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The Omnipresence of God

The "omni's" of God, if I may refer to them in this way, are of little comfort to the rebellious heart, for they shatter those illusions on the strength of which we so often justify our sin. Thinking that none has access to the secrets of our hearts, we lust, envy, hate, and covet. But what we naively think to have concealed successfully behind the veil of the soul is but an open book before Him with whom we have to do:

"O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD" (Ps. 139:1-4).

But might there not be some secluded hideaway, some remote corner of the universe to which even the Deity has no access? Might we not there sin freely? Might we not there sin secretly? But where is "there"?

"Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, 'Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,' even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you" (Ps. 139:7-12).

It is not merely the omniscience of God but His omnipresence as well, noted Charles Spurgeon, that makes it dreadful work to sin,

"for we offend the Almighty to his face, and commit acts of treason at the very foot of his throne. Go from him, or flee from him we cannot: neither by patient travel nor by hasty flight can we withdraw from the all-surrounding Deity. His mind is in our mind; himself within ourselves. His spirit is over our spirit; our presence is ever in his presence" (III,b:260).

A.        Inexhaustibly Infinite in Space

When we speak of God as infinite, we mean that He is without limit, that He is in all relevant respects inexhaustible, subject to no conceivable calculations, in no way saddled by the imperfections of the creature. Infinity, in sum, is that in virtue of which the Deity embraces all His perfections in the highest degree.

Stephen Davis (“Why God Must Be Unlimited,” in Linda Tessier, ed., Concepts of the Ultimate [London: Macmillan, 1989,], p. 5) defines an infinite being as “(1) a being who possesses all the G-properties [i.e., Godlike-making properties] that it is possible for a being to possess; (2) a being all of whose G-properties that admit of an intrinsic maximum are possessed to the maximal degree (for example, being omnipotent); and (3) a being all of whose G-properties that admit of no intrinsic maximum are possessed to a degree unsurpassed by any other being that has ever existed or ever will exist (for instance, being more loving than any other actual being).”

Infinity may thus be predicated of God in several ways. God is infinite, for example, in relation to time, knowledge, power and space. To say that God is infinite with respect to time is to predicate "eternity" of the Divine Being (He is everlasting, without beginning or end). To say that God is infinite with respect to knowledge is to predicate "omniscience" of the Divine Being (He knows all things, and that infallibly). To say that God is infinite with respect to power is to predicate "omnipotence" of the Divine Being. But here we shall speak of God as infinite with respect to space and thus predicate of Him "omnipresence" and "immensity."

A slight distinction between immensity and omnipresence ought to be noted. Whereas immensity affirms that God transcends all spatial limitations, that His being cannot be contained or localized, omnipresence signifies more specifically the relationship which God in His whole being sustains to the creation itself. In other words, omnipresence (being positive in thrust) means that God is everywhere present in the world; immensity (being negative in thrust) means that He is by no means limited to or confined by it.

This means that it is probably inappropriate to speak of God as having size, for this term implies something that is measurable, definable, with boundaries and limitations. Is the question, then, “How big is God?” theologically inappropriate?

God, of course, is not "in space" in the sense that, say, we or the angelic host are. We who have material bodies are bounded by space and thus can always be said to be here and not there, or there and not here. That is, a body occupies a place in space. Angelic spirits, on the other hand, as well as the dead in Christ now in the intermediate state, are not bound by space and yet they are somewhere, not everywhere. But God, and God alone, fills all space. He is not absent from any portion of space, nor more present in one portion than in another. To put it in other terms, we are in space circumscriptively, angels are in space definitively, but God is in space repletively.

B.        Essentially and Wholly Present

The teaching of Scripture on God's omnipresence is unassailable. In addition to what we have already seen in Psalm 139, note the following:

"'Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?' declares the LORD. 'Do not I fill heaven and earth?' declares the LORD" (Jer. 23:24).

"But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!" (1 Kings 8:27; see also 2 Chron. 2:6; Isa. 66 :1).

"And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church) which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (Eph. 1:22-23).

"For in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts l7.28a).

"He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:17).

Several aspects of God's omnipresence call for comment.

1.         In the first place, God is omnipresent according to His being and not merely according to His operation. That is to say, He is essentially or substantially, not only dynamically, omnipresent. It is the heresy of deism which contends that God is present in all places only by way of influence and power, acting upon the world from a distance, but not Himself wholly present throughout. As Bavinck explains,

"God is not present in creation as a king in his realm or a captain aboard his ship. He does not act upon the world from a distance; but with his whole being he is present powerfully here and everywhere with respect to his essence and power" (162).

