If you asked the average American on the street (or perhaps on the couch, the more natural habitat of the American) what God looks like, they would probably say a dude with a white robe, a white beard, and long white hair. It’s the stock image of God found in every corner of our culture, from The Simpsons to Existential Comics to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (pictured).
Unfortunately, this picture is profoundly misleading.
Now, granted, there is some biblical basis for this imagery; the prophet Daniel, for instance, said that the “Ancient of days” of his vision was dressed in “clothing … as white as snow,” and that “the hair of his head was white like wool” (Daniel 7:9). On the other hand, the Bible consistently warns against taking such imagery literally and forbids making any images of God (e.g. Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 4:15-20). This is because making a physical object to represent God presents him as finite, local, comprehensible, controllable. And God is none of those things. The problem is not so much an inaccurate view of God’s hairstyle as a fundamental category error about the kind of entity God is.
We tend to imagine God as a kind of superhero – basically like us, but with superpowers. This Superhero God can do all kinds of amazing, miraculous things, altering the physical world at will. But Superhero God’s powers, however great, are not essential to his being in any way. He can interfere with the world or not, as he chooses, or even, as in the movie Bruce Almighty, hand them over to someone else – a familiar superhero trope. In this view, being “God” is more of a job than an identity. Sure, it’s a really important job; as Jim Carrey’s character discovered, someone with unlimited power needs unlimited wisdom to know how to use his power for the good of everyone. (As Peter Parker might say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”) But the most this does is make Superhero God the caretaker of the universe. He is not its Sovereign or Lord, and we naturally rebel against the notion that must obey such a being just because he is more powerful than we are.
It needs to be said that this notion of God is very different from the one taught by historic, biblical Christianity. The God of the Bible is not merely the most powerful being in the universe; he is the foundation on which the universe depends for its existence. This does not merely mean that God existed before the universe and got it going; rather, it is only by the will and power of God that any particle of the universe continues to exist.
This version of God appears throughout the Christian Bible. So we find the prophet Isaiah declaring that it is God’s power that keeps the stars appearing night after night after night (Isaiah 40:26). In the final heavenly vision of Revelation, God is declared worthy of worship because he both created and sustains “all things” (Revelation 4:11). And then there is the Apostle Paul, who defines God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” in a speech to the religious police in Greece (Acts 17:28) and as the one who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” in a letter to believers in Asia Minor (Ephesians 1:11). Even more emphatically, he declares that “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). This is paralleled by the statement in Hebrews 1:3 that God’s Son “upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
The God of the Bible does not stand apart from the world, observing and occasionally interfering. He upholds it, sustains it, contains it. If he were to step aside or let go or allow his mind to wander, the universe would cease to exist. We need God for each moment of our continued existence. But God does not need us. He existed in eternal joy before creating the world, and he will one day bring this world to an end.
Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
but you are the same, and your years have no end. (Psalm 102:25-27)
Classic Christian theology thus includes in the definition of God the fact that he is “necessary,” while all other being is contingent upon him. This is not pantheism; creation is real and distinct from God. But it cannot exist apart from him, any more than a shadow can exist without something solid.
Set against this biblical backdrop, the Superhero God flexing his muscles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a ridiculously inadequate caricature. God is not like a man. He has no limitations, no weaknesses, no needs. He is the foundation on which all our contingent existence rests. The idea of God taking a break or handing over the management of the universe to someone else has all the absurdity of Elmer Fudd picking up the planks of the bridge he is walking across until he realizes his unsupported predicament and plummets to his doom.
Every moment is a gift from God. He not only planned it and created the laws and processes that would lead to it, but his direct action sustains and continues what his direct action began. Every move you make, every breath you take, every particle of your being is the outflow of the gracious power of a merciful and unfathomable Sustainer.
This is the answer to our objections to the biblical picture of God’s commands and judgments. When we think of God as just a more powerful version of ourselves, it is only natural that we would view his attempts to tell us what to do as arrogant bullying. Who does he think he is? Why doesn’t he mind his own business? But when we recognize the true nature of God, we cannot escape the conclusion that we are and must be his business if we are to be anything at all.
Asking God to leave us alone is like complaining that the air keeps pushing its way into our lungs or that the earth keeps holding us up. If God left us to our own devices, he would consign us to instant annihilation. And the miracle is that he does not. Even as we ignore him, deny him, reject his commands, misuse his gifts, abuse and harm his good creations, and mock his love, it is his long-suffering and merciful will that makes it possible for us to do so.
But there is more. God not only endures our rebellion and continually provides us with the existence we continually use to reject him; he offers us forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with him by taking the consequences of our sin on himself, dying on the cross in our place. And, as with all of God’s actions toward us, this incredible sacrifice was prompted not by necessity, but by love. The God who does not need us still wants us. The necessity which we reject in vain invites us to embrace him willingly and find in him an eternal and unquenchable source of life and joy.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary,
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall,
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)
Image Credit: Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGod2-Sistine_Chapel.png)