensio) and enjoyment (fruitio) of God. When believers see God in the life to come and know Him even as they are known, their joy in God will have no measure or end. Indeed, absent the joy of God’s presence and the sight of His face, all of the blessings of the life to come that we have described would amount to very little. For the confession of every believer is that of the Psalmist, “Whom have in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth” (73:25). The restlessness of the human heart finds no end, unless we find our rest in God (Augustine). The deepest longing and thirst of every image-bearer of God can only be quenched by God Himself (Ps. 42:1–2; 63:1–2).
When the Bible speaks of the believer’s future, it is this enjoyment of God, this seeing God face-to-face, that is most emphasized. Whereas sin has brought shame upon the human race so that we cannot look upon God’s face without averting our eyes (Gen. 2:7–11; Luke 18:13), redemption promises the restoration of direct communion between God and His people. The work of Christ as Mediator, not only in justification but also in sanctification, restores those who are united with Him to favor with God (1 Cor. 1:30; Rom. 8:1,33). Sanctified by the work of Christ and His indwelling Spirit, Christ’s people are enabled to see God (Heb. 12:14).when the work of redemption is completed, believers will stand unbowed before God, confident again in His presence that they are acceptable to Him (Heb. 10:19–22). The smile of God’s countenance will shine upon the glorified members of Christ throughout all eternity. The pure in heart will see God (Matt. 5:8). Those who have purified themselves even as He is pure, will be like Him for they shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2).
As with other dimensions of the life to come, this joy of seeing God stands out in the depictions of the new heaven and earth in the book of Revelation. In the last chapter of the Bible, John sees a vision of this enjoyment of God. Using language drawn from the picture of paradise in Genesis, he writes:
And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, and in the middle of it’s street. And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bondservants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face, and His name shall be upon their foreheads. And there shall no longer be any night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever (emphasis mine).
Central to this vision of the future is the believer’s direct communion with God, basking in the light of His presence and favor, enjoying fellowship with Him in the midst of the splendor of the new creation.
That the vision, knowledge and enjoyment of God stand at the center of life in the new creation is undeniable. But, how we are to understand this vision of God is a more difficult matter. In the history of the church, particularly in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the beatific vision and the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis or deification, this vision involves an unmediated knowing of God’s being. Though there are differences between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teaching on the nature of this vision of God, common to these traditions is the idea of an immediate participation in God’s essence. In the Roman Catholic understanding of the beatific vision, believers will know God as He is in His innermost being.2
In the Eastern Orthodox understanding of deification, believers will become so much like God as to be, in some sense, participants in His divine life. Believers, indeed, will become “god-like.”3 Just as God became man in the incarnation, so through mystical union with Christ believers will become by nature as God is. In either view, it is claimed that believers will no longer depend upon any creaturely medium or Mediator in order to see God. The vision of God will be a literal seeing God as He is in His essential nature. All the limitations presently upon our knowledge will fall away, when God is known by us in the same way as we are known by God.
Those who teach this idea of an immediate vision of and participation in the being of God often appeal to 2 Peter 1:4.4 In this text, the apostle Peter declares that God “has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust” (emphasis mine). This text seems to lend support to the view that redemption ultimately involves a separation from the being of this world in order to participate directly in the being of God. Upon first reading, this strange text seems clearly to suggest the idea of an absorption into the being of God Himself.5
There are, however, two considerations that lead me to reject the teaching of an immediate seeing of the being of God in the life to come. The first relates to the meaning of the language of 2 Peter 1:4. The second has to do with the broader issue of the difference between God as Creator and all creatures, a difference that renders suspect any teaching of an immediate participation in the being of God.
When it comes to the meaning of 2 Peter 1:4, the key to interpretation lies in the three Greek terms that are commonly translated, “partakers of the divine nature.” In a recent study of this passage, Al Wolters has offered a persuasive argument for a different translation of these terms.6 Wolters notes that the second term used in this phrase is a noun whose common meaning is that of “partner” or “companion.” He also argues that the first and second terms, usually translated abstractly as “the divine nature,” ought better be translated concretely as “of the deity.” Peter is speaking, on this translation of the text, of the promise that the redeemed people of God become His “partners” or “companions.” Based upon a comparative study of the use of this language in other biblical and extra-biblical literature, Wolters concludes that Peter is using covenantal language. The goal of our redemption, consistent with the general teaching of Scripture, is covenantal fellowship with the Triune God. Rather than conveying the strange idea of a co-mingling of the being of the creature and the being of the Creator, this language conveys the idea of communion between God and those who are His Redemption will find its consummation in the restoration of perfect friendship between God and His people.
