Last month a Swedenborg reader named Nevada Sample submitted a spiritual conundrum about how Jesus appears to human beings and to angels. Here is a shortened version of what he wrote, focusing on his questions:
I have just read your blog “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Am I still confused? Yes.
In the gospels, between the resurrection and the ascension, the Lord appeared many times to his disciples and others. Sometimes he was recognized. Other times he was not. In what form was he during these appearances?
Even though the Lord is “human,” what difference does it make since no one is ever allowed to see him as a human, rather only manifesting thru some angel, or manifesting as the heavenly sun?
Is Jesus only seen as the sun in heaven OR when he fills an angel with his beingness?
Nevada Sample also asked about Emanuel Swedenborg’s experience of seeing the Lord.
These are highly philosophical and theological questions—questions that push the envelope of what we can know about the nature of God and about how finite human beings can have a relationship with the infinite God. But they also have a personal side that goes to the heart of Christianity and to the meaning and presence of Jesus Christ. My responses to these questions draw on the Bible, on the teachings of Swedenborg, and on my own thoughts based on what I have read and contemplated.
First, here’s the short version:
- God is eternally present as the sun of heaven to those whose eyes are open to see it.
- Before God came as Jesus Christ, God appeared to humans by filling an angel with the divine presence.
- After God came as Jesus Christ, God can and does appear personally both to people and to angels.
Now let’s “look under the hood” and see how all of this works.
God appears in many ways
The infinite and all-powerful God appears to humans and angels in many different ways. In fact, God will always appear in the way that works best for those to whom God is appearing. That’s why people of different cultures and religions each see God in their own way.
Far from it being a problem that different cultures and different people see God in widely different ways, this is an example of God’s infinite love and wisdom reaching out to all people in ways that will touch them most deeply, and most powerfully lead them toward God.
For example, Jesus Christ has commonly been portrayed as Caucasian because many Christians are Caucasian. But Jesus has also been portrayed as Asian by Asians, as African by Africans, and so on. None of these is “wrong.” We don’t know for sure what Jesus looked like. Perhaps that is intentional on God’s part, so that all Christians can picture Christ in a way that speaks to them and moves their hearts.
And of course, people of other religions each see God in their own way, as discussed in the article, “If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?”
It’s good to keep in mind that whatever way we may happen to picture or perceive God in our mind, it is not the only way God can appear. The infinite core of God is beyond all images we can conceive of. From that infinite core that encompasses all forms, God appears in many different forms to many different people.
However, behind the millions of ways God appears to millions of different people, there are some general principles of just how God can and does appear to humans and to angels. Let’s look at some of these, as brought up in Nevada Sample’s spiritual conundrum.
God appears as the sun of heaven
God does not always appear in human form. One of the archetypal, cross-cultural images of God is of a being of brilliant light and radiant warmth. The light is a visual image of God’s infinite wisdom, and the warmth is a sensory impression of God’s infinite love.
In nature, the closest thing we have to that brilliant, resplendent divine presence is the sun. Residing at the center of our solar system, the sun provides the light of day by which we see our way around, and the warmth that makes all things on earth grow and flourish. For us, the sun provides a visual image of the infinite love and wisdom of God. That’s why the sun has been associated with God in many religions and cultures around the world.
The Bible associates the sun with God. For example, in Malachi 4:2 we read, “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” This is commonly read as a reference to God’s presence, or to the coming of Christ. And when Jesus was transfigured in front of his three closest disciples, “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2).
The haloes that are often drawn around Christ and around angels and saints are a stylized representation of the light that shines from the face of God, and from the faces of people and angels when they are filled with God’s presence.
Emanuel Swedenborg and others who have experienced the spiritual world tell us that God is present in heaven as a radiant being of light. In common language, God is the sun of the spiritual world.
Or to be precise, God is within the spiritual sun, and appears to angels and spirits as the sun of their (spiritual) world. You see, as I said earlier, the core being of God is far beyond the ability of finite humans and angels to see or grasp. Even the spiritual sun is an emanation and accommodation of God to our limited ability to see and comprehend God.
“We cannot see God’s face and live”
An ancient Biblical tradition holds that anyone who sees God will die. See Genesis 32:30; Exodus 33:18–23; Judges 6:22–23. And John 1:18 states flatly, “No one has ever seen God.”
