What does God look like?

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FOR NOW WE SEE IN A MIRROR, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

1 Corinthians 13:12

A friend was recently asked by one of his grandchildren: “Grandpa, what does God look like?” My friend replied that He looks like we do, with head, arms, and legs. I disagree with my friend, but wonder how I will answer when, as will probably happen in a few years, I am asked the same question by one of my grandchildren. Children are not the only ones who ask this question; everybody who loves God wonders about it periodically. Trouble is, it's virtually impossible to answer without opening oneself up to being rebutted; logically-sound answers to this question from different angles seem to contradict each other. Let me explain briefly what I mean. On one side of the equation, Scripture indicates that some people have seen God:

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: "For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Gen. 32:30).

In another instance, the prophet Ezekiel received a dramatic visitation from God replete with lofty sapphire throne, pulsating rainbows, and a cast of bizarre living creatures (Ez. 1:26-28). Further, Daniel 7:9 describes God in heaven. In these instances He is portrayed as a human being, at first glance suggesting that the creation of human beings in God's image (Gen. 1:26) means they have the same shape as God.

On the other side of the story, when Moses saw a bush in the Sinai Desert engulfed in flames, he turned his eyes away because he was, “afraid to look upon God” (Ex. 3:2). So here God appeared in the form of blazing wood. More importantly, John 1:18 declares that, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). I beg your pardon! Has anybody seen God or not?

Some readers may be content acknowledging the intractability of the problem and seek no further insights, declaring that we should occupy ourselves with important matters such as loving Jesus and spreading the good news. Fair enough, maybe. But surely those who love God and can hardly wait to see Him, as Jesus promised (Matt. 5:8), would wish to understand every aspect of the matter that is open to human understanding. In that spirit of yearning inquiry we will plough on, our avowed intent being to blow open our thinking on what lies ahead of us in the kingdom of God when we get to “see God's face” (Rev. 22:4).

Eye has seen and ear has heard

Scripture reveals that some people have experienced what must rank as the most staggering of all blessings — to “see God”. Adam and Eve got to see and talk with Him in the garden of Eden, while Jacob, Moses, and all the Israelites enjoyed seeing Him “face to face” (Gen. 32:30, Ex. 33:11, Deut. 5:4). God often spoke to Abraham (e.g. Gen. 21:12). In what form did He appear on those occasions? He invariably looked like a human being. Many who interpret the Bible very literally would insist that these representations of God in human bodily terms perfectly match the famous statement in Genesis 1:27 that God created man “in His image and in His likeness”; God looks like us. This man-like picture of God is strengthened by a fascinating Old Testament passage about an appearance of God to man. The prophet Ezekiel described what He saw of God this way:

And above the firmament over their heads was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone; on the likeness of the throne was a likeness with the appearance of a man high above it. Also from the appearance of His waist and upward I saw, as it were, the color of amber with the appearance of fire all around within it; and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord (1:26-28).

If his account is taken as a realistic description of what God looks like, then the discussion is at an end — God looks like a human being.

On the other hand, the contention that such passages are given to reveal God's form doesn't stack up with many other passages. The biblical data itself leads to the conclusion that these man-form appearances should be taken as epiphanies rather than as revelations of God's “true” form. An epiphany is defined by The Macquarie Dictionary as, “an appearance, revelation, or manifestation of a divine being”. In the case of the only divine being —the eternal, infinite, invisible God the Spirit (John 4:24), who is too “big” to fit in this vast universe (1 Kin. 8:27) — the occasional epiphany has been God's means of bridging the chasm between Himself and man and thus interacting with finite specks of matter. In an epiphany He comes down to the human level. The purpose of divine visitations to man is not to reveal God's heavenly form but His thoughts, will, or intention; He never appeared merely for the sake of showing Himself.

Has eye really seen?

That Ezekiel's vision wasn't given to reveal God's form is surely suggested by internal evidence from the description itself. Note his repeated use of a couple of words that make one stroke one's beard contemplatively — “likeness”, Heb., d'muth, (4 times) and “appearance”, Heb., ma'reh, (9 times). If He wanted to say that he had really seen God as He is, he could merely have said, “I saw this dazzling throne and God was sitting on it — and He was a man”. The phrase, “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” says it all. In modern words, Ezekiel was saying, “I saw an epiphany”. And what he saw was not a man through and through, but only “like” a man.

Evidence that the human-like appearances of God should not be taken to mean that God actually looks like a human being comes from other visitations of God to man in which He took different forms. While the glory of the Lord appeared to Ezekiel in the form of a glorious man radiating scintillating rainbow colors, Moses saw a burning bush. To him, the exploding tree was God every bit as much as Ezekiel's “man” was God to Ezekiel; yet Moses undoubtedly discerned it not as God condensed and miniaturized but as God symbolized.

A few New Testament passages give us the inspired commentary we need to draw the conclusion that seeing God meant seeing, in the material realm, a manifestation or, perhaps, a symbol, of the King of Heaven rather than seeing Him as He is. Consider these passages:

… You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form( John 5:37).

