Believing in Him Whom We Have Not Seen
Bertrand Russell was once quoted as replying, “Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence,” when he was asked what he would tell God if he appeared to him after his death and queried him regarding his unbelief.
It’s difficult to know what Russell would have considered enough evidence. But for most people, God making a decisive appearance – where we could see him with our eyes – would be sufficient. This, for them, is surely preferable to the classical philosophical arguments or even the modern scientific ones.
For one thing, theistic philosophers admit that classical arguments only make God’s existence probable (more probable than not) rather than certain. As William Lane Craig puts it, “one’s apologetic case for Christianity yields only probability rather than certainty.” Nevertheless, “we can on the basis of the Spirit’s witness know Christianity to be true with a deep assurance that far outstrips what the evidence in our particular situation might support.”
In the same vein, Alvin Plantinga has argued that belief in God and in the truths of Christianity can be warranted based on the Sensus Divinitatis (a sense of the divine that is common to all men) and the inner witness of the Spirit (unique to Christians).
“But wouldn’t it be better if the Sensus Divinitatis was accompanied by a once-in-a-lifetime glance at God?” some Russell followers might ask. And is there not a part of us all that intuitively agrees that such a vision will be decisive and shut the mouths of unbelievers forever?
The necessity of the hiddenness of God
The first thing to say in considering these questions is that the Scriptures seem to suggest that by virtue of our humanity and also our fallenness, there is a limit to how much of God’s revelation we can receive.
The classic text here is Exodus 33:20 where in response to Moses’ request to show him his glory, God declared that “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” This is not unconnected from the writer of Hebrews describing God as a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) or Paul as one “who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:15,16).
Though we are made in his image, God is transcendent. He is a different type of being from us and we cannot penetrate into his mysteries.
Consequently, our knowledge of him depends only on his revelation of himself to us. As Gerald Bray said, “God has made it possible for us to know him by revealing himself to us.”
However, because of that same transcendence, our knowledge of him will always be limited to our capacity as humans, a capacity that has been diminished by the fall. As Paul said, “for now we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Furthermore, God is a spirit (John 4:22). Paul described him as the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Therefore, God can only appear to us physically (visibly) indirectly – through a theophanic medium.
Yet, limited by our humanity and sinfulness, even these theophanies are a death sentence, except to those who God himself has invited to behold it.
So, in the Old Testament, God appeared to his people indirectly in a pillar of fire and cloud. Even then, not all the people could approach him. When he descended on Mount Sinai to the sounds of thunders, lightning, and a trumpet blast, “all the people in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). The Lord stayed on the top of the mountain where Moses went to meet him; the others could only stand at the foot of the mountain. In fact, Moses was commanded to warn them against breaking through to see what was happening at the top of the mountain, “lest the LORD break out against them” (vs 23).
(This was not an empty threat by the way. Many people familiar with the Scriptures will remember Uzzah who was struck down because he touched the ark of God [which was not even a theophany] without authorisation (1 Chronicles 13)).
In essence, human beings cannot even behold God’s theophany and live. That privilege was reserved for only some people and these were always left awe-stricken, wondering why they were still alive.
When Jacob saw and wrestled with the angel of the LORD (whom theologians consider to be the pre-incarnate Christ taking on human appearance), he named the place Peniel for his life was spared after “seeing” God (Genesis 32:30). Manoah, Samson’s father also expected a certain death after realising that he had “seen” God (Judges 13:21-22).
We can multiply examples but the point is simple: “the divine hiddenness is related to the nature of the Godhead,” as Andrew Fellows puts it. “If God did not conceal himself, he could not truly reveal himself. In hiding, he reveals who he is.”
Yes, God could make a theophanic appearance in the sky so we can all see but we will then be left for dead.
The purpose of God’s revelation
Due to the gap between us and him, we can know God only because he has chosen to reveal himself to us. And he has done that in a way that we can bear (as explained above) and in a way that accords with his purposes (see below).
