“Some Protestants believe, contrary to Catholic teaching, that our justification doesn’t consist in us being intrinsically righteous. Rather, God merely declares us righteous, whereby we receive Christ’s personal righteousness, and God treats us just as he treats Christ. In other words, God sees Christ when he sees us.
To make their case, these Protestants will often appeal to 2 Corinthians 5:21, where Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Just as Christ is said to be sin when he wasn’t, so the argument goes, so too sinners are reckoned to be righteous (“become the righteousness of God”) when they aren’t. And if we’re reckoned righteous without being intrinsically righteous, then it must be Christ’s righteousness that we receive.
Let’s see how we might respond to this argument.
Key to the argument is its interpretation of the term sin. It interprets sin as literally referring to actions that contravene God’s law. But we have good reason to think Paul is referring to something else here—namely, a sin offering.
In the Old Testament, the term “sin” (Greek, hamartia) is often used to refer to a “sin offering.” Consider, for example, Leviticus 4:33:
If he brings a lamb as his offering for a sin offering [Greek, hamartia], he shall bring a female without blemish, and lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering [Greek, hamartia], and kill it for a sin offering in the place where they kill the burnt offering.
(The English translator inserted the third “sin offering” above for clarity. There’s no corresponding hamartia in the original text, so the third “sin offering” above does not translate hamartia only in a technical sense.)
Other passages include Leviticus 5:12 and 6:25. Isaiah 53:10 directly applies hamartia to the suffering Messiah, who is expected to make himself a sin offering: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin [Greek, hamartia].”
It’s against this Old Testament backdrop that Paul speaks of Jesus as being “made sin.” And he does so within a context where he speaks of Christ reconciling the world back to God:
18: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
19: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”
20: “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Given this context of Christ’s reconciliation and the Old Testament usage of hamartia to refer to a sin offering, it’s reasonable to interpret Paul’s use of hamartia in 2 Corinthians 5:21 as referring to Jesus, the suffering Messiah, becoming the atoning sacrifice for the redemption of the world rather than being considered something he’s not: sin itself.
Since the fundamental assumption of the argument that we’re considering here is false, it fails to justify (yes, the pun is intended) the idea that we can be reckoned righteous when we’re not actually (intrinsically) righteous.
This leads to a second response. Given our above interpretation that “sin” refers to “sin offering,” notice that Paul doesn’t think Christ is “considered” a sin offering; rather, Christ actuallyis the sin offering. Jesus bore our sins as the sacrificial victim so we could be reconciled back to God, as Paul teaches in the preceding verses (vv. 18-20). If Christ actually is the atoning sacrifice and is not merely “considered” to be so, and our “becoming the righteousness of God” is parallel to that, which many Protestants affirm, then we should interpret our becoming righteous as actually becoming righteous rather than being merely considered or reckoned righteous.
Protestant New Testament scholar N.T. Wright concurs:
The little word genōmetha in 2 Corinthians 5:21b—“that we might become God’s righteousness in him”—does not sit comfortably with the normal interpretation, according to which God’s righteousness is “imputed” or “reckoned” to believers. If that was what Paul meant, with the overtones of “extraneous righteousness” that normally come with that theory, the one thing he ought not to have said is that we “become” that righteousness. Surely that leans far too much toward a Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness?
It’s important to note here that Catholics do not believe that the phrase “becoming the righteousness of God” means we become the righteousness that is God’s own righteousness in virtue, being pure existence. Rather, the idea is that the righteousness that we receive when we’re justified is a righteousness that comes from God, since it is he who makes us just. This is the sense that Paul has in mind in Philippians 3:9, where he writes, “That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Now, it’s possible that the phrase “becoming the righteousness of God” refers not to something about us, but rather to God’s own righteousness, or faithfulness to the covenant, being manifest in the world through us. This is how Paul uses the phrase “the righteousness of God” in Romans 3:25-26: “This [Jesus’s expiatory death] was to show God’s righteousness . . . it was to prove at the present time that he is righteous.” So Paul could be saying in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that God has manifested his righteousness (fidelity to the covenant) by saving us through Christ, who is the promised sin offering (“sin”) that reconciles the human race back to God.
Although this interpretation of the phrase “becoming the righteousness of God” excludes 2 Corinthians 5:21 as positive evidence for God making us actually righteous, it remains the case that 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not support the teaching that we, as justified Christians, have only our legal standing changed before God.
So, as Catholics, we need not change our view of justification based on 2 Corinthians 5:21. We can still believe that when God justifies us, he makes us intrinsically righteous by his grace. In the words of Paul, he makes us a “new creation,” with the old passing away and the new having come (2 Cor. 5:17).
(n.b. Catholics are NOT to seek martyrdom!! Marcionite heretics did this. Catholics are to embrace martyrdom if inescapable or requires apostasy to avoid.)
“Christianity was first preached in a world where the Greco-Roman understanding of death and the afterlife shaped much of the Western world. Across the Roman Empire, most people professed their faith in the various pagan gods, including Pluto (or Hades), who they believed ruled the Underworld. At the Underworld’s entrance, the ferryman Charon moved spirits across the River Styx from the land of the living to the land of the dead. Once they made it to the other side, all the dead faced judgment, with the good going to Elysium, the bad being thrown into the pit of Tartarus, and the mediocre rest (the majority of humanity) aimlessly drifting about in the City of Pluto (or what the Greeks called the Asphodel Meadows). Some Romans also believed those who’d been judged worthy could choose to be reincarnated.
This vision of the afterlife offered some consolation to those who actually believed it, but not enough. Most Romans, like most of humanity, still feared what awaited them in the dark room of death. And that fear manifested itself in how they treated their dead.
The pagan Romans thought that if dead bodies weren’t treated a certain way and certain conditions weren’t met, the person’s soul would be denied admittance to the Underworld. Rather than receiving its eternal reward, the soul would instead endure an almost purgatory-like existence, waiting perpetually on the wrong side of the River Styx. The Romans also believed that if they failed to provide their departed loved ones with a proper burial, those waiting ghosts would return to haunt them.
For the rich, preventing this two-headed fate was a simple matter. They paid for elaborate funerals and lengthy funeral processions, which included professional mourners and friends wearing masks designed to look like the ancestors of the deceased. They also made sure to place a coin on or in the dead person’s mouth so that the soul could pay Charon to ferry them across the River Styx.
