Between Heaven and Earth

Image of God: Differences

We’re talking about knowing God, and God knowing us. We’re talking about the image of God, the picture of God, and what can we actually see about God. 

What is our motive for knowing God? Does understanding God make us better? Does it make us more righteous? Every religion and every denomination claims to know God and his will. “My picture of God is better than your picture of God.” “I’m right about God, and you’re wrong about God.” 

But what is the correct picture of God? And what can we know for certain about God? Why doesn’t God make it well known to us? What is true about him? And what is false? What should we believe and what should we reject? Isn’t God just slightly irresponsible in letting Mankind have so many images? Shouldn’t he declare: “This is the right way, and this is the wrong way”? 

We want to see God face to face, because face is the thing that most identifies us. God says we cannot see his face. From the back, we generally cannot tell one individual apart from another. From the back, we tend all to look the same. Even men and women are anatomically harder to distinguish from behind. It is the front that is different and the face that is unique. 

In order to sign on to my computer, it has to see my face first. Why can’t we see God’s face? Doesn’t God leave us too much uncertainty, too much leeway to make out our own interpretation, by hiding his face?

We’ve discussed the difference between fact-based worship favored by our religions and the spirit-based worship demanded by Jesus. Unfortunately, disagreement over the facts of religion leads to religious and sectarian conflict and often violence. It’s the facts that dispute our images of God. But the facts often relate to worldly physical objects which risk falling prey to the human tendency to adopt them not just as symbols of worship, but as objects of worship in themselves. 

Why, then, did God take this great risk in giving Man symbols of worship which Man was likely to pervert to his own ends? We turn these symbols into images and images into pictures; which of course is strictly forbidden by the second Commandment. In the Protestant ethic, the Scriptures themselves—the Word of God—tend to be made an object of worship, but Jesus said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life. It is these that testify about me. And you’re unwilling to come to me so that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40). 

Jesus was pointing away from the Scriptures as an object of veneration and worship. Instead, he was pointing toward himself. We refer to the Bible as “Holy” but it is Jesus, it is God, who is Holy. 

The ancient Israelites worshipped the Ark of the Covenant as an object, something they could see, a God that they could actually visualize. They took it into battle against the Philistines as a talisman, a good luck charm, to protect them. Alas, it did the opposite. Not only were the Israelites defeated in battle, but the Philistines captured the Ark itself—and it brought them bad luck too.

The story is told in 1 Samuel 4,5, and 6. The capturing of the Ark led to diseases (“tumors”) amongst the Philistines, and they took the Ark from city to city to try to see if this was a coincidence or whether the Ark was itself the cause. In every city that they went to, people developed tumors. So they decided to return the Ark to the Israelites, which they did by putting it on a cart and sending it down the road. 

The Ark ended up in a village where it was placed by the Levites on a rock. The men of the village could not retrain their curiosity and looked inside it—and died. It contained the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, a pot full of manna, and Aaron’s rod, which symbolize God’s justice, his righteousness, his grace, and his creative power. No one was allowed to see the Ark except for the high priest and even he could see it only once a year and only through an obscuring veil, surrounded by clouds of incense reminiscent of God’s statement to Moses in Exodus 33:20: “You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live.” 

But as the Israelites moved through the desert in the Exodus, very strict and specific rules applied to the movement of the Ark. It had to be covered with three blankets so that it could not be seen. Priests carried the Ark using poles thrust through rings on the side of the Ark, since they must not touch it directly. All the other people had to stay about a kilometer away from it (the same distance, incidentally, that one could travel on the Sabbath day). 

But after 20 years of being kept in the home of one  Abinadab, David decided to bring it back to Jerusalem. It was put in a cart and sent to Jerusalem escorted by Abinadab’s sons Uzzah and Ahio: 

But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, because the oxen nearly overturned it.  And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God.  Then David became angry because of the Lord’s outburst against Uzzah…[and asked] “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?”  And David was unwilling to move the ark of the Lord into the city of David with him; but David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom, the Gittite.  The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months,… (2 Samuel 6:6-11) 

God’s anger was kindled against Uzzah for his familiar handling of the Ark as though it were his own box—a box containing a God, who was therefore under his control. It is the perpetual problem and desire of Man to put God in a box where we can see and control him and harness his powers for our own ends. This, of course, is fatal religion and fatal worship, as Uzzah and his friends were to discover. We are in God’s possession, he is not in our possession; he does not need our help to prevent him from falling. 

It is our perpetual need to turn symbols of objects of worship into pictures of God; a common tendency seen in all religions over time. Why? Why do we wish to see God? And why does God take the risk of giving us symbols knowing what we’re likely to do with them? What might prevent us from doing so? 

The Book of Exodus is about a God who makes himself known to the Israelites, to Moses, to Pharaoh, and to the Egyptians, but does not make himself seen. Throughout the Book, he is shown to be a God of power, a God of signs and wonders, a God of grace, and a God of glory. In chapter 33, he makes himself known as the God of goodness.

Exodus 32 and 33 tell the story of the golden calf. The Israelites are facing an unprecedented challenge: The God who brought them up out of Egypt said he could no longer be with them. The idolatry of the golden calf had proven catastrophic. “I will send an Angel before you,” the Lord says, “but I will not go up among you lest I consume you on the way for you are a stiff-necked people.” 

In response to this announcement the people do two things: First, they mourn, and second, they take off their ornaments. The text explains that they did so because God had asked them to do so. To remove their jewelry and their fancy adornment was likely a way of entering into a period of mourning. It is also likely that it was a way to rid themselves of idolatrous associations—after all, they just been released from slavery, so these ornaments must have come from the Egyptians. 

In fact, we see that just before the Exodus, they were given instructions to go to their neighbor and ask for ornaments of gold, jewelry, and fine stones. Apparently it was God’s intention that these would eventually come to be part of the sanctuary in the desert. It would come to help form an image of God—in the table of showbread, in the candlestick, in the altar of incense and the altar of sacrifice and the bronze laver. By turning these ornaments into a golden calf, they turned their back on the symbol of grace. They moved into idolatry with the golden calf, and now they were seen to be putting away the remnants of idolatry. 

This is the great irony. They wanted a God they could see, so they made a golden calf. They thought they would have more of God if they took him on their own terms. But now they were threatened with less of a God than they had. The invisible God that they wanted to see now threatened to leave them altogether. 

After the people responded, Moses responded (Exodus 33) with three requests to the Lord: “Please be with me,” he says (verses 12 and 14); “Please be with us and your people” (verses 15 and 16); and “Please show me your glory” (verses 17 to 23). 

Moses had already seen plenty of God’s glory. He saw the burning bush and the rod turned into a snake and 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea and a pillar of cloud by day and a fire by night. But now Moses was asking for something even greater. He wanted as much divine glory as he could get. He wanted more than a lightning bolt or cloud. He wanted to see God, just as he had talked to God face to face.

God referred to his discussions with Moses, his talking with Moses, his speaking with Moses, as being face to face. So he could speak face to face, but he could not see face to face. Of course, he could not get everything he asked for. Moses is not able to handle the full-on glimpse of God’s glory. Just like the sun, you can see shadows from the sun, you can feel the warmth of the sun, you can see the bright rays from the sun, but you cannot safely stare directly into the sun. 

God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock and caused his back side to be seen. God’s back here is a figure of speech meaning not his face. It is unlikely that Moses saw anything—instead, he saw by hearing, Kevin De Young, in his essay on the Goodness of God, writes:

“Moses had said to God, ‘Please show me your glory. And the Lord said, I will make all my goodness pass before you.’ Moses asked for glory, but God promises goodness. The two cannot be separated. If glory is the weight and worth of God, then goodness is the blessing and bounty of God. What Moses sees actually is a declaration of God’s name and his character. ‘I will proclaim My name before you,’ the Lord said, ‘that is, you will see my goodness in the fact that I am who I am, and I am the self-existent one. I am your covenant God and your Creator God.’ And the Lord declares, ‘I will be gracious unto whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’” 

“Do you see how all this fits together?” Kevin writes. “God’s glory, God’s goodness, God’s sovereign grace, the freedom of God to dispense His mercy to whoever he pleases apart from the constraint outside of his own will, is what is meant for God to be glorious and for God to be a god of goodness. The Lord hears Moses requests, fortunately. He will not leave them nor forsake them. He will go with him to the promised land. This is the gospel, Emmanuel, God with us. And not just any God, but the never-failing, never-changing, all-surpassing God of goodness is with us.” 

