In Common Worship: Services and Prayer for the Church of England there is a beautiful post-communion prayer to be said together by the congregation:
You have opened to us the Scriptures, O Christ,
And you have made yourself known in the breaking of the bread.
Abide with us, we pray, that blessed by your royal presence,
We may walk with you all the days of our life,
And at its end behold you in the glory of the eternal Trinity,
One God for ever and ever. Amen.
Whenever I say this prayer I am always struck by the description of the Christian hope – “and at its end behold you in the glory of the eternal Trinity”. This contrasts with so much popular thought, where heaven is a place for self-indulgence – as Sydney Smith put it, “My idea of heaven is, eating patė de foie gras to the sound of trumpets”. It contrasts too with much popular piety, where heaven is above all a place where we are reunited with loved ones (and indeed many others!) who have gone before. But heaven is so much more. The true Christian hope is God-centred – it is seeing God face to face.
This understanding of heaven has its roots in the Old Testament. The Psalmist, for instance, said with longing: “I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness” (Psalm 17.15). In another Psalm he wrote: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord…” (Psalm 27.4 NRSV), or in the words of the GNB: “to marvel at his goodness”.
In the New Testament we find Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount saying: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5.8). Paul writes to the church at Corinth: “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face”. John in his description of the new Jerusalem says of the redeemed who are before the throne of God: “they will see his face” (Rev 22.4).
What does it mean to see God face to face? I consulted three commentators on the Book of Revelation. David Aune suggested that the phrase is a metaphor “for a full awareness of the presence and power of God“. Julius Schniewind in his commentary on Revelation believed that it is the “freedom to look into the eyes of the Almighty Judge without shame, in contrast to those from whom God hides his face in wrath against their misdeeds”. Stephen Smalley saw it as a description of “the intimacy of the relationship” which we will share with God.
Augustine of Hippo in the City of God argued that it is this vision of God in heaven which sustains believers throughout their pilgrimage of faith:
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. What else can be meant through the prophet, ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’ that ‘I shall be their satisfaction. I shall be all that people honourably desire – life, health, nourishment, satisfaction, glory, honour, peace, and all good things?’ This, too, is the right interpretation of the saying of the apostle ‘That God may be all in all’. God shall be the end of all our desires, who will be seen without end, loved without cloy, and praised without weariness.
Many centuries later Dante’s Divine Comedy reaches its climax when the poet, after his epic journeys through hell and purgatory, emerges to behold “The love that moves the sun and the other stars”. As John Donne put it: “No man ever saw God and lived. And yet, I shall not live till I see God” (Sermon XCV). Or to quote O.A. Lambert’s popular song from the late 1950s:
Heaven is a wonderful place
Filled with glory and grace.
I wanna see my Saviour’s face,
‘Cause Heaven is a wonderful place
I wanna go there!