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Genesis 32:30 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.

Ex. 33:11 And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle.

Number 12:6-8 6 And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. 7 My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. 8 With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?

What evidence is there within the Bible that a man can or cannot see God? And in what ways can seemingly contradictory verses be explained?

Ex 33:20 And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.

closed as too broad by ShemSeger, Caleb Jan 31 '15 at 14:09

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    I've added the biblical basis tag to this question because that's the minimum required to make this on topic (which is what you're asking). But I'll warn you right now that you may not get what you're looking from a pure biblical basis alone, you're likely to want/need additional sources to unpack this for you. if that's the case you may want to consider additional scoping to determine which sources you consider authoritative and which ones you consider to be quacks (generally a denomination is helpful shorthand for this) – wax eagle Dec 8 '14 at 20:24
  • I'm looking for multiple denominations. Not a specific one. I will see what happens and edit accordingly based on if I'm getting what I'm looking for. – atherises Dec 8 '14 at 20:27
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    If you're not looking for a specific answer then your question is off-topic. You need to narrow your scope or you're going to get conflicting answers, which is not constructive. – ShemSeger Dec 8 '14 at 23:19
  • @atherises You might try editing this to be an overview question: I'm not clear exactly how "overview" questions work. I would ask "What is an overview of the two beliefs and how they support them and reason them?" – fredsbend Dec 9 '14 at 6:14
  • I think this is really too philosophical. What does it mean to "see God"? – curiousdannii Jan 13 '15 at 7:27
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"and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold" (Numbers 12:8). This is the answer. The Lord only showed a representation of Himself, at times in the figure of a man. No one saw His spiritual essence. As we see elsewhere in Scripture, frequently when men saw an angel, they fell as dead men; how much more would it be to see the essence of God?

Also, The Bible Knowledge Commentary tells us that "face to face" as used in Exodus 33:11 was a term of intimacy and is not to be taken literally.

  • Reading the full context of the event in Exodus 33:11 makes this clear. +1 – Jas 3.1 Dec 9 '14 at 4:33
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Matthew 5:8 – "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Also, the apostles and others around him in his day saw Jesus, so yes, man can see God.

  • Welcome to the site. We are glad you decided to participate. Please see What this site is about and How this site is different to help you learn how the site works. Also see the help center and take the tour to learn the site functions. I hope to see you post again soon. – fredsbend Jan 13 '15 at 7:58
  • Man will one day see God face to face when "the Tabernacle of God is with men". So far no human while living on earth has seen the face of God in all His glory – One Face Jan 29 '15 at 3:06
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The following OT and NT [RSVCE] passages indicate that some men shall see God in the future.

Job 19:26 [And] after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God[.]

Psalm 11:7 For the Lord is righteous, he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.

Psalm 42:2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?

Matt 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

1 Cor 13:12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

1 John 3:2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.


And in what ways can seemingly contradictory verses be explained?

One word: Jesus. The revelation of our LORD Jesus Christ is what enables man to be able to do in the future what he was unable to do in the past as revealed in the OT. The first letter of St. John reveals what the LORD has done for us, i.e., making us children of God and reveals the future beatitude resulting from this gift, which is seeing God as he really is.

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God can appear to men in whatever form He wishes. Another instance that comes to mind is when He appeared to Abraham as a man, after which Abraham was immediately prompted to fall down to his face, yet he didn't die (I think that's on Gen 18).

As for Ex 33:20, highlighted in the question, follows Moses request in v. 18, which reads:

18 And he said, Let me, I pray thee, see thy glory. (Darby Ex. 33.18)

So men cannot see God in his glory... unless the purposeful counsel of His will so determines (never put God inside a box), as it is also written:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we have contemplated his glory, a glory as of an only-begotten with a father), full of grace and truth;

The glory of God was seen in the incarnated God the Son (I also see that and stand in awe when I read the gospels). Now the same John saw the glorified Christ in Rev.1 and fell almost dead. Paul saw the risen Christ and was blinded. But we Christians have a promise we'll see him in his glory, as he really is: 1Jo 3.1,2.

3:1 Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. 2 Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. (KJV 1Jo 3.1,2)

As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (cannot see God in his glory), but resurrected man can and will see God in his glory!

In sum: FLESH cannot see God in his glory (with the exception of the purpose of God in Christ Jesus). RESURRECTED saved men can and will.

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It is interesting in the reference in Exodus 33:20 "And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live."

So I think this could be a pre-incarnate form of Christ in Ex 33:11 "And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend."

That through Jesus Christ we have access to God and that they are One.

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What evidence is there within the Bible that a man can or cannot see God? 

We know that Genesis 32:30 unambiguously says that Jacob saw God: "And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face." We also know that Exodus 33:11 says that Moses saw God face to face: "And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend."

Genesis 2-3 does not actually say that Adam and Eve saw God, but it seems hard to imagine otherwise. In 2:19, God brought each animal to Adam to be named. In 3:8, they heard God "walking in the garden in the cool of the day and hid themselves from him.

Against this, Exodus 33:20 says:

And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.

In Isaiah chapter 6, Isaiah says he saw God, but most modern commentators describe this as a 'vision'. Yet, Isaiah fears he will die because he saw the Lord of hosts with his own eyes (Isaiah 6:5) If this was only a vision, and if Isaiah did not really see or speak with God and if he did not really see any seraphim, then the entire chapter seems to be a nonsense.