After the funeral procession concluded, a eulogy was often given. Next, the body was placed on a pyre and burned. The remaining ashes and bones were then placed in an urn, which was interred in some kind of sepulcher—usually highly decorated, with monuments to the deceased and even lifelike pictures of them. Those sepulchers were located outside the city gates, as the Romans liked to keep their dead far from them, at a “safe” distance. They did visit the sepulcher on various days throughout the year, though, believing that by making periodic offerings to their dearly departed, what remained of the person—their “shade”—would temporarily remember who they once were and earn a brief reprieve from aimlessly wandering about the Underworld.
For the poor, funerals were less impressive, with the funerary societies they frequently joined (for a small fee) providing shorter processions (just a musician or two), no eulogy, and interment of the ashes in a humbler resting site—often catacombs carved into clay and rock outside the city.
The poorest of the poor didn’t even have that. Those with no family or friends to fear a haunting and no money to join a funerary society were simply thrown into large pits or dumped into sewers.
In the late third and fourth centuries, many of these practices among the pagan Romans began to change, with inhumation (burial) gradually replacing cremation. Although some Romans had buried their dead in previous centuries, inhumation was considered a foreign (more specifically, Jewish) practice. The growing presence of Christians in their midst, however, along with other social shifts, changed that.
For the Christians, like the Romans, how they treated the dead was bound up with what they believed about life after death. But unlike their pagan counterparts, the Christians didn’t fear death. They welcomed it. Writing in the early fourth century, St. Athanasius remarked: “Everyone is by nature afraid of death and of bodily dissolution; the marvel of marvels, is that he who is enfolded in the faith of the cross despises this natural fear and for the sake of the cross is no longer cowardly in the face of it.”1
When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, He didn’t switch a bright overhead light on in heaven, completely destroying the darkness that shrouded what awaits us after death. He gave us more of a night-light, making some things clear while leaving other things a mystery. But to Athanasius and other early Christians, that didn’t matter. The nightlight was sufficient because Jesus was there. Much like the presence of a mother or father can completely chase away a child’s fears of the dark, Jesus’s presence chased away the early Christians’ fear of death. They knew He would be there to greet them, and that was enough. Athanasius explains:
‘Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed and become incorruptible through the resurrection … Even children hasten to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength.2‘
To those Christian men, women, and children who “hasten[ed] to die,” death wasn’t the ultimate evil or the great unknown. It was the doorway to spending eternity with their beloved: Jesus Christ. We see this conviction in the firsthand accounts of martyrs, such as Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, who faced death in Carthage’s arena in AD 203.
Both women were young wives and mothers: Felicity was pregnant at the time of their arrest, and Perpetua was still nursing her infant son. As the day of their death approached, the women didn’t want to run from it. Rather, Felicity prayed she would deliver her child soon so that she could face martyrdom with her fellow prisoners (even the Romans thought it beyond the pale to kill a pregnant women), and Perpetua gave thanks when her son finally weaned.
Felicity’s prayers were answered, and on the day of the scheduled execution, she accompanied Perpetua and their fellow Christians into the arena, “joyous and of brilliant countenances.” Perpetua sang psalms as she walked, and when the crowds demanded that the Christians be scourged before they faced the beasts, the women “rejoiced that they should have incurred any one of their Lord’s passions.” Finally, the women, like Jesus, freely gave their lives; they were not taken from them. We’re told: “when the swordsman’s hand wandered still (for he was a novice), [Perpetua] set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain … had she not herself so willed it.”3
In the centuries that followed, holy men and women faced death with the same eagerness that Perpetua, Felicity, and other earlier martyrs, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, did. They wanted nothing more than to be in heaven with Christ. As Ignatius, on his way to martyrdom in AD 108, explained:
‘No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He Who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He Who rose for our sakes is my one desire.4
One thousand years later, that same desire to be with Christ led St. Bernard of Clairvaux to describe the death of a just man not as “terrifying,” but as “consoling”:
‘His death is good, because it ends his miseries; it is better still, because he begins a new life; it is excellent, because it places him in sweet security. From this bed of mourning, whereon he leaves a precious load of virtues, he goes to take possession of the true land of the living, Jesus acknowledges him as His brother and as His friend, for he has died to the world before closing his eyes from its dazzling light. Such is the death of the saints, a death very precious in the sight of God.5‘
From the thirteenth century—when St. Rose of Viterbo advised, “Live so as not to fear death. For those who live well in the world, death is not frightening but sweet and precious”—to the nineteenth century, when St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote: “It is not Death that will come to fetch me, it is the good God”—saint after saint encouraged Christians to welcome death. And many listened.
In Phillipe Ariès’s landmark survey of depictions of death in the literature of Western Civilization, he classifies pre-modern deaths as “tame deaths,” noting how the protagonists almost universally faced death with calm, peace, and ease. It was death, he explains, that brought people back to their senses, focused their attention, and was welcomed, almost as an old friend.6
Christians weren’t going to imitate the pagans and, as Tertullian put it, “burn up their dead with harshest inhumanity.”8 As Tertullian explained elsewhere, those who followed Christ were to “avert a cruel custom with regard to the body since, being human, it does not deserve what is inflicted upon criminals.”9 And so, from the very first, Christians buried their dead as Christ had been buried, and they did so with no fear of being made “unclean” or “polluted” by contact with the dead body. For the Christians, the dead body wasn’t “unclean” (as the Jews saw it), nor did those who handled it fear being haunted by some remnant of the person’s soul (as the pagans did). Writing in the fourth and fifth centuries, St. Augustine discussed the reverence Christians believed was due to the dead body, noting: The bodies of the dead, and especially of the just and faithful are not to be despised or cast aside. The soul has used them as organs and vessels of all good work in a holy manner. … Bodies are not ornament or for aid, as something that is applied externally, but pertain to the very nature of the man.10
Importantly, Christians understood the injunction to care for and bury the dead as universal; it applied to all bodies—the bodies of the poor, the stranger, the diseased, even the pagan. Accounts about early Christian communities are filled with stories of them seeking out the forgotten poor and burying them with the same care they showed to family members. Tertullian also tells us that in his native Carthage and other cities, the Church’s common resources were used to pay for the burying of the dead. There was no throwing the bodies of the poor into a pit or the sewers among the Christians.
