What does God look like?


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.

Many articles on the question of God's appearance sidestep the issue by treating it in an abstract manner. One man, when asked by a dying friend what God looks like, answered that God looks like a man dying on a cross, suffering and weeping. Religious poetry and songs often offer a pop solution to the theological question. Take Frank Sinatra's song, “That's What God Looks Like to Me”:

One day as I walked with my son hand in hand,
He said, there are things that I don't understand,
How high is the sky? what makes it so blue?
And tell me, dad, what does God look like to you?
I said, He looks like a rainbow, just after the rain,
He's as golden as wheat dancing over the plain.
He looks like the star when the night's crystal clear,
He looks like a baby when mother is near.
His face is the moonlight reflected on snow,
His hair like a garden where all flowers grow,
His heavenly eyes are as blue as the sea,
My son, that's what God really looks like.
His heart's like a mountain so vast and so strong,
That's why all his children have room to belong.
His smile is the morning we waken to see,
But you, my son, you are what God really looks like to me.

Such subjective methods of dealing with the question, as endearing and helpful as they are, don't answer it to our satisfaction. Trouble is, it's virtually impossible to answer the question of God's appearance 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 in which he saw a sapphire throne borne by amazing living creatures on which sat a remarkable, unearthly brilliant figure of God of (Ez. 1:26-28). Daniel was privileged to be given a vision of God on His heavenly throne (7:9). In all these cases God is portrayed as a human being, giving us good reason for supposing that that is what He looks like.

In all these cases God is portrayed as a human being, giving us good reason for supposing that that is what He looks like.

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). What a puzzle! Has anybody seen God or not? Does He look like a human or a burning bush?

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).

We will not deal here with the metaphysical aspects of the question — what is the relationship between matter and spirit? Instead, we will confine ourselves to analyzing biblical revelations about God's form. We will see that, although God has a form that is at least partly visible to heavenly spirits, and will be to resurrected saints, human beings are completely incapable of seeing God in an objective way.

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? We are not told how He appeared to Adam and Eve, but since He is described as walking in the garden, we can probably assume He looked human. Jacob's face to face encounter with God occurred when he wrestled with a “man” (Gen. 32:24) whom he later realized was none other than God. The Israelites not only saw God face to face but also got to hear His voice (Deut. 4:33). At the time the old covenant was made between God and Israel at Sinai, the leaders of Israel were accorded a very special privilege:

Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. But on the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank (Ex. 24:9-11).

So it would seem from these instances that God has bodily parts (feet, for instance), a face, and a voice. All very human. 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 1:26 that God created man “in His image and in His likeness”; God looks like us. This man-like picture of God is strengthened by an intriguing 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).

Ezekiel not only saw God but heard Him speak. (Ezekiel 10:20 explicitly identifies the “glory of the Lord” spoken of here with “the God of Israel”.) 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. We must fear and tremble before such passages that present God in human form lest we make ourselves judges of God's Word rather than allowing God's Word to inform us.

Artist's conception of Ezekiel's vision

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 emotional argument that God would be guilty of deception if these descriptions don't tell us what He really looks like melts away under closer examination of Scripture itself. Though the English word "epiphany" doesn't seem to have an exact equivalent in Hebrew, 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 into this vast universe (1 Kin. 8:27) — the occasional epiphany (sometimes called a theophany) has been God's means of bridging the chasm between Himself and man and thus of interacting with finite specks of matter. In an epiphany, He humbles Himself and 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. Appearing as a man, even if He doesn't look like a man in “real life”, is not an untruthful act on God's part; the event is perfectly truthful inasmuch as it shows that God the Creator can manifest Himself to human beings the creature! In short, an epiphany reveals spiritual truths but not ontological truths (truths pertaining to the nature of God's or spirit's essential being).

We need to clarify the way we will use the word “epiphany” in this article. Some writers make a distinction between visions and epiphanies. They take visions (and dreams) to refer to what people see as a result of divine tinkering with the human brain and epiphanies to refer to events that are wrought in the surrounding environment. In the first case, the miracle is in the head, in the second case it occurs externally to the recipient, a phenomenon that is sometimes termed “extra-mental”. Certainly, a careful study of the biblical data would suggest that the distinction is a real one:

In the first case, the miracle is in the head, in the second case it occurs externally to the recipient.