… who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen (1 Tim. 6:16).

Nobody has seen the invisible God; some have been privileged to be afforded a gracious visitation tailor-made for non-heavenly, material men and women. We should not draw any conclusions about the form of God from epiphanies.

The image of God

As for the contention that Genesis 1:26-27 provides full and final proof that God looks like us, books have been written discussing the pros and cons of the idea. Many compelling books and papers have been written showing that the least likely referent of the “image of God” (imago Dei) is shape. It most likely refers to qualities or attributes in humans that mirror those of God Himself, a view known in theological circles as the “substantive view”. Derek Kidner summarized the image of God as referring to man's “constitution as a rational and morally responsible human being” (Guthrie & Motyer (eds.) 1970, p. 1065). Those systems of understanding that recognize a deeper meaning to phrases such as “the image and likeness of God” than literalists see in them can, in fact, lay claim to being more faithful to the true meaning of Scripture than literalist systems can!

Like nothing in heaven or on earth

Deuteronomy 4:12, 15-18 gives us some vital clues to work from in seeking to understand what the Bible has to say about the form of God:

And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form [temunah]; you only heard a voice… Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form [temunah] when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form [temunah] of any figure [semel]: the likeness [tabnith] of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth.

These verses are a kind of commentary on Exodus 19 which tell how God descended on Mount Sinai “in fire” (vs. 18) to “meet” the Israelites (vs. 17). This passage seems to be saying that God denied them any manifestation of Himself, other than smoke and fire, to impress on them that He has not the form, the figure, the likeness of anything in the created order — male or female, animal or human. God doesn't have a form that human eyes and brains could see or make any sense of; He is invisible to human beings, not because He has wrapped Himself in a magic blanket of some kind, but because He is spirit rather than matter, and therefore has no 3D shape. God does not look like a human being even in the rough — like animals, birds and fish, human beings have a “figure”, something that, according to this passage, God does not have.

Analysis of the passages that speak of man-God encounters yields the conclusion that seeing any direct action of God or any manifestation of God is, in biblical language, tantamount to seeing God inasmuch as these epiphanies give the receivers a better understanding of the will, mind, or plan of God. Any growth in perception of the thoughts, will, or purpose of God is equivalent to “seeing God”, figuratively speaking.

Can we grasp a thumpingly exciting concept? Yes, Jacob wrestled with a “man”, and that man was God. Yet that man wasn't God as He really is in heaven but God manifesting Himself locally in a material form. Heaven was not vacated at those times; God's throne was not empty. God can manifest Himself however He pleases in as many places at the same instant as He pleases. Each manifestation, in a manner of speaking, is God. Epiphanies, however, give no idea of what God in heaven really looks like, of how He looks to His heavenly hosts who “see His face” (Matt. 18:10).

The ultimate joy: we will see God

We have seen that God's “face” is representative of “complete and unadulterated perception of God”. Or, putting it in terms I personally prefer, it stands for God in all His glory. This meaning comes into play when we consider the mightiest promises of all for believers. Scripture indeed plainly preaches this message of great hope and joy — we will see Him. Glorified saints in the kingdom of heaven will see and commune with God; Job could hardly wait:

And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God (19:26).

Like all the other “pure in heart”, Job will see God, just as the angels currently see Him. Getting to know God personally and up close is what eternal life is all about:

And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent (John 17:3).

Perhaps no passage sums up the ultimate bliss, the “beatific joy”, to be found in the kingdom of God better than Revelation 22:4:

They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads.

What will God look like when we get to see Him, to see His face? True, God has no form with respect to the material realm with which we are familiar. He occupies no space, as He existed for an eternity before He even created space. He has no body as we use the term. Though He looks like nothing in the created realm, the promise that we will see Him undoubtedly implies that we will be acutely conscious of His form. And the exaltation of this promise above others infers that He will present a sight that will bring everlasting bliss and thrills beyond compare. Of course, “seeing God” undoubtedly stands for the entire gamut of our interactions with Him, including talking with Him, worshiping Him individually and in concert with others, and any other way we may engage with Him. But it would certainly include the concept of how we discern Him with our expanded senses.

As each moment of eternity ticks by we will see more and more of the Father's infinitely glorious form, but it will never give up all its “secrets” or become wholly visible, just as planet earth cannot be seen in minute detail by anybody in one lifetime. We will forever be exercised with discerning new vistas in the form of God and becoming privy to more of His infinitely profound and numerous thoughts. I look forward eagerly to spending eternity with billions of glorified brothers and sisters. But for all eternity, getting to know God will provide more satisfaction than fellowship with all one's glorified brothers and sisters combined. This I know for the Bible tells me so:

You will show me the path of life; in Your presence[face] is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11).

Can we believe what the Bible says? It doesn't say that “fullness of joy” comes from the presence of billions of fellow saints but from standing before the face of God. Likewise, Paul desired to “depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23); he put being with Christ on a higher level than being with billions of fellow saints.

Don't waste your time trying to come up with a description of God's form. All the books in the world could not do it justice. No, He does not look like a man.

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