And yet, there are also stories in the Bible in which people see and talk to God face to face. For example, Exodus 33:11 says, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”
Here’s the secret: We humans are incapable of seeing or experiencing the true, infinite reality of God. We could no more survive such an encounter than we could survive a direct encounter with the sun. We would be instantly vaporized. However, God veils and accommodates that infinite divine being to our finite, limited minds so that we can see and experience something of God’s presence.
Consider how astronomers look at the sun through a telescope. If they just looked through the telescope directly at the sun, it would quickly burn the retinas of their eyes and blind them. So they put a dark filter on the telescope to dim the light enough so that they can comfortably observe the sun without damaging their eyes.
In this sense, it is possible to “see God’s face” and live. But what we are seeing is not God’s face as it is in itself, but rather God’s face veiled, filtered, and adapted to our limited mental and spiritual eyesight. When we read in Isaiah 45:15, “You are a God who hides yourself,” we could also read it as, “You are a God who veils yourself” in order to be present with us without destroying us through the overwhelming intensity of the experience.
Although we may indeed be blessed with the experience of “seeing God face to face,” we should keep in mind that the “face of God” we’re seeing is not God’s face as it actually is. If we saw that, we would die. What we are seeing is God’s face heavily veiled and filtered down to our level.
Also, the “face of God” that we see is not the same as the “face of God” that someone else will see. God appears to each one of us in a unique way based on our own beliefs, character, and experience.
God appears through angels
One of the ways God veils and dims the divine presence enough so that we humans can encounter God is to fill an angel—or a whole community of angels—with the divine presence. When this happens, the angels are temporarily taken over by God, so that they believe and feel at that time that they actually are God. And God is the one who is speaking through them.
This is how the people in Bible times were able to see and encounter God. It was not God directly appearing to them, but God appearing through angels. Once we understand this, it explains some of the strange “anomalies” in the various experiences of God described in the Bible.
For example, in Genesis 18, Abraham has an extended encounter with God in which he is told that his elderly wife Sarah will have a son, her firstborn, and also that Sodom, the city where his nephew Lot was living, will be destroyed. In Genesis 19, the scene shifts, and now it is Lot who has an encounter with God.
However, throughout the centuries since that account was written, there has been great debate as to exactly who and what Abraham and Lot actually encountered. That’s because of the various ways the visitor, or visitors, are described:
- “Jehovah appeared to him” (Genesis 18:1).
- The visitors are described as “three men” (Genesis 18:2).
- Abraham has a conversation with the three men, but addresses them as “my Lord” (Genesis 18:3–5).
- “They” speak to him (Genesis 18:9).
- “Jehovah” speaks to him (Genesis 18:14–33).
- Two of the three visitors are called “angels” when they visit Lot (Genesis 19:1, 15).
- Those two are also described as “men” (Genesis 19:5–12).
- Lot addresses them as “my Lord” (Genesis 19:2, 18)
Are you confused yet?
The confusion will largely, if not entirely, disappear once we realize that these visitors were both angels and God, and that angels are simply people who have died and gone to heaven.
God did not appear directly to Abraham, Sarah, and Lot. Rather, God appeared to them by filling several angels with the divine being, and speaking through those angels. Yet while God was speaking through them, the angels believed that they were, in fact, God. That’s why they are identified both as Jehovah God and as men or angels.
In other places in the Bible where God appears to human beings on earth, the very same thing is taking place. God is not actually appearing to them “face to face.” Rather, God is appearing through an angel who is temporarily filled with God and speaking for God.
This same thing can take place in the spiritual world as well. God can fill an angel or a whole community of angels with the divine being in order to speak to other angels and spirits who are in need of God’s presence.
Ever since God came to earth as Jesus Christ, though, there is yet another way that God appears to us—one that does not require angels as intermediaries.
Jesus Christ: God with us
The Gospel of Matthew quotes a prophecy from Isaiah 7:14, and says that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that prophecy. Here is the verse:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
Though Jesus is described as the “Son of God” many times in the New Testament, he is also described here as “God with us,” and he himself says that he and the Father (God) are one (John 10:30). How can Jesus be both God and the Son of God? That is a huge question! For a basic explanation, see the article, “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?”
For our purposes right now, it helps to know that when Jesus was first born, he was both infinite God and finite human. That’s because as the Gospels describe it, his father was God, and his mother was Mary—who was an ordinary human being like everyone else. So at that time, he was the Son of God in a very literal sense.