“The Sanctuary is an overwhelming sensory experience about knowing God. The table of showbread is a taste of God. The altar of incense is the smell of God, the lampstand is the sight of God. The bronze laver is the touch of wetness of the water of purification. The bells on the robes of the priests are a hearing of God and the altar of sacrifice brings all of the senses together for an experience of God.” 

How do we form our pictures of God? Why won’t God allow us a full frontal view of himself? Why can’t we see God’s face? If everyone could see God’s face, wouldn’t we all have the same view of God? Is there any reason that we all should have the same view of God? Is there a correct view of God? Is there a picture of God which is verifiably wrong? 

What is it about God’s face that cannot be seen? Does the fact that everyone, from behind, looks the same tell us that we all should have the same view of God since we all can’t see his face? What can we see? Why can’t we see God? And why does mankind want so desperately to see God anyway?

Donald: It seems to me that our spirituality is all about faith. We really want fact—we don’t want faith. I’m not sure that that equates specifically with seeing God, but not seeing God and believing in him requires faith.

What does seeing God really mean? I don’t know. I don’t strive to see God, I try to understand God through his characteristics.

Don: Why do you try to understand God better?

Donald: As you and I become closer as friends, the more I want to understand you. I think it just goes with love and friendship. It’s a difficult thing to do through faith alone because we really don’t have a direct relationship with God. People pray to God and some may feel like they hear something back, but it’s pretty much a one-way street. 

I think religions want to sort it all out so that they can identify themselves as unique and in sole possession of the truth. That’s dangerous, it seems to me. The value of a community of faith, a spiritual group, even just two or three of us gathered together, is as a venue for building a shared communal understanding of God and becoming friends. 

It’s always a mystery to me that describing Heaven in terms of streets paved with gold seems to be the best we can do. Even if they are paved in gold, so what? Is that Heaven’s most valuable characteristic? 

Even if we could see God, your description of him would probably differ from mine. So I don’t think that even by seeing God we would come to one group perspective on God.

David: What if a religion held that God simply cannot be seen? Wouldn’t that tend to give its followers all the same perspective of God? And isn’t Islam such a religion?

We’ve had some some Muslims join us for this class. I always thought it really valuable to have their perspective on the topics we discuss. It would be nice to have some Buddhists as well (we already have a good Hindu perspective from former Hindus in class). But now we can get all those perspectives through ChatGPT. For example, here’s a conversation I had with ChatGPT yesterday. After some questions concerning Islam, I asked why would God not let people see his face. ChatGPT responded:

The Quran states that no human being can see the face of God in this life, as He is beyond human comprehension and understanding.

Quranic verse 6:103 states “No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision: He is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things.”

In Islamic theology, it is believed that the ability to see God’s face is reserved for the afterlife, for those who have earned His forgiveness and entered Paradise. The idea is that in this life, human beings are limited by their physical and cognitive abilities, and therefore cannot fully comprehend or perceive the true nature of God.

Additionally, it is also believed that the concept of God’s face is symbolic and metaphorical, representing His presence and majesty, rather than a physical description. 

So Muslims are united in not having a picture of God and they are pretty zealous about it. They get very upset if anybody tries to show a picture of God or his prophets. It’s a pretty bad sin.

Michael: “Upset” is an understatement—transgressors have been killed. 

But while they don’t have a physical image, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an image of God. They do have a non-visual image of God, and they’re very strict about it. 

Sharon: I do much better with the discussion of viewing God than hearing God, because nature is a wonderful testament of our relationship with God. There’s such amazing things that we see; but more than that, I’m a firm believer in seeing the face of Jesus every day as I work around the villages in Africa, in the least of these. Each precious little face to me is part of the face of God. 

