I’ve been reading through Thomas Aquinas’s take on the beatific vision for the last few weeks, especially using his Summa and commentary on 2 Corinthians 5. I have found his discussions illuminating and helpful for an understanding of contemplation. In this post, I am going to summarize his thoughts.
Thomas begins by asking the question, “Can the intellect attain to the vision of God in his essence?” (Summa, Suppl. IIIae, 92, 1). He first summarizes 16 objections to the question, namely, that the human intellect cannot perceive God in his essence. In other words, a beatific vision is impossible. Thomas, however, responds with a quick snapshot of specific Scripture references, including a succinct exegesis that explains his position against the objections (cf. Exod 33:13, 20; Ps 79:20; John 14:8, 21; 1 Cor 13:12; 15:24; 1 John 3:2). He thus maintains that the human intellect can indeed attain to the vision of God in his essence.
In his answer, Thomas further explains why the contrary position is “untenable.” He gives two reasons, one of which is more interesting than the other. The first, he says, is “because it is in contradiction to the authority of canonical scripture, as Augustine declares (De Videndo Deo: Ep. cxlvii).” The second is more interesting. Thomas argues that because humans are fundamentally intelligent, and happiness must consist in that operation being perfected in him, the human intellect must therefore attain to the vision of the divine essence. He elaborates,
Now since the perfection of an intelligent being as such is the intelligible object, if in the most perfect operation of his intellect man does not attain to the vision of the Divine essence, but to something else, we shall be forced to conclude that something other than God is the object of man’s happiness: and since the ultimate perfection of a thing consists in its being united to its principle, it follows that something other than God is the effective principle of man, which is absurd, according to us.
In other words, God must be the object of human happiness. If the highest, most proper capacity of humans (namely, the intellect) cannot attain the vision of God himself, then God cannot be the object of human happiness. Moreover, if the human intellect cannot attain the vision of God’s essence (and yet humans will be united with God), then something other than God must be the cause of such union. Either conclusion is problematic, both biblically and philosophically. Therefore, Thomas concludes, the intellect must attain to the vision of God in his essence. He states, “Consequently, according to us, it must be asserted that our intellect will at length attain to the vision of the Divine essence, and according to the philosophers, that it will attain to the vision of separate substances.”
While I would object to Thomas’s overall intellectualist account of humans here, Thomas has a strong point. To be sure, Thomas could also argue his case by suggesting that humans are most properly loving or worshiping or serving creatures (and not intellectual). Either way, his point stands: if we cannot perceive God for who he truly is, then we are not worshiping God for who he truly is. In other words, in the final beatific vision, we must somehow be gazing at God himself, in Christ, by the Spirit. If we are not gazing at the essence of God himself, then who/what are we gazing at?
In his Summa, Thomas strongly avers that we can attain to the vision of God in his essence. He builds upon this foundational argument in his commentary on 2 Corinthians 5. Herein he explains more specifically the nature of the beatific vision. He lists at least four characteristics.
First, Thomas says that the vision will be characterized by walking by sight, not faith (Commentary on 2 Corinthians, 5:2.164). Faith deals with things that are unseen, while sight deals with things seen. Because God himself enlightens heaven, wherein the beatific vision occurs, “we shall then see him by sight, i.e., in his essence” (Ibid.).
Second, Thomas notes that grace is victorious (5:2.165). In other words, in the vision, God is victorious over all others, including death (cf. 5:2.162-63).
Third, Thomas notes that one is absent from the body and present with the Lord (5:2.165-67). He thus notes that the person upon death immediately experiences the beatific vision: “Therefore, the answer is that the saints see the essence of God immediately after death and dwell in a heavenly mansion. Thus, therefore, it is plain that the reward which the saints await is inestimable” (Ibid., 167).
Fourth, Thomas explains that we will resist sin and please God perfectly. Now, because our “whole desire” is to be present with God, we strive to resist sin and please God (Ibid., 168-69). We do this in this life, because “unless we strive to please him in this life, while we are absent, we shall not be able to please him or be present with him in the other life” (Ibid., 169). We also strive to please God “from consideration of future judgment, when we must all be manifested” (Ibid., 170).
Thomas then concludes by specifically noting five marks of the future judgment. First, it is universal. No one is exempt from judgment (Ibid., 170-71). Second, it is inevitable. While people can dodge human justice, they cannot dodge the certain justice when all is manifest (172). Third, and related, it is necessary. No one can escape it, either through intercession or contumacy (172). The fourth concerns the authority of the judge, that is, Jesus Christ. It is authorized by Christ. The fifth concerns the equity of the judge; namely, there will be rewards and punishments according to one’s merits.
Thomas provides some excellent categories to begin to think about the nature of the beatific vision. He is more than helpful. Nonetheless, like any thinker, his analysis is by no means complete, and his evaluation is not always precise and accurate. What is perhaps most disappointing is that Thomas does not discuss the beatific vision or judgment from the vantage point of God’s triune activity. It seems to me that a discussion along these lines could clarify exactly what the beatific vision is all about. I will leave this discussion for another day.