Does God have a body?

A good question - so what does the Bible say?

Tuesday 10 November 2015 by Tom Underhill

Go Deeper

The Question

I was asked an interesting question yesterday afternoon: does God have a body? Now depending on who you are you might have a whole range of instinctive responses to that, though I think the most common might be "of course not". However, the person asking the question quite sensibly wondered where in the Bible it actually says that God doesn't have a body.

As far as I'm aware, Christian thinkers have been pretty unanimous on the question over the centuries.  This is from the Westminster Confession:   

There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute...

Most historic confessions say pretty much the same. Now of course, a confession doesn't have the same level of authority as the Bible - on the other hand, if the church everywhere has always said pretty much the same thing about a particular issue, you would face a huge burden of truth to prove it wrong. Furthermore the writers of the confession thought they were reflecting the teaching of scripture – hence their references to Bible verses for each point they make (you can read the Westminster Confession online with all the Bible references listed).

So where in the Bible does the confession look to to prove that God is "without body"? Firstly, John 4:24: "God is Spirit". In context, Jesus is responding to the Samaritan woman's question about where (the physical place) God is to be worshipped. Jesus in reply seems to say the place is not the important thing any more. "God is Spirit" as part of his answer seems to be drawing this conclusion (there is no longer going to be a physical place to worship God) because of a truth about God's nature (God is not physically located in a single place). This fits with the sense of "spirit" in the Bible, which is set in opposition to physical flesh (e.g. Isa 31:3). To this end, the Confession writers also cite Luke 24:39 "a spirit does not have flesh and bones".

So "God is Spirit" does seem to imply that God does not have a physical body. What’s more, a physical body is a singular, limited, finite thing - seemingly conflicting with our understanding that God is infinite or without limit. 

 

But hang on...

"So then," asked the questioner yesterday (quite sensibly), "how is the Father differentiated from the Spirit? Surely they must be genuinely, really distinct?"

Well, yes, they must be. But the Father and Spirit can’t be different by nature. If they are both truly God, then they have the same nature. God is absolute, eternal, and one - the Old Testament witness to one Lord God is not contradicted by the revelation of the Trinity. The three persons must genuinely be one God - one in being. So it's not going to work to say that the Spirit is spirit but the Father is some other kind of being - it would make them too different, and compromise God's unity.

How then are the persons different? Well Christian theology has traditionally concluded that the difference lies solely in their relations: the Father is the only person to have the property of “fatherhood” – he is the only one who eternally begets the Son and breathes out the Spirit. The Son is the only person to have the property of “sonship” – he is the only one eternally begotten of the Father. The Spirit is the only person to have the property of “procession” – he is the only one to proceed from the Father and the Son.

And note, the definitions of these properties require the other persons: the Father can't be a father without the Son etc. So in this scheme the essential unity of the three is underlined even as we describe what makes them distinct. In all other ways, the three are truly one in being and essence and nature. God really is one in one way, and he really is three in another way.

The relational distinctions play out in the roles that the difference persons fulfil when God acts. God does everything he does in his unity, so each of the three persons is involved in a united way in every act God does. But they are involved in different ways. Consider the incarnation: as the Father sends the Son, the Son takes on flesh, by the agency of the Holy Spirit. Or redemption: the Son dies as the sacrifice, the Spirit unites his people to him, the Father declares them justified. This kind of language with regards to God's acts - distinct works by each person contributing to nonetheless unified actions - can be traced through the Bible (explicitly in the NT, implicitly in the OT), providing good evidence that this construction of the Trinity is on solid footing.

And yet...

Having said all that, on the other hand, God does indeed have a body!

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death. (Heb. 2:14)

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body (Phil. 3:20-21)

Because God in his divine nature does not have a body, he cannot be subject to those things that are tied up with finite, created reality - especially death. As Hebrews declares, what was needed for our redemption was for him to share in our humanity, to become flesh, to acquire a nature like ours - a nature capable of dying. And by that death, make a sacrifice of infinite value sufficient to redeem all his people and break the power of death. All of which he did, in the person of the Son.

His resurrection demonstrates that Jesus still shares our nature, a physical human body (though somewhat different because resurrected and glorious). Today, he reigns at the right hand of the Father - a man ruling creation under the Father, just as was always supposed to be.

So does God have a body? Gloriously, no - our Creator isn't limited like we are. Gloriously, yes - because the "Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us."

Tom Underhill

Tom works part-time as Operations Manager at the South West Gospel Partnership, and part-time as a contract Web Developer. He is also doing postgraduate theology studies. He is married to Katy and father of Jonny, Sophia and Benjamin. Previously he was an Associate at St Helens Bishopsgate.
Find us on Google+ By Emmanuel Bath