  • The account of Jacob's wrestling with God gives not the slightest hint that it was anything but a real event in the real world rather than something that went on in Jacob's head. He was rewarded because he prevailed, not because he was the lucky recipient of a vision. Moses' unique encounter with God (Ex. 33:18-23) reads as a visitation of this kind.

•  By contrast, Ezekiel's mind-numbing encounter with God appears to have resulted from a miracle in his head, as is suggested in chapter 8:1-3 where we are told that he saw the vision while sitting in his house in the presence of the elders of Judah. Not a hint is given that they, too, saw the vision, or that the house was damaged by the entrance of the awesome “thing”. Daniel's view of God was a vision (Dan. 7:1-9).

Since Scripture itself doesn't seem to make a distinction in the relative significance of the two methods of divine visitation or represent the one as giving a “true” picture of heavenly realities and the other as giving a make-believe view, we will treat any method whereby God “shows Himself” to human beings as an epiphany for convenience's sake. By this definition, one would have to include even Stephen's vision of Jesus Christ sitting at the right hand of God as an epiphany. Debating whether a particular appearance occurred in a person's head or in the world around him would appear to this author to be chasing a will-o'-the-wisp.

Has eye really seen?

That Ezekiel's vision was not given to reveal God's form is surely suggested by internal evidence from the account 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.

More, in critical places the definite article is missing, so that what Ezekiel saw was “a likeness of an appearance of a man” and “an appearance/vision of a likeness of the glory of the Lord”. He didn't see the likeness of God but a likeness, implying that God could have appeared differently. In short, the passage itself contains plenty of hints that the appearance is to be taken as a gracious vision giving Ezekiel the flavor of the awesomeness of God rather than as a revelation of what God looks like.

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. In thinking about the forms taken by manifestations of the divine we should not leave out the New Testament account of the Holy Spirit, part of “the God equation”, descending from heaven “like a dove” (Matt. 3:16). So in a spirit of great respect we ask what might sound like a disrespectful question: what is God's true form — man, (male or female?), burning tree, or bird?

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.

Putting an end to the matter, a few New Testament passages give us just 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:

No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us (1 John 4:12)

… 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).

By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible (Heb. 11:27).

John 5:37, in which Jesus said that "you have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form" probably cannot be called upon here as it would seem from the context that it means something like, "Since Jesus is the very manifestation of God… and the Jews do not see God in Jesus, it follows that they are not true Israelites" (Carson 1991, p. 262). However, these other verses show that 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 could argue till the cows come home whether or not what was seen such in such epiphanies really was God; such arguments would be about words rather than about facts. Our point, as is settled by these New Testament passages, is that nobody has seen God's heavenly form; God is invisible. Carson sums it up well:

The fact remains that the consistent Old Testament assumption is that God cannot be seen, or, more precisely, that for a sinful human being to see him would bring death… Apparent exceptions are always qualified in some way (p. 134).

We should not draw any conclusions about the true 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). Consider just these briefest of thoughts on the topic:

•  Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man”. As if the death penalty for murder would be based on the similarity of shape between God and man! Obviously, “the image of God” relates to a far more profound similarity between God and man than shape.

•  The same comment can be made about the import of James 3:9: “With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God”. Taking the “image of God” reflected in humans to consist of a replica of God's outward appearance is to trivialize a deep truth, a truth on which much of the Bible's message is based.

•  A study of the Hebrew words rendered “image” (tselem) and “likeness” (d'muth) in Genesis 1:26-27 does not support the contention that they must be referring to shape. Tselem is used 15 times in the Old Testament, in most of which it refers to “images” that people make and worship, which could give the impression that Genesis is suggesting man is a facsimile of God. But on the other hand, tselem is not used in places such as 1 Samuel 28:14 and Isaiah 52:14, 53:2 where the concept of “shape” or “form” is clearly being spoken of; in them, the word “to'ar” is used. Ezekiel 8:3, 8:10 and 10:8 use “tabnith” in referring to shape. Further, tselem is used without any obvious reference to the looks of a thing in Psalm 39:6 and 73:20. D'muth, used 22 times in the Old Testament, can likewise convey the idea of “this looks like that” (e.g. 2 Kings 16:10), but its general meaning is broader, denoting the sharing of similar attributes by two or more things. In Isaiah 13:14 the similarity has to do with sound rather than looks. God and man share certain attributes; that's what this word undoubtedly signifies in the creation account. Genesis does not specify what attributes God had in mind when He uttered these words.

