Can God Be Seen?

Wayne Jackson
How does one reconcile Bible passages which suggest that some “saw” God, but, on the other hand, God cannot be “seen”?

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God’ (Mt. 5:8). This statement appears to conflict with other passages. For example, Paul wrote that no man has seen God, or can see him (1 Tim. 6:16). How are these verses to be reconciled?”

When Paul affirmed that no human being can “see God,” or ever has seen him (cf. Jn. 1:18), he alluded to the “spirit” essence of the Lord’s intrinsic being (Jn. 4:24). That aspect of God is wholly “invisible” to human sight (Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17). But this does not conflict with those Old Testaments references that record certain occasions when Deity assumed a temporal form, which men did see (cf. Gen. 32:30; Ex. 3:6; 24:9-10).

In one of his “beatitudes,” Jesus said: “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8). There are several key points here.

First, the Greek word for “pure” is katharos (used 27 times in the New Testament). It signifies that which is clean, or free from contaminating substance (cf. F.W. Danker, Greek Lexicon, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, p. 489). For example, the term is used of the “clean” cloth in which Jesus’ body was wrapped after his death (Mt. 27:59). William Barclay contended that, in a spiritual sense, it may describe the heart that is free of adulterated “motives” (Matthew, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958, I, p. 101). Perhaps it represents an ideal state of mind, that which characterizes the person who longs to serve God and others for the sheer unselfish joy of honoring the Creator. What a lofty disposition that would be.

Second, in Matthew 5:8 there is the promise that the “pure in heart” shall “see” God. Since it is clear that upon the final day of history, at the time of the Judgment, all will “see” God (Psa. 17:15; Eccl. 11:9; Rom. 14:10-12; Heb. 12:14), it is only reasonable to conclude that the term “see” is used in this instance in a special sense.

“See” is the Greek horao (449 times in New Testament). The word may be used literally (cf. Mk. 12:15) or figuratively. When figuratively employed, it conveys the concept of perception, recognition, experience, etc.

What, then, is the meaning of “see” in Matthew 5:8? D.R. Dungan suggested that it refers to recognizing God in all the wonders of his creation (Hermeneutics, Cincinnati, Standard, n.d., p. 18). The fool sees only raw “matter” when he contemplates nature (see “senseless heart” Rom. 1:21b); the spiritual person “sees” far beyond that (Rom. 1:20).

On the other hand “see” can also signify to experience something. For example, Jesus declared that he who refuses to “obey” the Son will not “see life” (Jn. 3:36 ASV), i.e., receive, enjoy, experience it.

Again, when one submits to the conditions of the “new birth” process, he “sees” or “enters” the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3,5), i.e., he receives the blessings of citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.

These two ideas expressed above are not necessarily mutually exclusive; each of them is consistent with the language of Matthew 5:8.

And so, these biblical texts do not conflict relative to the issue of “seeing” God.