The Problem with God’s Visibility and Invisibility

A common objection that comes up quite a bit in discussions about God’s existence is the “I Can’t See God!” objection. In other words, how can we expect people to trust in a being that can’t be seen as a material object. The argument is laid out in the following way:

  1. If we can’t see God directly, God does not exist
  2.  We can’t see God directly
  3.  Therefore, God does not exist.

First, many people assume it is irrational to believe in God unless they can use the empirical method to verify that God exists. In other words, many skeptics reject God because they cannot verify that God exists by utilizing their five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching). So for something to be real, it must be visible. The “principle of empirical verifiability,” which was formulated by the philosopher A.J. Ayer, was a dominant view in philosophy departments during the 1960’s. In critiquing this view, we need to use the principle of logic called self-refutation. In relation to empiricism, if we look at the proposition that we have to believe something is only true if it can tested by the five senses, this statement is self-refuting. The statement alone cannot be tested by the five senses. If I accepted the statement “I only believe what I can see,” then he or she would not be able to accept the statement itself, because the belief is not visible- it can’t be seen. Furthermore, there are several  non-physical things such as propositions, states of affairs,  numbers, platonic universals, our own thoughts, the laws of logic, etc. The skeptic constantly assumes that if they could just see God directly or if God would give them an unmistakable sign that He is there, they would bow their knee and follow Him.  Sadly, this is misguided on several levels.

Biblical Passages about Seeing God

Interestingly enough, when it comes to the God of the Bible we see the visibility and invisibility of God in the following text:

The Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight and I have known you by name.”  Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!”  And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”  But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!”  Then the Lord said, Behold, there is a place  by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock;  and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by.  Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”- Exodus 33: 17-23

Here we see the declaration, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Andrew Malone says the following about this text:

Of all the Old Testament passages that describe seeing God, Exodus 33: 20 is regularly emphasized. What’s especially important is that it’s invoked both by those who insist that God is strictly invisible and by those who are more comfortable with his making visible appearances. Which interpretation is correct? First, we should note that the prohibition of 33: 20 is precisely that: a prohibition. Moses is not told that he is physically unable to look upon God; he is not permitted to do so. Almost every major English Bible translates this ambiguously: ‘you cannot see my face’. There are two reasons we should interpret this as describing what is permitted for Moses rather than what is possible. (1) God gives Moses a rationale: ‘for no one may see me and live’. This implies that someone can succeed in seeing him, albeit with fatal consequences. This is an odd warning if God is imperceptible to human sight. (2) God immediately makes arrangements whereby Moses does see something of God’s divinity (33: 21– 23). Indeed, Exodus proceeds to talk unashamedly of Moses being with and speaking with Yahweh – an encounter sufficiently intimate to alter Moses’ visible appearance (e.g. 34: 1– 9, 27– 35). Secondly, we must consider what we mean when we talk about God’s ‘glory’. That’s what Moses asked to see. God responds that it’s fatal to see his ‘face’. How do these terms intersect? It’s easy to think God is using the terms interchangeably: denying Moses a glimpse of his face denies a glimpse of his glory. That’s consistent with other occasions where God’s ‘glory’ cannot be endured, even by Moses (e.g. 40: 34– 35; 1 Kgs 8: 10– 11; Ezek. 1: 28).  But this itself suggests that something can be experienced. There are many other passages where God’s ‘glory’ is manifest, often in the sight of all Israel. So we cannot automatically assume that God’s glory is unseeable. Exodus 33: 20 does not disallow God’s ability to render himself visible; it merely reinforces that he can make himself too visible for human survival.- Andrew Malone, Knowing Jesus in the Old Testament? A Fresh Look at Christophanies

It can noted that in Genesis 32:30, Jacob saw God appearing as an angel. But he did not truly see God. In Genesis 18:1, it says the Lord appeared to Abraham. Obviously, there are other cases where God appears in various forms. But this is not the same thing as seeing God directly with all His glory and holiness. It is evident that people can’t see God in all His fullness (Exodus 33:20). If they did, they would be destroyed. Here is a helpful quote:

“Suppose you want to answer some specific question. How will you proceed? That depends on what you want to know and how it can be known. For instance, “Where is Kenya?” can be answered by consulting an encyclopedia, looking at a globe, or asking someone who knows. Answering “Did I leave the bedroom light on?” usually requires going to the room to see or asking someone else to go.

