3. Omnipresence

By James M. Rochford

This word comes from “omni” meaning “all” and “presence” meaning “being present.” This means that God is causally active and aware of every part of reality. We shouldn’t think that God is in anything; nor is he “up there” in the sky somewhere. He isn’t localized anywhere; he is present everywhere. Consider several passages on the omnipresence of God:

(Ps. 139:7-10) Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. 9If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, 10Even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me.

(Jer. 23:23-24) “Am I a God who is near,” declares the LORD, “And not a God far off? 24Can a man hide himself in hiding places So I do not see him?” declares the LORD. “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the LORD.

(1 Kings 8:27) “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built!

(Acts 17:24; 28a) “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands… 28for in Him we live and move and exist”

(Mt. 28:20b) “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

(Ps. 23:4) “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”

(Prov. 15:3) The eyes of the Lord are in every place, watching the evil and the good.

If God is everywhere, doesn’t that mean that he is in everything? How is this different from pantheism?

God is an immaterial and spiritual being (Jn. 4:24; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16). It isn’t as though God is like a physical gas spread throughout the universe. Rather, God, who is an unembodied Mind, knows what is happening and is active everywhere in the universe, as its creator and sustainer. To be omnipresent means to be causally active in every portion of the created universe.

If God is omnipresent, then doesn’t this mean that he will be present in hell?

If God is present in hell, how does this fit with Paul’s statement that nonbelievers “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9)?

We do affirm that God’s omnipresence would also dictate his presence in hell. But remember our definition of omnipresence from above: God is causally active and aware of every part of reality. When we conceive of presence in human terms, we think of this as visible and material. However, since God is immaterial, the person in hell will be unaware of God’s presence. God will be both active and aware of the events in hell, but he will not be visibly revealed to the people there. In this way, those in hell will be “away from the presence of the Lord,” even though God is active and aware of them. By contrast, those in heaven will “see His face” (Rev. 22:4).

Similarly, while God is omnipresent on Earth, we are not aware of him. In fact, we largely ignore God’s presence. It will be the same way for those in hell (for more on the doctrine of hell, see our earlier article “Is Hell Divine Overkill?”).

If God is omnipresent, why were there “holy places” in the Old Testament?

According to the Bible, God isn’t contained in a certain location; instead, he exists throughout the entirety of physical and spiritual reality:

(1 Kings 8:27) [Solomon said] “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! … 29 May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there.’”

(2 Sam. 7:7) [God asks] “Did I ever speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel… saying, ‘Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?’”

(Isa. 66:1) Thus says the Lord, “Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things…”

(Acts 7:48) “However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands.”

However, the Bible also teaches that God moved specially in the Temple. Doesn’t this contradict the Bible’s teaching on omnipresence?

1. The attribute of omnipresence is compatible with the concept of God moving specially or uniquely in certain places.

It does not contradict the concept of omnipresence to call a specific place “unique” or “holy.” For instance, God chose to reveal himself to Moses in a burning bush, calling the place “holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). Likewise, by moving uniquely in the inner place of the Temple (Ex. 26:33; 1 Kings 6:16), God wasn’t contradicting the attribute of omnipresence. Omnipresence doesn’t teach that God has to be present or active equally in all parts of reality. We are certain that God is more active on Earth than he is on Jupiter. If God wants to be more causally active in certain places, this is his prerogative. However, as humans, we should not dictate to God which places he should be active! We should respect God’s initiative to move specially in certain places, rather than creating these places for him (2 Sam. 7:7).

2. God used the Temple as a teaching tool for the Israelites.

Most of the people in Israel were illiterate. So, God used the Temple as a visual description of our separation from God. The Temple visually illustrated that as sinful humans, we are separate from God. The high priest could only enter the Holy of Holies once a year, and only after doing many ritual washings. Moreover, God illustrated that the price for human sin was death (Rom. 6:23). By killing an innocent animal in the Temple (Lev. 16), the people saw a graphic depiction of what it would take for God to pay for their sin. Of course, Christ is our high priest (Heb. 8-10) and our innocent substitute for sin (Jn. 1:29), and the Temple prefigured this for the people.

