Downtown Nashville features a full-size reproduction of the Parthenon, a temple for the Greek goddess Athena. The name comes from Athena’s title Parthenos — “virgin” — and if you head indoors you can see all fourteen yards of the old girl, decked out in gold.
No one in the ancient pagan world had any trouble imagining what gods and goddesses looked like. A person could just walk into a local temple and see. Or maybe look at the little idols they kept tucked in corner at home.
Of course, for the Christian none of those gods are real, but that doesn’t lessen the impulse to see God. Can we know what God looks like?
No one has seen God, except…
The initial answer might seem like a negative. God is spirit and is invisible. “You cannot see my face,” God himself says in Exodus, “for man shall not see me and live” (33.20). John picks this up in the first chapter of his gospel. “No one has ever seen God,” he says in verse 18.
But Jesus changed that. If he is God, as Christians say, then God became visible in the Incarnation. John records an exchange between Jesus and his disciple Philip that underscores the point. “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (14.9).
Prior to the Incarnation, to see God was to see an angel representing him. There are several instances of this in the Old Testament — Jacob wrestling with God, Moses catching a glimpse of his retreating form, and others. We call these theophanies or divine appearances.
But then came Christ in the flesh. Jesus, says Paul, “is the image [icon] of the invisible God” (Col 1.15).
The icon of God
Unlike Athena, Jesus actually walked among people and lived in their sight, which is to say that God walked among people and lived in their sight. If you had your phone, you could have Instagrammed him. (Exactly what filter does a person use on God?)
The patristic writers use exactly this logic to explain their use and veneration of painted icons of Christ.
“How could the invisible be depicted? How could the unimaginable be portrayed?” asks John Damascene in his Third Treatise on the Divine Images. “For is now clear that you cannot depict the invisible God.”
But, he adds, “[w]hen you see the bodiless become human for your sake, then you may accomplish the figure of a human form; when the invisible becomes visible in the flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen. . . .” Pointing to the saving deeds of the Incarnate Son, he says, “Depict all these in words and in colors. . .” (8).
People have not only seen God, but we will one day see him again. In the meantime, we remember his earthly ministry and eternal rule by reflecting upon Scripture, singing hymns, and beholding and venerating icons.