Christian writers from Augustine to Dante picture the eternal destiny of the righteous as beatific vision. The idea is that in eternity, purified from our sins and glorified in our resurrection bodies, we shall behold God in the fullness of His glory. Transfixed with His beauty, our eyes shall gaze upon Him in a kind of everlasting stare. We shall neither want nor need anything other than to behold His presence and to enjoy His glory.
According to this theory, the redeemed in heaven are the subjects of a more or less perpetual trance. The theory is elegant in its simplicity, but it leaves a certain number of loose ends. If all we are meant to do is to gaze upon eternal glory, then why do we need bodies at all? Why put God through the bother of raising us from the dead when disembodied souls would do as well? For that matter, why would we need a new earth? Wouldn’t a strictly spiritual heaven suit the purpose as well or better? To go a step further, why should God ever have bothered with material creation at all if His ultimate purpose was to engage the minds of His people so completely as to render their bodies superfluous?
When we look at the opposite end of redemption history—the creation—we find that spirituality and materiality complement one another in God’s plan. God creates humanity as male and female. He makes them as people who do material things such as eating and reproducing. He gives them material trees with tangible fruit for their food. He surrounds them with material objects of interest. They are able to tell seasons by looking at celestial bodies. They are given opportunity to practice taxonomy on the phyla of animal creation.
God places His people in paradise, but it is not an ethereal utopia. It is a specific land, marked out by rivers, and stretching from Cush to modern Iraq. It contains precious metal and gemstones. To be sure, the original creation included a spiritual dimension—the Lord God walked and spoke with His creatures in the garden. Nevertheless, paradise was irrecoverably material, and the presence of God was not the sole object of human attention.
In fact, part of the way that humans were intended to enjoy and glorify God meant looking away from Him rather than looking at Him. For example, when Adam named the animals, He was looking at lions and tigers and bears, not at God. By looking away from God, he actually learned more about God, for he was able to discern God’s character when He saw it reflected in God’s poiema. The naming of the animals also gave Adam the opportunity to perform a task to the glory of God. If Adam had refused to shift his gaze from the divine presence, then he would actually have missed an occasion to worship and serve God.
There is an important lesson here. We humans discover God’s character by looking at what God does. His mighty works of creation and redemption are the arena within which He puts Himself on display. That is why most of the Bible is a story, and all of the rest of the Bible is reflection upon that story.
There is also another lesson. We worship God, not merely by enjoying His presence and offering Him our praises, but also by serving Him. Serving Him requires us to focus, not upon God Himself, but upon the task that we are performing for His glory. For example, a believing surgeon glorifies God best, not by holding a prayer meeting in the middle of the operating room, but by paying attention to what he is doing while he operates.
Admittedly, Adam had moments when God was the object of his full attention. There were times when Adam was permitted to look at God, and there were times when he was required to look away. Bringing glory to God required Adam to do both, to oscillate between the beatific vision and the everyday things of the world, to alternate between the sacred and the profane—except that, when the ordinary things of this world are used to reveal God’s character and as tools in our service for God, then they, too, become sacred.
Everything in Eden was sacred because everything (material and immaterial alike) was devoted to the glory of God. Everything in our lives should become sacred in exactly the same sense. For the true worshipper of Jehovah, nothing is common.
As it was in the beginning, and as it is now, so it ever shall be, world without end. God does not intend for us to sit eternally in a celestial trance. To be sure, there will be moments of pure adoration when we add our voices to the mighty choir of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs. We, too, shall cast our crowns at His feet. We, too, shall exalt the worthiness of the Lamb.
That being said, there is still the new earth, the holy city, the river, the tree of life, the nations, and our own resurrection bodies. While none of these things will be exactly natural, they will be material. Materiality must have some purpose, even in eternity future. Why should it be unthinkable that we might be required to shift our gaze away from the divine Shekinah in order that we may see the many splendors of His glory reflected in what He does and has done? Why should it be unreasonable to suppose that He will have some task for us to perform, some exercise of mind and limb, to which we must direct our attention in order to honor Him?
Eternity is spiritual. That is certain. But eternity is also material. These do not contradict each other.
Te Deum Laudamus
Anonymous (4th Century)
We praise Thee, O God,
we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship Thee,
the Father everlasting.
To Thee all angels cry aloud,
the heavens and all the powers therein;
To Thee Cherubim and Seraphim
continually do cry,
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth:
Heaven and earth are full of the majesty
of Thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets
The noble army of Martyrs praise Thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world
doth acknowledge Thee,
The Father of an infinite Majesty;
Thine adorable, true and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ;
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
When Thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man
Thou didst humble Thyself
to be born of a virgin.
When Thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death
Thou didst open the kingdom of heaven
to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God
in the glory of the Father.
We believe that Thou shalt come
to be our Judge.
We therefore pray Thee help Thy servants
whom Thou hast redeemed
with Thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with Thy saints
in glory everlasting.
O Lord, save Thy people,
and bless Thine heritage.
Govern them, and lift them up forever.
Day by Day we magnify Thee,
And we worship Thy Name forever,
world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us
this day without sin.
O Lord, have mercy upon us,
have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let Thy mercy be upon us,
as our trust is in Thee.
O Lord, in Thee have I trusted,
let me never be confounded.
|This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.|