Claims that the literalist method of interpretation is more faithful to the straightforward meaning of Scripture than methods of interpretation that are sensitive to varying manners of expression cannot be sustained. Those systems of understanding that recognize a deeper meaning to phrases such as “the image and likeness of God” than literalist systems make of them are more faithful to the true meaning of Scripture than literalist systems are!

Claims that the literalist method of interpretation is more faithful to the straightforward meaning of Scripture than methods of interpretation that are sensitive to varying manners of expression cannot be sustained.

Like nothing in heaven or on earth

Some, nevertheless, maintain the position that God not only has form and looks like a human being, but that he… er, she… has… well… let's read what one says:

… in the very first chapter of the Bible we are reminded that God created humanity in God's own image — male and female God created them. So if we are going to give God human attributes, we are going to have to start thinking along the lines of a hermaphrodite — an entity with both male and female parts and organs — a premise on whose path I do not wish to travel far.

The notion that God is hermaphrodite inevitably follows from the notion that “male and female” are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27 — “in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them”) if one takes “image” as a reference to form. But we can demonstrate that such an interpretation of Genesis 1:27 cannot be correct; Deuteronomy 4:12, 15-18 gives us some vital clues to work from:

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.

The Israelites saw fire and thick smoke on Mt Sinai, but they saw no form of God

These verses are a kind of commentary on Exodus 19, a chapter which tells how God descended on Mount Sinai “in fire” (vs. 18) to “meet” the Israelites (vs. 17). Perhaps one could interpret the Deuteronomy passage to be saying that God does have a form but He did not allow the Israelites to see it. However, this passage reads more naturally 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. Along similar lines, consider Isaiah 40:18:

To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness [d'muth] will you compare to Him?

The first part of the verse shows that God cannot be compared in any way with the deities of surrounding nations. The latter part of the verse says that He is “like” no other “thing” and then proceeds to mock those who make figurines supposedly looking like God. Of considerable importance, the Hebrew word used for “likeness” in the second clause is “d'muth”, the same word used in Genesis 1:26 where it says that man is made in God's “likeness”. Isaiah implies that nothing in the entire universe bears His likeness, not even human beings. The context of Isaiah shows that d'muth is used there in a concrete sense — God looks like nothing He has created. With this in mind, we have no choice but to understand d'muth in Genesis One as referring to abstract, intellectual-moral aspects of the human condition, an interpretation that can legitimately be called literal. Genesis One literally tells us that various attributes of human beings — self-awareness, power of reason, or whatever may be meant by image and likeness — are modeled on God.

Yes, but

If God doesn't look like anything in creation, and therefore doesn't look like a human being, what are we to make of other parts of the biblical record that seem to suggest He has a distinct form that, if He chose to give us the eyes to see the invisible, would not overwhelm our mortal frame or short circuit our human brain?

1. Moses sees God's form

We have said that the reason the Israelites saw no form (temunah, Deut. 4:12) of God on the mountain was that God doesn't have a visible, material form. The Israelites saw no temunah out of the fire and smoke; in short, they saw nothing because God bears no resemblance to anything. (An unlikely but possible alternative interpretation is that they saw something, but that something was unlike anything in creation so that God could say they saw no general likeness to anything.) However, I am embarrassed to admit that one person did get to see the temunah of God, suggesting God has one:

I speak with him [Moses] face to face, even plainly, and not in dark sayings; and he sees the form [temunah] of the Lord (Num. 12:8).

