Knowing an Unknowable God
Those mysterious doctrines of grace that we often wrestle with—God’s foreknowledge, election, calling, predestination, justification, glorification, and unending love (Rom 8:28–39)—are even more astounding when we consider the sheer epistemic distance between us and our Creator. The Bible describes our God as a Person who is unknowable because of two stunning realities.
The first reality is that God is invisible. Jesus declares that God is a “spirit” (John 4:24), which makes him imperceptible to the physical senses. But the Bible also says that God is “invisible” (Col 1:15), which means that invisibility is part of God’s nature, perhaps even an accident of his essence. John 1:18 states, θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε: “God no one has seen. Ever.” It is a categorical proposition that indicates we will actually never see God, not in heaven, nor on the New Earth. In fact, most likely there is no created being, even the Seraphim who hide their eyes from the manifestation of God’s glory (Isa 6:1–2), who have ever actually “seen” God.
Speaking of the seraphim, they declare one of God’s attributes that manifests the essence of his invisibility, “Holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:3). God’s holiness means that he stands apart from all that he has made, that he is utterly “other-than” his creation.
Furthermore, Paul tells Timothy that God dwells in unapproachable light, whom no human has ever seen, nor even has the ability to see (1 Tim 6:16). God is not simply hiding in light. His unapproachableness means that he is not able to be conceived of by mere human beings. That is why, in the worship of Israel in the Old Testament, the most holy place where God “dwelled” actually kept the people at arm’s length from their God. The vast majority of Israelite’s lived and died having never seen for themselves the temple furniture, and the even the vast majority of priests lived and died having never seen the ark of the covenant that adorned the most holy place (Heb 9:1–7).
Couple the absolute unknowability of God with the ignorance of his creatures and we have a second stunning reality. We cannot comprehend God, for even God’s thoughts are unattainable. Isaiah 55:8–9 says that the distance between our finite, transient thoughts and God’s infinite wisdom is higher than the distance between the heavens and the earth.
We can appreciate this hyperbole well enough, but not perhaps as well as those to whom it was first delivered. For most of the people who heard those words read did not understand height like we do. Most of us have flown before, and we have seen pictures of the earth from the Space Shuttle. Back in Isaiah’s day, however, a few of the Israelite people may have journeyed to the top of a small mountain, and some may have even climbed to the summit of Mt. Hermon, close to 10,000 feet above sea level. But even they would watch the eagles in the sky and could only imagine what it was like to be so high above the earth. To them, to be higher than the heavens above the earth was to be at an unknowable distance, to contemplate an impossible mystery. It is striking to consider that the most profound thinking in human history—such as the thinking of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Da Vinci, Kepler, Bach, Hume, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Einstein—is merely like a mountain peak resting at an unfathomable distance from the heavenly thoughts of God.
Then there is the fact that we all come into the world as unbelievers, and unbelievers are described as those whose minds are dark. Paul describes the unbelieving Gentiles as those who are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18). If that is not bad enough, dark-minded believers are also being blinded by “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4; cf. Eph 2:1–3).
Furthermore, Paul tells us in Romans 3:10–11 that we do not even seek God. This means that even if we were aware of God’s existence, his love and his beauty and his glory, we would still flee in the opposite direction, for our hearts are utterly sinful. We cannot know God, we do not want God, and we do not seek God.
THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD?
If I were applying mathematics to theology, I would have to conclude rightly that the sum of these two stunning realities could not possibly equal a knowledge of God. A hard-hearted, ignorant, blinded creature could never even be cognizant of an invisible, unapproachable, incomprehensible Creator. For us to know God, God had to reveal himself, make himself known. God has made himself known through his creation, his Word and ultimately through the Son, who exegeted God the Father, fleshing him out for all to see (John 1:18b).
But God’s declaration of himself alone is not enough to bridge the epistemic gap between us. God had to enable his creatures to be able to perceive him. This enablement is an act of God’s common grace, in that God created us with the capacity to perceive him through his creation (Rom 1:20) and to engage in communication rationally and emotionally with God’s messengers (Acts 17:22–32).
But for us to truly “know” God personally, God had to perform that mysterious work of knowing and electing us from the foundation of the world, predestinating us, calling us, justifying us. This is the special grace of God that Paul speaks of in Gal 4:9, when he prefers not to say that we have “come to know God,” but rather that we have “come to be known by God.”
Christians may argue the finer points of these doctrines of grace. But at their core these doctrines show us that God’s enabling us to know him is a warm and loving act of redemption. Without this communicative act of God’s common grace followed by his special grace, we would remain hopelessly unaware of God’s existence and still lost in our sins. The doctrines of grace, therefore, should never divide us, but should propel us to worship.