3. The concept of “holy space” ended with the death of Christ.

Now that Christ has actually paid for our sins before God, the Temple and the ritual sacrifices are now obsolete (Heb. 8:13). To continue to have holy spaces after the death of Christ would be to entirely miss the significance and purpose of these rituals. To illustrate this concept, consider a man who goes away to war, leaving behind his newlywed wife and newborn baby. When he’s gone, he writes dozens of love letters, telling his wife how much he loves her and cares about her. Finally, when the man returns, he arrives with flowers on the front porch. Now that he is back, what would be the purpose of the love letters? Should the woman leave the man to go back and read his letters? If she abandoned the man for the letters, this would be absurd! The letters point toward the love of her husband. But replacing her husband in the flesh for the letters would be a tragic mistake.

In the same way, Christians should read through the OT descriptions of the Temple today, but they should never bring back the concept of holy spaces. This would be to miss the purpose of Jesus’ work. The concept of holy spaces only existed to point toward the work of Christ. But now that Christ has come, we should give thanks for the privilege of direct access into the presence of God (Heb. 4:16). Consider several of these passages in the NT, which speak of how holy space has become obsolete for believers:

(Jn. 4:21-24) Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

(Rev. 3:20) Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.

(1 Cor. 3:16) Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

(1 Cor. 6:19) Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?

(Eph. 2:19) So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.

(1 Pet. 2:4) And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God.

(Mt. 27:51) And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split.

(Heb. 4:16) Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

(Rev. 21:22) I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.

Now that Christ has come, we no longer need to approach God through holy spaces.

4. The Bible’s teaching AGAINST holy places is surprising—given the importance of “sacred space” in world religion.

Holy places are endemic to world religion. Comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade writes,

The enclosure, wall, or circle of stones surrounding a sacred place—these are among the most ancient of known forms of man-made sanctuary. They existed as early as the early Indus civilization (at Mohenjo-Dara, for instance) and the Aegean civilization. The dividing structure between sacred and profane space… also serves the purpose of preserving profane man from the danger to which he would expose himself by entering it without due care. The sacred is always dangerous to anyone who comes into contact with it unprepared, without having gone through the ‘gestures of approach’ that every religious act demands.[1]

In other words, religions across the world all seem to have this concept of holy space. Anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace writes,

Sacred space plays an important role in facilitating the process of separation (or dissociation). It does so by virtue of the fact that the temple, shrine, church, etc. is set up in such a way that it creates a sense of “differentness” which leads to a feeling of altered consciousness.[2]

By contrast, the God of the Bible is strikingly different from all other world religions in this regard. If God really exists, this would make sense. He wouldn’t want to be confined to a limited physical space, if he is actually an infinite being. However, it seems that when humans invent a deity, they seek to limit God in this way.

Application

Many churches contain “holy places” called sanctuaries (from the Latin sanctus). But we feel that sanctuaries and holy places are misguided for a number of reasons.

First, holy places diminish who God is. If God is really an infinite and unlimited being, it diminishes his nature to believe that he is confined to a room or finite space.

Second, holy places lead to hypocrisy. When we confine God’s activity to a finite holy space, we tend to live hypocritically. When we’re in the sanctuary, we live one way, but when we’re home the other six days a week, we act differently because “God isn’t there.”

Third, holy places create unnecessary distinctions between the sacred and the secular. For instance, most hospitals have sanctuaries where people go to pray. We don’t object to having a quiet or serene place to go for prayer, but this isn’t the purpose of these sanctuaries. Instead, it seems that people go to the sanctuary to get closer with God. But God is just as accessible in the hospital room with your sick relative, as he is in the sanctuary. When we have a robust view of God’s omnipresence, we ask ourselves why we wouldn’t just pray in the room with our loved one.

Fourth, holy places project a bizarre picture of God to onlookers. Some Christians admit that holy places aren’t biblical now that Christ has come, but they argue that sanctuaries and holy places help them feel closer to God. Fair enough. But we have to ask, What does this practice communicate to non-Christian onlookers? It most likely communicates that God is finite or capriciously tied to certain areas of the church.



[1] Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. The World Publishing Co.,Cleveland, OH. 1958.  370 .

[2] Wallace, Anthony F. C. “Rituals: Sacred and Profane–An Anthropological Approach”, in Ways of Being Religious: Readings For a New Approach to Religion. 160.