Critics have charged that passages such as John 1:18, Exodus 33:20, and Genesis 32:30 contradict one another. In John 1:18, the apostle wrote: “No one has seen God at any time.” In Exodus 33:20 God said to Moses: “You cannot see My face; for no man can see Me and live.” But Genesis 32:30 records Jacob as saying: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Have John and Moses—two of the most influential writers in the Bible—contradicted each other as infidels and skeptics have suggested?
No, they have not. The Bible is internally consistent, and does not contradict itself. The “contradiction” is the result of the passages being taken out of the context in which they were written originally. For example, consider the following two statements. Joe is rich; Joe is poor. Do these statements contradict one another? Not necessarily. Is it not possible that Joe could be rich spiritually but poor physically? Renowned Bible scholar R.A. Torrey noted:
We must remember first of all that two statements which in terms flatly contradict one another may be both of them absolutely true, for the reason that the two terms are not used in the same sense in the two statements (1907, p. 80).
That is exactly what has happened in texts such as John 1:18 and Genesis 32:30. The passages seem to contradict one another, but when considered in their appropriate context they do not because they are not speaking of God being “seen” in the same sense. Several illustrations of this principle can be found in Scripture.
First, consider Moses “seeing” God in a burning bush (Exodus 3:2ff.). He saw a fire on the side of a mountain. When he went to investigate, he saw a bush that burned but was not consumed. As he observed this unusual sight, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” Then the voice from the burning bush echoed: “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6a). The text indicates that “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God” (3:6b).
As Moses spoke to the burning bush on the mountainside, was he addressing God? Indeed he was, as the passage clearly teaches. But does the passage also teach that as he looked at the bush, Moses was fearful because he considered it “seeing” God? Yes, Exodus 3:6b so states.
When Moses looked upon the burning bush, did he actually “see” God? No. He saw an image that we as humans can comprehend. The bush was a representation of God—an occasion where something took God’s place.
Second, consider Job’s “seeing” God in a whirlwind (Job 38:1ff.). Job made a wrongful boast that landed him in serious trouble with God. Suddenly (and unexpectedly) a whirlwind appeared before Job—from which the voice of God echoed: “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me” (Job 38:2-3). Job looked at the whirlwind and heard God. But was God really in the whirlwind? Did Job actually see God when he looked into this magnificent force of nature? No. Instead, Job saw a manifestation of God that a human could comprehend. The whirlwind “took God’s place.”
Third, consider Jacob’s “seeing” God as he wrestled with an angel (Genesis 32:24-30). He wrestled from night until daybreak with this heavenly being and eventually said: “I have seen God face to face.” Was it really God that Jacob saw? No, he did not see God but instead witnessed a representative of God. A similar example can be found in the case of Manoah (the father of Samson), recorded in Judges 13. In this instance, the text says that Manoah and his wife were visited by the “Angel of the Lord” (13:13) who informed them of their son’s impending birth. Afterwards, Manoah said: “We shall surely die because we have seen God! (13:22). Again, it is necessary to ask: Was it really God that Manoah and his wife saw? No, they did not see God but instead witnessed (just as Jacob had) a manifestation of God via the angel. [NOTE: A fascinating parallel can be seen in Gideon’s statement in Judges 6:22 when he cried: “I have seen the Angel of the Lord face to face.”]
What, then is the explanation of the alleged contradiction between passages such as John 1:18, Exodus 33:20, and Genesis 32:30? How can the Scriptures state that “no man hath seen God” (John 1:18) or that “no man shall see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20), while stating elsewhere that Jacob saw God “face to face” (Genesis 32:30) and that Manoah and his wife had “seen God” (Judges 6:22)? E.G. Sewell provided a partial answer to this kind of question when he wrote:
When Jacob is represented as saying he saw God, it was only an angel of God that appeared to him in the form of a man. In Hosea it is called an angel so that in that case Jacob did not see the face of God at all, but only an angel of God (1921, p. 274, emp. in orig.).
An illustration of this very point can be found in the incarnation of Jesus. The apostle Paul, in discussing Christ’s deity, noted that as a member of the Godhead, Jesus had existed throughout eternity and possessed “equality with God” (Philippians 2:5-6). He also discussed the fact, however, that Christ—Who had existed in heaven “in the form of God”—took on the “likeness of men” (1:7) while He was on Earth. Was Christ equal to God? Yes, He was. Did men see Christ during His earthly ministry? Yes, they did. Did they therefore “see” God? Yes, indeed. But did they see God’s true image (i.e., as a spirit Being—John 4:24), or did they see instead an embodiment of God as Jesus dwelt here in a fleshly form? The answer is obvious from John’s explanation in the first few verses of the first chapter of his Gospel. All this makes it clear that while Jesus is God, He also became a man “so that in history he might reveal the God whom no man has ever seen” (Pack, 1975, p. 39).
So the next time someone takes a two- or three-word quote from the Bible in an attempt to make the point that the text contains contradictions, we can be sure that in all likelihood it is not a proper quote (i.e., considered in its context). We can keep the improper interpretation from spreading by studying the “problem passage” and pointing out the correct context. When we prevent the interpretation offered by atheists, then they have nothing to use to prove their point that the Bible has contradicted itself.
Pack, Frank (1975), The Gospel According to John (Austin, TX: Sweet).
Sewell, E.G. and David Lipscomb (1921), Questions Answered (Nashville, TN: McQuiddy).
Torrey, R.A. (1907), Difficulties and Alleged Errors and Contradictions in the Bible (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell).