30 Aug, 1995
This is an uncompleted paper. Because this is an uncompleted version, please do not distribute. you may keep one printed and one electronic copy for your own use. Copyright 4/23/1997, James Lamond Carroll.
I recently did an extensive study of the question "Can a man see God?" I used as my source the Bible and related pseudepigraphic works, so that my findings could be of use to Christians in general. In the course of my study I found 2 scriptures that flat out say that God can not be seen, 1 scripture that seems to show that God can be seen, but that his face can't, 1 scripture that says that the man which is of God has (past tense) seen God, and many instances of men actually seeing God. My conclusion? The writers of the Bible were either confused or there is some deeper principle at work. I know that they were not confused, so I began to look for that "deeper principle." Here are my findings:
Man Cannot See God?
I will start with the scriptures that seem to say that man can not see God. The best example of this is found in John 1:18 which reads: "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." This seemed fairly straightforward. The Son declares the Father but no one sees the Father. The next best one is found in 1 John 4:12 which reads: "No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us." Again this seemed very straightforward. No man can see God, but he can dwell with us if we love one another. And in vs. 20 it continues "...for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" This verse is talking to the average person who has not seen God, but isn't definite in saying that no one ever can see God. But perhaps the most interesting reference that I found was the one in Exodus 33:18-23. Here it is:
"18 And he [Moses] said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. 19 And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD be- fore thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. 20 And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. 21 And the LORD said, behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: 22 And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: 23 And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen."
It appears from this that man can see God, but not his face. Just over the page however, we read "And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend..." (Exodus 32:11) What is going on? It also appears, from these scriptures, that when man does see God he appears in the form of a man, having a "hand" and "back parts" and a "face". This should not be surprising as we are created in God's image. (see Genesis 1:26-27)
In 3 John 1:11 we read: "Behold, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God." People who do evil (which can be interpreted as all of us because we all sin at one time or another) will not see God. It seems that as part of the fall of Adam, we are cut off from the presence of God. This "second death" or "spiritual death" (not the death of the spirit, but the spirit's banishment from God's presence) is upon us all because of the Adam's transgression. Because of the fall we can no longer abide God's full presence. For this reason God the Father is sometimes called the "invisible" God. [Jesus Christ] "Who is in the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature;" (Col 1:15) Notice that this God still has an image, after which Jesus Christ was made, with arms, hands, feet, and a face, but the fullness of that image can not be seen by us in our present condition. Hebrews 1:3 says much the same thing, [Jesus Christ] "Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person,..." Christ had a definite image. When he appeared he had both form and substance, arms, legs, hands, feet, etc. (see Luke 24:36-43) God is the same we are told.
Man Can See God?
Now let us discuss the scriptures that seem to say that man can see God. I will start with a transition scripture, Matthew 5:8: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." Of course the question still remains, when shall they see God, after they die or in this life, and who are the "pure in heart"? John 6:46 reads: "Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father." Notice the past tense... he hath SEEN God the Father. The question we now ask is: what does he mean when he says "of God"? This is much like 3 John 1:11 in that it is saying that evil can not abide in the presence of God, but with the implication that this can be overcome!
But now let us go into the accounts of people actually seeing God. As there are so many of them I will just list them in the order that they occur in the scriptures, putting *'s by the really good ones:
[Genesis 17:1] "And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; Walk before me, and be thou perfect."
[Genesis 32:30] "And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."
[Genesis 33:10] (Jacob compares seeing Esau's face to seeing the face of God)
* [Exodus 24:9-11] "Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel: And they saw the God if Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink." (Wow, 70 people saw God at one time! And he appeared to them in form like a man, having a "hand" and "feet").
*[Exodus 33:11] "And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speakest unto his friend." (I would assume that to talk to someone face to face you first have to see their face).
[Numbers 14:14] "And they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou LORD art among this people, that thou LORD art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night."
[Deuteronomy 5:4] "And the LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire,"
[1 Kings 3:5] "In Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night:"
[1 Kings 9:2] "That the LORD appeared to Solomon the second time as he had appeared unto him at Gibeon."