Their pagan neighbors took note of that. In his essay “To Bury or Burn?,” the Protestant ethicist David W. Jones tells us:
‘The last of the non-Christian emperors, Julian the Apostate (AD 332–363), identified “care of the dead” as one of the factors that contributed to the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world. The church historian Philip Schaff, too, identified Christians’ display of “decency to the human body” in showing care for the dead as one of the main reasons for the church’s rapid conquest of the ancient world.11‘
In time, burying the dead would become known as one of the seven corporalworks of mercy, considered as much an act of charity as feeding the hungry or tending to the sick. Religious associations, such as the Archconfraternity of the Beheaded John the Baptist in Florence and the Archconfraternity of St. Mary of the Oration and Death in Rome, also were formed to offer Christian funerals and burials to those who would otherwise have none.
No bodies, though, not rich nor poor, received as much attention as those of the martyrs.”
Love & Resurrection,
1 Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 58.
2 Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 57.
3 Tertullian, The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, 6.
4 Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, 6.
5 Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted in Charles Kenny, Half Hours with the Saints and Servants of God (London: Burns and Oats, 1882), 450.
6 See Phillipe Ariès, Western Attitudes Toward Death, trans. Patricia Ranum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 1–25.
8 Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 1.
9 Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, 51.
10 Augustine, On the Care of the Dead, 5.
11 Jones, “To Bury or Burn?,” 337.
“In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we’re told that “sacraments are ‘powers that come forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving” (CCC 1116). These sacraments are the means by which God “resurrects us” in this life. Baptism restores divine life to our souls. The Eucharist nourishes that life. Confession replenishes it. Confirmation, Marriage, and Holy Orders strengthen it. And the Anointing of the Sick stirs up the divine life within us to heal our bodies and prepare our souls for eternal life. Today, as the Catechism says, the graces of all these sacraments come to us from the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. But before there was the Body of Christ, there was the body of Christ. Prior to the institution of the sacraments, Jesus is the sacrament. So, in the Gospels, it’s His actual physical body from which “powers … come forth.” In His lifetime, those powers did to people’s bodies what the sacraments have done to people’s souls ever since.
Jesus’s body does to our bodies what the sacraments do to our souls. Jesus’s body heals bodies. Jesus’s body teaches bodies. Jesus’s body feeds bodies. Jesus’s body raises bodies from the dead. Throughout His public ministry, powers go forth from His body, restoring people to the fullness of natural life. But the restoration of natural life isn’t enough. Jesus came for so much more than that. And the healings He works on earth both foreshadow the “more” and prove that more is possible. That is, they foreshadow the resurrection to come and prove that Jesus means what He says when He promises that all will rise again with Him on the last day.
“The Paschal Mystery has two aspects: by His death, Christ liberates us from sin; by His Resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life. This new life is above all justification that reinstates us in God’s grace … Justification consists in both victory over the death caused by sin and a new participation in grace.” (cf. Eph 2:4–5; 1 Pet 1:3) (CCC 654)
“For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in a single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so it is with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence, the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.” –Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 35.
The resurrected Christ is not a ghost or a spirit, but He also isn’t a body like He once was. He has been resurrected to a new life, in a new kind of body, and that is the kind of resurrection, that is the kind of body that is promised to us, one that is “sown in dishonor … raised in glory … sown in weakness … raised in power … sown a physical body … raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:43–44).
“At the dawn of creation, God filled the universe with signs that pointed to Himself. The whole world was meant to be a type of catechesis, an instruction in Who God is, what He does, and how He loves us.
It still is. Everywhere you look, there are natural analogies of His power, goodness, and love: the sun, the moon, the stars; the mountains, the oceans, the rivers; and especially, the man, the woman, and the child. Like the sun and the oceans, the human family reveals important truths about God. We are made in God’s image, and how we care for each other, protect each other, and especially how we give life to each other—to new generations—teaches us something about God, Whose nature is life-giving love.
This is good. The world, the family, what it has to teach us—it’s all good. God created it to be good. But the good is not God, and in a fallen world, the danger always exists that we will confuse the two. That we will worship the sun instead of the One Whose light the sun reflects. That we will worship the river instead of the One of Whose power the river reminds us. That we will worship the earthly family instead of the divine family for which we were made.
This is demonic bait. The world is pointing to the world to come, but the devil doesn’t want us to see that. Or, he doesn’t want us to care. Satan wants to convince us that this world is all there is, that this life is enough.
But the natural world is passing, which means that to worship the natural is always to enter into a covenant with death. It’s the deadliest form of worship. And yet, this is and was a temptation for fallen humanity. It was especially a temptation in a world where the fullness of truth had yet to be revealed, where God was only gradually filling in the blanks about Who He is and what He has in store for us.
To prevent the Israelites from the tendency to ancestor worship is why specific mourning rites are forbidden in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, such as the shaving of the head and the gashing of the skin (Lev 19:27, 21:5; Deut 14:1). Both rites were practiced among the Canaanites, who saw those acts as a way of making sacrifices to and communing with the dead.
For similar reasons, the Israelites are forbidden from offering tithes to the dead, such as wheat or animal products (Deut 26:14). Throughout the ancient world, people commonly made offerings to the dead or buried the dead with wealth and food. But Israel was not to be like its neighbors.
Likewise, in Numbers 19:11 we read, “He who touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days.” Numbers then goes on to outline an elaborate cleansing ritual, not only for those who touch the dead but also for anyone who even goes into the tent of someone who died.
Why would God issue such laws? Because the Israelites were going to catch cooties from the dead body? Because the body isn’t hygienic? No. Because God wanted Israel to understand that physical death is a sign of spiritual death. It’s a sign of what sin does to the soul. And sin is catching. It’s as contagious as any disease and as deadly as any disease. More deadly, actually.
We see this even more explicitly in Ezekiel 37 when God has Ezekiel preach to a valley of dead bones. The bones are a symbol of Israel. They are dead and defiled. And the defilement of their physical condition is a sign of the defilement of their spiritual condition. They had forgotten God, forgotten His ways, and lost the hope He had promised them. Through that forgetting, they defiled their souls. “Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off ’” (Ezek 37:11).
Telling the Israelites that touching the dead defiles them is a pedagogical lesson to help the Israelites learn to detest sin. The same goes for the prohibition on touching a leper. God doesn’t primarily care about skin purity. He cares about soul purity. And leprosy in the Bible is a sign of sin. It does to a person’s body what breaking God’s law does to the soul.”