I may have over-simplified the seeing part, but for me, every working day I just feel extremely close to God because he is in all the things I come in contact with regularly. It keeps me sustained. My interaction with other people makes God real to me. It shows me the love of God. So for me, the visual seems to be better than hearing the voice of God. 

Michael: It’s hard being unable to see and fully understand who God is, because as humans we do seem to need that, and maybe sometimes we invent it if we don’t have it. But at the same time, I’m thinking of the passage in the Bible where Paul preaches on Mars Hill that the people there are worshipping a God they do not know and proceeds to tell them about the God that he knows. So there are some elements we know.

Don: He was talking about God being invisible yet close enough to touch.

Michael: They were worshiping something unknown. It seems like they were better off than trying to come up with a wrong explanation. But Paul still had to explain to them a better way of seeing God.

Carolyn: One of the things that I look forward to in heaven is to be able to look into the eyes of Jesus. But we can see it, as Sharon said, in the eyes of a child and others around us, we can really see the warmth and the love in the eyes of Jesus. But I just can’t get my mind around looking into the eyes of God the Father. In the New Jerusalem, multitudes will be looking upon God for the first time. I don’t think I can ever visualize God the Father, but I’m so thankful that he sent Jesus, as a body with skin on, that I can relate to. 

Reinhard: In Indonesia in the late ’60s a bloody conflict—almost a civil war—was caused by a man of Chinese descent who tried to joke to a Muslim that Christians knew what Jesus looked like but if Muslims did not know what the prophet Muhammad looks like (and they don’t, because his depiction in imagery is also proscribed) then he might have a face like a pig for all they know. This of course was deeply offensive, and the army had to be called out to quell the unrest.

Muslims have faith in God—Allahu Akbar (God is Great) is their most common saying—and I agree that seeing God’s face is not necessary and that we have to accept God through faith. Hindus put faces to their Trinity (“Trimurti”) of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. The Buddhists have an image of Buddha as a fat man. 

A good friend—a devout Catholic elder—once told me that he knew the face of God the Father—he said it looked just like the face of Jesus. In any event, someday we’re going to hold his hand, we’re going to talk to him face to face. That’s our hope as Christians for the life after, in the new heaven and new earth—that we can communicate face to face with God whenever we need to. 

But first we need faith. God wants us to believe in him and to obey him. Moses talked to God as though he was seeing him face to face, and that was good enough. Some people want to see the appearance, as children look for affection in the eyes of their parents. That’s a human need, but faith in God, does not depend on seeing the face or hearing the voice of God. Reading the Bible and discussing it as we do here is enough to bring us to God and to help us know God. 

David: I asked ChatGPT why mankind wants so much to see God. It responded:

In the Bible, it is stated that no one can see the face of God and live. This idea is found in several verses such as Exodus 33:20, where God tells Moses “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

This statement is often understood to mean that the full revelation of God’s glory and power is too much for human beings to bear. In other words, it is not that God is hiding from us, but rather that we are not capable of fully understanding or comprehending Him.

Another interpretation is that it is because of humanity’s sinful nature that no one can see the face of God and live. In the Bible, Sin separates people from God, and since God is holy, no one can see Him in the presence of sin.

The Bible also teaches that through Jesus Christ, people can have a relationship with God and be forgiven of their sins, and have the promise of eternal life where they will see God face to face. (1 John 3:2)

Additionally, it is important to note that the Bible also speaks of God being present in many ways, such as through his spirit and through his creation, therefore the “face” of God is not limited to a physical or tangible form, but encompasses a wide range of experiences and understandings of his presence and nature.

Don: I think I was just replaced!

Robin: Maybe CS Lewis’s point is relevant here, that since we were made for another life, God put an inner drive in us to connect with him. We can have all kinds of rational concepts about why, but I think the real issue is that we’re missing the relational connection.

