Though many people have opinions on who or what God is (or whether or not he exists), the irony is that God is ultimately unknowable. For all the opinions and theological treatises on God, the end of the discussion is, “Well I don’t know.” This is because God is transcendent, which means that he is beyond our capacity of knowing or thinking. God is so far above us that there is little we can know about Him. This is not to say that we can’t speak of God, just that there are some things we can know and some things we can’t know.
To focus on what it means to not know God, we have to know what the term ‘nature’ means. It seems like a big word and a lot of philosophers have attached complicated meanings to the word, but an easy way to think of what ‘nature’ means is, “What something is.” In other words, we know a human is a human and not a chair because the human has a human nature. We know what a rock is because we know the nature of a rock. We know that a cat is not a bird and a bird is not a fish and a fish is not a human baby because we know the natures of each thing.
When it comes to God though, we don’t know his nature. We know that everything we experience isn’t God, but that just means that we can define God’s nature as, “Is not…” rather than describe God’s nature in an explanatory way. All other natures are comprehensible in some fashion; we can define what is and is not the nature of a fish (e.g. has to be in water, has gills, etc) meaning that we have some comprehensive knowledge of what it is to be a fish. God, on the other hand, is incomprehensible, meaning we know nothing about his nature.
Consider that Psalm 145:3 declares God to be unsearchable. When we think of the sea we can imagine searching through the sea, though we cannot comprehend all the valleys and crevices, we can search them and find them. The sea, as vast as it is, is searchable. Or we can think of the Universe and how it seems to go on for infinity. The closest stars are millions upon million upon millions of miles away. It will take centuries for us to figure out a way to reach distant planets (if we can reach them at all). But despite all its vastness, we can still search the heavens and discover its vast treasure-trove of information. God, however, cannot be searched. The reason he cannot be searched is that he is so far above us that we have no starting point in searching for God. It’s not that God is simply incomprehensible, meaning we can search him out, but will never fully understand him; rather, God is unapproachable and unsearchable, meaning that he is so far beyond us we can’t even hope to know who he is. While we might name a distant star or discover a new area of the sea, God will forever remain eternally elusive to us.
The lack of knowledge about God’s nature also means that we cannot define God or give a definition to God. Rather, any definition of God would be along the lines of, “He who cannot be defined,” which isn’t really a definition. No one can comprehend God except God (1 Cor. 2:10-12), so how can we define that which we can’t comprehend or even approach? I can provide a definition for an ocean, but I can’t provide a definition for God because he is above me.
But what does it mean to say that God is “above” us? Is he really located up in the sky on some cloud? The “above” doesn’t refer to location, but stature. God is above us by stature, meaning that we are far lesser than he is. Not like a child is ‘lesser’ to an adult, because the child will someday become an adult and share rights and responsibilities with that adult. Instead, God is above us by nature so that we’ll never become like him. No matter how good we get, God is better. But by being above us, God is beyond defining and beyond our knowledge. This doesn’t make him irrational, but supra-rational, meaning that our rationality can’t explain him.
If we could define God or comprehend God then he wouldn’t be above us (meaning he wouldn’t be God). We can comprehend a rock because we’re above a rock. We can have near-comprehension of an insect because we are above an insect. When it comes to fellow humans, though we can’t comprehend each other we can at least have substantial knowledge of each other. With God, we can’t have anything. We can’t understand Him because He is above us; if we could understand God then He would be below us or a creation of humanity. In fact, the great medieval theologian and philosopher Anselm said that God is the greatest possible being, meaning God is greater than us. Functioning as a paradox, the mystery of God actually serves as the greatest proof that God exists; were God a creation of the human mind then He shouldn’t be so elusive. Rather, the fact that God is elusive to our minds serves as evidence that not only does He exist, but also that He is greater than us.