‘What else could he possibly do, being God, but renew His image in mankind? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.’ -Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 39–41
Zoe/Ζωή, in many ways, is the ultimate gift of the Incarnation. It is the ultimate reason for the Incarnation. It’s the why behind Jesus coming. But, unlike the new dignity all bodies take on through the Incarnation, zoe/Ζωή isn’t imparted to all people automatically. It’s imparted through Baptism.
In Baptism, we are born anew, receiving what Adam lost—the gift of divine life—into our souls once more. It’s easy to dismiss Baptism as a mere symbol, but when you understand the difference between bios/βιο and zoe/Ζωή and between physical death and spiritual death, it becomes clear that the Sacrament of Baptism is more than figurative or symbolic. There is an ontological reality to our resurrection.
In the waters of Baptism, we die and rise by being united to Christ’s resurrected body. The divine life is restored to us so that the newly baptized person is more resurrected than Lazarus was. Lazarus got his natural, physical life back after four days. But in Baptism, we get our supernatural and divine life back, the life that Adam lost in the very beginning of time.
Baptism makes it possible for us to live the life for which God made us—a life that is more than natural—that is, in fact, supernatural. It also makes it possible for us to live a more fully human life, to enter more deeply into those things that make this earthly life worth living and have richer, more intimate connections with family and friends.
But Baptism doesn’t just affect our souls; it affects our bodies, too.
In all the sacraments, sanctifying grace—God’s own life— comes to us through our bodies. In Baptism, in Confirmation, in Marriage, in Holy Orders, and above all, in the Eucharist, God’s life enters into these bodies of ours through matter—water, wine, oil, a bishop’s hands, a spouse’s body— restoring the divine life that was lost by Adam and strengthening it within us. That grace divinizes our bodies. It makes them holy. It makes them temples. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” asks Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:16.
In every single baptized person who is not in a state of mortal sin, God lives. He dwells within us. All human life is sacred because it is a gift from God and because man is made in the image of God. But the bodies of the baptized have a holiness that comes from the sanctifying grace abiding within them. As C. S. Lewis once remarked in his famous lecture, “The Weight of Glory”:
‘Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way [as the Blessed Sacrament], for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.’ -C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 19.
Importantly, the holiness of the baptized body doesn’t end with death. Grace continues to linger in the bodies and bones of those united to Christ. That’s why Catholic cemeteries are considered holy ground. The bodies of the baptized are buried there. And those bodies are the seed of the resurrected body.
Jesus promises to transform our resurrected bodies, to glorify them, to deify them. “As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust,” writes St. Paul, “and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:48–49).
This promise of resurrection is our hope. It is that on which we stake our life. It is what enables us, as Christians, to face death with courage and joy.”
“The Holy Spirit is the giver of physical life, of what the Greeks called bios/βιο…there’s bios/βιο and then there’s zoe/Ζωή. Zoe/Ζωή is the word the Greek translators of the Old Testament used in Genesis 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [zoe/Ζωή]; and man became a living being.”
Unlike bios/βιο, zoe/Ζωή conveys so much more than mere physical existence. God didn’t just breathe air into Adam’s nostrils; He breathed life—spiritual life, eternal life, divine life. He breathed His own life into Adam. He gave Adam the life that from all eternity the Father is always communicating to the Son and that the Son is receiving and communicating right back to the Father. That life is so whole, so complete, it’s actually a Person: the Third Person of the Trinity. God breathed His Spirit into Adam, and that made it possible for him to live a life that wasn’t just natural, but supernatural.
Filled with zoe/Ζωή, Adam knew God intimately, familiarly, as a son knows his father, from the first moment of existence. He also imaged God, much as a son images his father, although his resemblance wasn’t physical; it was spiritual and intellectual.
When we understand the distinction between bios/βιο and zoe/Ζωή, God’s words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:16–17 start to make a lot more sense. There, God lays out the ground rules for life in Eden, explaining, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” In the original Hebrew, even more emphasis is placed on the word “die.” The literal translation of that passage is “die the death.” God sounds serious there. Deadly serious.
But when you realize there are two kinds of life—bios/βιο and zoe/Ζωή—you also realize there are two kinds of death— bodily death and spiritual death. Adam and Eve didn’t die physically that day in the Garden, but they did die spiritually. They lost something far more precious than natural life: they lost supernatural life, divine life, the gift of sanctifying grace in their soul.
We’re born physically alive, but spiritually dead…This is what mortal sin is. It is spiritual death.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s movie “The Sixth Sense” the young character Cole reveals that he sees dead people, but more significantly, that they don’t know they’re dead. They see what they want to see. They hear what they want to hear. They ignore the reality of their own death, even though it is staring them in the face.
This is the world in which we live. Only, the people who don’t realize they’re dead aren’t physically dead; they’re spiritually dead. Some are unbaptized. Others are baptized but have fallen into mortal sin. But the spiritually dead are everywhere—on our streets and in our schools, in our workplaces and even in our parishes.
All around us are people not living the life they were made to live, who don’t have the life of God dwelling in their souls. They are the living dead—the reality to which all those zombie movies point. And they don’t even know it. They see what they want to see. They hear what they want to hear.
Importantly, these people aren’t less dead than those who are physically dead but alive in Christ. They are more dead. They are more dead than the saints, more dead than the souls in purgatory.
The sixth-century bishop, St. Julian of Toledo, noted, that’s not a warning most of us heed:
“Everyone fears death of the flesh, few fear death of the soul. All are preoccupied with the coming of death of the flesh, which sooner or later, certainly must come. And for this they weary themselves. Destined to die, humankind struggles to avoid dying, and yet, destined to live forever, they do not labor to avoid sinning. And when they struggle to avoid death, they labor in vain; in fact, the most they obtain is that death is deferred, not avoided; if rather they refrain from sinning, their toil will cease and they will live forever. Oh that we could incite humankind, ourselves included, to be lovers of everlasting life as much as they are lovers of the life that passes away!” -Julian of Toledo, Foreknowledge of the World to Come, trans. Tommaso Stancati, O.P. (New York: Newman Press, 2010), 383–84.
A person can be alive, but not alive. A person can be dead, but not dead.
Each of us faces a choice every moment of every day. When we choose God—His laws, His will, and His way—we choose life. And when we choose ourselves—our laws, our wills, our way—we choose death.”
“The Christian meaning of death is revealed in the light of the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ in Whom resides our only hope… .
For the Christian the day of death inaugurates, at the end of his sacramental life, the fulfillment of his new birth begun at Baptism, the definitive “conformity” to “the image of the Son” conferred by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and participation in the feast of the Kingdom which was anticipated in the Eucharist—even if final purifications are still necessary for him in order to be clothed with the nuptial garment.
