There’s a promise in the Bible so shocking that most modern preachers and homilists steer clear of it, for fear of sounding like they’re blaspheming: it’s the promise that we will be divinized. Because of our squeamishness about speaking openly and honestly about divinization, we settle for a shallow, lame view of Heaven. So first, let’s clear up what Heaven isn’t like, before we get to what it is.
I. What Heaven Isn’t Like
Time Magazine published a series of articles on the evangelist Billy Graham. One article described an important event from his early years as a preacher:
“His sermons in those days were highly colourful and factually creative, to a point that would haunt him in later years. Heaven, he used to explain, measured 1,600 sq. mi.: ‘We are going to sit around the fireplace and have parties, and the angels will wait on us, and we’ll drive down the golden streets in a yellow Cadillac convertible.’
Decades later, the vision has matured. ‘I think heaven is going to be a place beyond anything we can imagine, or anyone in Hollywood or on Broadway can imagine,’ he says now. ‘There is a passage in Revelation that says we will serve God in heaven. We’re not going to have somebody fan us or sit around on a beach somewhere.'”
I’m glad to hear that Billy Graham moved away from his early understanding of Heaven, but a lot of us still envision Heaven something like that (maybe not the tacky yellow Cadillac, but still). We often reduce God in our minds, envisioning Him as just a powerful creature (usually, a more powerful version of us). God isn’t Lando Calrissian, and Heaven is infinitely better than Cloud City. So if that’s more or less what you’re envisioning, you’re selling God and Heaven infinitely short. We shouldn’t imagine Heaven as a great big toy store filled with all of the material possessions we can envision.
The other error is “Me and Jesus” Heaven. Here, we’re enjoying Jesus, not Cadillacs, but the focus still seems self-indulgent: upon my own enjoyment, rather than the glory of God or the edification of the Church. In “Me and Jesus” Heaven, there don’t seem to be any other people. There’s no room in “Me and Jesus Heaven” for that “great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes” (Revelation 7:9). Nope, the multitudes are oddly absent. And while Scripture depicts the Saints in Heaven as still concerned with injustice on Earth (Rev. 6:10) and still offering up prayers (Rev. 8:4), this “Me and Jesus” vision of Heaven is much more about me, and my self-gratification.
Both of these false views of Heaven, and a slew of other false views of Heaven, share two characteristics: one, they’re fundamentallyselfish; and two, they’re too small. Heaven gets reduced to something like a really nice resort with an amazing travel companion. Let’s see what Scripture speaks of, instead.
II. The Bible’s Shocking Promise: Divinization
As I said at the start of this post, Western Christians today (including priests and pastors) typically seem uneasy talking about divinization. Contrast this with the boldness of the Bible. For example, St. John says in 1 John 3:1-3,
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 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. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
That’s pretty blatant: we will be like God. And John suggests that this is necessary. If we don’t partake of the Divine nature, we can’t see God in His fulness. St Peter promises the same thing in 2 Peter 1:3-4:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.“
That’s just as brazen as what John says. St. Paul describes this process of divinization as beginning now, as we become more and more Christlike (2 Corinthians 3:17-18):
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
Paul excitedly describes this glorification in Romans 8:15-25, describing how “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
III. The Church Fathers on Divinization
The Church Fathers, and the Saints throughout history, have boldly proclaimed this Biblical doctrine. For example, in his First Apology, dating back to the 150s A.D., St. Justin Martyr rebuked the Romans for their belief in the deification of the emperors (including the wicked ones, who behaved as badly as the Roman gods of mythology),saying that “wicked devils perpetrated these things.” But immediately after rebuking this demonic mockery of deification, Justin explains that there is such a thing as deification, just not like the Romans had understood it:
“And we have learned that those only are deified who have lived near to God in holiness and virtue; and we believe that those who live wickedly and do not repent are punished in everlasting fire.”
Soon thereafter, around 180 A.D., Irenaeus of Lyons said in Book V of Against Heresies that we follow “the only true and stedfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” A bit earlier, in Book III, Irenaeus warns against “those who have not received the gift of adoption, but who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God, defraud human nature of promotion into God, and prove themselves ungrateful to the Word of God, who became flesh for them.” In response, Irenaeus says:
“For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?”
This teaching is found throughout the history of both Eastern and Western Church Fathers. St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373), for example, boldly states of Jesus:
“He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality.”
“Beloved, our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal creator of all things, today became our Savior by being born of a mother. Of his own will he was born for us today, in time, so that he could lead us to his Father’s eternity. God became man so that man might become God. The Lord of angels became man today so that man could eat the bread of angels.”
We find this doctrine preached down through the ages like in the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas and several times in the Catechism (e.g., CCC 398, 460, 1988, 1996). In the East, this process of divinization was called theosis, consisting of three stages: katharsis, theoria, and theosis. In the West, particularly in Carmelite spirituality, these three stages were described as the purgative stage, the illuminative stage, and the unitive stage. Terminology aside, the two halves of the Church tended to say the same thing.
