Can man see God?

I was inspired by a colleague’s post which systematically attempts to refute traditional “proof-texts” given by mainstream Christians in support and as evidence for the popular Trinity doctrine. This post will be systematically addressing another issue, the question of whether or not man can see God the Father. It will be a post in progress, and I will add to it bit by bit.

Old Testament Theophanies:

Arguments are very often made straight from the OT text which seem to indicate that the face of God(YHWH) cannot be seen. One very prominent one is this:

(NASB) Exo 33:20  But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!”

In context, verse 21 reveals that it the LORD who is speaking. The word LORD in our English bibles is used in all caps to represent a place where the Hebrew text actually says “YHWH”(or Jehovah), the name of the Israelite god. Therefore, we have an OT verse in which it is unambiguously stated that the face of “YHWH” simply cannot be seen.

However, anyone familiar with this discussion knows that just prior to this pronouncement the text reads:

(KJV) Exo 33:11 And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.

This seems like a pretty clear statement to the contrary. However, I am aware of the hot debate over what exactly “face to face” means to imply, and so I will sidestep that for now and move on to other examples. But I do wish to note that while Evangelical interpreters believe that “face to face” is symbolic in Exo 33:11, they are not consistent in their interpretation of “face” in Exo 33:20.

This belief that viewing God’s face would cause the viewer to suffer death pre-dates the events in Exodus chapter 33. In fact, the book of Genesis demonstrates that it was a common belief held by the first Israelites.

(NASB) Gen 32:30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, for {he said,} “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”

Apparently Jacob the patriarch also believed, long before it was written in Exodus, that seeing the face of God leads to death. However, he clearly was surprised to learn that this belief was far from true! To Jacob’s amazement, he had seen God’s face and lived through the experience. Keep in mind that “God” in this verse is “Elohim”, not a direct match to “YHWH” found in Exo 33:20. However, it seems clear for two reasons that to the OT writers there was no difference between the two.

First, Jacob fully expected to die upon seeing the face of “Elohim”, and this fear and belief was still present many hundreds of years later at the time of Moses. In other words, the fear of death upon seeing God matches both “Elohim” theology and “YHWH” theology, suggesting that the cause of death was the same regardless of which “name” for God is being used. The bottom line is that seeing the face of God, the Israelite God, led to death.

Secondly, the bible and all Evangelicals state unambiguously that “YHWH” is “Elohim”, that they are one and the same. (Quote forthcoming)

Mr. Slick of CARM tries to explain the discrepancy this way:

Second, though they are most definitely are occurrences of God being seen in the Old Testament, these are not manifestations of the Father.  They are the appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ.

Mr. Slick then continues to list a few places in the OT where God is said to have been seen. However, Mr. Slick offers no further explanation for why his view is justified, other than mentioning that the NT text prohibits God the Father from ever being seen by man. Those texts will be examined below. What I wish to point out is an obvious double standard being used by critics of the LDS church.

Mr. Slick, and others, contend that the apparent contradictions in the OT involving theophanies can be properly understood if we use chronologically later revelation and scripture to interpret it. A short afternoon spent in the CARM chat-room with a poster named Neolights reveals that it is an acceptable and common practice used by Evangelical Christians. Mr. Neo assured me that it was perfectly permissible to interpret the OT texts through the lens of the NT. It was also candidly admitted that the OT writers did not have that advantage.

I of course have no qualms with that, in fact I believe it! What irks me however is the double standard. While Evangelical Christians can use later revelation, the NT, to interpret older revelation, the OT, Mormons apparently are not given that privilege. Mr. Slick from CARM and his associates use NT scriptures which they believe teach the Trinity, and interpret the theophany passages in the OT with them. They interpret the passages by suggesting that it is Jesus, not the Father, who is seen in these passages. The immediate context of these passage gives absolutely no hints of this perspective, and the OT authors certainly had no such idea in mind.

Mormons also have the privilege of interpreting both the OT and the NT texts through the lens of modern revelation, whether or not Evangelicals like it. We understand the passages a bit differently then our Evangelical brethren, but our methodology is the same. We use scripture to interpret scripture. Evangelicals need not believe that our scripture is inspired and true in order to understand this right that we share.

The argument made from OT texts by Evangelicals which suggests that God’s face cannot be seen cannot be upheld without employing a hypocritical double standard, one which has been and should continue to be exposed.

Later I will expand this article to include my thoughts on NT passages.

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3 comments on “Can man see God?

  1. Bobby says:

    Interesting post James, and this does help me understand your perspective better!

  2. James says:

    Hey Bobby. I never really finished discussing this issue like I said I would in the post.

    But I think the important point remains that mainstream Christians read older revelations (the OT) through the lenst of newer revelations (the NT). Mormons do the exact same thing.

  3. Bobby says:

    Yeah thats cool, obviously we have had and will have disagreements on this issue, however it was helpful for you to make your perspective as clear as you have here, your blog does seem particularly good at that.

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