Throughout the Bible, there are several instances where individuals have encounters with God that result in their death. Often this occurs because sinful humanity cannot directly encounter the holy glory of God and live. However, there are also examples where the vision of God brings a peaceful end to one’s life. In this blog post, we will explore the biblical accounts of those who saw God and subsequently died. We will analyze these stories to understand why the vision of God brought death, and what they teach us about relating to our Creator.
- Direct encounters with the full glory of God are more than mortal flesh can handle due to human sinfulness.
- God occasionally gave visions of Himself to select individuals to bring a purposeful end to their life’s mission.
- Jesus as God incarnate provides the way for humanity to reconciled to God and behold His glory.
- While seeing the Lord brought death to some in Scripture, Christians now can spiritually see and savor God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
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- Examples from the Torah
- Visions of God in the Old Testament
- Death from Seeing God in the New Testament
- Why Did Seeing God Bring Death?
- Seeing and Savoring God Today through Christ
Examples from the Torah
The first examples come from the books of Moses, known as the Torah. Here we see principles being established that the holiness of God does not directly mix with sinful humanity.
Adam and Eve after the Fall
After Adam and Eve sinned by eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, they hid from God because of shame and fear over their nakedness (Genesis 3:8). While the text does not directly say Adam and Eve saw God at this point, God’s presence was nearby and they felt compelled to hide themselves. This foreshadows how mankind’s sin separates them from the presence of God.
Promise to Moses
When Moses asked to see God’s glory on Mount Sinai, God replied “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live” (Exodus 33:20 NKJV). The full glory of God would be too much for any man to behold and survive. However, God tells Moses He will allow Moses to see His goodness pass before him after He passes by and covers Moses’ eyes. Even seeing the “back parts” of God’s glory caused Moses’ face to shine so much that the Israelites could not look upon him afterwards (Exodus 34:29-35).
Nadab and Abihu
In Leviticus 10, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu offered “profane fire” before the Lord, which He had not commanded them to do. In response, “fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2 NKJV). While the text does not state Nadab and Abihu saw God directly, offering unsanctioned fire before the tabernacle caused their immediate death. This demonstrates again that improperly approaching the holy presence of God has deadly consequences.
Visions of God in the Old Testament
Moving beyond the Torah, the books of the Prophets record several significant encounters between God and man. God occasionally revealed glimpses of His glory to select individuals. However, the majesty of these visions was often more than the recipients’ physical bodies could endure.
In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles all night with a “Man” who is clearly God or an angel of the Lord. Towards dawn, this Man dislocates Jacob’s hip and says “Let Me go, for the day breaks” (Genesis 32:26 NKJV). Jacob then names the place Peniel, meaning “I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:30). He did not die from this encounter, but walked with a limp for the rest of his life as a sign he had seen the face of God.
In Isaiah 6, the prophet Isaiah has a vision of the Lord on His throne surrounded by seraphim crying “Holy, holy, holy”. Isaiah laments that he is “a man of unclean lips” among people of “unclean lips” who has seen the King and Lord of Armies (Isaiah 6:5). A seraphim touches Isaiah’s mouth with a burning coal from the altar, presumably cleansing him from sin to stand in God’s presence. Many believe this vision occurred as Isaiah was called to be God’s prophet.
The prophet Ezekiel has several visions of God’s glory and throne chariot throughout his book. However, these visions were too much for even a prophet to bear. In Ezekiel 1:28 after seeing visions of cherubim and the glory of the Lord, Ezekiel falls on his face and hears a voice speaking to Him. Again in Ezekiel 3:23, the prophet falls on his face after God’s glory rises from its place. The sights of God’s glory cause Ezekiel to collapse in awe and reverence.
Death from Seeing God in the New Testament
The pattern continues in the New Testament, where encountering the unveiled glory of the Lord remains deadly due to human sin. However, the arriving kingdom of God begins to provide the solution to mankind’s problem.
Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9 record Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up on a mountain where He was transfigured before them. Jesus’ face shone like the sun and His clothes became radiantly white. Then Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with Jesus about His coming departure. A bright cloud overshadowed the disciples and God’s voice spoke out of the cloud, saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (Matthew 17:5 NKJV) The disciples fell on their faces, greatly afraid. This momentary glimpse of Jesus’ unveiled glory gave the disciples a tiny foretaste of His kingdom.
John’s vision of Jesus
Revelation 1 records the aged apostle John having an encounter with the glorious risen Jesus, where “His eyes were like a flame of fire”, His voice like rushing waters, a sharp two-edged sword came from His mouth, and “His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength” (Revelation 1:14-16 NKJV). When John saw Jesus in this state of glory, he “fell at His feet as dead” (Revelation 1:17). Like others before, seeing the full majesty of the Lord caused John to collapse motionless.
God’s glory in heaven
John also has visions of God’s throne in heaven in Revelation 4-5. He describes God sitting on the throne with the four living creatures singing “Holy, holy, holy” night and day (Revelation 4:8). Later John sees myriads of angels, creatures, and elders surrounding the throne worshiping God and the Lamb who was slain (Revelation 5). While these visions did not immediately kill John, they reveal that no sinful human could withstand seeing the unveiled glory of God continuously. Only through Christ can humanity have access to God’s presence.
Why Did Seeing God Bring Death?
Several key theological truths emerge from these stories that explain why beholding the glory of God ended in death and collapse for these individuals:
- God’s holy nature – As an infinitely perfect, righteous being, God’s unveiled glory and presence cannot coexist with sin. His eyes are too pure to look upon evil (Habakkuk 1:13). Sinful humans suffer death and separation from experiencing the fullness of God’s presence.
- Human sinfulness – Conversely, all people have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). The corruption of sin and flesh in humans makes them unable to withstand the blazing, untempered holiness of God’s presence.
- Grace in limited revelation – God, in His mercy, gave individuals limited visions of His glory to accomplish His purposes in their lives. However, unrestrained glory would consume any mortal completely.
- Hope in Christ – The coming of Jesus provides the solution to the separation between God and man. Jesus serves as the perfect mediator, making purification for sins and opening access to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). Through Christ, God’s glory can dwell among and within His people.
While seeing the Lord brought death and fear for some in Scripture, these stories point towards the work of Jesus that reconciles humanity with their Creator.
Seeing and Savoring God Today through Christ
For believers today, beholding God’s glory no longer means death and separation because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Christians have access to perceive and relate to God in the following ways without being consumed:
- Seeing God’s glory spiritually – While we may not see God directly while on earth, we can still spiritually perceive, know, and see Him through faith in Christ (Ephesians 1:17-19). The Holy Spirit opens the eyes of our hearts enlightening us to God’s glory.
- Beholding God’s glory in Scripture – As we read and reflect on Scripture, we encounter the revelation of God’s divine nature, character, and deeds in human history. The Word allows us to gaze upon God’s glory from many angles.
- Savoring the glory of God – Not only can believers see and know God’s glory, we can cherish and treasure who He is. We behold and savor the excellencies of Christ and His kingdom. God designed us to find supreme joy in beholding His infinite worth.
- Gradual transformation to reflect glory – As we continue seeing and savoring God, being transformed into His likeness from glory to glory by His Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18). He desires for us to radiate His glory to the world.
While the fullness of God’s unveiled presence may still be more than we can handle on earth, through Christ we can truly know, see, and enjoy God in ways previously impossible. Seeing no longer means certain death, but the promise of eternal life andjoy.
In closing, many people throughout Scripture fell down lifeless after beholding the glory and presence of God. This happened because the holiness of God can have no fellowship with sinful humanity. However, God in His mercy occasionally gave visions of Himself to accomplish His divine purposes, even though unrestrained glory is too much for mortals to endure. These stories point forward to the work of Christ which provides the solution to sin and opens access for believers into God’s presence. So while seeing the Lord brought death to some in the Bible, Christians now can spiritually see, know, and savor the glory of God through Christ and the Holy Spirit without being consumed. The glory we behold transforms us to radiate Christ more and more. What a glorious promise!