We often think of heaven as something that affects us after we die, with little impact on our daily lives now. Heaven feels speculative, ethereal, and impractical; we’re better off spending our time dealing with down-to-earth things.
But Jonathan Edwards believed that being “too heavenly minded for earthly good” is an impossibility. The only way to be of true earthly good is to be heavenly minded. Thinking about heaven doesn’t take our eyes off of the world; it allows us to live in the world according to the way of Christ.
To live a heavenly life now you must “set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). The “things that are above” don’t primarily reference a place, but the triune God. Heaven is only “heavenly” because God is there. He’s the spring of love that gives life and direction to that place.
The life we know now is given direction by that same source of life and love, so we must grasp what it means to know God. In this sense, the Christian life isn’t abstracted from heaven, but is directly connected to it. In fact, our heavenly and earthly lives are not two different journeys, but are two phases of the same pilgrimage.
On earth, we learn more and more about God, but our knowledge is always imperfect. In heaven, we know God perfectly, but not fully. Let me explain.
In heaven, we know God perfectly, but not fully.
If God is a fountain, in heaven we’re buckets full of God. Since we’re full, we’re perfectly satisfied, but our capacity continues to grow. We become larger buckets. We continue to learn more about God and love God more and more. We remain perfectly full, but since God is infinite he is never fully known. We’re always growing and eternally expanding in our desire to know God and love him more—and yet our satisfaction never wanes, but increases exponentially.
Heaven is a journey with God where we grow in love and knowledge of him for eternity; where our own love abounds to others in a society of love. Therefore, the term “heaven” refers to the day when love of God and neighbor reign unhindered.
But that journey starts here.
The Christian tradition has talked about this heavenly journey in terms of participating in the “beatific vision“: seeing God face to face. The sight of God, Edwards tells us, is “happifying” (which is what beatific means); it causes happiness to well up inside a person. It would be foolish to think that seeing God is uninteresting, or interesting only in an academic sense. Seeing God fulfills the design of humanity, and therefore sets the mind and heart into motion—it happifies. Seeing God brings a person to complete satisfaction. Edwards describes this experience:
The Beatifical Vision of God: that is the tip of happiness! To see a God of infinite glory and majesty face to face, to see him as he is, and to know him as we are known; there to be admitted into the most intimate acquaintance with him, to be embraced as in his arms: this is such a privilege as Moses himself could not be admitted to while on earth. The vision and fruition of God will be so intimate and clear as to transform the soul into the likeness of God: “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is,” says the apostle (1 John 3:2). (324)
The “tip of happiness”—or, we might say, the goal of humanity—is to see God face to face and be embraced as his own. This is the land to which we, as believers, journey; a land where God dwells, and where God’s love is open to his redeemed in full. Life is a pilgrimage of faith that dissolves into sight. That sight is the beatific vision.
Life is a pilgrimage of faith that dissolves into sight. That sight is the beatific vision.
Since the culmination of faith is sight, faith comes to take on attributes of sight. As pilgrims, we see through a glass darkly, but we see nonetheless (1 Cor. 13:12). It is by faith, what we might call spiritual sight (1 Cor. 2:14–16). We have, after all, seen God in Christ, even though our “sight” is through faith. The life of faith isn’t void of sight; it’s just void of physical sight.
Becoming Like God
The bulk of biblical passages used to talk about the beatific vision speak to this reality—that by faith we taste the preliminary fruit of Christ’s redemptive work, and as we do so we’re transformed into his image:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
In a real sense, seeing God is to become like God. This biblical point is incredibly important for Edwards’s understanding of the Christian life. Truly seeing God is grasping him as the highest good, truth, and beauty. It’s having your eyes opened to take in the reality of who he is. It’s receiving his love in full and having him as the object of your love. As Henry Scougal notes, “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love” (23). What you love is the true north that orients the compass of your heart. In heaven, God the Father is the true north of every soul, oriented by Christ, and set into motion by the Spirit of God.
In heaven, God the Father is the true north of every soul, oriented by Christ, and set into motion by the Spirit of God.
This is the journey Christians are already on—as pilgrims in the way of eternity. When eternity captures a Christian’s imagination, the God of love and glory orients the entirety of his life. Edwards meditated deeply on heaven because he knew it would help him to live well here. His meditation on heaven allowed him to see his sin for what it was, it helped him weigh decisions, and it allowed him to trust more deeply in the ways of God. We can never be too heavenly-minded for earthly good, because our goal is never to “get out of here” but to be captivated by the God of glory.