However, during the course of his life on earth, he gradually set aside everything from his human mother, and replaced it with the Divine Being of God, his Father. So unlike us ordinary mortals, who separate from our human fathers and become a different person, Jesus became fully united with his divine Father, so that they were one and the same being.
And yet, things were not the same as before. Since God has now come to earth and taken on a human presence, God now has a new way of being present with people and with angels. Jesus Christ is not some third “person” of a divine Trinity. Rather, Jesus Christ is God’s own human presence with us. That is why the Gospels call him “God with us.”
This means that when people and angels encounter the Lord Jesus Christ, they are not encountering some angel or group of angels filled with God’s presence. Rather, they are experiencing God’s own divinely human presence.
Many people have had encounters with Jesus Christ. These encounters can be powerful and life-changing. Emanuel Swedenborg, in his Journal of Dreams, describes an encounter with Christ that he experienced in April of 1744, in which he saw Jesus face to face. This encounter was followed by others, which led to Swedenborg leaving behind his former scientific and philosophical studies and devoting the rest of his life to studying and writing on spiritual subjects.
The divine being of Jesus Christ
In what form was Jesus after his resurrection from death, before he ascended up to heaven? In what form did he appear to Swedenborg? In what form does he appear to the many other people in the last two thousand years and right up to the present who have experienced the vivid and very real presence of Jesus Christ?
This is where things get highly philosophical and theological, and push the envelope of our human understanding.
It may be easier to approach the question by first mentioning two ways that the Lord God Jesus Christ does not appear to humans and angels:
- It is not a physical or material presence. After his resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples when all the doors were locked (see John 20:19–20). A physical body could not have gotten in.
- It is not as a spirit or angel. Jesus specifically denied that he was a spirit (see Luke 24:37–39).
If after the resurrection Jesus was not made of physical matter nor of spiritual substance, then the only thing left is that he was fully divine, including the very substance of his body.
What does that mean? I’m not sure we humans can fully understand it. But from the descriptions found in the Gospels of Jesus’ resurrection and his appearances during a period of forty days afterwards, we can understand that he was different from any other human being who ever lived:
- He rose from death with his entire body. Nothing was left in the tomb except the cloths in which his body had been wrapped (see Luke 24:1–3; John 20:1–10).
- He was able to eat food offered to him by his disciples (Luke 24:41–43).
- People could touch his body, and feel his breath on them (John 20:21–29).
- They did not always know who he was, and he could appear and disappear suddenly (see Mark 16:12–14; Luke 24:13–36).
My best understanding of all of this is that although the risen and glorified Lord God Jesus Christ is not material or spiritual, but fully divine, the divine substance of which he is made is able to be present at will on all levels of reality: divine, spiritual, and material.
However, since the time Jesus ascended up to heaven after his resurrection, we humans would ordinarily see Jesus only with our spiritual eyes, not with our physical eyes. This can happen even while we are still living in our physical body, at times when our spiritual senses are temporarily opened up so that we can see and hear with the eyes and ears of our spirits.
God is now with us in person
As fascinating as it is to contemplate these philosophical and theological conundrums and try to figure them out, the mechanics of how God does things is not the most important thing for us to know. What’s important to know is that ever since God came to earth as Jesus Christ, God is able to be present with us personally whenever God decides that need that Divine Human presence.
So in answer to Nevada Sample’s final question:
Yes, Jesus can be seen as the sun in heaven by angels who are open to the Lord’s presence.
Yes, God can still fill angels with the divine being and appear to humans and angels in that way.
Yet both angels and people on earth can now see the Lord God in person.
When angels have this experience, it is often similar to what Peter, James, and John saw when the Lord Jesus was transfigured before them, and they saw him as a divinely human being with a brilliant and radiant presence (Matthew 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–13; Luke 9:28–36). At other times Jesus appears as more like an angel, but surrounded by a divine aura.
People who have had visions of Christ recount similar variations in what they saw and experienced. As I said earlier, God appears to different people in different ways.
The “main event” is that for the past two thousand years, God has had a new way of appearing to human beings and to angels. God can now be with us in person as the Divine Humanity that is the Lord God Jesus Christ.
When we have a relationship with Jesus Christ and feel Jesus’ presence with us, it is not just the sun of heaven, nor is it an angel filled with God’s being that we are experiencing. It is God with us in person.
In addition to being a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader, this is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”