Is God Invisible?
We should rejoice in this, knowing that if we are faithful, there will be a day when we will not only hear the LORD face-to-face as Jacob and Moses did but will see his full glory!
Is God invisible? One might think that the answer is a no-brainer. Doesn’t the Apostle Paul distinctly write to Timothy using “invisible” as an exact description of our LORD (1 Tim 1:17)? While most Bible translations have adopted similar language, we should not accept this as conclusive. What follows will explain why!
There is an overwhelming need for most humans to visualize objects of worship. Around AD 64, the Apostle Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to govern that ecclesia. Paul was aware of the strong pagan traditions in Ephesus, and of the famous temple to the goddess Artemis, from his previous missionary adventures there.
There is an overwhelming need for most humans to visualize objects of worship.
The new religion of the followers of our Lord Jesus Christ had no image of his likeness to worship nor of the God that he said was his Father. It is possible that this raised questions in further preaching efforts in that city and maybe even concerns among the new converts. Hence, the letter from Paul clarifies that there could not be any image of the LORD because it was impossible for mortal humans to see Him.
While the King James Bible (and many other translations) uses the word “invisible,” as stated above, I suggest this is an unfortunate translation because a thorough study of Scripture has convinced me the LORD is not invisible!
To appreciate what the Apostle Paul was trying to convey to Timothy and what an alternative way of looking at that verse would imply, let’s delve deeper into the seemingly human need to visualize their god(s). The most famous incident in Scripture occurred when the Israelites grew tired waiting for Moses’ return from his ascent of Mount Sinai to converse with the LORD.
The Israelites had been living for 400 years in Goshen, surrounded by Egyptian worship idols. While they had witnessed many miracles to free them from their bondage, they had never directly seen any likeness of the LORD. They could not visualize what He might look like in comparison to the idols representing the gods of Egypt. Sometimes I felt we have been very critical of the Israelites for this behavior, but I wonder how we would act under similar challenging circumstances. We recall what Aaron did to assuage the doubts of the Israelites—as he explained to his brother Moses when he returned from the mountain and heard the tumult in the camp;
Most of us have heard outrageous excuses in our lifetimes, but I doubt if any we have experienced can top this one! However, Christianity has generally followed this same path, i.e., a road with no Scriptural foundation. Organized Christianity is replete with images and statues that supposedly depict the apostles, Jesus, and other so-called saints. Only a small fraction of professing Christians rejects such portrayals (including, thankfully, Christadelphians). However, I know of no Christian community anywhere that has tried to make a statue, painting, or image of any kind of the LORD (with only one exception).2 In that sense, the writing of the Apostle Paul has been successful. Given this, I would still insist that it doesn’t make the LORD God “invisible.”
To consider whether God is invisible, a prominent, well-known preacher, the late Billy Graham (1918-2018), offered the following reasoning.
The Bible doesn’t tell us what God looks like—because He is invisible. And the reason we can’t see Him is because He is a spiritual being—that is, He has no body or face or other physical form.3
Now this cannot be correct for several reasons. First, the Bible clearly says that spiritual bodies are visible. To cite several examples:
And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost (spirit in the BBE4)!” and they cried out in fear. (Matt 14:25).
Obviously, the Apostles recognized Christ even though they thought he was a spirit.
A second conclusive illustration occurred on Mount Sinai when Moses asked to see God’s glory. It’s worth quoting the whole of this magnificent passage:
This passage shows that the LORD has a face, hand, and back, indicating clearly a physical being and not in any way invisible.
Finally, there is evidence of our Lord Jesus Christ’s own testimony in the Beatitudes. This verse is quoted in my favorite Hymn, number 199.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt 5:8).
The important thing to note here is that Jesus is using the future tense. As sinning mortal creatures, we cannot see God even though He is not invisible. The LORD’s own words explain the reasons for this: “Man shall not see me and live.” As the Apostle Paul explained further to Timothy:
This picture may be complex for us to grasp, but I can give an illustration in a way that is personal to me and might help you understand the reasons why God is not invisible, yet at the same time, cannot be seen. I have had multiple operations on the retina of my left eye, which has left me with excessive scar tissue and a partial retina. If I try to drive at night, the headlights of an oncoming vehicle register on that eye as an explosion of blinding flashes. This situation prevents me from seeing anything ahead of me, and even though I know there is an oncoming vehicle, it might as well be invisible to me!
A better word than “invisible” might be “unseen,” and that is precisely an alternative translation, according to Strong’s (G517). As far as I know, the translation known as the Bible in Basic English (BBE)4 is the only one that I have readily available that has chosen to use “unseen” instead of “invisible.” Another modern translation known as the Easy English Bible (EEB) uses phrases such as “cannot see him.”
In our present mortal, sinful state, if we were in the presence of the LORD and tried to see Him, we would instantly perish from the radiation He emanates (that is what I suggest is meant by the Apostle Paul using the term “unapproachable light,” since light is pure energy).5 The situation will be different for the redeemed. We should rejoice in this, knowing that if we are faithful, there will be a day when we will not only hear the LORD face-to-face as Jacob6 and Moses7 did but will see his full glory!
John C. Bilello,
Ann Arbor Ecclesia, MI
- All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version unless specifically noted.
- The only exception that I am aware of is the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Italy by Michelangelo of his version of the LORD creating Adam.
- Quoted on https://guideposts.org/.
- BBE is the Bible in Basic English translation.
- For non-scientists: light is radiation that encompasses a wide range of wavelengths beyond the visible. Short wavelengths, such as X-rays are very energetic, and if one were even briefly exposed to the most powerful X-ray sources, such as synchrotron radiation, one would perish.
- Gen 32:30.
- Exod 33:11.