How could Moses see God's temunah if He doesn't have one? What's going on? I'm not embarrassed, really. Scripture cannot contradict itself in meaning, so this problem has a solution. The answer to this puzzle does not lie in doing a detailed word study of temunah in the hope of finding that it has two distinct meanings, one of which is used in the Deuteronomy passage and the other of which is used in the above verse. The solution is found in understanding what the Scriptures mean in each of the two cases. (However, understanding the spectrum of meaning of temunah can be helpful. See Temunah for a brief word study.) So what does Numbers 12:8 mean when it says that Moses saw God's temunah? The Stone Edition of the Chumash, a Jewish commentary on the books of Moses, makes this comment on the verse:

Other prophets receive God's word in a vision or dream that lacks clarity, or when they are in a trance… but Moses' vision is like something seen through a clear lens and is given him when he is fully conscious… Moses receives a direct verbal message from God's mouth, as it were, and gazes at the image of HASHEM [God], in the sense given in Exodus 33:23 (Scherman 1993, p. 797).

Makes sense. This passage, then, tells us that Moses got to see something that the Israelites did not see. In fact, a comparison of the background to this verse with other examples of encounters between God and men suggests he saw something that nobody else has ever seen. What, then, is the sense given in Exodus 33:23? Let's look at verses 21-23:

And the Lord said, "Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen."

Moses' experience of God was unique; he saw something more spectacular and clearer in outline than Ezekiel did. Some suggest what he saw was akin to a protracted nuclear explosion, but who knows for sure? We are even told he got to see God's back! But what does that mean? We must not forget New Testament testimony that nobody has seen God. The answer, of course, is the same as given earlier — Moses saw a gracious manifestation of God. Whereas the Israelites did not see any temunah at all in order to impress upon them that God has no material temunah, the temunah Moses saw was, like Ezekiel's experience, an epiphany, but, unlike Ezekiel who appears to have seen what he saw in his head (Ez. 8:1-2), the epiphany Moses saw came about through a miracle enacted in his surrounds. Scherman has this to say about Moses' visitation:

Moses' experience of God was unique; he saw something more spectacular and clearer in outline than Ezekiel did.

My face. This simile refers to a complete and unadulterated perception of God. To achieve this was impossible, but God would allow Moses to see Him from the back, meaning a vague degree of perception. The distinction between these degrees of vision is like the difference between seeing a person's face clearly and merely glimpsing him from behind (1993, p. 507).

To those who wish to wring a literal description of God out of a passage such as this, insisting that face and back must refer to divine anatomy rather than serving as similes, we gently suggest that consistency would require seeing a literal reference to divine anatomy in verse 11 of the same chapter (33), where we read that Moses saw God “face to face”. But then you have a horrendous problem — Scripture contradicting itself. How could Moses have seen God's face (vs. 11) if it “shall not be seen” (vs. 23)? When one takes into account the different metaphorical meanings in each instance the problem vanishes. Which brings us to the question of what is meant by “the face of God”.

2. God's face

Literalist systems tend to read the numerous passages talking of God's face as confirmation of the common notion that, in making man in His image, God revealed His heavenly form; if we could find God's throne, and His invisibility were stripped away, we would see a spirit man-figure on the throne. However, inspection of passages dealing with God's face show that the term is virtually always used figuratively. For starters, as already noted, Deuteronomy 5:4 tells us that the Israelites saw God “face to face” and yet we are told that they “saw no form”. One is forced to conclude that seeing God “face to face” has nothing whatever to do with what God looks like. Understanding its phraseology lies at the very heart of mastering another language. The phrase simply refers to a close encounter of some kind in which God reveals Himself in some direct way. We should not be surprised that “face to face” has such a meaning in biblical Hebrew; after all, even in 21st century English the phrase means much the same thing. “I spoke to him face to face” means that I spoke with him personally, not through a third party.

The epigraph to this article (1 Cor. 13:12) demonstrates a slightly different connotation of the phrase in the Greek of Paul's time:

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.

Note the contrast between “face to face” and “seeing in a mirror”. This contrast implies that “face to face” meant “in full, perfectly, without any impediment”. Old metal mirrors cast a slightly wonky or “dim” image; what we see in the mind's eye now of the kingdom of God lacks clarity but when we enter it all puzzles will be solved, all uncertainties dispelled. Facial features, either of God or saints, are not at all in view in this verse.

