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Figure 1. Can God be Seen?

This article aims to explore a contradiction found within the Bible, specifically regarding the question of whether God, assuming He exists as described in the Bible, can be seen or not. The Bible has been used as a source of spiritual guidance and inspiration for billions of people across history, and its teachings have greatly influenced the development of Western culture. However, the existence of errors and contradictions within its text has led many to question the infallibility of its authors, who were allegedly inspired by God.

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1. The Contradiction

The Bible contains several verses that suggest conflicting views on whether God can be seen face to face. Two verses suggest that God can be seen directly, while others argue the opposite.

1.1. Verses suggesting God can be seen face to face

  • Genesis 32:30 (NIV):

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, 'It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.'
— Genesis 32:30 (NIV)
  • Exodus 33:11 (NIV):

The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.
— Exodus 33:11 (NIV)

1.2. Verses suggesting God cannot be seen face to face

  • Exodus 33:20 (NIV):

But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."
— Exodus 33:20 (NIV)
  • John 1:18 (NIV):

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
— John 1:18 (NIV)
  • 1 John 4:12 (NIV):

No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
— 1 John 4:12 (NIV)

2. Common Views

Many scholars and theologians have attempted to reconcile this contradiction. Some of the most common explanations are as follows:

  1. Anthropomorphic language: Some argue that the verses suggesting God can be seen face to face are using anthropomorphic language, which means attributing human characteristics to God (Walton, 2006). In this view, "face to face" is not meant to be taken literally but rather symbolizes a close, intimate relationship with God.

  2. Different aspects of God: Another view is that the verses refer to different aspects of God’s nature (Enns, 2014). For instance, when Moses is said to speak with God "face to face," it may refer to God’s presence in the form of a cloud or another manifestation, rather than God’s true essence. In contrast, the verses suggesting that God cannot be seen directly refer to God’s full glory, which is too overwhelming for any human to witness.

  3. Theophanies and Christophanies: Some suggest that the encounters with God described in the verses where God can be seen face to face are actually theophanies (appearances of God in a temporary, visible form) or Christophanies (pre-incarnate appearances of Jesus Christ) (Beale, 2004). In this view, God’s true essence remains hidden, but He may choose to reveal Himself in a more accessible form.

  4. Progressive revelation: Another possible explanation is that the contradiction reflects a shift in the understanding of God throughout biblical history (Sanders, 1977). Early biblical authors may have had a more anthropomorphic view of God, while later authors developed a more transcendent understanding.

3. Conclusion

When confronted with these contradictions, theologians and apologists often seek ways to sanitize and rationalize the inconsistencies, striving to present the Bible as a wholly non-contradicting text. However, such efforts may inadvertently lead to the proliferation of various denominations, the fostering of gullibility, and other unintended consequences. Recognizing these contradictions as inherent to the texts, which were authored by humans, allows for a more accurate understanding of their origins. Even though the authors believed themselves to be inspired by God, their human fallibility led to contradictory messages being recorded in the Bible itself.

Over time, further writings, explanations, and translations have been added to the original text in an attempt to sanitize or rationalize these contradictions, aligning the narrative with a more positive, non-contradictory perspective. Nevertheless, for the sake of intellectual honesty and harmony, it is essential to embrace reason and critical thinking, fostering progress by openly acknowledging and addressing errors and contradictions, whether they appear in our most cherished beliefs or elsewhere.


Beale, G. K. (2004). The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. InterVarsity Press.

Enns, P. (2014). The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. HarperOne.

Sanders, E. P. (1977). Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Fortress Press.

Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Baker Academic.

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