The Church who, as Mother, has borne the Christian sacramentally in her womb during his earthly pilgrimage, accompanies him at his journey’s end, in order to surrender him “into the Father’s hands.” She offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of His grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.” -Catechism of the Catholic Church 1681–1683
CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
THE PROFESSION OF FAITH
THE PROFESSION OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY SPIRIT
“I BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY”
“I believe in…the resurrection of the body…” -Apostle’s Creed (First Council of Milan, 390 AD)
“…We look for the resurrection of the dead…” -Nicene Creed (First Council of Nicea, 325 AD)
“From the beginning, Christian faith in the resurrection has met with incomprehension and opposition. ‘On no point does the Christian faith encounter more opposition than on the resurrection of the body.’ It is very commonly accepted that the life of the human person continues in a spiritual fashion after death. But how can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, could rise to everlasting life?” (CCC 996)
“I think many of us believe we’ll get a new body once we enter into eternal life or on Judgment Day. But we don’t see how this body—this weak, mortal body that eats and sleeps, catches cold and bleeds—could possibly be resurrected to eternal life. Surely God has better material he can work with?
Again, the Creed says otherwise. And in the original Greek, it says it even more explicitly. The first Christians who composed the Creed didn’t use the Greek word for body: soma. They used the Greek word for flesh: sarx. Every time we pray the Creed, that’s what we say: I believe in the resurrection of the flesh—of this flesh, of my flesh, of my tired, aging, imperfect flesh. I believe that this body will one day stand before the throne of Christ and worship Him with all the angels and saints. Yet, for all that we say it, so few of us really live it.
In life, we don’t treat our bodies like sacred temples that belong in the heavenly courts. We either abuse them— eating too much or too little, denying them sleep, denying them rest, filling them with toxic substances, and giving them over to immoral purposes. Or, we worship them—doing everything we can to recreate them into some cultural ideal. Sometimes, we do both, while also doing all we can to keep the signs of bodily weakness and aging at bay. Death, almost everyone agrees, is the one great evil.
But when death inevitably comes, how do we treat those bodies?
Today, more and more of us burn them. We don’t bury our bodies. We don’t treat them as our ancestors did, with reverence and care. Instead, we destroy the flesh in fire, crush the bones that withstand the flames, and then often scatter the remains, destroying all evidence that this body— this holy body in which God’s Spirit dwelt—ever existed.
We live like materialists. We die like Nihilists. And this is a problem.”
-sculptures in the Admont Abbey, Austria, by Josef Stammel (1694-1795), please click on the image for greater detail
Death is represented by a human being at the end of their life in the form of an old male pilgrim, with cross, staff and scallop shell.
Behind him hovers a winged skeleton as the personification of death. This gruesome figure holds in its right hand a winged hourglass to indicate that the sands of life have run out. In its left, it holds a dagger as a symbol of the suddenness of death. The small putti at the feet of the dying man are also holding relevant ‘vanitas’ attributes (soap bubble, empty shell, extinguished and broken candle) to indicate the transience of all things on Earth. And there is the ‘Apple of Sodom’ that falls to dust as soon as it is touched. This motif evokes the words spoken during the Ash Wednesday service: “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return!”
Judgment. Still partly wrapped in his shroud, the figure of a young man rises from his grave accompanied by a putto as angel.
Placed over his head is a rainbow on which the resurrected Christ is enthroned as Judge of the World. No judgment has yet been made in the case of the young man, whose gaze is directed at the demon cowering at his feet. This figure represents the prosecutor ‒ the advocate of the Devil, the Devil’s advocate, “diabolos” = Greek διάβολος, Latin “diabolus”, the divider, advocatus; Satan = Latin, “satanas”, the accuser, Rev 12:10 ‒ he wears glasses and is being pushed to one side under the weight of a mighty tome that records the deeds of the individual undergoing judgment. To the right, opposite the ‘Admont library devil’ as he is called, can be seen a displaced gravestone. It shows a skull, a candle in the process of being extinguished, the date ‘1760’ (presumably the date on which all the figures were completed) and the initials ‘ST’ for ‘Stammel’.
The conceptual highpoint of ‘The Four Last Things’ is the allegory of Heaven. Heaven is represented by the epitome of attractiveness magnificently clothed and jewelled and accompanied by several supporter figures.
Dressed as a crowned bride in the vestments of heavenly magnificence, this androgynous figure is being lifted up to Heaven by a slender angel. The figure’s transfigured gaze is directed away from the earthly observer into the higher spheres. In the elevated left hand, there is a heart to represent the unshakeable nature of the figure’s faith. In the aureole over the head is the symbol of the Holy Trinity. The figure bears a flaming star and a richly decorated cross on its breast. Below the crown on the figure’s forehead is the Greek letter ‘T’ (Tau), showing that the figure is one of the just (Ezekiel 9, 3 -4).
As in the case of Bernini, the ‘Anima Beata’ represents the counterpart to the ‘Anima Damnata’ in Hell. At the foot of the figure are seated three putti on a cloud bank. These allegories of three virtues (fasting, prayer, and charity) explain the judgment of Heaven’s court and contrast with the vices represented in the Hell sculpture. Here again, there is a circular serpent but this time it has a positive meaning as a symbol of eternal bliss; it is being held by the putto seated in the center of the cloud bank.
Once judged, each soul then passes to Heaven or to Hell as appropriate. The allegory of Hell consists of two forceful main figures and several minor accompanying figures.
A mature and naked man ‒ one of the damned souls ‒ rides on the shoulders of a macabre hybrid creature. It is part animal, part human, part man and part woman. Both figures are surrounded by flames that seem to draw them down into the dragon-headed jaws of Hell. The face of the damned soul expresses both rage and fear. In his raised right hand he holds a serpent that has formed a circle and is biting its own tail ‒ a symbol of eternity. In his left, he grasps a dagger in an attempt to defend himself. A worm bites his breast in the region of the heart.
In the lower part of the sculpture and provided as a warning of the reasons for the descent to Hell are bust-like heads symbolic of the vices: pride wearing a peacock cap and feathers, sloth as a sleeping child wearing a nightcap and with a tiny hippo on his head, avarice with a cap made of coins and a devil peering over his shoulder and gluttony with brandy bottle and sausages.