According to Joseph Minch, “God is only interested in His revelation being clear enough for the purposes He has in revealing Himself. That is to say, God’s revelation is about God’s rather than man’s goals.”
And that goal is not that people simply believe that he exists. It is not that we believe in God’s existence and power as much as that we “believe on God as a child.” Consequently, according to Minch, God reveals himself to us so we can seek him (hunger and thirst for him) and in seeking him we find him (and then we seek him more and find him more).
Put differently, the goal of God’s revelation is not to satisfy our curiosity but to bring us into a personal and loving relationship of continuous seeking and finding. In John’s terms, God reveals himself to elicit faith in us (John 20:30-31) and faith is not mere assent, it is trust in a person.
Sight and faith
If this is God’s purpose in revealing himself to us, does the absence of sight negate it? Asked differently, does our inability to see God undermine God’s purpose of bringing us into a relationship with himself?
Well, the answer is no. There is no essential positive correlation between sight and faith.
“Was ancient Israel full of faithful Hebrews because God’s cloud was in their midst?” asked Minch. “Certainly not!” he answered.
The gospels confirm Minch’s point. Hear Jesus:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:22).
These inhabitants of Chorazin and Bethsaida saw many miracles of Jesus but that didn’t lead them to repentance and faith.
John also recorded something similar: “Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him (John 12:37). Though they saw him do works that no man ever did, they still hated him and his Father who sent him (John 15:24).
This point is brought up in a very significant way in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. When the former wanted Abraham to send someone from paradise to warn his brothers on earth, Abraham insisted that “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31).
And his point was confirmed when the chief Priests and Pharisees were busy plotting against Jesus even when he had just raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:47) and when they decided to lie that his disciples stole his body when he had just risen from the dead himself (Matthew 28:13).
Points like these led Minch to comment that “The problem is and always has been the human heart. Intellectual distortion has always been a function of this more primal seat of human fallenness.”
Said differently, the perversion of our hearts can lead us to unbelief even in the face of evidence that we can visibly behold. Therefore, “seeing God” would not be a guarantee that his purpose in revealing himself –eliciting faith – would be accomplished. If Jesus’s miracles could be construed as the work of the devil (Mark 3:22), then we can always find a way to undermine God’s visible appearance to us and call it an illusion (especially if we have read enough from David Hume and Immanuel Kant).
According to Revelation 219, when the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies see Christ sitting on a white horse together with his armies, they don’t repent in sackcloth and ashes. Instead, they make war with him. Not even the sight of the glorified Christ could conquer the deep-seated hatred of God in their hearts.
Faith comes by hearing
In the parable, Abraham identified the law and the prophets – God’s word – as the source of repentance. And in Romans 10:17, Paul told us that faith comes by hearing God’s word.
While we believe that seeing will solve all our problems, God said it is through listening that repentance and faith will come. It is through revealed words that God’s purpose in revealing himself would be accomplished.
We hear God in the natural world. According to Psalms 19,
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 19:1-4).
This voice of God in nature has been referred to as natural revelation (Romans 1:18-23, Acts 14:15-18).
We also hear God in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament (2 Timothy 3:16, 1 Thessalonians 2:13). This voice of God in the Scriptures has been referred to as special revelation.
But is God not giving us second best by prioritising hearing over seeing? Asked differently, is the possibility of faith not undermined by hearing?
Not according to Peter. As he wrote to his audience: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9).
This is the experience of the billions of people who have come to faith in Christ over the centuries. We have heard God’s voice in natural and special revelation and we have believed in him – entered into a trusting relationship with him. The more we have known him, the more we have sought him and in seeking him, we find him. And where do we find him? In his words.
Jesus was getting to this same point in his conversation with Thomas. Thomas believed only when he saw but Jesus pronounced a blessing on those who will not have the privilege of seeing the resurrected Christ physically but would believe nonetheless based on the words of his appointed witnesses (John 20:29).