Of course, the Saints were careful to point out that in partaking of the Divine nature, we don’t become objects of worship: God alone is Divine by nature; we are divinized by adoption. For example, Athanasius explained what is (and isn’t) meant by divinization:
“For as, although there be one Son by nature, True and Only-begotten, we too become sons, not as He in nature and truth, but according to the grace of Him that calls, and though we are men from the earth, are yet called gods, not as the True God or His Word, but as has pleased God who has given us that grace; so also, as God do we become merciful, not by being made equal to God, nor becoming in nature and truth benefactors (for it is not our gift to benefit but belongs to God), but in order that what has accrued to us from God Himself by grace, these things we may impart to others, without making distinctions, but largely towards all extending our kind service. For only in this way can we anyhow become imitators, and in no other, when we minister to others what comes from Him.”
Athanasius’ parallel is a good one: God alone is truly Good by nature (Mark 10:18), yet we still speak of certain men as good (Acts 11:22-24). Likewise, we can speak of a men as being Christlike, godly, or “gods,” even partakers of the Divine nature, even though God alone is Divine by nature. This isn’t a call to worship the Saints, but a recognition of the transformative impact of God’s grace.
Nevertheless, the Western half of the Church has seemed skittish to speak openly about this Biblical doctrine after the Reformation, for fear of being misunderstood. After all, Protestantism attacked all sorts of ordinary devotional practices, like prayer to the Saints, the use of relics in healing, and so on, and declared them idolatry. Add to the the influence of Mormonism and New Age religion (which teach a false form of divinization), and it’s easy to understand the hesitation.
IV. Why Divinization Matters
From the Scriptural evidence and the writings of the Fathers presented above, I want to draw out two sets of connections being made:
1. Between our being children of God, and our partaking of the Divine Nature.
For Christ to become Son of Man, He had to take on our humanity. In becoming Children of God, we are likewise promised Divinity. We partake of Christ’s Body and Blood here below (both in the Eucharist and in the Church), and that union with God is infinitely greater in Heaven.
2. Between seeing God and becoming Godlike.
There’s a good reason for this: we, in our limited humanity, are incapable of loving God as He deserves to be loved. Imagine if you had an ant farm, and were great at taking care of those ants. They would never be able to love you back, or to properly thank you for the care that you bestowed upon them. Why? Because they’re ants. Their stupid ant brains are much too limited to grasp what you’re doing for them, or to properly appreciate it, and they lack any means of loving you.
Likewise, we don’t really get how little we know or love God. Our minds are too limited to ever fully know Him, and our hearts are much too small to love Him as He deserves. So God makes us like Him in order that we may more fully know and love Him. He doesn’t do this by annihilating our human nature, but by elevating it.
Those who worry that divinization somehow takes away from God’s grandeur get this entirely backwards: it’s only through divinization that we can enjoy and praise God’s glory to its fullest.
I mentioned before that our false views of Heaven tend to be (a) too small, and (b) fundamentally selfish. Divinization promises infinitely us more than we can imagine. But ironically, it also takes the focus off of us, or our self-gratification. One great paradox of Christianity, indeed of life, is that our highest satisfaction arrives precisely when we’re not fixated upon our own pleasure. Our glorification comes precisely in self-emptying, in becoming more Christlike.
A clear view of Heaven also clears away a lot of theological muck. For example, nearly every Protestant objection to prayer to Mary and the Saints is borne out of (a) a misunderstanding of the difference between prayer and worship, and/or (b) a lack of clarity about what happens to us after death. Luther famously believed in soul sleep, the condemned notion that our souls were unconscious after death until the Second Coming. And while most Protestants today reject Luther’s view, objections that the Saints in Heaven can’t hear us, or can’t hear us all at once, or can’t understand prayers in foreign languages, or can’t know what we’re praying silently, etc. are all based on a faulty notion of Heaven and divinization.
But there’s more to it than that. Having a proper view of where we’re going is critical for how we believe and behave here below. As St. Paul notes, we’re already becoming divinized (2 Cor. 3:17-18). If we don’t know what divinization looks like, how can we cooperate with the process? If we believe that we’re destined for some sort of eternal vacation focused around our self-pleasure, we’re likely to live that way here on Earth (or at best, do selfless things for essentially-selfish reasons). We’re likely, under such a view, to see the Church as a disposable means of salvation, rather than the destination of our salvation.
In contrast, if we realize that the infinite happiness Christ secures for us involves our own kenosis, or self-emptying, then we have every incentive to flee selfishness, and to work to build up Christ and His Church. Let us, then, grow in Christ, advancing from “one degree of glory to another,” until we can become full partakers of the divine nature.