‘Hell’ is one of the most powerful and eloquent but also most unconventional and complex of the works of Josef Stammel. Images such as that of the Devil in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving ‘Knight, Death and the Devil’ (1513) and Bernini’s marble bust ‘Anima Damnata’ (1616) seem here to have been assimilated and transformed by Stammel’s own imagination into a coherent artistic concept.
“When the liturgical year winds down, the readings at mass focus on the Last Judgment and the end times. These subjects traditionally provoke mystique and fear. The biblical imagery depicting the end of the world is vivid and sometimes even bizarre.
On the one hand, the prospect of the Last Judgment and the end of the world should arouse a holy fear and awe. This world will not last forever. We will ultimately have to give an account of ourselves about either how grace has transformed us so that we love God above all things or how we have refused grace and preferred other things to God.
On the other hand, we should lend some thought to the Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell—because they should affect how we think of the world right now. One way to hone this discussion is to raise the question why God created the world in the first place. God is perfectly good and happy. Not only does He not need anything outside Himself to make Himself happy, but nothing can make Him happier than He is. [Ed. God is beatitude, Itself.] In other words, God cannot benefit at all from creating.
This raises a difficulty because, if everything is done for a reason, God does not seem to have a reason to create the world. This leads us to the idea that God’s goodness is diffusive. In other words, God wishes to see His goodness flower not just in His own life but also in something that is not God. Being perfect in everything, God does not benefit from creating. Rather, God creates the world—something that is not God—so that he can pour out his goodness into the world.
God pours His goodness into the world when He creates, but the world doesn’t manifest God’s goodness after the manner of vendors selling goods at a flea market or a yard filled with chimes sounding random notes in the wind. The world isn’t filled with good things without any inherent order or reason. The world in its totality is ordered as a whole to reflect the goodness of God. Instead of randomly sounding chimes, it is more akin to a symphony that coordinates the sounding of many instruments that together evoke some acute human emotion. As a musical piece expresses the emotions of a human being, so the world expresses the goodness of God. The world is ordered, and the goodness that it manifests is greater than any one part. Furthermore, each part of the world—especially the persons in it—participate in the good of the whole.
Finally, as an ordered whole, the world is building up to something. This is the point of the Last Things. The world has been building up to this point ever since it began. The Last Things should give us pause to reflect how much we rely on God’s mercy and how we should pray to persevere until the end, but they should also affect how we think of the world now. All the good in the world—culminating in the triumph of Christ—will come to fruition. The reason for every evil God permitted will come to light. In the end, the mysteries of the present world and its vexations will be revealed, and we will rejoice in God’s goodness that has been manifested in His creation.
Virgil’s Aeneid has a line that reads, “Perhaps at a future time, recalling even these things will cause delight” (I.203). The first reading for today’s mass fleshes out a similar idea but with more clarity and certainty:
‘Then I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire. On the sea of glass were standing those who had won the victory over the beast and its image and the number that signified its name. They were holding God’s harps, and they sang the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and wonderful are your works, Lord God almighty. Just and true are your ways, O king of the nations. Who will not fear You, Lord, or glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed” (Rev 34:2-4).'”
“Getting to heaven is often given as the reason we should be good. Unfortunately, heaven is frequently presented as a place of fluffy clouds and baby angels playing harps. In fact, my own idea of heaven growing up was largely shaped by such popular depictions epitomized by the movie The Littlest Angel. In light of these depictions, it’s no wonder that heaven isn’t particularly attractive to many people. Even if we don’t imagine fluffy clouds, we probably think of eternal life as a continuation of this life, forever; but, of course, without all of the bad stuff that goes along with our day-to-day lives.
That’s an excellent pagan version of heaven, like the Greek Fields of Elysium or the Norse Halls of Valhalla. But if heaven is just the best of this life forever, it’s nothing more than a delayed hedonism. Are we just being good now for a little while so that we can do whatever we want for eternity? God promises us that heaven is far more than that.
In the Bible, heaven seems strange. We read a description of God as one seated on a throne who “looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald”(Rev 4:3). Also, “in front of the throne, there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal”(Rev 4:6). Jesus is depicted as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes”(Rev 5:6); other denizens of heaven include “living creatures, each of them with six wings, [who] are full of eyes all around and inside”(Rev 4:8). All of the depictions of heaven are surreal because they are trying to tell us about something we can’t understand yet. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”(1 Cor 2:9). Heaven is not worth the trouble if it’s something we already understand. Heaven is more. It’s more than the best we’ve ever experienced. It’s more than the best we’ve ever imagined.
The eternal rest that we so often speak of is more than an eternal lazy day in bed. Such days are nice because they are a relief from the cares of the world, but we would quickly grow bored with them. Life in heaven is an active rest. It’s the combination of the peace of that lazy day in bed with the rush that comes after a difficult struggle. Rest and activity are paradoxically present together because we are in no way disturbed by the activity in which we participate.
My favorite description of heaven comes from Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P.’s spiritual meditation on the Summa, My Way of Life: “Even in heaven itself, where we shall have an unobscured view of divinity, our knowledge will be joyously incomplete, stopping as far short of exhaustion of the ineffable as the finite stops short of the infinite; through all the length of eternity, there will always be more for us to know of God.”
Heaven will be an eternity of moments where each moment is better than the last. It will not be the elimination of our thirst to know God more deeply, but the unceasing satisfaction of an ever-deepening thirst being quenched. Part of that ever-increasing knowledge will be a continually expanding awareness of how much God loves us. As God shares Himself with us for eternity, the friendship we have with Him will grow ever more rich.”
“beatific” etymology: Latin beatificus, beatific, blissful, imparting great happiness or blessedness; from beatus, happy.
In my own experience, both past and present, I love history, but it comes “alive” for me when I have the privilege to visit the physical place where it happened, makes it more undeniable, leaps off the page. I am meeting a lot of people “virtually” now, even before the pandemic. I am saying “nice to meet you, virtually” a lot more these days than actual greetings. Exchanges are reduced to quick, focused, on topic, email to the point. I look forward, however it might happen, to saying hello in person, someday. Some people I am grateful to never have had the displeasure to meet in person. Mea culpa. 🙁
“The beatific vision is when God, though transcendent, opens Himself up to man and gives man the capacity to contemplate God in His heavenly glory (CCC 1028). Contemplation is the prayer of silently focusing on God and heeding His Word; in other words, contemplation is the prayer of uniting with God (CCC 2715). The beatific vision, then, is ultimate union with God; indeed, it comes from sharing in God’s holy nature via sanctifying grace (CCC 163). Because God is beatitude and holiness itself, the beatific vision entails ultimate beatitude and holiness (CCC 1405). The beatific vision is a grace and a privilege intended for every man and angel, since God created men and angels to enjoy the beatific vision; the beatific vision is the ultimate purpose of each person’s and angel’s life (CCC 1722).
