The Sight of the Blessed

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The following was a college essay written by Elizabeth Zahorick. It has been edited and approved by Michael Twohig. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Elizabeth Zahorick, University of Notre Dame

In his description of the new Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation, St. John the Evangelist assures us that “death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away” (Rev 21:4). However, St. Thomas Aquinas, writing on the state of the blessed in heaven, that is, the new Jerusalem, asserts that the blessed will be able to see fully the sufferings of the damned in hell, where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 25:30). It would seem that the sight of eternal suffering would introduce some suffering in the blessed, because men on earth are generally moved to compassion at the sight of suffering. However, this would diminish the great joy promised to the blessed by Holy Scripture. Aquinas resolves this difficulty by asserting that not only do the blessed have no compassion for the suffering of the damned, they actually rejoice at the sight of their suffering (Sent.IV.D50.A4.Q3). How can this be? How could the saints possibly find joy at the sight of the most repugnant suffering imaginable, when we ourselves, who are far less holy than they, take no delight in the sight of much lesser suffering? 

In the face of this difficulty, several alternative theories have been proposed. One of them has been put forth by universalist Protestant scholar Thomas Talbott, who argues that knowledge of the suffering of another would diminish the happiness of the blessed, and so it must be the case that all are rescued from eternal damnation to secure the absolute happiness promised to the blessed by God (Talbott 1990). In response to this, Protestant scholar William Lane Craig suggests two possibilities: either God removes all knowledge of the damned from the minds of the blessed, or else the blessed retain knowledge of the damned but are not consciously aware of the suffering of the damned due to the overwhelming joy of seeing God that overpowers all other perceptions (Craig 2008).

In this paper, I will show how the theory proposed by Talbott and the two theories proposed by Craig do not hold up under the framework for understanding beatitude given by Aquinas. I will first explore Aquinas’ argument for why the blessed are able to see the sufferings of the damned by examining what type of sight the blessed experience and why they see hell even as they themselves are in heaven. Next, I will investigate why Aquinas asserts that the blessed will have no compassion on the damned, by examining what it means to have compassion and the ways in which the blessed differ from us. I will then explore the idea that the blessed find joy in their sight of the sufferings of the damned, and what this tells us about the nature of joy and its final perfection in the blessed. Finally, I will show why the theories presented by Talbott and Craig conflict with Thomistic theology.

It is important to first establish what Aquinas means when he refers to the sight of the blessed in heaven. All that Aquinas says about the “sight” of the blessed in heaven follows from the principal assertion that the blessed in heaven “see” God in His essence (ST I.12.1c). This is derived from the First Epistle of John, wherein he states that in heaven “we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2), that is, we shall see His essence. Now, this “sight” is not vision with a corporeal eye, as Aquinas asserts (ST I.12.3c). We will not see the essence of God with the physical eyes of our glorified bodies in heaven, because the essence of God is immaterial and cannot be seen with the physical eye. The capacity to see God is found in the intellect, which is an immaterial power of the soul to perceive and understand (ST I.79.5c). This capacity for perception and understanding is referred to commonly as “sight”. Therefore, the way in which the blessed see God is best understood as an intellectual perception and understanding of Who God is. Although man is capable of some intellectual perception and understanding of Who God is in this life, in the next life this capacity is perfected in the blessed. The gift of the beatific vision will heal man of all the defects that cloud this vision in this life and will elevate him to a supernatural level of perfection that will enable him to see the essence of God to an extent that he is not capable of by his natural capacity. In being able to see God Himself, the blessed will see in God all the various actual things that God has done and all of His actual effects on Creation.

It is important to note that this does not mean the blessed will comprehend God fully, which is impossible (ST I.12.7c). To comprehend God would mean to know all that He has done and all that He could do, which is a knowledge that only God Himself possesses. However, the blessed will be able to see what God has done in the world and to what end every man created by Him has come to. This will include being able to see the sufferings of the damned in hell, as is foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “And they shall go out, and see the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me” (Is 66:24). Aquinas further argues that it is fitting that the blessed will be able to see the damned in heaven. He asserts that all things are understood better when placed alongside their contraries, and since the contrary of beatitude is damnation, the beatitude possessed by the blessed will be better known to them by the sight of the damnation from which they have been saved (Sent.IV.D50.A4.Q1).

The next question that arises when considering this perception of the damned by the blessed is the possibility of compassion on behalf of the damned. This question arises naturally when one considers the frequent exhortations in Scripture to have compassion on those who are suffering. It would seem that if man as a wayfarer in this life, as part of his formation in virtue and holiness, is expected to have compassion on those around him who suffer in a finite way, surely those in heaven who are perfected in virtue and holiness would have compassion on those whom they can see suffering in an infinite way. However, Aquinas asserts that this is not the case (Sent.IV.D50.A4.Q2). To have compassion on someone means, to some extent, to suffer what that person suffers. This can be seen in the Latin roots of the word, “com passio”, meaning “to suffer with.” Since the blessed will be completely free from suffering in heaven, it is impossible that they should suffer in any way the punishments of the damned along with the damned.