As for the word “face” on its own, we can confidently assert that it rarely has anything to do with noses and lips and eyes. Translators of virtually all versions of the Bible recognized that “face” (Heb., panim) has a broad range of usages, two of which are found in Genesis 4:14:

Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.

Here “face of the ground” would appear to come close to modern English “face of the earth”, while “Your face” obviously is not concerned with God's supposed visage. Here's the point: almost everywhere “face”, when speaking of God, is translated as “presence”, and for good reason. When Satan (Job 1:12) and Cain (Gen. 4:16) “went out from the presence of the Lord”, the Hebrew for “presence” is “face”. So too, standing "in God's face" [presence] in the kingdom of God will provide the acme of joy (Ps. 16:11). And so on and so on.

Here's the point: almost everywhere “face”, when speaking of God, is translated as “presence”, and for good reason.

Even in this life we are encouraged to “seek God's face” (Ps. 105:4, 2 Chron. 7:14, etc); attaining this blessed objective obviously doesn't mean we'll see a physical face but rather that we'll enjoy God's grace and favor, or something like that. The psalmist prayed, “Do not hide Your face from me” (143:7), and we are told that, even now, “The upright shall dwell in Your face” (Ps. 140:13), suggesting again that they will come under His constant caring scrutiny and enjoy His loving care. Above all, note Psalm 139:7:

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence [face]?

Here we note two vital facts: 1. One cannot get away from God's "face", and 2. His face/presence is equated with the Spirit of God. God's face is not material but spiritual. Though the Spirit of God can be manifested to human senses (John 1:33, Luke 3:22) it never has intrinsic form or "bodiness" ascribed to it.

Finally, as we saw above when God told Moses that His face “shall not be seen”, we noted Scherman's explanation that this refers to “complete and unadulterated perception of God”. With that point of view I agree. More on this towards the end. The long and the short of the face business is just this: one cannot build a doctrine about the form of God based on the phrase “the face of God”.

3. Images of God in heaven

Those who believe that God has a human form rarely make mention that in all the Bible only two passages could begin to be taken as telling us what God in heaven looks like. Even the book of Revelation, which describes heaven and makes much mention of the throne of God, gives no description of God. Note this verse:

Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne (Rev. 4:2)

No description is given of the One who sat on the throne. In fact, the Greek text doesn't even have a subject for the verb “sat”. A word for word translation would be simply “… a throne was set in heaven and on the throne sat”.

The first description of God relates to Jacob's famous “ladder dream” (ladder would better be rendered "stairway"). He saw steps linking heaven and earth, with angels climbing up and down. Then we read that “the Lord stood above it” (Gen. 28:13). Angels don't need stairs to climb up and down, but the imagery's intent is plain enough. Why would we take the statement about God standing on the top of the stairway as giving a literal insight into His form? The other account is found in Daniel 7:9:

I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire.

Daniel's view of God was mediated by a vision (7:2) in which he also saw beasts rising out of the sea. As with the Jacob case, why take the imagery pertaining to God literally while taking the beast imagery as symbolic in intent? Let's be consistent.

Let's recap

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 their recipients 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. (One of the major objectives of the Dawn to Dusk website is to enrich our vision of God by studying His handiworks. See "Seeing God".)

Yes, the commonest “object” seen by those blessed to be personally visited by God was a human being. But as we have seen, it was not exclusively in the form of a human being that God made direct contact with mere mortals. And think about it. Doesn't it stand to reason that when heaven stoops down to make eyeball contact with men, it will take a form humans can engage with? Those who insist that God actually looks like a man because He is described as having arms and eyes are inconsistent if they don't also believe that He has wings (Ruth 2:12, Ps. 36:7).

Those who insist that God actually looks like a man because He is described as having arms and eyes are inconsistent if they don't also believe that He has wings.

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 such times; God's throne was not abandoned by its regular occupant. 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 appears 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”stands for a “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 made to 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 other promises 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.

