One of the marks of the authenticity of the Bible as God’s Word is its careful balance on notoriously difficult questions. Considering the fact that the Bible is not the work of a single human author, but more than 40 over the course 1,500 years, writing in three different languages, the Bible’s ability to be consistent points to the unity of its divine author. One case where we can see this balance is the way that the God of the Bible is both completely transcendant, utterly distinct from his creation, and yet at the same time he is immanent, closely involved in creation and near to his people. This combination is difficult to maintain, and is not found outside the Bible. Other gods either lose their transcendance in being relatable, or they lose their closeness in lofty perfection. Only the God of Israel is described by the words of Isaiah:
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,Isaiah 57:15
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
The most obvious example of gods that come short of the Biblical God in terms of transcendance are the gods of pagan societies such as the pantheon of the Greeks and Romans. Zeus and Apollo and all the rest do not distinguish themselves from humans in any fundamental way at all, but are only “gods” in the sense that they have super powers. Finite in every way, they did not create nature, but are fully a part of it, and as for holiness, the slightest familiarity with Greek myths shows them to be the worst examples of moral conduct. People may fear them because of their power to do good or harm, but no one stands in reverent awe of them because of the perfection of their nature.
Another highly relatable god lacking in transcendance is the god of modern popular imagination. Everyone nowadays knows that god is very loving and kind and ready to give you things that you may ask for, but no one thinks of him as the Judge who condemns our secret thoughts, the giver and taker of life, the omnipotent, omniscient God who governs atoms and galaxies and causes them all to work together to accomplish his purposes for his glory.
There are also conceptions of God that grasp his transcendance, but then lose any sense of his immanence. Aristotle’s God, the Unmoved Mover, is an example of this category. Aristotle deduced that there must be a perfect, immaterial, changeless being that was the ultimate source of motion in the universe, but he also reasoned that God’s perfection entailed that he would only have perfect thoughts. And since God is the only perfect thing to think about, he must be eternally immersed in self-contemplation. Aristotle’s God is not involved in human affairs and has no relationship with people. In fact he doesn’t do anything except exist in perfect perfection.
Also in this category, but not as extreme, is the God of the Qur’an. This God is continuously exalted as the one and only God who created all things and will one day judge mankind. The Qur’an is abundantly clear that there is no one who is like God, and that he has no “partners”. He is also described as merciful and is said to love people (usually “the righteous” or “those who do good”), but the overall impression the reader is left with is of God as an abstract principle of justice, more so than someone that you could have a relationship with or would want to. His relations with mankind are pretty much limited to sending messengers to guide people in their duties, rewarding those who do well and punishing those who don’t. The hope of heaven is not really to be with God as in the New Testament, but rather to enjoy what he can give.
The God of the Bible
From the first chapters of Genesis we encounter a completely different kind of God who brings together both transcendance and immanence. This God who creates light, land, sky, plants and animals by merely speaking is a majestic sovereign, wholly distinct from his creation. But when he turns to create man, he forms him from dust and breathes the breath of life into his nostrils, bringing into existence a creature made in the image of the uncreated God. Throughout the narratives of the Old Testament, God has rich relationships with people from Abraham to Moses to David, revealing himself to them, listening to their prayers, loving them and being loved in return. At the same time he remains the majestic God who sends or withholds rain, splits the sea and stops the sun; the holy God who disciplines the righteous as his children and punishes the wicked according to their evil. In the prophets he is continuously exalted as the only true God, the Judge of all the nations, controlling history, declaring the end from the beginning, and yet in speaking to his people, he uses the most intimate language, repeatedly likening himself to a father of children or the husband of a faithless wife.
The ultimate marriage of God’s transcendance and immanence is found in the incarnation of Jesus – God the Son taking on a human nature and walking among his people as one of them. John speaks of the eternal Word, through whom all things were created, becoming flesh and dwelling among us, being seen with the eyes and touched with the hands. Jesus eats, weeps, suffers and dies, and yet also declares, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). In Philippians 2, Paul says that the Son existing in the very form of God, emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and demonstrated perfect obedience and humility by dying on the cross. But then he is exalted by the Father to receive homage from every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth, bowing to him as God. Jesus as the one who perfectly reveals the Father, is the ultimate manifestation of God’s majestic, holy transcendance and his tender, personal immanence coming together in perfect harmony.
No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.Revelation 22:3-4