Furthermore, another way that compassion can be understood is as a desire to alleviate the suffering of others. This desire is good and holy when it is felt by men on earth as they see the suffering of fellow men. By having compassion on the poor, man is moved to enact justice, and by having compassion on the sinner, man is moved to show him mercy. However, at the final judgment, there will be no need for man to show justice or mercy, because the final acts of justice and mercy will be enacted forever by God. Those on whom He shows mercy will be given “the resurrection of life” in the beatific vision, and those who have sinned and fallen away will be subject to “the resurrection of judgment” as the just punishment for their deeds (Jn 5:29). Every man’s state, whether in bliss or condemnation, will be fixed for all time. Therefore, a desire on behalf of the blessed to alleviate the suffering of the damned would be a desire that is contrary to God’s justice. Since the blessed will cling to God in perfect love and never desire anything that is contrary to what He desires, it is impossible that they should in any way desire that the suffering of the damned should be alleviated.

Having established that the blessed can see the damned suffering and feel no compassion for them, Aquinas turns to what is perhaps the most troubling part of his treatise on the sufferings of the damned as related to the blessed: his assertion that the blessed rejoice in the sufferings of the damned. To rejoice in suffering is repugnant to those on earth and seems to be as far removed from beatitude as hell itself. To understand what Aquinas means here, it is necessary to first examine how he defines joy and delight. Delight is something found in both the sensitive and intellectual appetites of the soul. Aquinas defines delight as the response of the appetites to a perceived good that has been obtained (I-II.31.1c). Using this definition, it is clear that there are many forms of delight that man experiences while on earth, and not all of them are ordered towards his good. When considering the type of delight in suffering that is repugnant, we are considering delight as it appears in the fallen man’s appetites. This type of delight can be contrary to reason, because man’s appetites, while he is alive, are not perfectly subject to his reason. Therefore, it is possible for fallen man to take delight in suffering in itself or in suffering insofar as it leads to the fulfillment of some other desire or goal that the man has.

In the blessed, on the other hand, the passions will be perfectly subject to reason. Man will experience the full healing of his concupiscence and will no longer desire anything that is contrary to his reason. Delight that derives from the intellectual appetite is joy (I-II.31.3c), and it is this type of delight that the blessed experience when looking upon the sufferings of the damned. How can it be according to reason to rejoice in the suffering of another? Aquinas says that this joy that is experienced by the blessed is not delight in the suffering insofar as it is suffering, because suffering is an evil and it is disordered to delight in an evil in itself. However, it can be a good thing to rejoice in something bad insofar as it is connected to something good. It is in this sense that the Apostles “[rejoiced] that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus” (Acts 5:41). None of the apostles were happy because of the simple fact of their suffering in itself, but because by their suffering they were able to bear witness to the Gospel and bring greater glory to God. Similarly, Aquinas cites St. James’ exhortation in his epistle to “count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” (Jas 1:2). Suffering is not good, but because “to them that love God, all things work together unto good” (Rom 8:28), suffering as perceived by the blessed works for their benefit.

This benefit that the blessed experience upon seeing the suffering of the damned is twofold. The first one, mentioned earlier, is the enhancement of their enjoyment of their own beatitude by the sight of its contrary, the damnation from which they were saved. The second is the benefit of seeing the full effects of God’s justice enacted finally and perfectly on all creation. All in heaven will praise God’s justice at the Last Judgment, as is written in the Book of Revelation: 

And I heard the angel of water say, ‘Just art thou in these thy judgments, thou who art and wast, O Holy One. For men have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink. It is their due! And I heard the altar cry, ‘Yea, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are thy judgments!’” (Rev 16:5-7)

Since God has judged the damned as worthy of condemnation, to fail to rejoice in their suffering (insofar as it points to His justice as an effect points to its cause) is to fail to rejoice in something God has willed. This is contrary to the repeated exhortation of Scripture to rejoice in the Lord and His deeds at all times, especially prevalent in the Psalms: “Rejoice in the Lord, O ye just: praise becometh the upright… For the word of the Lord is right, and all his works are done with faithfulness” (Ps 32:1,4). Therefore, it must be the case that insofar as the condemnation of the wicked to eternal punishment is an effect of God’s justice, the blessed must find joy in it.

