The Problem with God’s Visibility and Invisibility

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.


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. This is exactly why one of the most important themes of the Bible is that since God is free and personal, that he acts on behalf of those whom he loves, and that his actions includes already within history, a partial disclosure of his nature, attributes, and intensions.  Revelation is a disclosure of something that has been hidden– an “uncovering,” or “unveiling.” There are three things are needed for a revelation to take place: God, a medium, and a being able to receive the revelation.

The mediums God uses in the Bible are general revelation (Creation; Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:20; Conscience; Rom. 2:12-15); Special Revelation: theophanies (Genesis 3:8, 18:1; Exodus 3:1-4 34:5-7 ) dreams (Genesis 28:12, 37:5; 1 Kings 3:5; Daniel 2 ) visions (Genesis 15:1; Ezekiel 8:3-4; Daniel 7; 2 Corinthians 12:1-7), the written Word of God (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16-17); Prophecy (Isaiah 41:21-24; 42:8-9), and most importantly—Jesus (John 3:16; 14:9; Colossians 2:9; Heb. 1:1-2), and Messengers (Acts 10:30-33).

But why the need for revelation? First, we need to know the character of GodHence, we need a clear communication to establish the exact nature of God’s character. Who is God and what is He Like? Also, we need a revelation to understand the origin of evil. Thus, we need to be educated concerning the reasons for where we are at as a human race. Furthermore, without a clear revelation, people might think they are the result of a blind, naturalistic process instead of being created in the image of God. And without a clear revelation we wouldn’t know our destiny.

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). In some cases, there has been some good arguments for God’s activity in the natural sciences (cosmology, biology, physics).

However, 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. The late Anthony Flew said the resurrection of Jesus was the best attested miracle claim that he had seen. Perhaps the most reasonable expectation is to ask WHERE and WHEN God has broken through into human history.

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