Thomas Aquinas defined the beatific vision as the human being’s “final end” in which one attains to a perfect happiness. Thomas reasons that one is perfectly happy only when all one’s desires are perfectly satisfied, to the degree that happiness could not increase and could not be lost. “Man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek.”STh I–II, q., 3, a. 8. But this kind of perfect happiness cannot be found in any physical pleasure, any amount of worldly power, any degree of temporal fame or honor, or indeed in any finite reality. It can only be found in something that is infinite and perfect – and this is God. STh I–II, q. 2, a. 8. And since God is not a material thing but is pure spirit, we are united to God by knowing and loving Him. Consequently, the most perfect union with God is the most perfect human happiness and the goal of the whole of the human life. But we cannot attain to this happiness by our own natural powers; it is a gift that must be given us by God, Who strengthens us by the “light of glory” so that we can see Him as He is, without any intermediary. (Thomas quotes Psalm 36:9 on this point: “In your light we shall see light.”)STh I, q. 12, a. 4. Further, since every created image or likeness of God (including even the most perfect “ideas” or “images” of God we might generate in our minds) is necessarily finite, it would thus be infinitely less than God Himself.STh I, q. 12, a. 2. The only perfect and infinite good, therefore, is God Himself, which is why Aquinas argues that our perfect happiness and final end can only be the direct union with God Himself and not with any created image of Him. This union comes about by a kind of “seeing” perfectly the divine essence Itself, a gift given to our intellects when God joins them directly to Himself without any intermediary. And since in seeing this perfect vision of What (and Who) God is, we grasp also His perfect goodness, this act of “seeing” is at the same time a perfect act of loving God as the highest and infinite goodness. (Summa Theologiae, I–II, qq. 2–5)
According to Aquinas, the Beatific Vision surpasses both faith and reason. Rational knowledge does not fully satisfy humankind’s innate desire to know God, since reason is primarily concerned with sensible objects and thus can only infer its conclusions about God indirectly. -Summa Theologiae
The Theological virtue of faith, too, is incomplete, since Aquinas thinks that it always implies some imperfection in the understanding. The believer does not wish to remain merely on the level of faith but to grasp directly the object of faith, who is God himself. -Summa Contra Gentiles
Thus only the fullness of the Beatific Vision satisfies this fundamental desire of the human soul to know God. Quoting St Paul, Aquinas notes “We see now in a glass darkly, but then face to face” (i Cor. 13:12). The Beatific Vision is the final reward for those saints elect by God to partake in and “enjoy the same happiness wherewith God is happy, seeing Him in the way which He sees Himself” in the next life. -Summa Contra Gentiles”
-by Fr. Kenneth Doyle, CNS – Catholic News Service. Fr. Doyle is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y. He is the former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The “beatific vision” means the eternal and direct visual perception of God. It means seeing God face to face.
We have some sense, even in the natural order, of the importance of direct perception: Those who endured years of meetings by telephone conference call can appreciate what an advance “videoconferencing” has been, allowing people to see one another, and thereby making their presence much more real.
In the divine scheme of things, Christians have always believed that this direct vision of God is the goal that awaits us all. St. Paul said: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).
St. Thomas Aquinas reasoned that one is perfectly happy only when all of one’s desires are perfectly satisfied, and this cannot occur until we are fully united with God.
That complete union can happen not through human imagining nor even in the most deeply contemplative prayer, but only by the direct presence of God in heaven.
It is a human instinct, and a good one, to try to imagine what heaven will feel like.
When I was a child, I may have thought that heaven would be like playing baseball all day, with occasional breaks to drink soda and read comic books – but deep down I knew even then that it would be much, much better than that.
We are cautioned that all of our efforts at imagining must fall short. (St. Paul says in I Corinthians 2:9 that “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, (is) what God has prepared for those who love Him.”)
But it doesn’t hurt to dream.
Last year, a young woman, who would die two days later from cancer, told me what she was expecting in heaven.
“I think it will be like the way my mother loves me,” she said, “times a thousand.””
-Father Garrigou-Lagrange, Ch 8: “The True Nature of Christian Perfection,” The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Volume I
“St. Thomas admits also that in heaven our beatitude will consist essentially in the beatific vision, in the intellectual and immediate vision of the divine essence, for it is above all by this immediate vision that we shall take possession of God for eternity. We shall plunge the gaze of our intellect into the depths of His inner life seen directly. God will thus give Himself immediately to us, and we shall give ourselves to Him. We shall possess Him and He will possess us, because we shall know Him as He knows Himself and as He knows us. Beatific love will be in us a consequence of this immediate vision of the divine essence; it will even be a necessary consequence, for the beatific love of God will no longer be free, but superfree, above liberty. Our will will be invincibly ravished by the attraction of God seen face to face. We shall see His infinite goodness and beauty so clearly that we shall be unable not to love Him; we shall even be unable to find any pretext of momentarily interrupting this act of superfree love, which will no longer be measured by time, but by participated eternity, by the single instant of the immobile duration of God, the instant that never passes. In heaven the love of God and the joy of possessing Him will necessarily follow the beatific vision, which will thus be the essence of our beatitude.(31) All this is true. It is difficult to affirm more strongly than St. Thomas does the superiority of the intellect over the will in principle and in the perfect life of heaven.”
“The Catechism defines heaven as the “ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme definitive happiness” (CCC 1024).
The textbook answer is the knowledge that we will have of the divine essence, which theologians call the beatific vision. St. John writes about it in 1 John 3:2: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
In his 1336 Apostolic Constitution Benedictus Deus, Pope Benedict XII defined this vision as:
“[Seeing] the divine essence by intuitive vision, and even face to face, with no mediating creature, serving in the capacity of an object seen, but divine essence immediately revealing itself plainly, clearly, and openly, to them.”
By intuitive Benedict XII means this vision is a knowledge that is higher than all abstraction, discursive reasoning, and analogy. By immediate he means that we will know God’s essence without any mental image or created idea that merely represents the divine essence.
