In our series of tricky questions about God, this is kind of a silly one, but it comes up a lot. In chat rooms, on message boards, in the comments on web stories that have little to do with the topic of what God is – or isn’t.
“I believe in science. You believe in an old man in the sky.”
Something like that. At first blush the line can make a traditional believer feel kind of dumb.
“Yeah, well… kind of… I guess…. But he’s a NICE old man in the sky!”
Here’s a better response.
“Actually, you’re wrong on all three counts.”
And then, since you have their attention, you can unpack this for them, which is where the fun starts.
1. Is God “old?”
He’s been around forever, right? That would make him pretty old. Wrong! Being “old” is a ramification of being subject to time. You can only be young or old if you were created and now live in the context of a ticking clock.
But here’s something interesting we’ve learned from modern theoretical physics: “Time” is a part of the created world. We used to think time was simply an arbitrary counting off of moments in history, with no connection whatsoever to the physical world. Then along came Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity, which, for reasons too obtuse to effectively explain in this blog post, established that time itself is a component of the physical world, with a beginning, and, most likely, an end. In other words, time isn’t eternal – at least going backwards. Time had a beginning. Something – or someone – brought time into existence.
Kind of nutty, huh?
Which means, for the sake of our current topic, that if there IS a God who is responsible for the existence of everything, he is also responsible for the existence of time. He MADE time – or at least kick-started it like a divine lumberjack firing up his chainsaw. (I can’t help but wonder if time started on the first pull, or if God had to push the little rubber bubble-thingie and then pull the cord again.)
Point being, if time is a part of the physical world, God is beyond time. Time is just one of the ingredients he cooked up in his lab, and he is no more subject to time than I am subject to a sandwich I make or a blog post I write. So is God old? Nope. God made time, and exists outside of time. He is neither young nor old. He simply is.
2. Is God a “man?”
It’s funny how many people believe God is male. Why do we believe that? Well, because of that famous painting of an old white guy reaching out to touch naked Adam’s finger like E.T. in the garage with Elliot. (“Ouuuuch.”) And also because the Bible uses male pronouns when talking about God. But is God actually male?
Once you seriously think about this it becomes ridiculous pretty quickly. God made gender. Male and female are distinctions God created – they are not eternal distinctions. Like time, gender had a beginning. God did not. So God can’t be male or female. Everything good about men and women is true about God. The Bible attributes to God traditionally masculine characteristics like strength and fierceness, but also traditionally feminine characteristics like warmth and nurture. The Psalms describe God as a big, scary dragon, but also as a hen, gathering her chicks under her wings. In case you weren’t aware, hens aren’t boys.
So if God created male and female, he can’t be one or the other. Why do we use male pronouns to describe God? Because the Bible uses male pronouns to describe God. Why does the Bible use male pronouns? We don’t know for sure – the Bible doesn’t say. But given that God was revealing himself initially to a patriarchal, male-led society, showing up as Aunt Bea from Mayberry might not have had the right effect. Some of us conservatives will freak out when a movie or a book like The Shack portrays God the Father as a women, but that’s really missing the point, since portraying God as a man – whether George Burns or Morgan Freeman – is equally misleading. God is neither male or female. He simply is.
3. Is God “in the sky?”
Of course! He’s in heaven! That’s where he lives and builds mansions with lots of rooms and free cable and we’re all going to play football in the “big, big yard” when we finally get to be close to him!
Yeah… about that…
God is in heaven. More accurately, though, God is in “the heavens,” plural. We don’t use the word “heaven” like it was used by the writers of the Bible. In the Bible, “heaven” could mean any one of three things: 1) The spiritual world invisible to us, 2) The sky above, where birds fly and the stars, sun and moon make their way across the great expanse, and 3) The air around and in-between all of us.
We’ve more or less discarded the second two “heavens,” and now focus only on the spiritual, invisible one. The “great beyond.” And that’s where God is. Way, way, way up high somewhere. But the God of the Bible doesn’t just occupy “heaven.” He occupies “the heavens.” All three. He is in the “great beyond,” but he is also in the sky above and in the air between us. God is, in fact, right next to you. Not to beat an obviously deceased horse, but this is what the word “omnipresent” means. God is EVERYWHERE. Is God in the sky? Well, technically, yes. But not only in the sky. He’s also beside me as I sit in Starbucks writing this. I believe he’s having a frappuccino.
We tend to mistakenly humanize God as if he were one of us and could only be in one place at a time. So we ask, “Where is God?” and we come up with dumb answers like “he’s in heaven” or “he’s way up in the sky.” God is bigger than reality. The universe is a marble next to its creator.
So is God an “old man in the sky?” No, no, and not really. Now, obviously, you could invent a god who fits this description, and no doubt many of us have. But that wouldn’t be the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible transcends time and space, as well as biological specifics like gender, hair color or skin pigment.
Presenting a theologically sound picture of God will go a long way to quieting some of the sillier stereotypes we find online, and, unfortunately, in our own pews.
Talking to kids: We really need to avoid over-anthropomorphizing God when we’re talking with kids. When we turn God into a grandpa or great uncle – or even worse, Santa Claus, core theological ideas like transcendence, omnipotence and omnipresence simply fall apart. God’s warmth and love need to be stressed alongside his supernatural “other-ness.” God is not like us, but he loves us. (Of course, we can tell them that Jesus was very much like us. AND loved us!)
Want More Tricky Questions?
IS GOD SELFISH? (TRICKY QUESTION #1)
IS GOD CRUEL? (TRICKY QUESTION #2)
IS GOD “AN OLD MAN IN THE SKY?” (TRICKY QUESTION #3)
IS GOD LIKE SANTA CLAUS? (TRICKY QUESTION #4)
IS GOD A GENOCIDAL BULLY? (TRICKY QUESTION #5)
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