David: Sharon talked earlier about seeing Christ in the eyes of a child. A great joke told by Sir Ken Robinson, in what is the most watched TED talk of all time, describes a class of six year olds whose teacher has asked them to draw something—anything—on their sketchpads. As they start drawing, the teacher walks around looking over their shoulders. She stops by one little girl and asks: “What are you drawing?” The little girl replies: “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher says: “But nobody knows what God looks like.” The little girl says: “They will in a minute.”

Robin: We’re told in Revelation 22:3-4 that “The throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it. And his servants shall serve him, and they shall see his face.” And in Psalm 17:15, David says, “As for me, I will see your face in righteousness, I shall be satisfied when I awake in your likeness.” These are promises that we will see him once we’ve been able to put on immortality, and we are no longer sinful beings. 

God said, directly: “No man can see my face.” No man on earth, in his sinful condition, can see God’s face and live. So why now are we demanding of God that he change his mind, that he gives us a better explanation? How many of us in class right now have ever known a person blind from birth?  They learn to love. They learn to trust, they learn to have faith in their parents. 

I knew an elderly man a long time ago in the Saginaw church who had been blind from birth. He got to know a woman. He didn’t know if she had the face of a model or if she was hideous, but he got to know her character, her personality, and he loved her and he married her. 

I think it’s dangerous for us to demand of God for him to change his mind or give us a better explanation. Sometimes, there is no better explanation than “Thus saith the Lord.”

Jay: I think Robin’s point is a really good one. ChatGPT’s answer to why we want to see God gives very worthy-sounding reasons—to build a stronger relationship, to get a deeper understanding, and so on—but over and over again the Bible warns against the pursuit of seeing and/or knowing God is most likely fraught with negative results. 

As others have said, faith is critical to this conversation Seeing and knowing something doesn’t require any faith. If you can see it, touch it, taste it, smell it, and therefore be positive of its existence, it doesn’t require any faith at all. Is a pursuit of knowing God and seeing God really a sign of little faith?

Rimon: Are you equating seeing God with knowing God? Are they the same thing? 

Jay: No, I don’t think so, but I think human beings conflate them and think they cannot really understand or know something unless they can lay their eyes on it, or bring other senses to bear on it. Our senses seem to be the only tools available to us to reach understanding. I think that pursuit might be driven by a lack of faith, rather than an altruistic pursuit of relationship and emotional satisfaction and so on.

Donald: We’re on Zoom. I see some of you, I see your name. But that does not mean I know who and what you are. I think that’s Rimon’s question. It takes interaction for it to go beyond just seeing each other. It helps to see each other, but I cannot see Jason’s face on Zoom. I have faith that I know what he looks like because I’ve seen him before. But even if I never saw Jason I could get to know him through his interactions with the class 

So knowing is actually the back and forth, it seems to me. A name is just like saying “God.” Does just being a name mean that we can’t know him? What’s our pursuit? It’s human behavior to want more. We’re never satisfied. Even if we already have a lot, we want more okay. I can’t see God. I want to see God. Like Carolyn, I’m afraid to know what God looks like, but looking into the eyes of Jesus sounds much more gentle to me.

David: Buddhists and Daoists don’t have a picture of God either. Ultimately they seek enlightenment, not a picture of anything. When Christians and Jews and Muslims are seeking God, what they really seek—what we’re all really seeking—is enlightenment about the meaning of it all, where’s it all going, how it will end, how it started. These are fundamental questions about the meaning of life shared by every human being. It’s just that different cultures have developed different ways of getting at those questions. Seeking a picture of God is the Christian way of seeking enlightenment about those questions. 

The only harm that can come from seeking a picture of God is arriving at a picture of God. As long as you never get there, you’re fine. I think we should all acknowledge that, and so should churches, too. We are all trying to get a better understanding of God—we’re all seeking enlightenment—and there’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s not kid ourselves that we ever will succeed in seeing God. Can we become more enlightened? Yes, I believe we can. Will we actually ever see God? No, that’s a pipe dream.

