(1 Tim. 1:17) Can we see God or not?

CLAIM: Throughout the Bible, we see conflicting messages on the visibility of God. On the one hand, God appeared to Abraham (Gen. 17:1; 18:1) and Moses (Ex. 6:2-3). In fact, Moses recorded that the elders “saw the God of Israel” (Ex. 24:10). However, in this passage, Paul says that God is “invisible” (1 Tim. 1:17), and at the end of this letter, Paul writes that God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). God told Moses that “no man can see me and live” (Ex. 33:20), and John wrote, “No one has seen God at any time” (Jn. 1:18; c.f. 5:37; 6:46). Critics argue that the Bible seems to be offering a clear contradiction on the visibility of God.

RESPONSE: There are two possibilities here:

First, these people could have been seeing visions of God. Under this view, the people were not seeing God himself. Instead, they were seeing a theophany (or an appearance of God). In this case, God would have given them a mental projection inside their mind in the form of a vision. However, the passages cited above (Gen. 17:1; 18:1; Ex. 6:2-3) do not state that these people saw a vision or mental projection. Instead, they teach that they saw God himself.

Second, these people did not see God the Father –they saw God the Son. Under this view, the people were seeing the preincarnate Christ in the OT. In this way, these passages about seeing God were true, but they were not seeing God the Father. This would harmonize all of the passages about how God is invisible and unseen (referring to the Father), while at the same God appears regularly to people (referring to the Son). This would make sense of Jesus’ claim: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). Because Jesus is fully God, God can be seen through Jesus.