Otsego Festival Question Series: What Does God Look Like?

In the frescos painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo depicted God as an older man with a long white beard.  The images of Greek gods likely inform our thinking about what God looks like, though wrongly.  Hollywood has used actors such as George Burns, Morgan Freeman, and Jim Carey to play God.  The Bible says that it is blasphemous to make any likeness of God, including any images created with a paint brush or with a godless actor.  The second commandment in Exodus 20:4 says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” 

Before God created Adam, Genesis 1:26 tells us,

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’

Does this mean that Adam, or every human, physically looks like God?  Well, it would be problematic at best to say that the image of God in man means we look like him because, well, look around—we all look so different!  Does God have a long face or is He square-jawed?  Does He have a small nose or a cleft chin?  Are his eyes wide-set?  Does He have thin eyebrows?  Clearly physical form is not in view with the term “image” in Genesis 1:26.

Someone who is familiar with the Bible may object and say, “What about passages that mention God’s body parts?”  It is true that the Bible does indeed mention this.  For example,

  • The face of the Lord:

But they do not consider that I remember all their evil. Now their deeds surround them; they are before my face (Hosea 7:2).

  • The eyes of the Lord:

The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good (Proverbs 15:3).

  • Isaiah 59:1 mentions the ear and hand of the Lord:

Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear.

  • The arm of the Lord:

Who has believed what he has heard from us?  And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed” (Isaiah 53:1)?

These statements are not to be understood literally as a reference to God’s physical features.  Rather, they are anthropomorphisms.  This is the $20 word to describe the literary device employed by the Biblical authors.  This literary device attributes human characteristics to a non-corporeal being for the sake of illustration.  It is a common literary device used in other non-Biblical works such as Aesop’s Fables

The Bible teaches us that God is a spirit which means He does not have a physical “look” to describe.  John 4:24 says,

God is spirit. 

This is also expressed by the term “invisible.”   1 Timothy 1:17 declares,

To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Consequently, Christian creeds have expressed the truth that God is a non-corporeal being (a being without a body).  For instance, the 1561 Belgic Confession states,

We all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that he is eternal, incomprehensible invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good. 

Similarly, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith asserts,

The Lord our God is but one only living, and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being, and perfection, whose Essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions.

The fact is that God’s appearance is beyond human description.  The authors of the Bible regularly employed similes when describing the splendor of God because there is nothing that can adequately describe His unimaginable appearance.  The Old Testament prophet Moses pleaded with the Lord to show him His glory.  God responded in Exodus 33:20,

you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live

God’s appearance is utterly unimaginable and too glorious to be safely perceived by sinful man.  Having said this, Ezekiel 1:26-28 provides a snapshot of the resplendent glory of God,

And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. [27] And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. [28] Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.  Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.

It is important to note the last part of these verses which states, “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.”

In conclusion, while the Bible mentions the image of God, and some physical characteristics such as face, eyes, ears, hands, and arms they are literary devices, not to be understood literally.  The Bible teaches that God is a spirit.  Consequently there is no material description of God and any attempt to physically depict God violates the second commandment though the Bible portrays God as infinite in perfection, holiness, and glory.


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