God as a mystery isn’t too popular of an idea for most religious folks, mostly because as humans we like to be in control of things, but we can’t control a mystery. As a species, humans generally dislike surprises or not being in control. This is why most forms of torture include binding up a person. When the military wants to break a recruit so he’ll follow orders they take away any control he might have. To lack control is generally a nerve-wracking event for humans, so to think of God as uncontrollable, unknowable, and mysterious isn’t a comforting thought. However, God states quite clearly that He is above us when He says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). God declares quite explicitly that He is above us and because He is above us we won’t always understand why He does certain things. If we can’t understand His actions, how can we possibly hope to understand God’s nature?
The idea of God as mysterious does pose a problem, mostly why would God continue to be a mystery to His creation if we’re supposed to have a relationship with him? Part of it is that God is infinite and we are finite; He created us while being uncreated, so no matter what there will always be some lack of knowledge on our part. But certainly God could reveal Himself more fully to us mere mortals than He currently does, but why doesn’t He? God doesn’t reveal Himself maximally because God wants us to grow and learn to trust Him. As it is written Proverbs 3:5-7, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.” We’re called to trust in the Lord; mystery aids us in trusting God. If we knew how God would react in every situation or what He would do then we wouldn’t really need God. God would become useless in a sense. Rather, when we put trust in God even though He is mysterious to us, we are saying to God, “Though I do not know your nature, I trust my life to you.” Again, as a paradox, it is the mystery of God that allows for a stronger relationship with Him.
God as unknowable may not be an easy concept to us rational Westerners, but that is who God has revealed Himself to be. But does God’s unknowable and unapproachable nature mean we should assume the position of Deists? Should we simply give up trying to figure out anything about God or what He wants and live in accordance with what we think He wants us to do? If God cannot be known then why has He called for us to seek Him? Though God is incomprehensible and unapproachable, He has revealed certain things about Him that we can know so that we can have a relationship with Him. Thus, though we can’t know God comprehensively, we can know Him substantially; with this we encounter one of the most basic paradoxes of the Christian faith.
God according to God
If God can’t be known then Christians are left in a very perplexing situation concerning the Bible, mostly how could God talk to the prophets if they had no idea who He was? Thankfully, while God’s nature is unknowable, His attributes and actions can be made known to us.
In reflecting on the revelation of God and what He reveals about Himself to us, it is important to remember that He is the one doing the revealing. It’s not that God is playing hide-and-go-seek with us where we can search Him out and have an ‘aha!’ moment; rather, God is eternally elusive because of how great He is and how finite we are, but in His loving kindness He has stooped down to partially reveal Himself. It is the partial revelation that we seek out.
If God chose not to reveal Himself in any way, we would never know that He existed. Thankfully God did reveal Himself as it was part of His plan, but there is still an element of mystery in this revelation. Moses even stated, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). There are still mysteries that we do not know and only God knows, but what He has revealed can be handed down and taught. How we know God and how He reveals Himself generally varies, but most theologians have accepted that God reveals Himself in nature, in Scripture, in Church writings, and in our own experiences. We learn about God through all of these venues. We learn about God’s magnitude in seeing that all of creation could not have spontaneously occurred, but required a beginning. We learn about God from what He said to the prophets of old in the Bible. We learn about God from each other and from those who have come before us when we read books by other Christians or commune with one another and discuss the Scriptures. We learn about God from our own experiences, when we find hope in a dark situation we are often reminded that God is good.
What God reveals to us about Himself is often an explanation of His attributes or His actions; He doesn’t really reveal anything about His nature. We know the attributes come from His nature and that His actions are based upon His nature, but beyond that we don’t really know anything about God. But such knowledge of His attributes requires faith (trust) in God. Though we can rationally deduce certain attributes of God from looking at creation, ultimately to understand the attributes of God and to appreciate the attributes of God, we must have faith in God.
Even when names are ascribed to God or God names Himself, these generally describe His attributes or actions, but not His nature. As St. John of Damascus wrote, “The names ‘Good,’ ‘Just,’ ‘Holy,’ and the like are consequential to His nature and are not indicative of the essence itself. Those of ‘Lord,’ ‘King.’ And the like are indicative of a relation to things that are contrasted with Him.” What St. John means is that when we say God is ‘good,’ we’re saying that He acts in a good manner and that goodness flows from His nature, but does not entirely describe His nature. This goes for all the names of God or descriptions of God. In short, we can know God by His attributes and actions, but such knowledge says little to nothing about the nature of God. We know God by what He does and how He reveals Himself to us, we don’t know God as God.