Please mull this over. Scripture tells us that God is “bigger than the universe” (1 Kin. 8:27). Let's try to grasp an idea too grand to fully appreciate, a concept that we can now only dimly perceive. God is “bigger than the universe” — in a figurative way, not literally. His form and "structure"are staggeringly rich and complex, a truth which, only dimly perceived, gave rise to discussions that led to the formulation of Trinitarian concepts. (Though this doctrine is sound in basic concept, its restriction of divine complexity to three "parts" may well understate the richness of God's very being.)

Stop and think; as you know, this universe contains billions of galaxies and stretches over distances that we cannot fathom. No matter how hard you try, you can't see everything in your own galaxy, let alone the contents of distant galaxies. Try to grasp this analogy: even if your eyes became as all-seeing as Hubble Space Telescope, you would still see only a tiny portion of what lies out there. If you could fly around the universe at the speed of light it would take billions of years to become intimate with everything out there. When you are resurrected to glory you will have more powerful “eyes” than Hubble, you will be able to relocate from one part of the universe to another in an instant. But you still will not be able to see every atom in the universe in one glance, as God can. How much less can we expect to see all of God, who “fills heaven and earth” (Jer. 23:24), nay, whom the universe cannot contain (1 Kin. 8:27), in one eyeful? Seeing God's face means that we will have the “power” to see Him in all His glory, but not all in one instant. We will be seeing more and more of God's infinite glory for all eternity, more and more of His dazzling visage. Logically, then, it is not possible to begin to describe “the form of God”.

When you are resurrected to glory you will have more powerful “eyes” than Hubble, you will be able to relocate from one part of the universe to another in an instant.

Does the thought that you will not be able to take in God's form in its entirety in one instant disturb you? God forbid: the thought should thrill us to our very core. Does it bother you that you cannot see every square inch of this earth at one and the same moment? Of course not. That's why you would love to travel the world if you had the time and money and robust health. The lion's share of eternity's never-ending bliss and excitement surely comes down to this: it will take eternity to see all of God.

In some manner we cannot understand, however, we will have constant communion with God, ceaseless encounters with Him. We won't have to go searching for His ears to get Him to hear us, or His mouth to hear His words. The book of Revelation tells us that we will see God in the New Jerusalem. In some real but incomprehensible manner we will see Him there in the capital of the universe. But not all of Him will be concentrated in that place. We will never be able to wander away from the divine zone, away from the face of God. He is infinite in all good respects.

In closing, consider this staggering idea. Paul longed to die so that he could bask in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the next instant of his consciousness (2 Cor. 5:8). Yes, eternal life is all about “knowing” God and Jesus Christ, or becoming more and more intimately familiar with them. Yet Jesus is not a second God being, since there is only one God. Rather, Jesus is God's “user-friendly interface”, a kind of concentrated icon of God that we, as finite spirit beings, will be able to fellowship with on our own level from the first moment of resurrection glory. He is God come down to our level. With Him we will talk and laugh and sing as with a brother, one on one, every moment of eternity. As God, He is “big enough” to engage in one-on-one communion with billions of brothers in the same instant. What will He look like to us? That's a good question. Though we may be fairly safe in assuming He will appear in human form to mankind, as is suggested by passages such as Zechariah 12:10 and Revelation's description of His return riding on a horse, we are on shakier ground if we try to wax dogmatic about how He will appear to glorified saints as we have so little understanding of the spirit realm.

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 bring 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.

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References and notes

Carson, Don 1991, The Gospel According to John, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester

Guthrie, D. and Motyer, J. A. (eds) 1970, The New Bible Commentary Revised, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester

Scherman, N. 1993, The Chumash, fourth edition, Mesorah Publications Ltd., Brooklyn

Further reading

Dawn to Dusk publications

Other printed material

On the Web

The bodily resurrection: does Jesus have a body now?

Knowing God's name

For more information on classical theism, see the Dawn to Dusk book "How Great Thou Art"

When the saints have marched in

Spirit and matter

Kushner, Kushner and Majewski, What Does God Look Like? (board book for children)

J. I. Packer, Knowing God

What does God look like?

For a short functional answer to the question, see "What does God look like… in the flesh?

On the doctrine of the imago Dei provides a helpful overview of Christian interpretations of man's creation in God's image

See "The Memra" for a helpful and simple discussion on epiphanies

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