This translation and understanding of 2 Peter 1:4 corresponds to the teaching of Scripture that there is an unbridgeable difference in being between the Triune Creator and the creature, even the creature bearing God’s image. For the creature to know and enjoy God, God must take the initiative and condescend to the level of the creature.
Throughout the entire course of creation and redemption, God is the One who comes to us, speaking language we can understand and appearing in a creaturely form within our reach. Accordingly, when God in the fulness of time comes to dwell with us (John 1:14). He does so by way of a Mediator, the Word become flesh. The miracle of the incarnation is not that we climbed our way up to God. The miracle is that God came down to us, assuming our flesh and blood. Through all of His acts of condescension, and chiefly through the incarnation of His beloved son, God is able to be known and loved by the creature. However, at no times does the creature know and enjoy God immediately, that is, apart from any creaturely means of communion. God manifests His power and wisdom, not directly or immediately, but through the means of His handiwork (Ps. 19; Rom. 1:18ff.). God manifests His mercy and grace through the Person and work of Jesus Christ, the Mediator. To see God one must see His glory in the Son (John 1:18; 14:9; 17:24).
In the same way, when God’s fellowship with His people in the new heaven and earth is complete, God will be God and His people will still be creatures. The people of God will not be absorbed into or partake in an immediate way of the being of God. In order to do so, they would have to cease to be who they are as creatures. Nor will they know God with a kind of perfection that knows no boundaries. Though their knowledge and enjoyment of God will be perfected, untainted by the culpable ignorance of sin, it will not be a knowing that fully exhausts who God is in His incomprehensible greatness. To know God even as He knows Himself will ever remain outside of the reach of the creature.
How are we to understand, then, what it will be for God’s people to see God? If it does not mean that we become as God is, knowing Him as He alone knows Himself, then what is meant by the expression, “they shall see His face”?
Though believers have only a small inkling of what this language means, what they do know is full of he promise of the future. To see the face of God means at least this: that believers will dwell in God’s presence without any hint of fear or shame. In the new heaven and earth, God will be as pleased with His people—His face will shine upon them—as they are with Him. God’s joy in His people will be reciprocated by their joy in Him. But more than that, God’s people will see Him without any of the sinful limitations of the present. No sin-induced stupor, no failure of hearing, no blindness of vision will obscure the beauty of God from their knowledge. Though believers will still be creatures, limited in the capacity to know God as He knows Himself, their knowledge of God will be pure and undiminished by sin. Though there will remain a sense in which God’s majesty, splendor. holiness, love, wisdom, and all that He is, surpass the knowledge of any creature in inexhaustible richness still, believers will see God as they have never seen Him before. This seeing will be of one piece with what they have already seen in this life, to be sure (2 Cor. 4:6). But it will be so much richer and fuller, as to leave room only for unending praise and thanksgiving.
Such is the promise of the future for which the children of God wait-to dwell in God’s blessed presence, glorifying and enjoying Him forever.
1 For a brief summary of this traditional understanding, see Bavinck, The Last Things, 162.
2 For an exposition of the traditional Catholic doctrine of the beatific vision, see Joseph Pohle, The Catholic Doctrine of the Last Things: A Dogmatic Treatise (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1917), 34–7. For a classic statement of the doctrine, see Thomas Aquinas, Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anto C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1948), 467–77. Speaking of this vision, Aquinas maintains that, “if God’s essence is to be seen at all, it must be that the intellect sees it through the divine essence (per essentiam) itself; so that in that vision the divine essence is both the object and the medium of vision” (468).
3 For a representation of the view of Eastern Orthodoxy, see T. Ware, The Orthodox Church (Middlesex: Penguin, 1980), 236–42. For a sympathetic treatment of this doctrine by an evangelical theologian, see Daniel B. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), chap. 6, “The Deification of Humanity,” 117–37. Clendenin maintains that Eastern Orthodoxy does not teach a “literal” fusion with the divine essence. Needless to say, the language of Orthodoxy does not seem to guard sufficiently against this idea.
4 T. Ware, The Orthodox Church, calls this “the famous text of 2 Peter” that supports the Eastern Orthodox teaching of theosis or participation in the being of God.
5 See Al Wolters, “‘Partners of the Deity’: A Covenantal Reading of 2 Peter 1:4,” Calvin Theological Journal 25/l (April 1990), 29, for references to commentators who have noted the strangeness of this text.
6 See Al Wolters, “‘Partners of the Deity,’” 28–44; and idem, “Postscript to ‘Partners of the Deity,’” Calvin Theological Journal 26/2 (November 1991), 418–20.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid~America Redemption Seminary in Dyer, IN.