The Doctrine of God (part 3)

May 20, 2007     Time: 00:22:00

We have been talking about the infinite attributes of God. We examined in our first session the attribute of God’s self-existence. Then in our second session together we looked at God’s eternity which is implied by his self-existence. We saw that God exists necessarily and therefore cannot have been caused to come into being, cannot be forced to go out of being, and therefore God exists without beginning and end and is therefore eternal. I argued for an understanding of divine eternity according to which God is timeless or transcends time insofar as he exists alone without the universe, and then he enters into time at the creation of the universe and the first moment of time. So from the moment of creation on, God literally exists now.

We want to turn from God’s relationship to time to discussing God’s relationship to space. In what way is God related to space? This is the discussion of God’s attribute of omnipresence. Let’s first turn to an analysis of this attribute. We will first look, as is our habit, at the scriptural data concerning God’s omnipresence. Then we will do a systematic summary of it.

The Scriptures indicate that God’s presence is everywhere. Psalm 139:7-12:

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to thee,
the night is bright as the day;
for darkness is as light with thee.

Here the psalmist says that God’s presence is inescapable. No matter where he goes, there he finds God’s presence with him.

Jeremiah 23:23-24:

Am I a God at hand, says the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord.

Here God says, like the psalmist, “It is impossible for you to hide from me. I fill heaven and the earth. I am everywhere.”

Secondly, the Scripture indicates not only that God’s presence is everywhere but that God does not dwell in a localized building. For example, 1 Kings 8:27, Solomon prays, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!” So Solomon, at the dedication of the temple, recognizes that really God isn’t going to dwell in the temple. Heaven and the highest heaven, he says, cannot contain God. God transcends even the physical universe. So how much less could this temple that he has built contain God?

Also, Acts 17:24, 28a. This is in Paul’s address on Mars Hill in Athens.[1] Paul says,

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man . . . for “In him we live and move and have our being.”

Paul says that far from dwelling in some shrine that human beings made, we actually live in God. His presence surrounds us like an ocean surrounds the fish. Therefore it is improper to think of God as dwelling in some kind of a localized building or temple.

So much for the scriptural data then. How can we understand this systematically? I think there are two opposite errors to be avoided here. On the one hand, we should not think of God as dwelling in some earthly spot. God doesn’t live in the church, for example. The church is not God’s house. God doesn’t in some special way reside here in Johnson Ferry Baptist Church. But the other error that should be avoided is thinking of God as localized in heaven. God doesn’t live up there so to speak. He is not the man upstairs. He is not sitting on a throne somewhere in heaven. God isn’t localized in that way. So we shouldn’t think of God as localized either on some earthly spot or in some heavenly spot. Rather, God is to be conceived as being present everywhere. God is everywhere present.

But, again, as in the case of divine eternity, the biblical data are not clear as to exactly how we should understand God’s omnipresence. Does God’s omnipresence mean that God transcends all space? Does God somehow exist beyond space, just as defenders of divine timelessness think that God exists beyond time – he transcends time? Does God in a similar way transcend space so that he doesn’t exist in space at all but is in some way beyond space? Or should we think of God as existing everywhere in space? Is God in this room right now? Is he simultaneously in some place in China? Is he in my basement at home? Is God literally in space everywhere at the same time?

Well, in thinking about this issue we notice that the Bible speaks of God as though he were present everywhere in space. The psalmist talks about going to the far parts of the sea and into heaven or Sheol and finding God there. The Bible speaks in terms of God’s being present everywhere in space. But traditionally Christian theology has not understood God’s omnipresence in this way. Rather, since God is spirit according to the Bible, God has no body. I’ve been amazed at the number of Christian laymen that I’ve met who think that God does have a body. They think that God exists in heaven and sits on a throne. But this is contrary to what the Bible teaches about the nature of God. God is spirit. He doesn’t have a body. Certainly there are passages in the Bible where God will appear to people in a vision or a dream in a corporeal form – in a bodily form. But those are mere mental projections. Those are visions or dreams of the people. They are not God himself. God himself is spirit and therefore has no physical body. So we must not think of God as existing in any kind of a corporeal form, or any kind of a bodily form.

If God therefore exists everywhere in space, what would that be like since God has no body? One might be tempted to think of God as spread out everywhere in space, sort of like an invisible ether. In the 19th century physicists thought that light was transmitted or carried by an invisible ether that pervades everything and that is how light would travel. We must not think of God, I think, as being some sort of an invisible ether that is spread out everywhere.[2] This would be completely wrongheaded because that would mean there is only a part of God that is in this room. There would be a finite quantity of God in this room. There would be a bigger quantity of God in the whole church; there would be a smaller quantity of God inside of my wristwatch. We shouldn’t think of God as spread out like an ether. God is supposed to be fully present everywhere, not just a piece of God or a volume of God be present. Moreover, notice that if the universe is finite as is entirely possible in physical cosmology, that would mean that God is finite. In fact, since the universe his expanding, that would mean that God is getting bigger all the time! That God is finite but he is growing all the time as the universe expands. So I think it is just completely wrongheaded to think of God as being everywhere present in the way that some sort of invisible ether would be spread throughout the universe.

