Hey guys, so when Joseph Smith was a teenager he approached God in prayer, seeking forgiveness for his sins and wisdom regarding which church he should join. In response to his prayer, Joseph claimed that God the Father and Jesus Christ actually appeared to him. He was told that his sins were forgiven and to not join any church at that time, as they were all in error. Latter-day Saints refer to this event as Joseph Smith’s First Vision. BUT this vision causes a lot of Bible-believing Christians some heartburn, because doesn’t the Bible say that no man can see God, and live to tell the tale? Let’s talk about it.
So this idea that no man can see God comes largely from scriptures like Exodus 33:20: “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.” Or John 1:18: “No man has seen God at any time”.
Yet, there seem to be exceptions to this rule. In “The Oxford Companion to the Bible,” non-Latter-day Saint scholar Samuel Meier mentions that “a persistent tradition in the Hebrew Bible affirmed that death comes to any human who sees God … In most of these contexts, however, the narration undermines this sentiment by depicting the pleasant surprise of those who survive. The text presents this perspective as a misperception to which human beings subscribe, for no humans in the Bible ever die simply because they have seen God. On the contrary, throughout the Bible God wants to communicate intimately with humans. The problem of how God can adequately show himself to humankind without harm is a conundrum that is never really resolved in the Bible.”
Genesis 32:30 is a great example of this. After Jacob describes his struggle with an angel we read, “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”
Even the non-Latter-day Saint website BibleRef.com acknowledges that “[Peniel] is an interesting choice since the common stance given in Scripture is that literally seeing God would bring death. However, some men in the Bible are said to have been allowed to see God ‘face to face,’ at least in a symbolic or manifested form (Exodus 33:11). Jacob certainly recognizes his situation is unique, which is why he chooses this particular name for the site.”
So like some of these non-Latter-day Saint sources we’ve looked at, Latter-day Saints also take a more nuanced approach to this concept. That nuance is highlighted in Doctrine and Covenants 67:11, which teaches, “For no man has seen God at any time in the flesh, except quickened by the Spirit of God.”
We believe that in order to see God and withstand God’s glory, your natural body has to undergo a certain change. We see an example of this in the Book of Moses. “[Moses] saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence.” Later Moses tells us,
“…now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence, but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him.”
Thus, for Joseph Smith to have seen God, he must have undergone a similar change. And indeed in the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision we read about a pillar of light or heavenly fire that descended until it rested upon Joseph, filling him with the Spirit of God. In Orson Pratt’s 1840 retelling of Joseph’s vision we read that at the opening of the vision, a pillar of light “continued descending slowly until it rested upon the earth, and [Joseph] was enveloped in the midst of it. When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system…”
And as kind of a cool side-note, an early Christian document called The Clementine Homilies expresses a similar idea. It asserts that one cannot see God because He is “illumined by exceeding great light. … For he who sees God cannot live. For the excess of light dissolves the flesh of him who sees; unless by the secret power of God the flesh be changed into the nature of light so that it can see light.”
Anyway, you get the point. Of course, you’re under no obligation to agree with this Latter-day Saint nuance, but if you do a bit of online research on this topic, you may start to notice an interesting pattern. The thing is, there are multiple examples of people seeing God in the scriptures. There are also multiple scriptures saying that God can’t be seen. So to reconcile the apparent contradiction, you’ll see most people say one of two things:
Most non-Latter-day Saint Christians say, “Well, the scriptures tell us you can’t see God and live, so we need to reinterpret any scriptures that talk about people seeing God.”
Others take the inverse approach, “Well, the scriptures tell us about people who have seen God, so we need to reinterpret any scriptures that say God cannot be seen.”
As it often does, it all sort of comes down to how you choose to interpret scripture. Latter-day Saints are grateful for modern prophets and revelation that tend to help out in these situations. But as always, study things out on your own, pray about things, and go with whatever makes the most sense to you. Check out the resources in the description for more info on this topic, and have a great day!
- “First Vision” on Encyclopedia of Mormonism: http://bit.ly/3en2uGG
- Read the First Vision account on the Church’s website: http://bit.ly/2ODi2eg
- A large glossary of information on this subject: http://bit.ly/2OgolV4
- “Privilege of Seeing God,” in Topical Guide: https://bit.ly/3emRwkm
- More from the Church’s website: http://bit.ly/38mSucC
- Clementine Homilies text: https://bit.ly/3cfEUZA