2.         Second, although God is wholly present throughout all things, He is yet distinct from all things. It does not follow that because God is essentially in everything that everything is essentially God. It is the heresy of pantheism that the being of God is one and the same with the being of all reality. Pantheism asserts that God minus the world = O; theism asserts that God minus the world = God. The universe is the creation of God and thus, in respect to essence, no part of Him. The creation is ontologically other than God, a product ex nihilo of the divine will, not an extension of the Divine Being itself. Consequently, although all things are permeated and sustained in being by God (Col. 1:16-17; Acts 17:28), God is not all things. Again, God is not present as each point in space but rather present with/in each point in space.

3.         Third, this presence of God throughout the whole of space is not by local diffusion, multiplication, or distribution. Being wholly spirit, God is not subject to the laws of matter such as extension and displacement. He cannot be divided or separated such that one part of His being is here and not there, and another part there and not here. The whole of His being is always everywhere, no less nor more here than there, or there than here. J. L. Dagg comments:

"God is indivisible. We cannot say, that a part of his essence is here, and a part yonder. If this were the mode of God's omnipresence in universal space, he would be infinitely divided, and only an infinitely small part of him would be present at each place. It would not be the whole deity that takes cognizance of our actions, and listens to our petitions. This notion is unfavorable to piety, and opposed to the true sense of Scripture: 'The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good'" (61).

4.         Finally, whereas the presence of a body in a place of space excludes the simultaneous and in all ways identical presence of another body in the same place of space, such is not true of the Divine Being. God is, in the whole of His being, where everything else is (including matter). Substance or matter is in no way displaced or spatially excluded by the presence of God. To put it bluntly, when God created all things out of nothing, He did not have to "move out of the way" to make room for the world. He is where it is.

C.        The Limitations of Human Metaphors

The doctrine of God's omnipresence is not without its problems. For example, if God is everywhere present, and that equally, in what sense can He be said to "indwell" or "abide in" the Christian but not the non-Christian? Paul affirms that you "are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you" (Rom. 8:9a). And again, "if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you" (Rom. 8:11). It was Jesus who said, "If anyone loves Me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (John 14:23). It is in Christ, Paul reminds us, that we are "being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (Eph. 2:22). Christ Himself "dwells" in our hearts through faith (Eph. 3:17). And what is the mystery now disclosed to the saints? It is "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).

See esp. Ps. 16:11 - "In thy presence is fulness of joy. At thy right hand are pleasures forevermore."

Similarly, if God is wholly everywhere present, what can it mean to say the Spirit "descended" at Pentecost or "fell upon" believers (cf. Acts 1:8; 2:17; 10:44-48)? The same question is asked concerning those texts which speak of heaven as the abode of God. For example:

"Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Deut. 26:15).

"From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth" (Ps. 33:13-14; see also Ps. 11:4; 115:3).

The portrayal of God in heaven is not as difficult as it may appear. Clearly, the point of such descriptive statements is not to deny God's presence upon the earth, or anywhere else for that matter. Rather, it is to emphasize the ethical and ontological transcendence of God vis-a-vis the creature. It is His holiness, His wholly-otherness if you will, that is being magnified. According to A. H. Strong, "When God is said to 'dwell in the heavens,' we are to understand the language either as a symbolic expression of exaltation above earthly things, or as a declaration that his most special and glorious self-manifestations are to the spirits of heaven" (280).

The other statements noted above, however, are not so readily intelligible. The Baptist theologian J. L. Dagg attempted to explain the problem in this way:

"There are passages of Scripture which speak of God's removing from one place to another; of his approaching and departing; of his dwelling in heaven, and of his coming near to his people, and taking up his abode with them. These are manifestly accommodations of language; just as when eyes or hands are attributed to him. They refer to the manifestations of his presence in his various works, and dispensations, in which such changes take place, as are appropriately and impressively expressed by this language" (61).

Likewise, J. O. Buswell insisted that we interpret statements concerning God's coming and going as "anthropomorphic expressions" which are "clearly figurative" (137). Berkhof contends that although God is present in every part of His creation, He is not equally present in the same sense in all His creatures:

"The nature of His indwelling is in harmony with that of His creatures. He does not dwell on earth as He does in heaven, in animals as He does in man, in the inorganic as He does in the organic creation, in the wicked as He does in the pious, nor in the Church as He does in Christ. There is an endless variety in the manner in which He is immanent in His creatures, and in the measure in which they reveal God to those who have eyes to see" (61).

