God’s physical and visible form

  • Questions 110 & 111, on the subject of God’s nature

    Question 110, received from SD, United Kingdom
    A while ago, we were talking to a friend about God. The conversation turned somehow to the physical form of God, and our friend started talking about a particular heresy which he said had been disproved in either the 15th or 16 century, (I can’t remember the details) about God having a physical body. As far as I’m concerned, the Bible says that man is made in the image of God, and to me that means a human body. I’m quite happy to accept that I’m wrong in this, but what I can’t understand is why does it matter? So what if I see God as an old man with a long beard sitting up there in heaven on his throne? But our friend got really upset about it.

    Question 111, received from AB, United Kingdom
    Do you say God has a form with which he shows himself to the angels and sits on his throne or is he entirely spirit?

    These are awkward questions to answer, because Christian theology usually wants to firmly propose two contradictory positions. Firstly, most theologians would cite Jesus’ description of God “as Spirit” in John chapter 4, verse 24, as the ultimate description of God’s state of being. However, and with equal certainty, most theologians would also say that it’s not possible to be certain about God’s nature, even though human beings are created in God’s image.

    There is an old joke, attributed to a few different writers that God made Man in His own image, and Man has forever been repaying the favour. To an extent, this is of course quite true. Human beings are limited in their understanding of the world and so it is quite natural to ascribe human values to non-human things. This is known as anthropomorphism (from the Greek words ‘anthropos’ meaning ‘Man/human’ and ‘morph’, ‘to make’). Humans don’t just do this with God – we bestow everything from pets through to cars with human characteristics.

    Anthropomorphic descriptions of God occur throughout the Old and New Testaments, with very human emotions and physical characteristics attributed to God. Particularly in the Hebrew religion, Yahweh God was regarded as a supernatural physical being, not unlike a man. The idea of God seated on a throne surrounded by angels is found in Isaiah’s vision of Yahweh in Isaiah chapter 6. The popular cultural image of God as a white-haired old man is found in Daniel chapter 7, verse 9.

    Quite early on in its history, Christianity absorbed the Greek philosophical model of what constituted a ‘perfect’ being. These included such elements as eternity, impassability, omnipotence, omniscience etc. However, adopting this sophisticated view of God, did create a problem in that it often flatly contradicted the Biblical witness to an anthropomorphic God.

    Theologically, anthropomorphic descriptions of God can be explained as human witnesses trying to express the inexpressible, but limited by the constraints of language. So, if Daniel was trying to describe the ‘Ancient of Days’, it makes sense that he ‘saw’ God’s eternal nature in the context of white hair, i.e. extreme old age.

    Equally, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) made the distinction between some anthropomorphic ideas that were plainly metaphorical, and some that were applicable. So, those human characteristics, such as the ability to love, which, while imperfect among human beings, contained the possibility of perfection, could be ascribed to God. In this sense the idea that humans are made in God’s image is often seen to relate to the spiritual dimension of human beings, such as the ability to visualise and create, or to feel empathy and love, than to the physical element of human existence.

    This all sounds very complicated, and CS Lewis summed up the dilemma for many believers. In his ‘Footnote to all Prayers’, he recognises that when humans pray, they pray to an idea or an image of God. But the inadequacy of human language ultimately makes every human being an ‘idolater’ because we cannot really grasp what God is, so we end up praying to our own construct. Fortunately, God doesn’t take human beings at their word, but translates the believer’s “limping metaphor” and hears their prayer. [Lewis’ ‘footnote’ is quoted in Adventures in Missing the Point by Brian D McLaren and Tony Campolo, Zondervan, 2003, p.41]

    In addition, Christians will naturally use anthropomorphic languages, because of the mystery of the Incarnation. According to this doctrine, God becomes a human being, perhaps the ultimate in anthropomorphic behaviour. So, in the case of Jesus, it becomes perfectly correct to talk about God in human terms, because in the person of Christ, God is revealed within the bounds of humanity.

    To conclude, to use anthropomorphic imagery is neither wrong, nor entirely correct. Whatever imagery human beings do use is probably flawed, but God does not allow that imagery to be a barrier to revelation and relationship. However, while it is acceptable to think of God in human terms, those human terms must never become the basis for Christian theology. Insisting that men are superior to women because God is male, or making it a requirement to grow a beard because God has a beard is not only daft, but borders on blasphemy.

    Finally, while it is probably best to stick to the description of God ‘as Spirit’ in John chapter 4, it can be presumed that God is visible in Heaven. Certainly the Biblical evidence points to the fact that God can be seen in some way, so presumably does have some physical presence. However, God is equally described as ‘light’ or ‘fire’ (or ‘glory’), so this ‘physical’ nature is differentiated from the physical world human beings currently experience.

    Thanks for your questions SD and AB.
    If you’ve got a theological question and you want an answer, write to freelance theolgy.

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