Some biblical verses say God cannot be seen, but other verses seem to say he can be seen. How can we reconcile them?
The last post, Do I Really Know God? He Is Spirit, leads to us to this one. God’s spirituality implies his invisibility. The attribute or perfection of God’s invisibility is considered communicable or “transferrable” because our souls are invisible to us right now, but he gives us the grace to see him on some level.
At the previous article on God being Spirit, theologians just state the obvious, linking God’s being spirit or immaterial with his being invisible.
This attribute or perfection of God means that he is Spirit, not physical, and cannot be seen with human eyes.
What do the Scriptures say?
I use the NIV. If you would like to see the following verses in many translations or in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
Here are the verses that say God is invisible, or no human has ever seen him.
The first two verses say we humans have not seen God, but Jesus has:
No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:18)
No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God, only he has seen the Father. (John 6:46)
This verse says he is invisible:
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Tim. 1:17)
And this one says no one can see him because he dwells in unapproachable light:
God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in approachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen. (1 Tim. 6:15-16)
The last verse, next, is a wonderful paradox. We have never seen God, but he lives in us.
No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:12)
Here are verses that say we can see God:
The LORD would speak to Moses face to face [panim ‘l panim], as one speaks to a friend. (Ex. 33:11)
But in the same chapter we read:
“I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence …. “But,” he said, “you cannot see my face [paneh], for no one may see me and live.” (Ex. 33:19, 20)
Then God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock and covered him with his hand, as he passed by (vv. 20-21). Then God affirms again, “But my face [pani] must not be seen” (v. 23).
So the Bible in those verses uses the same Hebrew word, which can mean face or appearance. Despite the apparent contradiction in Ex. 33, the rest of the Bible must step forward to explain it.
Can we see God?
The first explanation is theophany, which means “God manifest” (the- means God, and phan- means manifest). The Old Testament tells the stories of several theophanies, in which God took visible forms: Abraham (Gen. 18:1-33); Jacob (Gen. 32:28-30); the people of Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21-22); the leaders of Israel saw the “feet” of God (Ex. 24:9-11); Manoah and his wife saw the LORD in a flame and an angel (Judg. 13:21-22); Isaiah saw the LORD high and lifted up (Is. 6). There are others examples.
The next explanation says Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God in human form. He said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). “The Son is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:3). Jesus is the best way to see God. In those verses back in Exodus 33, Jesus is surely the one dialoging with Moses in a theophany (appearance of God), but God was not seen in his total essence. Therefore Jesus resolves the apparent contradiction in that chapter.
Now what about our vision of God when we get to heaven?
We will be able to see Jesus in his resurrected body (Rev. 1:7). And on some level we will see God the Father: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). We shall see “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12), a clear reference to Ex. 33:11, 19-20. And “we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). But how will we see God and the Holy Spirit and the divine nature of Jesus (Rev. 1:4; 4:2-3, 5; 5:6)? We will not see him with the bodies we have now, for that would cause sensory overload so that we would die. But in heaven we will have first spirit bodies and then our transformed, resurrected, physical bodies at the final resurrection.
It is not clear how exactly this will happen and how much of the pure, absolute divine being of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit will or can be seen, but it will be a blessed or beatific vision. This will be the culmination of our entire existence.
So how do I know God better?
Our vision of God in heaven will change us: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2)
Realizing this biblical truth should transform us right now. “We should live pure lives now.
“All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).
We can meditate on God in heaven, and we might see a beatific vision or “blessed vision. Of course, we cannot claim that we saw God with our human eyes, because if we did, we would die. But he might flood our minds with his presence and zero in or focus on one of his attributes. We can know God better by thinking about him biblically, not self-centeredly. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). “We have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). Through the Spirit and Scripture renewing our mind (Rom. 12:2), we can “see” the invisible God.
Written by James Malcolm
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES “DO I REALLY KNOW GOD?”
Do I Really Know God? He Is Invisible