Unfortunately, Berkhof does not tell us in what sense God's presence differs. A. A. Hodge attempts to do this by conceiving of God's presence according to several different modes. In respect to essence and knowledge, He is present the same everywhere and always. However,

"as to his self-manifestation and the exercise of his power, his presence differs endlessly in different cases in degree and mode. Thus God is present to the church as he is not to the world. Thus he is present in hell in the manifestation and execution of righteous wrath, while he is present in heaven in the manifestation and communication of gracious love and glory" (141).

Similarly, according to Shedd, "God is said to be 'in heaven,' 'in believers,' 'in hell,' etc. because of a special manifestation of his glory, or his grace, or his retribution" (I:341).

Does this mean, for example, that whereas the gracious God is in the unbeliever, He is not in him "graciously"? That is to say, God's perfect presence in all need not entail the same manifestation of divine power. His indwelling of the Christian is in some sense qualitatively different from His presence in the non-Christian. It is not simply a "spatial" but also a "spiritual" presence, such that distinctive divine blessings and operations are dispensed only in the believer.

Indwelling, therefore, is something of a metaphor designed to emphasize the unique personal and salvific relationship the Christian sustains to God, be it the new life bestowed and nourished, the new power by which obedience is now possible, or whatever. Thus to be "far" from God is not to be spatially at a distance but ethically and relationally incongruous with Him. Thus, drawing "near" to God does not require a journey, only repentance, faith, and humility (cf. Isa. 57:15; 59:2; Prov. 15:29).

This attempt at resolving the problem of God's omnipresence and His "special" presence is not entirely satisfactory, Few, if any, of the terms I have used are precisely accurate in drawing what we know are legitimate biblical distinctions, However, we know that the Holy Spirit "indwells" Christians but not the lost. We know that God does give Christians a divine and supernatural enablement by virtue of His indwelling Spirit which He does not make available to the unbeliever. We know that at the second advent the unrepentant will be punished "with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power" (2 These. 1:9), whereas we who believe shall abide with Him forever. These verities are clear enough. We know what they entail. Our inability to reconcile them in every respect with God's omnipresence is due only to our limitations, and in no way detracts from their eternal validity.

D.        Warning and Consolation

The doctrine of God's omnipresence is of immeasurable practical benefit. It is, first of all, a stern warning to the wicked, as Charnock elaborates:

"How terrible should the thoughts of this attribute be to sinners! How foolish is it to imagine any hiding-place from the incomprehensible God, who fills and contains all things, and is present in every point of the world. When men have shut the door, and made all darkness within, to meditate or commit a crime, they cannot in the most intricate recesses be sheltered from the presence of God. If they could separate themselves from their own shadows, they could not avoid his company, or be obscured from his sight: Ps. cxxxix. 12, 'The darkness and light are both alike to him.' Hypocrites cannot disguise their sentiments from him; he is in the most secret nook of their hearts. No thought is hid, no lust is secret, but the eye of God beholds this, and that, and the other. He is present with our heart when we imagine, with our hands when we act. We may exclude the sun from peeping into our solitudes, but not the eyes of God from beholding our actions" (174).

If God's omnipresence frightens the wicked, it should console the righteous. No matter what the trial, no matter the place of its occurrence; no matter the swiftness with which it assaults, no matter the depth of its power, God is ever with us! His loving protection ever abides. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me" (Ps. 23:4).

Finally, Charnock reminds us of what a glorious and powerful incentive to holiness is the truth of God's omnipresence:

"What man would do an unworthy action, or speak an unhandsome word in the presence of his prince? The eye of the general inflames the spirit of a soldier. Why did David 'keep God's testimonies;? Because he considered that 'all his ways were before him,' Ps. cxix. 168; because he was persuaded his ways were present with God, God's precepts should be present with him. The same was the cause of Job's integrity; 'doth he not see my ways?' Job xxxi. 4; to have God in our eye is the way to be sincere, 'walk before me,' as in my sight, 'and be thou perfect,' Gen. xvii. 1. Communion with God consists chiefly in an ordering our ways as in the presence of him that is invisible. This would make us spiritual, raised and watchful in all our passions, if we considered that God is present with us in our shops, in our chambers, in our walks, and in our meetings, as present with us as with the angels in heaven; who though they have a presence of glory above us, yet have not a greater measure of his essential presence than we have" (179).