Some might be reading this and thinking, “Well we can know He’s eternal” or “We can know He’s all-powerful.” But none of these terms encompass the whole of God, they are merely attributes. Think of yourself. Does your hair color define who you are, or is it simply an attribute? Your attitude, your knowledge, your job, everything that people see about you don’t define you, but instead are defined by you and come from you. Likewise, the attributes of God do not define God, but are defined by God and flow from His nature; they are extensions of the nature we never see and cannot know. But what are these attributes and actions?
God is eternal (God is not created)
Both Psalm 90:2 and Isaiah 40:12 (along with numerous other passages) speak about how God is eternal and has existed forever. The idea of God being eternal and without creation or origin was foundation both to ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Early on in Christianity, St. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “There is one God, without beginning or cause, not limited by anything existing before, or afterwards to be, encompassing the aeons, and infinite…” To say that God is without beginning or cause means exactly what it sounds like; God has existed forever.
God is all-knowing (God is not ignorant of anything)
In Romans 11:33 and 1 John 3:20 we find that God knows everything and nothing is hidden from him. Even St. Ignatius wrote, “Nothing is hidden from the Lord; even our most secret thoughts are ever present to Him.” The darkest secrets of the world are laid before Him; to God, there are no conspiracy theories, no mysteries, no “who-dun-its”, no guessing or discovering of the truth. To God, everything is known and nothing is hidden. God’s knowledge is so vast that He knows what could have been, but never was. He knows the possibilities of things to come and which possibilities will be chosen and what simply will never be.
God is all-powerful (God is not limited)
Sometimes people take a literalist approach to the idea of God not being limited and ask, “Well can He create a rock that is so big even He can’t move it?” This is generally considered the end-all for middle-school arguments concerning atheism and God. However, to say God is not limited means (and has always meant) that God can do any logically possible thing He desires. He can’t create a contradiction because contradictions simply can’t exist. However, Isaiah 46:10, Job 42:2, and Matthew 19:26 all speak about how all things are possible with God. That means if something can exist, He has the power to create it or cause it. If He desires He could have created unicorns, or purple lions, or dinosaurs that can talk. All of these are logically possible. To say that God is not limited means that if something is possible, He can do it and has power to accomplish His desires.
God is ever-present (God is not contained)
The idea of God being ever-present is another attribute of God where the modern Christian has to be very careful in explaining what is meant by “ever-present.” A perfect example of why we have to be careful is found in a quote by St. John of Damascus; “For, like some limitless and boundless sea of essence, He contains all being in Himself.” To the modern reader, such a quote sounds pantheistic, but that’s not what St. John is saying. Rather, his quote is reflecting on the Biblical teaching of God being present everywhere without being a part of anything (while God is present in the tree, He is not a part of the tree and the tree is not a part of Him). A better way of looking at it is Psalm 139:7-12:
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.
As the Psalmist says, God is everywhere and we cannot escape Him. There is nowhere we can go in this world to hide from His gaze and His presence. God is everywhere because that is simply who He is; He is not a part of all things, but He is in all things.
God is love (God is not selfish)
1 John 1:5 states quite explicitly that God is love, but what does it mean that God is love? The ultimate form of love is a love that is self-sacrificial; when someone sacrifices for another people (or group of people) and expects no repayment or gives such a great sacrifice that no repayment can be made, then that someone has committed the ultimate act of love. Thus, God is the greatest giver of all and is not selfish. God’s love is seen in the Trinity and how the Persons love one another and work for one another. God’s love is demonstrated in creation, on the cross, and in the resurrection for humanity. To say God is love does not mean He affirms us in all that we do, but instead that He sacrifices for us as an example of how we should sacrifice for each other and for Him. Thus, while God does not always approve of our choices and will not always affirm our decisions, He will always love us in that He sacrificed so much for us.