[1 Kings 11:9] "..LORD God of Israel, which had appeared unto him (Solomon) twice,"
[Job 19:25-26] "For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God" (Job is talking of seeing God in his resurrected body, although this doesn't show that God can be seen here in mortality, it is important to note that God can be seen with a resurrected body, and that a resurrected body actually has flesh! (see Luke 24:36-43; Philippians 3:21))
*[Isaiah 6:1-5] "In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. ... Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." (more on this appearance later)
[Ezekiel 3:23] "Then I arose, and went forth into the plain: and, behold, the glory of the LORD stood there, as the glory which I saw by the river of Chebar: and I fell on my face."
* [Acts 7:55-60] Stephen sees Jesus "standing on the right hand of God."
* [Revelations 1:17] John the revelator sees Jesus Christ in vision.
I do not place much trust in apocryphal writings, I feel that for the most part they are the interpolations of men. However there are parts of them that do contain much truth. They are surely of incalculable valuable in showing the prevailing thoughts of their day, whether or not the stories contained in them are factual. In "The Martyrdom of Isaiah" (From "The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament" by R. H. Charles, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913) we read the story of Isaiah's death. In the story he is challenged by Hezekiah's evil son Manasseh, and his false prophet Belchlra. Belchlra's accusation of Isaiah is interesting. Belchlra says that Isaiah is a false prophet because, first, he accused Israel of sin, second, he "...Prophes[ied] against Jerusalem and against the cities of Judah that they shall be laid waste..." (3:6), and finally, Isaiah's huge crime, making him worthy of death, consisted in the fact that "Isaiah himself hath said: 'I see more than Moses the prophet.' But Moses said: 'No man can see God and live': and Isaiah hath said: 'I have seen God and behold I live.' Know therefore, O king, that he is lying..." (3:8-10) It seems that the methods of those who accuse the prophets of lying have not changed in the last few thousand years. Isaiah claimed to have seen God, therefore he must be a false prophet. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet today people are quick to use the same logic on Joseph Smith, that Belchlra used on Isaiah.
All this was, needless to say, very confusing to me. The Bible seems to be contradicting its self. I do not understand how anyone could come to any kind of a conclusion based on what little the Bible has to say on this subject. The only conclusion that I could come to is that people's faces have a tenancy to shine after they "see" God, something that the Bible say's can not be done. Here are more references that I found:
Exodus 34:29 (Moses's face shown)
Matt 17:2 (Jesus's transfiguration)
Mark 9:2-3 (Jesus's transfiguration)
etc. There are more.
Luke 3:6 "All flesh shall see the salvation of God"
1 Corinthians 9:1 Paul has seen Jesus Christ in vision.
The Clarification of the Restoration
I eventually turned to the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith for help. I had exhausted the Bible and I hadn't found an answer. Suddenly the answer became very clear. Man cannot see God, in his natural state. But a man can see God either 1) in a vision, (Like Solomon seeing God in a dream), 2) with his spiritual eyes, or 3) with his body being temporarily changed by the Spirit in some way to protect him from God's presence. A body thus changed can endure God's presence in the same way a resurrected body does. (see Job 19:25-27 for an example of a resurrected body seeing God). When this happens it is called transfiguration, and afterwards the face of a transfigured person will shine. Now all the supposed contradictions in the Bible made perfect sense. Moses had seen God face to face in vision or through transfiguration, but he wished to see God with his natural eyes, thus the comment "shew me thy glory" (ex. 33:18). To this request God responded by showing Moses his back but not his face, warning him that he could not see his face with his natural eyes and live. This also explains all the comments that man cannot see God, without causing any contradiction with all the numerous accounts of people actually seeing God. This is a powerful example of modern revelation clarifying what would otherwise appear to be a contradiction in ancient scripture.
We should be eternally grateful for the restoration of the gospel which clarifies so much that would otherwise be mysterious from the Bible alone!
James L. Carroll