Janelin: We’re created beings, and God knew that this is where we would be—we would be curious people. There’s a reason why we cannot see his face, besides just being unable to understand it all. He knew that we would be this way. Maybe if he hung out with us for a while we’d be satisfied with his answers but we know we never are. There’s a reason why we don’t know, a reason why we need faith. That’s just the process.

Reinhard: Even the Israelites who saw the result of God’s action—the parting of the Red Sea and so on—never really committed to God. I think one of the dangers is building and worshipping statues of Jesus and Mary, though that’s for God to judge. We cannot undermine Jesus’s status as God. Seeking the face of God is not necessary at this time.

Michael: Achieving intellectual, spiritual, relational, and emotional understanding is not a simple thing. But it does seem like it’s a faith-building exercise. It requires a lot of faith, because there’s some serious heavy lifting on the path to enlightenment. We need to develop our faith.

Donald: If you collect more manna than need it will spoil. To think that we need more than what God provides is really betraying our lack of understanding of him.

Anonymous: ChatGPT’s comment seemed very good to me. Everybody is seeking knowledge, a relationship with God, guidance, emotional and spiritual support. However, every believer can obtain these without seeing the face of God. I know I can see God, spiritually. I can feel him in my relationship. I get a lot of knowledge from his Word and from my relationship with him. Everything that ChatGPT answered is really available to any believer without seeing God. So if we can get that, why do we so much want to see the face of God?

C-J: I just wanted to respond to what Donald said regarding provision. I believe that the ideal would be to come before God asking for provision, whether it’s a deeper relationship with God or whatever. But my experience with provision has always been that what I ask might not be what God would have me ask, but if I do get it, it might not look like what I thought it should look like, or come when I thought I needed it, or the way that I needed it. But through Revelation I can see God’s provision.

God is incremental. When we are able to receive it, know how to use it, know the intention and purpose of that revelation, my experience has been that God is very specific. He also knows what we are not able to understand at that point, and what we could not handle. Look at how many times Jonah said “I’m not doing it.” So then, go off on your way! But when Jonah was ready to receive it, it wasn’t just that “I don’t want to be in the whale ever again, so whatever you say, Lord.” 

I think that transformation is like being born. It’s difficult. It’s painful. It’s risky. And when God is transforming us, we have those experiences. “I’m afraid you’ve chosen the wrong person. I don’t know how to do this.” “Moses, I need somebody else to speak.” God says “I know who I chose. I know why I chose you. And when the time comes, you will be ready.” 

The provision is always more than enough, because it’s a process of being and becoming. I think we miss that mark. We’re always talking about “And I arrived” or “now,” but it’s a process and the process is more important than the destination. Where do I want to end up? I’m not interested in getting to heaven today. I’m interested in the job that God has given me for today and that I do it in a way that I grow and I do it in a way that is pleasing and acceptable unto the Lord. That I heard the lesson, that I pondered the lesson, that I practiced that lesson.

Don: Is God in ChatGPT? Or is it just a coincidence that it came up with a good answer?

David: It has access to the same information that we do, but you cannot claim it is spiritual. We are spiritual, so we can produce responses it can’t produce.

Don: Does it have faith?

David: If you ask it, I’m sure it’s gong to say No. It will tell you what faith is, but that’s all.

Donald: I heard within the next few years it will know everything that’s ever been written. 

David: Right now it doesn’t have access to the internet, but it’s going to.

Donald: It will draw upon everything that’s ever been written.

C-J: But does it have discernment? Will it be able to discern truth from junk, garbage, half truths? The intention of that narrative? Will it be able to do that? Because right now it’s on us. But if we become so dependent, or assume that it’s wiser because it has that access? It did an excellent job, but I don’t want to look at it as a substitute. I am very dependent on my intuition.

David: That is the key question for the future and for the relevance of churches: If people do (and I believe they will) substitute ChatGPT for the pastor then as Don said he’s going to be out of work. People will still be spiritual but will be guided by this AI. 

Don: Will they worship it? 

David: Human beings are human beings. So they probably will.

C-J: They’ll worship the concepts, not the device.

David: If we can worship a golden calf, we can worship anything. And we do!

Don: There’s much to ponder and we’ll talk more next week. 

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