God is good (God is not evil)
The term “God is good” is surprisingly ambiguous mostly because ‘good’ isn’t defined. Is God ‘good’ in a moral way? If so, what does that mean? Is God ‘good’ at doing something, like Sam Bradford at football or Joshua Bell at the violin? What do we mean when we say that God is good?
The answer is really open and applies to multiple things, mostly because we define what is ‘good’ by appealing to God (whether we do so knowingly or unknowingly is another issue). When it comes to morality, God is good, because He is moral. It is not that there is some standard that God is held to or God arbitrarily says something is good, but rather that goodness flows out from God; things are good because they are a part of who God is. 1 John 1:5 says that there is no darkness in God and St. Clement of Rome reassures us that God is truthful in all that He does and does not deceive His creation. All that is good, all that thwarts evil, all that upholds virtue has its origin in God.
God is Spirit (God is not material)
John 4:24 says that God is a Spirit while Colossians 1:15 says that God is invisible. But to say “God is Spirit” doesn’t do an adequate job of really explaining how God is not material. For instance, humans have a soul and angels are immaterial, so does that mean we’re like God? The answer is no; an angel is limited to one area at a time and can’t be in multiple places at once. Likewise, our souls can’t be in Beijing and our bodies are in San Francisco. The philosophers have referred to the soul as “form without matter,” that is, something that has limits, but isn’t material in the way we experience the material world.
There are different theories and explanations on how the whole form and matter discussion pans out, but what matters is to know that God is the only truly spiritual (non-material) entity in all of existence. He can be at multiple places at once because He is contained by nothing. While there are spiritual beings, none of them are like God; each is contained while God is truly spiritual and uncontained.
God is One (God is not divided or multiplied)
Unlike some religions, Christianity teaches that God is singular and that there aren’t multiple gods or that God is somehow present in everything as a part of everything (pantheism). Deuteronomy 6:4, Nehemiah 9:6, and Romans 3:20 show the continued tradition from the earliest days of Judaism to the earliest days of Christianity affirming the oneness of God. To say that God is one means that He is the only being with His nature (whatever His nature might be). For instance, John and Judy are individuals and divided, but still share a common human nature. God, however, is alone; there is none like Him, none above Him, and none close to Him. He is alone in His type of existence.
God is sovereign (God does not lack power)
In our modern world it is unpopular to speak about having power over something, but that is because power is so often abused. We think that absolute power corrupts absolutely, so God must not have absolute power otherwise He’d be corrupt. But such thinking lacks any merit; God is good and therefore will use His absolute power in a justified manner. Psalm 103:19 and 115:3 both state that God reigns over creation and has the final say on all that occurs. But we must be careful not to fall headfirst into fatalism. Just because God has the power to do something (or stop something) doesn’t mean He will exercise that power. A parent has the power to ground a disobedient child, but it doesn’t mean the parent will always exercise that power. Likewise, God does have ultimate power over creation, but He will not always exercise His power.
God is perfect (God is not incomplete)
To say that God is perfect means that He cannot change. He cannot become better, He cannot become worse, He cannot add to any of His attributes, He cannot take away from any of them: God is perfect as He is and therefore cannot change. Hebrews 13:8, Psalm 102:25, and Malachi 3:6 all speak of how God is unchangeable. While He might react to our interactions in a certain way, God as God does not change because He is perfect as He is. He is maximally good, maximally intelligent, maximally eternal, and maximum in all of His attributes. As St. John of Damascus wrote, “The Divinity is perfect and without deficiency in goodness or wisdom or power. He is without beginning, without end, eternal, uncircumscribed; to put it simply, He is perfect in all things.”
Can we know anything of God’s nature?
The Bible and the early Church were quite adamant that we could not know the nature of God and that we could only know God through His attributes and actions. But does that seem fair? Certainly God left little clues and hints as to His nature. Those who are curious to know the nature of God are not out of luck. God did leave a brief window into His nature; so brief it’s hardly explained in the Bible, yet it is so mysterious and contentious that it shows just how far removed from us God truly is. The brief window into God’s nature is found in the Holy Trinity.