As F.F Bruce says, “since the apostolic generation passed from earth, all believers in the crucified and risen Lord have believed without seeing, and to them is assured the special blessing here pronounced by him. To us, faith comes not by seeing but (as Paul puts it) ‘from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ’ (Romans 10:7).”
No wonder that when God became flesh, he was referred to as the Word of God (Logos). And in his ministry, Jesus was constantly calling people to hear (John 8:47), believe (John 17:8), obey (John 8:51), and abide in (John 15:7) his words.
According to Minch, “It is worth considering, then, that the monotheistic tradition has largely emphasized God’s revelation of Himself in words—not as opposed to visible manifestation, but as the model and paradigm of a presence that is an irreducible property of being (i.e., communication).”
The whole point of this section is that God’s purpose for revealing himself to us has been, is being, and will continually be fulfilled in the medium he has chosen: his words.
Therefore, instead of waiting on him to show himself, we should take hold of his words in nature and the Scriptures and enter into a personal and loving relationship with him.
When faith is turned to sight
Nevertheless, the Scriptures affirm that our hunger and desire to see God will not be left unfulfilled.
When our redemption and that of creation have been consummated, then God will dwell amongst us in the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21:3).
No one has described this better than John: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Theologians have called this the beatific vision. However, we must note that, according to Sinclair Ferguson, this vision “is not a matter of physical sight for the simple reason that God is invisible. He is the invisible God.” Instead, “The main way we are to think of the beatific vision is God has made Himself visible in the most perfect way that human beings are capable of apprehending, that is, in Jesus Christ.”
What awaits us is greater than the theophanies of the Old Testament. It’s even greater than the experience of those who saw the incarnate Christ. For we will behold the glorified Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells (Colossians 1:19).
And we won’t see him and die because we ourselves have been glorified (perfected), free from sin and corruption. There will still be awe but there won’t be fear. We shall see him and also be like him.
Faith in God’s words is the paradigm of the entire Christian life. “We live by faith, not by sight,” said Paul (2 Corinthians 5:7).
This means, according to Albert Barnes, that we live in “the confident expectation of things that are to come; in the belief of the existence of unseen realities; and suffering them to influence us as if they were seen.”
Just as our forebears held on to God’s promises even when they couldn’t see them (Hebrews 11), we must also “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
When faith is associated with our expectations of the fulfillment of God’s promises, Bible writers use the word “hope” to describe it.
And Paul gave us the best description of hope as it relates to faith and sight:
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:22-25).
Just as we don’t see God, we don’t see the new heaven and earth or the resurrected body or the New Jerusalem (or the various promises associated with the eschaton). But just as we believe in God because we have heard his words in nature and the Scriptures, we also trust that the God whose words are true (it is impossible for God to lie – Hebrews 6:18) will fulfill all his promises.
So, faith, hope, and love (1 Peter 1:8-9) continue to characterise our lives here on earth as we eagerly await the beatific vision and the consummation of all of our hope when Christ comes again.
 See Edward Feser, Five Proofs of The Existence of God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017)
 See Stephen Meyer, Return of the God Hypothesis (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2021).
 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), p.91, Scribd.
 See Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015).
 Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 14
 Andrew Fellows, Not Enough Evidence?: Why God Hides. Available at: Not Enough Evidence?: Why God Hides – bethinking.org
Joseph Minch, Enduring Divine Absence (Moscow, ID: Davenant Institute, 2018), location 999, Kindle.
 Ibid, Location 1008.
 Ibid, Location 1013.
 F.F Bruce, The Gospel of John: A Verse-By-Verse Exposition (Tennessee: Kingsley Books, 2018), p. 647, Scribd.
 Joseph Minch, Bulwarks of Unbelief (Washington state: Lexham Press, 2023), p. 164.
 Sinclair Ferguson, What is the beatific vision?. Available at: https://www.ligonier.org/learn/qas/what-is-the-beatific-vision
 Albert Barnes, Notes on The Whole Bible. Available at: 2 Corinthians 5 – Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible – Bible Commentaries – StudyLight.org