The Nature of God: Omnipresence; Here, There, and Everywhere

Introduction: A. W. Tozer once perceptively observed, “The low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us…A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”[1]

The attribute omnipresence means that God is unlimited with respect to space. In other words, God transcends not only time (his eternality) but all spatial limitations. God cannot be contained or localized. “Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him? Declares the Lord. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 23:24). “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (I Kings 8:27; see also II Chron. 2:6; Isa. 66:1).

The Commandment forbidding the worship of “graven images” is based on this idea of the sublimity of God exalted above the realm of space. Only that which is spatially limited can be seen. The God who is worshipped in an image is localized, limited by space. The protest against making an image of God does not only mean that He is unlike the world, but also that He is not tied to space. “The Lord of heaven and earth dwelleth not in temples made with hands”, (Acts 17:24), any more than He dwells in a graven image. He indeed fills the heaven, “the heaven of heavens cannot contain” Him (I Kings 8:27). The earth is only “His footstool” (Isa. 66:1), but “heaven is His Throne” (Ps. 123:1).

These phrases are poetical and childlike expressions of the truth that God is infinitely High, above all the limitations of space; “heaven” means the essential Transcendence of Him who is immanent within all that is created, whose “footstool” is the earth.[2] Theologians have drawn a slight distinction between God’s immensity and His omnipresence. Berkhof explains, “In a certain sense the terms immensity and omnipresence, as applied to God, denote the same thing, and can therefore be regarded as synonymous.

Yet there is a point of difference that should be carefully noted. Immensity points to the fact that God transcends all space and is not subject to its limitations, while omnipresence denotes that He nevertheless fills every part of space with His entire Being. The former emphasizes the transcendence, and the latter, the immanence of God. God is immanent in all His creatures, in His entire creation, but is in no way bounded by it. In connection with God’s relation to the world we must avoid, on the one hand, the error of Pantheism, so characteristic of a great deal of present day thinking, with its denial of the transcendence of God and its assumption that the Being of God is really the substance of all things; and, on the other hand, the Deistic conception that God is indeed present in creation per potentiam (with His power), but not per essentiam et naturam (with His very Being and nature), and acts upon the world from a distance. Though God is distinct from the world and may not be identified with it, He is yet present in every part of His creation, not only per potentiam, but also per essentiam.

This does not mean, however, that He is equally present and present in the same sense in all His creatures. The nature of His indwelling is in harmony with that of His creatures. He does not dwell on earth as He does in heaven, in animals as He does in man, in the inorganic as He does in the organic creation, in the wicked as He does in the pious, nor in the Church as He does in Christ. There is an endless variety in the manner in which He is immanent in His creatures, and in the measure in which they reveal God to those who have eyes to see. The omnipresence of God is clearly revealed in Scripture.”[3]

I.          God is Present Everywhere

This truth, as Storms notes, is “of little comfort to the rebellious heart, for they shatter those illusions on the strength of which we so often justify our sin. Thinking that none has access to the secrets of our hearts, we lust, envy, hate, and covet. But what we naively think to have concealed successfully behind the veil of the soul is but an open book before Him with whom we have to do (Heb. 4:13)…But might there not be some secluded hideaway, some remote corner of the universe to which even the Deity has no access? Might we not there sin freely? Might we not there sin secretly? But where is “there”?[4]

Psalm 139 makes clear that there is nowhere in the entire universe, on land or sea, in heaven or in hell, where one can flee from God’s presence. We should note also that there is no indication that simply a part of God is in one place and a part of him in another. It God himself who is present wherever David might go. We cannot say that some of God or just part of God is present, for that would be to think of his being in spatial terms, as if he were limited somehow by space. It seems more appropriate to say that God is present with his whole being in every part of space (cf. also Acts 17:28 where Paul affirms the correctness of the words, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and Col. 1:17, which says of Christ, “in him all thing hold together”.

II.        God Does Not Have Spatial Dimensions

While the thought that God is everywhere present with his whole being ought to encourage us greatly in prayer no matter where we are, the fact that no one place can be said to contain God should also discourage us from thinking that there is some special place of worship that gives people special access to God. (John 4:21-24 makes clear that certain places have no direct bearing on the value of worship. This means that one does not have to go to Lourdes or Rome or Toronto or Brownsville to find God!) He cannot be contained in any one place. We should guard against thinking that God extends infinitely far in all directions so that he himself exists in a sort of infinite, unending space. Nor should we think that God is somehow a bigger space or bigger area surrounding the space of the universe as we know it.

All of these ideas continue to think of God’s being in spatial terms, as if he were simply an extremely large being. Instead, we should try to avoid thinking of God in terms of size or spatial dimensions. God is a being who exists without size or dimensions in space. In fact, before God created the universe, there was no matter or material so there was no space either. Yet God still existed. Where was God? He was not in a place that we could call a where, for there was no where or space. But God still was! This fact makes us realize that God relates to space in a far different way than we do or than any created thing does. “He exists as a kind of being that is far different and far greater than we can imagine.”[5]

III.       God can be Present to Punish, to Sustain, or to Bless

The idea of God’s omnipresence has sometimes troubled people who wonder how God can be present, for example, in hell. In fact, isn’t hell the opposite of God’s presence, or the absence of God? This difficulty can be resolved by realizing that God is present in different ways in different places, or that God acts differently in different places in his creation. As Brunner aptly remarks, “God is not present to all in the same way. Beyond this extensive Presence of God there is one which is intensive and qualitative. It is only against the background of this qualitative differentiation of Presence that the Biblical language about the Omnipresence of God is rightly understood. There is a “distance” and there is a “nearness” of God. One may be “near” God, and one may be “far” from him. Therefore God may “come near” and He may “go away:, and we may “come near” to, and “move away from Him.”[6]

Sometimes God is present to punish. A terrifying passage in Amos vividly portrays this presence of God in judgment: “Not one of them shall flee away, not one of them shall escape. Though they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; though they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down. Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search out and take them; and though they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them. And though they go into captivity before their enemies, there I will command the sword, and it shall slay them; and I will set my eyes upon them for evil and not for good” (Amos 9:1-4). At other times God is present neither to punish nor to bless, but merely present to sustain or to keep the universe existing and functioning in the way he intended it to function. In this sense the divine nature of Christ is everywhere present: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col. 1:17).

Conclusion: The promise of Heb. 13:5 “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” is, according to Gerald Bray, “typical of the God of the Bible, but incomprehensible unless we recognize that his omnipresence, which this picture presupposes, is the foundation of his power. The only point in saying that God is everywhere lies in implying that he can act anywhere, and not just within particular limits. This was a problem with the pagan gods of antiquity, and it is common polytheistic systems whose gods are usually limited in space, in function, or in both.”[7] The God of the Bible is omnipresent. He never is absent. “Our comfort,” comments Ferguson, “is that He is with us when the mountains in our lives are cast into the seas, here is our encouragement and strength: “The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalm 46:7). When we walk through the valley of deep darkness, or the shadow of death, we fear no evil. Why? Because He is with us. We do not know whether He will reverse all human expectations and do the impossible. But we have His promise that He will never leave us nor forsake us (Deut. 31:6; Heb. 13:5). That is why we are able to say with confidence: “The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps. 118:6-7; Heb. 13:6).”[8]

References

[1] A. W.  Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Harper & Row, 1961), p. 10.

[2] See the discussion by E. Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Westminster Press, 1945), p. 258.

[3] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1974), p. 61.

[4] C. S. Storms, The Grandeur of God: A Theological and Devotional Study of the Divine Attributes (Baker, 1984), p. 85

[5] W. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, 1994), p. 175. I am indebted to Grudem for the substance of this material and have adopted his outline.

[6] Brunner, p. 258.

[7] G. Bray, The Doctrine of God: Contours of Christian Theology (IVP, 1993), p. 86.

[8] Sinclair Ferguson, A Heart For God (NavPress, 1985), p. 85.

God’s Ten Commandments: Yesterday, Today, Forever

by Francis Nigel Lee

God gave man Ten Commandments. Every one of them is vital, in all ages. Only by observing them can man live a full life each week, maintain a happy marriage, and function well in his home, job, and the world. Even before the fall, man was to keep the law out of gratitude for Gods grace. The law was taught by the Apostles, the early Church Fathers, Luther, and Calvin; it is the very basis for the law of the United States. As Christians, we should desire to keep Gods law.

Dr. Lee presents the view of the infallible written Word of Godthat all men, of all religions, of all cultures, and for all time, are obligated to follow the Ten Commandments. Francis Nigel Lee was a trial lawyer before becoming a minister and has been Professor of Philosophy and Church History.

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