In Acts 7:55-56, Stephen looked up and saw God in heaven:

But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

And in what ways can seemingly contradictory verses be explained?

Wikipedia describes the scholarly consensus that the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) was actually written by four major sources. Although the hypothesis continues to be debated and various improvements to the hypothesis proposed, the Wikipedia article continues to represent the essential definition of the hypothesis. Each source had a different theology and each presents us a different understanding of God. Paraphrasing the words of Gerald A. Larue, because the documentary hypothesis is the most widely accepted of all theories of Pentateuchal analysis, this answer will utilise, in principle, the conclusions reached by this method of research.

Genesis chapters 2-3 and Exodus 33:11 are parts of the passages written by an anonymous source now known as the Yahwist, who wrote of an anthropomorphic God with human characteristics.

It is the Elohist who tells us in Exodus 33:20 that no one can look at God and live, consistent with his portrayal of God as a more transcendent God who required obedience and was feared by his people. People could never look at the Elohist’s God, so he typically came in dreams or visions, but sometimes in the form of a cloud or a flame.

On the other hand, it was also the Elohist who wrote of Jacob wrestling with God and naming the place Peniel because he saw God face to face. There are elements of a more primitive tradition in this last story and it is suggested that in the earliest pre-biblical tradition, Jacob had been more than just human, hence his ability to wrestle with God all night. Otherwise, we can not really explain this passage.

Perhaps Isaiah chapter 6 is the easiest to explain. Isaiah portrays this event as his commission as a prophet to Jerusalem, and no doubt the fact that he saw God convinced many Judahites that Isaiah really was chosen. He needed more than just a vision, to convince the nation to accept him as a reliable prophet, and so feigned fear of death in order to emphasise the reality of his vision.

Acts 7:55-56 was no doubt intended to be that Stephen literally saw God, although we could perhaps say that this is a different kind of 'seeing' than to see God on earth. Uta Ranke-Heinemann says in Putting Away Childish Things, page 171, cites Hans Joachim Schoeps (Das Judenchristentum, p10) to say that Acts of the Apostles follows a clear didactic line and for this reason energetically cultivates the creation of legends and reshapes persons and events according to its own standards. John Dominic Crossan says in The Birth of Christianity, page 21, "Each of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, and one no more or less than the other, is theology rather than history." Finally, Raymond E. Brown says in An Introduction to the New Testament, page 320, that we can never verify the existence and martyrdom of Stephen. Thus, the explanation of St Stephen seeing God in heaven is that Stephen may never have existed, and if he did exist Acts is widely seen as so unreliable that this event never occurred.

  • There is at least one "modern" report of seeing God. That is the testimony of Joseph Smith. Most people deny that this happened, many of them apparently on the basis of a belief that it could not have happened, which belief does not seem to be supported by Biblical sources. – Brian Hitchcock Jan 12 '15 at 6:46
  • @BrianHitchcock My copy of the Book of Mormon has a preface, "Origin of the Book of Mormon." This goes into some detail about Joseph Smith's experiences, and I would expect it to include any event in which he saw God, but it does not appear to do so; only that he saw Moroni. Similarly 'The Testimony of Three Witnesses' and 'The Testimony of Eight Witnesses' make no such reference, although I would expect them to do so. – Dick Harfield Jan 12 '15 at 7:02
  • @BrianHitchcock I went online, and found that mormon.org.au/beliefs/joseph-smith says Smith saw God. In evidence of this, it links to Joseph Smith-History 1:16-17 (lds.org/scriptures/pgp/js-h/1.16-17?lang=eng#15). I eagerly went to the link and searched for this event, but could not find it. I know a recent, online reference must be secondary to a contemporary or immediate post-contemporary reference, but it would be better than nothing. Please tell me what I have missed? – Dick Harfield Jan 12 '15 at 7:07
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    The notion that there currently exists a scholarly consensus on Wellhausen's hypothesis is highly dubious. To imply, as you do, that the Wikipedia article asserts this is to misrepresent it significantly. This appears to be a repeat offence - stop mispresenting sources! – bruised reed Jan 12 '15 at 8:58
  • @Dick Harfield: With regard to the origin of the book of Mormon, you are indeed correct, the plates were shown to Joseph Smith by Moroni, not by God. That's why God is not specifically mentioned there. The incident in JSH 1:17 is a separate event commonly teferred to by Mormons as the "first vision". In verse 17, the quoted speaker is God, and the "Beloved Son" to whom he refers is Jesus Christ. – Brian Hitchcock Jan 12 '15 at 9:08
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Very few people have ever seen God. The examples cited by other answerers and commenters were all, I think, prophets. Before Jesus arrived on earth, the Jews had already begun to reject prophets, and even to kill some prophets. (This helps in part to explain the large chronological gap between the Old and New Testaments.)

To my knowledge, neither the Catholic, Jewish, nor Protestant traditions recognize the calling/office of "prophet". Many sects deny the possibility of modern-day prophets, and seem to be saying that in olden times, God could speak to a man "face to face", but that that is no longer possible. This seems to imply either a lessening of God's powers, which seems inconsistent with their theology, or a denial that a need might exist in modern days for further instruction from God, which seems downright arrogant.

So, yes, a person might see God, even in these days, but only a very special kind of person—one who was sufficiently prepared that he/she could see God in His glory, and live to tell the tale.

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