Having examined Aquinas’ treatise on the sight of the damned by the blessed, it is now possible to see why the theories presented by Talbott and Craig conflict with the reality of the true happiness promised to the blessed as argued by Aquinas. Talbott argues the following: If the blessed in heaven are aware of the eternal suffering of other men, they will suffer. However, the blessed will have knowledge of the fate of all men, and it is impossible for the blessed to suffer in any way. Therefore, it must be the case that there will be no eternal suffering for any man and consequently no suffering for the damned. Talbott’s argument is logically valid but his first premise is unsound. If it were true that the sight of the damned, who are permitted to fall into hell according to God’s justice, would cause sorrow in the blessed, then it would mean that the blessed are not perfected in their capacity to know and will the good. Either the blessed would believe that there was some way to alleviate the sufferings of the damned, and therefore be ignorant, or they would desire that the sufferings be alleviated despite the decree of God that the damned should suffer eternal punishment. They cannot be ignorant, because the gift of understanding given by the Holy Spirit will be perfected in them and they will not be deficient in knowledge of any of the effects of God. They also cannot will that the suffering of the damned end, because that would mean their wills would not be perfectly conformed to God’s will, and that cannot be so. Therefore, it must be the case that the sufferings of the damned will not cause the blessed to suffer.

William Lane Craig first presents the theory that God will remove knowledge of the damned from the minds of the blessed to perfect them in happiness. Since the blessed will not know that the damned suffer, they will have no reason to suffer along with them. This argument relies on the same faulty premise that the sufferings of the damned will cause the blessed to suffer. However, it also errs when considering the knowledge of the blessed. As addressed earlier, the blessed, in their perception of God’s essence, see all of His actual effects on creation. To lack knowledge of the fate of any man would be to lack knowledge of an effect that God had on creation. Furthermore, the idea of God actively removing knowledge from a man’s intellect that was formerly present there runs contrary to the nature of Who God is. The Word of God is “the true Light which enlighteneth every man” (Jn 1:9) and bestows on man in the act of creation his very capacity to know. It is impossible for God to actively remove knowledge of the truth from a man because to do so would be to introduce an imperfection in that man. God cannot be the efficient cause of any defect (I.49.2c), and so it must be the case that the blessed know of the sufferings of the damned.

The second theory proposed by Craig, which he claims to personally find more appealing, is that the blessed will have knowledge of the damned but will not be consciously aware of this knowledge. Utilizing again the premise that the blessed cannot truly rejoice if they are thinking about the sufferings of the damned, Craig argues that it is possible for the blessed to know something without being aware of it, stating, “When you think about it, we’re not conscious of most of what we know” (Craig 2008). This distinction between knowing and being aware is fuzzy at best and completely irrelevant to the knowledge of the blessed. It is true that the mind of a living person can retain knowledge without it being present constantly in the mind, but in the state of eternal bliss this is not the case. The inability of living men to consider consciously all the knowledge they have obtained in their lives is due to the imperfection of their intellects. The perfected intellects of the blessed will have no difficulty in seeing all knowledge that has been given to them at once and understanding it perfectly.

Furthermore, Craig uses a faulty analogy to give an idea of what this unconscious knowledge will be like. He compares the joy of the beatific vision to the pain of “having your leg amputated on the battlefield without anesthetic—which is so intense that it drives out awareness of anything else” (Craig 2008). This comparison is nonsensical because it assumes in the blessed there will be something analogous to the discord experienced in the human mind and body. A man only loses awareness of other things when he experiences great pain or joy because the sensitive experience in his passions overpowers his intellect. However, in the blessed the passions are totally subject to the intellect, so it is impossible that any passion should diminish the intellect’s power. The beatific vision is the perfect illumination of the intellect, not the subjugation of the intellect to some overwhelming passion. All things that the intellect sees, including the sufferings of the damned, will be seen with perfect clarity.

The idea of the blessed rejoicing in the sufferings of the damned, or even failing to suffer at the sight of them, or even seeing them at all, is unappealing to many. However, this is because we are incapable of conceiving of the ways in which heaven will differ dramatically from our lives on earth. We live in time and experience temporal bliss and suffering, and so cannot conceive of eternal bliss and eternal suffering. We have not yet experienced the fullness of God’s justice, and have trouble imagining what it will be like when “He hath put all His enemies under His feet” (1 Cor 15:25). It is also difficult to imagine what it will be like for the blessed to have perfect control over their passions and experience no passions except those that are in accord with reason. However, as Scripture reminds us, “the dead shall rise again incorruptible” (1 Cor 15:52), and “the former things [will have] passed away” (Rev 21:4). St. Thomas shows us why it is logical that the blessed should rejoice eternally in God’s justice, even as it pertains to the sufferings of the damned.

References

Craig, William Lane. “Knowledge of the Fate of the Damned: Reasonable Faith.” Knowledge of the Fate of the Damned | Reasonable Faith, www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/knowledge-of-the-fate-of-the-damned/

The Holy Bible Douay Rheims Version. Tan Books and Pub., Inc, 1899.

Thomas Aquinas. “Commentary on the Sentences.” Aquinas Institute, 22 July 2020, www.aquinasinstitute.org/operaomnia/sentences/

Thomas Aquinas, tr. Fathers of English Dominican Province. The Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas. 2nd ed., 1920.

Thomas Talbott, “The Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment,” Faith and Philosophy 7 (1990): 19-42; idem, “Providence, Freedom, and Human Destiny,” Religious Studies 26 (1990): 227-45.

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