Consulting an encyclopedia or  “What is 12 x 12?” can be answered from memory (if you learned your multiplication tables) or by looking at a multiplication table, working out the answer on paper, using a calculator, counting out twelve rows of twelve sticks and then counting through them all, or (again) by asking someone who knows. It cannot be answered by looking at a globe. We ask “What are you thinking?” only of persons—and only the person who is being asked can answer it. We may guess, but we won’t know for certain unless we are told. Consulting encyclopedias, looking at globes, going to another room, or trying to work out the answer on paper aren’t good ways to answer this question. Our primary question is, What is God like? That is what we want to know. Let us assume for the moment that it is possible to know some significant things about God. Yet still we must ask, How can we know them? Our answer to this question depends on the kind of being we think God is.”Mark Talbort, “Does God Reveal Who He Actually Is?” quoted in God Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents God, Douglas S. Huffman, Eric L. Johnson, R. Douglas Geivett, Gerald L. Bray, Bruce A. Ware, Charles Gutenson, James S. Spiegel, Mark R. Talbot, William Lane Craig, Paul Helm, and D. A. Carson/

I will add one thought to this: If we could remember the nature of the object determines how we know it, than for skeptics to constantly say there is no evidence, the first thing to ask “What is the nature of the object they are trying to know?” What is God? Welcome to natural theology. Revealed/Historical theology follows after that.

Recall that ‘proof’ is a loaded term, which turns on our understanding of what constitutes knowledge. There are knowledge claims that are rooted in inference, and are therefore on various levels of probability. Some arguments for God’s existence use this approach. A different approach in terms of ‘proof’ in establishing the existence of God is by metaphysical rational demonstration. This is found in the classical writings of Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, & Leibniz. Feser writes that philosophical arguments are still the most adequate approach to showing there is a God—the God of classical theism. The God of classical theism is immutable, immaterial, eternal, uncaused, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and can’t be compared to created gods that are part of the physical world such as Thor, Zeus, and others. Two recent books that have taken this approach are the following books by former atheist Edward Feser.  Please note that if you want to find out about these thinkers by reading Richard Dawkins, you are already off to the wrong start. You can also see his interview with Ben Shapiro here:

Five Proofs of the Existence of God by [Feser, Edward]

How much we may know about God from rational demonstration, or probabilistic arguments from scientific evidence may not lead us to worship the God of classical theism. So, assuming the arguments are good, and that theism is true, is the God that exists the God of the Bible? At this point, we may venture into the world of history. If there is a God, it makes sense that God would desire to communicate to us—after all, He made us. How are we to determine, of all the religions in the world, which one God has communicated through—if any? Or, has God communicated through some of them, or even all of them? While Christians understand the Old and New Testaments as God’s revelation to mankind, for example, Muslims take it for granted that it is the Quran—not the Bible—which is the Word of God. Mormons have the Book of Mormon, Hindus have the Vedas, animists have oral traditions, and so on.

The Inference to the Best Explanation Model

One of the best solutions to handling the issue of evidence and arguments for God’s existence is to utilize what is called inference to the best explanation. The inference to the best explanation model takes into account the best available explanation in our whole range of experience and reflection. This type of explanation is commonly called “abduction” since it is a type of reasoning that is different from induction and deduction. As I just said, people assert that unless the God of the Bible is a material object that can be verified with one’s five senses, He doesn’t exist.  Since we can’t see God as a material object, one way to approach this issue is to look at the effects in the world and make rational inferences to the cause of the effect. Hence, we have to look to see if God has left us any pointers that lead the way to finding Him. To read more about this issue, see Paul Copan’s article, here:

Believe it or not, it seems that Rabbi Paul was on target when he said that God’s existence and attributes can be “clearly seen” (Romans 1:18-20) since they have been “shown” to the unbelieving world through “the things that are made” (nature).

The inference to the best explanation model takes into account the best available explanation in our whole range of experience and reflection. For example, when we look at these features of reality, which provides a more satisfactory explanation:

  • How do you explain the Origin of the Universe?
  • How do you explain the Mathematical Fine-Tuning of the Universe?
  • How do you explain the Terrestrial Fine-Tuning of Planet Earth?
  • How do you explain the Informational Fine-Tuning of the DNA molecule?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Mathematical Laws?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Logical Laws?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Physical/Natural Laws?
  • How do you explain the Origin of the First Cell?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Human Reason?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Human Consciousness?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Objective Morality?
  • How do you explain Ultimate Meaning in Life?
  • How do you explain Ultimate Value in Life?
  • How do you explain Ultimate Purpose in Life?

Abduction can operate when people on both sides of an argument agree on what needs to be explained (certain features of reality) but they disagree on why this feature of reality exists.   Why does this feature of reality exist? Is it the result of nature itself or something outside nature? Remember, when we look at the questions above, if you are committed to philosophical naturalism (the idea that nothing exists outside the natural realm of the material universe), you’ll find a way to interpret every piece of data to confirm your naturalistic presuppositions, even if the best inference from evidence points to something else.

Also, the verification principle has broadened out to other kinds of verification tests such as experiential, historical, and eschatological. Historical verification is a way to test religious claims. We can detect God’s work in human history and apply historical tests to the Bible or any other religious book.  Former atheist Antony Flew said the resurrection of Jesus was the best attested miracle claim that he had seen.[1]  In a debate with Gary Habermas, Flew agreed that if it is a knowable fact that Jesus rose from the dead literally and physically it then constitutes “the best, if not the only, reason for accepting that Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.” –  Gary R. Habermas, Antony Flew, and David J. Baggett, Did the Resurrection Happen?: A Conversation with Gary Habermas and Antony Flew (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2009), 85.