Rather, what we would be talking about would be a being that would somehow be present everywhere in the universe fully at every point. He would be fully present at every point in the universe. How can we make sense out of that? Does that make sense? To be in space in this way God would have to be somehow related to the physical universe in the way that my mind or my soul is related to my body. Christians believe that we are not simply physical organisms but that we also have an immaterial aspect to our being called our soul or our mind or ourself. That self or mind is somehow related to my physical body in such a way that it is everywhere present throughout it. My mind doesn’t just reside in my brain. It is not as though there is a soul that is somehow confined that is in my skull, that is confined to my cranial cavity. Or it isn’t as though a part of my soul is in my fingers and there is another part in my arm and more of it in my legs. Rather, we shouldn’t think of a soul as spread throughout the body like an ether just as we shouldn’t think of God as spread throughout the universe like an ether. Rather, the soul is somehow related to the body in such a way that it is everywhere present in the body fully. Similarly, one would have to think of God as related to the universe in that way.

But the problem is that the biblical view of God avoids any suggestion that the universe is God’s body in this way. The universe is the creation of God. God is related to the universe as artist to artifact. He is not related to the universe as soul to body. God is not the soul of the universe. The universe is the creation of God. In particular, God does not use the universe as a sense organ in the way our soul uses our bodies, nor does he use the universe as a means of acting in the world. God can act immediately on the universe. So the biblical view of the relationship between God and the universe is that it is not to be thought of as strictly analogous to the relationship between the soul and the body. The universe is not the body of God. Rather the universe is the creation of God. It is an artifact that God has made.

It seems to me preferable to say in line with traditional theology that God simply transcends space. Space is a creation of God. Therefore, God is beyond space. He brought space into being. To say that God is omnipresent, I think, means that God is conscious of and active at every point in space. So omnipresence should not be construed to think that God is literally here in this room or in my wristwatch or in the glasses in my kitchen cupboard at home. Rather, omnipresence means that God who is beyond space knows what is happening at every point in the spacetime universe and he is causally active at that point sustaining every portion of the universe in being moment by moment as it exists.[3]

So God’s creation of space does not make him a spatial being in the way that God’s creation of time would make him a temporal being. You might say what is the reason for this disanalogy? I think the reason is simply that the creation of time is itself a temporal act. When you create time you act at a certain point. You begin a causal relationship with things that you did not have before. So the very act of creating time is itself a temporal act. But the act of creating space is not itself a spatial act. A spatial act would be an act like, say, bumping into something or running into something or scraping something or producing friction or heat by rubbing something. Those would all be spatial acts. In order to do those acts the agent has to be in space. You can’t bump into something, you can’t rub something, unless you are in space. But to create space one need not be in space. If God exists alone without space and without time he can bring into existence the three dimensions of space – namely, height, length, and breadth – without himself being involved in space. Rather, he would be causally active at and sustaining every moment in space, and he would be conscious of and knowledgeable of every point in space. I think that gives us everything that we want to affirm by divine omnipresence.

In any case, whether we think that God is beyond space, that he transcends space, or whether we think that God is in space in the way that the soul is in the body we can all agree that the omnipresence of God means that there is no place to which God’s knowledge and power do not extend. To put it positively, we can agree that omnipresence means that God’s knowledge and power extend to every place.

What application does the attribute of divine omnipresence have to our lives? First of all it means that we can contact God at any location. This morning when we woke up we probably said a prayer in different places to God. We can call upon God anywhere and he will respond that he is present. When we were kids in grade school, sometimes the teacher would take the roll and call our name and we would respond, “Present!” Similarly, we can call upon God in any place wherever we are and he will respond “Present!” If we are in Munich, “Present!” If we are in China, “Present!” If we are in Africa, “Present!” Wherever we are God is present there with us. He is with us and we can contact him wherever we are. I can personally testify that this is very meaningful. I remember the first time that I traveled abroad to Germany as a student missionary. I felt very much alone and insecure being in a foreign country trying to speak a foreign language, and yet I discovered in doing so that God had gone with me so to speak. God was just as real and present to me there in Germany as he had been back in Illinois. That is a tremendous comfort to find that presence of God wherever we go. We cannot escape him. We cannot lose him.

Secondly, I think it also means that we should practice the presence of God. By this I don’t mean cranking up some sort of emotion, but simply living life in the consciousness that God is there with us. That he is watching us. That he knows what is going on. We are never really alone. We should live our lives in the constant presence of God. So when we are tempted to sin, God is there. He is watching. He knows what is happening.

We should thank God for his presence with us at all times. So often, have you heard people pray in prayer meetings, “God, be with the missionaries.” Or “God, be with Joan as she is in the hospital.” Or “God, be with John and Sherry as they go on this trip.” Well, this is an odd thing to pray for, I think, to pray that God would be with us because God has already promised that he is with us.[4] We are never alone. In virtue of his omnipresence God is always there with us. Of course, for those of us who know Christ, we have the presence of the Holy Spirit with us at all times. What did Jesus say in Matthew 28:20? Jesus said, “Lo, I am with you always to the close of the age.” So rather than praying that God would be with us, we ought to live in the acute consciousness that he is with us and we should thank him for his presence rather than ask him to be with us. We are never alone whether we are witnessing, studying. If we are going through times of darkness and persecution, the deep valley when God doesn’t seem to be real then as the psalmist says in Psalm 23, the Lord is with me. The Lord is my sheppard. He accompanies me even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The psalmist says I fear no evil for though art with me.

So I think the omnipresence of God can be something that is very meaningful to us as we practice daily moment by moment the presence of God. Try this and see if it doesn’t help to transform your Christian walk and experience.

That is the omnipresence of God. When we come back next time, I will say something about the incorporeality of God and then we will continue from there.[5]



[1] 5:01

[2] 10:03

[3] 15:09

[4] 20:15

[5] Total Running Time: 22:20 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)