By James M. Rochford

Immateriality (or “Incorporeality”) means that God is not a physical being composed of material parts. Neither is he “pure energy” or “pure thought.” Instead, God is an infinite “unembodied Mind.”[1] God “is not made of any matter, has no parts or dimensions, is unable to be perceived by our bodily senses, and is more excellent than any other kind of existence.”[2]

Biblical Basis

God is a spiritual being. Jesus clearly taught that “God is spirit” (Jn. 4:24). Jesus didn’t say that God is a spirit, but he is spirit.[3] That is, his essence is spirit or mind. In context, the woman at the well was talking about the location or place to worship God—either in Jerusalem or Samaria. By saying that “God is spirit,” Jesus “signifies that God is in no way limited to a spatial location.”[4] Moreover, Jesus explained that “a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Lk. 24:39). Thus, in his mind, God is an immaterial being.

God is invisible. God is “unseen” (Heb. 11:27). Paul describes God as the “invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Elsewhere, he writes that God is “invisible” (1 Tim. 1:17), and he “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). John writes, “No one has seen God at any time” (Jn. 1:18; cf. 1 Jn. 4:12). Why has no one seen God? This is precisely because he is immaterial in nature. We might as well ask why a metal detector is unable to discover a buried treasure of plastic toys buried under the sand.

If God is an immaterial being, then what about passages that speak of the fingers, arms, or eyes of God?

On face value, the Bible states that God possesses attributes that appear to be physical:

  • “face” (Ex. 33:20)
  • “eyes” (Heb. 4:13; Ps. 11:4)
  • “ears” (Ps. 55:1; Isa. 59:1)
  • “nose” (Deut. 33:10) and “nostrils” (2 Sam. 22:9)
  • “mouth” (Deut. 8:3; 2 Sam. 22:9)
  • “tongue” (Isa. 30:27)
  • “lips” (Job 11:5)
  • “neck” (Jer. 18:17)
  • “finger” (Ex. 8:19; 31:18)
  • “hand” (Num. 11:23)
  • “foot” (Isa. 66:1)
  • “heart” (Gen. 6:6)
  • “arms” (Ex. 15:16; Deut. 7:19)

Does God have a physical form? No. These are examples of anthropomorphic language. If we interpret any literary work in a literalistic way, we will make nonsense of the text.

Consider what David writes: “In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried to my God for help… 8 Smoke went up out of His nostrils, and fire from His mouth devoured; coals were kindled by it. 9 He bowed the heavens also, and came down with thick darkness under His feet. 10 He rode upon a cherub and flew; and He sped upon the wings of the wind (Ps. 18:6-10). If taken literalistically, this verse would imply that God is a giant fire-breathing monster! Likewise, other passages would depict God as having feathers and wings! (cf. Psalm 91:4)

Clearly, these serve a literary function, but not a literal one. Jesus clearly taught that “God is spirit” (Jn. 4:24), and he also explained that “a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Lk. 24:39). Moreover, many passages affirm the invisibility of God. This doesn’t fit with a being composed of physical parts.

Furthermore, good philosophical reasons support the immateriality of God. Since God created all space, time, matter, and energy, this strongly entails that he is immaterial, spaceless, and timeless.

Finally, a central principle of grammatical-historical hermeneutics is that we need to interpret the unclear portions of Scripture in light of the clear. That is, we need to interpret figures of speech in light of the clear, didactic passages of Scripture.

If God wasn’t immaterial, what implications would this have for our lives?

If God wasn’t immaterial, we would think that God had physical limitations. Indeed, many opponents of Christianity argue this with regard to the deity of Christ. If Jesus is embodied, they argue, how can he be omnipresent? Of course, the answer to this objection is that Jesus possesses an infinite, divine nature in addition to his finite, physical body. However, if God was purely material, then he would certainly be finite. He would be like the gods of Greece—pumped up humanoid deities that have physical limitations. If this was the case, then we would need to place limitations on God’s attributes. Perhaps this is where we get the concept of God being “the Big Guy in the Sky.” However, an immaterial being can be unlimited. This attribute of God works in concert with God’s other attributes—specifically, his omnipresence.

If God wasn’t immaterial, we would try to create tangible images of God to worship. Erickson writes, “The doctrine of God’s [immateriality] was a counter to the practice of idolatry and of nature worship. God, being spirit, could not be represented by any physical object or likeness. That he is not restricted by geographical location also countered the idea that God could be contained and controlled.”[5] This could explain why God tells us that we shouldn’t make images of him (Ex. 20:3-4).

Any physical depiction of God depreciates who he is. Even a great artist like Michaelangelo depicted God as a muscular old man with a beard (surrounded by baby angels for some reason?). While this painting in the Sistine Chapel is breathtaking, it distorts and denigrates the concept of God.

If God wasn’t immaterial, this would affect how we worship God. You might only worship him in a specific space or location. However, since “God is spirit” (Jn. 4:24), you should worship him spiritually. What does this mean? Since God isn’t confined to a space or place, everywhere you go is a place of worship (Jn. 4:21; Rom. 12:1-2).

[1] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (2nd ed., Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 1056.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 188.

[3] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 65–66.

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 187.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology., 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 294.