What does God look like?
It’s a question that’s been asked since the dawn of time. Old and New Testament writers who saw God, describe him differently.
In Revelation 1:14, John gave us a specific picture of the Almighty. “The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire,”
But later in Revelation 4:3, John’s view was more figurative. “And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.”
Daniel’s picture of God was similar to John’s first description. “As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire.” (Daniel 7:9)
In other parts of scripture God is described as a “burning bush”, “pillar of cloud” and “pillar of fire.
J. I. Packer describes these visions as not truly God but theophanies or appearances of God. “No one, though, other than Jesus Christ (John 1:18), has seen God in all of His glory. Even the seraphim in heaven cover their eyes as they worship God (Isaiah 6:1–4).”
The Bible refers to the invisible God.
“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God…For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ” (Colossians 1:15, 19).
Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.” (Exodus 33:18-23)
“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son.” (John 1:18)
The biblical admonition that we can’t know what God looks like doesn’t keep us from imagining. Not surprisingly, many envision God to look like them.
Psychologists ask, “What does God look like.”
Psychologists asked more than 500 U.S. Christians how they perceived God using a new technique. The researchers showed participants hundreds of paired faces and asked the subjects to select the one that looked more like God. By combining the selected faces, the researchers created a composite “face of God” that reflected each of the participants’ choices. The researchers analyzed the differences between these composites, and also had 400 people on Mechanical Turk (an online platform that pays people to participate in research) rate the images on nine dimensions, such as age, gender and intelligence.
The results showed that these U.S. Christians tended to view God as young, Caucasian and loving. However, liberals saw God as more feminine, more African-American and more loving than conservatives did. Meanwhile, conservatives, picked faces that were perceived as older, more intelligent and more powerful, the researchers said.
Joshua Conrad Jackson was the lead researcher in the study. He is a doctoral candidate at the Evolution Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“These biases might have stemmed from the type of societies that liberals and conservatives want,” he wrote in a statement. “Past research shows that conservatives are more motivated than liberals to live in a well-ordered society, one that would be best regulated by a powerful God. On the other hand, liberals are more motivated to live in a tolerant society, which would be better regulated by a loving God.”
The people in the study, who were an average age of 47 years old, tended to envision God as they see themselves, the study found. For instance, younger people selected a younger-looking God and people who called themselves physically attractive chose a more physically attractive God, according to the researchers. Moreover, African-Americans selected faces that looked more African-American than Caucasians did.
“People’s tendency to believe in a God that looks like them is consistent with an egocentric bias,” study senior researcher Kurt Gray, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in the statement. “People often project their beliefs and traits onto others, and our study shows that God’s appearance is no different — people believe in a God who not only thinks like them, but also looks like them.”
The study could make one wonder if Christians are making an idol of God rather than worshipping the God of the Bible.
Sinclair Ferguson, writing for Ligonier Ministries, addressed that danger.
“Many people read the Gospels that way, always asking “What does this have to say about me?” But that means that at the end of the day we’re looking for what they have to say about me, and my life, and my improvement. Yes, the Gospels have much to say to me. But they aren’t about me… they’re about Christ. And we need to listen to them and master them, or better be mastered by them and by the Christ they describe.”