Just as the form of a dog is immediately united to my intellect when I know a dog, so too the divine essence will be immediately united to my intellect when I know God’s essence in the beatific vision. Rather than knowing a similitude of the divine essence, I will know the divine essence itself.
This immediate knowledge of God’s essence is what constitutes man’s perfect happiness—hence the name beatific (Latin for happy). The reason is because the intellect attains its complete perfection. And it does so in two ways.
First, it comes to know the essence of its ultimate end, that which it was created to know. Second, it arrives at the terminus of all intellectual inquiry. Because God is that than which nothing greater can be known, knowledge of his essence leaves the intellect with no further desire to acquire knowledge for its perfection.
Consider how when we seek to understand something we either look to the thing itself for answers to our questions or to something outside it. Take a tree, for example. We may ask, “What makes its leaves green?” The answer is chlorophyll. We may then ask, “Why do the leaves have chlorophyll?, and answer because the tree’s genes tell the tree to make chlorophyll. But why do its genes tell it to make chlorophyll? The answer is because the leaves need to make energy for the tree, and they use chlorophyll to do that.
Notice that to answer these questions we didn’t have to appeal to anything outside the tree.
But what if we ask, “How do the leaves make energy?” Unlike the other questions, we must appeal to something outside the tree to answer this one: Leaves make energy using light from the sun. They do this using chlorophyll in the process called photosynthesis.
Even the tree’s very existence must be explained by something outside itself. We know the tree doesn’t exist by nature—if it did, there would never be a time when the tree didn’t exist! So we must appeal to something else.
What all this means is that any reality that depends upon something else for its intelligibility leaves our intellect unsatisfied. The only thing that can fully satisfy its quest for truth is something that doesn’t rely on anything outside itself in order to be known. Knowing the essence of such a reality would leave the intellect desiring nothing else, thus perfecting it and constituting complete human happiness.
And this reality is God.
It’s important to note that the beatific vision—the intuitive and immediate knowledge of God’s essence—is not comprehensive. Our knowledge can’t exhaust the divine essence. Only God can fully know himself, as he does in the persons of the Trinity. It requires infinite intellective power to know infinite being.
So how do the saints know God perfectly but not fully? Consider how two people may know the same truth, but know it more or less profoundly.
For example, someone may know that God exists based on reasonable belief. He looks out into the world and sees a great complexity and order that extends all the way back to the beginning of the universe. And since complexity and order are ordinarily explained by intelligence, this person concludes that a super intelligence, like God, is responsible for making the universe. This is a reasonable belief.
Another person, however, might know the same truth—that God exists—but know it by way of metaphysical demonstration. He says, “I know God exists because it’s a matter of metaphysical necessity that he exists. For without him, nothing would exist.
In these two examples, we see that the same object can be known in accord with the mode of the knower. Both God and the saints know the divine essence, but in essentially different ways: according to the mode of the knower.
God’s intellective power is infinite, so he knows the divine essence in an infinite way. The blessed, however, know the divine essence in a way that is consistent with a finite intellect: they know it in a limited way. Although they have a real knowledge of God’s essence, their knowledge doesn’t exhaust it.
The knowledge that we can have of God on this side of the veil is real knowledge and can be a source of intellectual delight. But it pales in comparison to the delight that we will have when the intellect finally rests in seeing God face to face in the beatific vision and our rational natures are ultimately fulfilled.”
“Some questions need a second glance. Even when the answer seems obvious.
For instance, Saint Thomas fields this question: “Whether the essence of God can be seen with the bodily eye?” (ST I q. 12, a. 3).
If this was ever posed “live” in a thirteenth-century Dominican priory, one can imagine the other brothers’ own bodily eyes blinking in embarrassed frustration. Haven’t we been over this? The master already clarified that God is not a body (q. 3, a.1). We know God to be immaterial, infinite, pure act, pure spirit. “God is spirit,” our Lord says, “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Why waste Father’s time like this?
The student scrambles to justify himself, remembering a quote from Saint Augustine. He had written that we will rise again with glorified eyes, which will be able to see “even incorporeal things” (q. 12, a. 3, obj. 2).
The brothers sit quietly, probably hoping for a one-word resolution: “No.”
To be sure, Aquinas gives a straightforward response: “It is impossible for God to be seen by the sense of sight, or by any other sense. . . . [E]very such kind of power is the act of a corporeal organ. . . . God is incorporeal, as was shown above” (q. 12, a. 3, corp.). Material sense powers have no proportion to immaterial objects. Therefore, even in heaven, God’s essence will not be seen with the corporeal eye.
The brothers know, of course, that we do see God spiritually, now by grace and then by glory, through the perfection of our intellect and will (q. 43 a. 5). This beatifying vision elevates these powers in wisdom and love, conforming us to the Triune God we know and love: “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The perfection of this spiritual union, not some biological operation, will be our Heaven.
But St. Thomas is a wise teacher. He takes up his student’s citation and expands it: “It is very credible,” suggested Augustine, “that we shall so see the mundane bodies of the new heaven and the new earth, as to see most clearly God everywhere present, governing all corporeal things . . . as when we see men among whom we live, living and exercising the functions of human life, we do not believe they live, but see it.” After the resurrection, rather than gradually reasoning to the divine from the creature, we will recognize God’s presence as an immediate and indirect object of sight. The eye will still see material realities (“mundane bodies”), but the intellect will instantly perceive the divine presence sustaining all we see (q. 12, a. 3, ad 2).
Even now, our inability to see God with our bodily eyes doesn’t prevent us from seeing His works: “the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork” (Ps 19:1). We can reason to and about God by recognizing that the universe demands a First Cause: “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). After the resurrection, the saints will perceive God in the visible order effortlessly, “from the perspicuity of the intellect, and from the refulgence of the divine glory” (q. 12, a. 3, ad 2). We hope to join them in this, above all since we know that they look upon the Incarnate Lord, risen in his own humanity: the invisible God, yet visible in the flesh.
Some questions deserve a second glance. So does the whole universe, shot through as it is with light from the Creator. As Christians, we hope after death to give it that perfect, definitive, and spiritual “double-take” it deserves—aided by our own corporeal (resurrected) eyes.”
We are not angels, not merely pure spirit. We will not be pure spirit when resurrected. We will be spirit and resurrected, incorruptible, impassible flesh, as was intended from the beginning, but only more infinitely grand now to our elevation towards God Himself by Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
Love, and the beatific vision,
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP