Can a Man See God? 1 Timothy 6:16 in Light of Ancient and Modern Revelation

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Abstract: Joseph Smith’s First Vision is a favorite target of critics of the LDS Church. Evangelical critics in particular, such as Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, seek to discredit the First Vision on biblical grounds. This article explores biblical theophanies and argues that Joseph’s vision fits squarely with the experience of ancient prophets, especially those who are given the rare blessing of piercing the veil of light and glory, the Hebrew kabod, that God dwells within.

“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun…” –Joseph Smith Jr.1

One of the perennial points of conflict between Evangelical and Mormon theology is whether mortal man is capable of seeing God the Father. The vision of God, otherwise known as a theophany, is the centerpiece of Mormonism’s origin story. In 1820 Joseph Smith entered a grove of trees to inquire of God through prayer which of all the churches he should join. The answer to his prayer came in the form of a visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” as it has come to be called, forms the foundation of Mormonism’s claim to be the “only true and living church” (Doctrine & Covenants 1:30). The importance of Joseph Smith’s First Vision to Latter-day Saint theology renders the First Vision a natural target for critics of the restored church.

[Page 12]The First Vision also exists as an assault on traditional Christian teachings about the nature of God the Father, who, in their view, is immaterial and without physical form. Joseph described God the Father and Jesus Christ in his vision as “two personages” (Joseph Smith—History 1:17), separate, distinct, and visible. The First Vision directly challenges the traditional notion of God the Father, affirming that he has material form, in which light can reflect off his person and be seen by mortal eyes. This bold doctrinal claim is understandably met with criticism from ardent Evangelical defenders, who seek to show from the Bible that the vision of God the Father is not possible.

One representative example is evangelical apologist Matt Slick, the president and founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM).2 CARM is primarily an Internet-based organization, also featuring a weekly radio broadcast and active message board. On his website Slick lays out an argument from the New Testament for why Joseph Smith could not have seen God the Father and concludes that “since [Joseph Smith’s] first vision is foundational in Mormonism, without it, Mormonism cannot be true.”3 Slick’s argument against the First Vision centers on his interpretation of 1 Timothy 6:16.4 Speaking of God the Father, the passage reads:

16 Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honor and power everlasting. Amen.5

[Page 13]This passage has been utilized by Slick in at least three different venues: an article on CARM.org,6 during interaction with Mormons in the CARM chat room,7 and in a YouTube video in which he proselytizes to LDS youth outside the rededication of the Boise Idaho temple.8 In his interaction with LDS youth at the temple, Slick quotes 1 Timothy 6:16 and argues that it prohibits anyone, including Joseph Smith, from the ability to see God the Father:

In 1 Timothy 6:16 Paul the apostle says that the Father, speaking of God as the Father, “dwells in unapproachable light who no man has seen nor can he be seen.” So the Bible—Paul the Apostle—says that God cannot be seen. Joseph Smith said he saw the Father…if Paul says you can’t see the Father, [but] Joseph Smith says you can, whose [version is] true?

For Slick, this passage rejects the possibility that Joseph Smith could have seen God the Father because “God cannot be seen.” Elsewhere Slick establishes that the individual being considered in this passage is God the Father, not Christ.9 Slick is correct on this point because it would not make sense for Paul to claim that Christ cannot be seen because Paul himself has seen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:8).
[Page 14]

“Who Only Hath Immortality…”

1 Timothy 6:16 follows a series of instructions to Timothy to be godly and remain faithful to the gospel. Paul concludes his exhortations to Timothy with a parenthetical aside extolling the greatness of God and proclaiming God’s transcendence over mortal man. Specifically, God is set apart from man because God the Father alone “hath immortality” and dwells in “light which no man can approach unto,” and therefore “no man hath seen nor can see” him. Paul’s description here of God’s nature and qualities should be interpreted as poetic doxology, a genre of writing defined as liturgical expression of praise.10 It is questionable whether Paul meant this to be interpreted as a technically precise theological guide to God’s characteristics (although a biblical inerrantist will see it that way, no doubt). At any rate, Trinitarian critics of Mormonism who wish to employ 1 Timothy 6:16 will first need to explain why the passage incorrectly describes God the Father as the only person who “hath immortality”.

The English word “immortality” in this passage is a translation of the Greek athanasia, which simply refers to a condition wherein death or extinction is not possible. There are clearly other individuals within mainstream Christian (and Mormon) theology who possess immortality. Jesus himself was raised from the dead into immortality, never to die again, as Paul well knew. Elsewhere Paul himself notes that mortal men will also be resurrected into immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53-55). So why does Paul describe God the Father as unique in this aspect? One could counter that resurrection into immortality, for Christ or anyone else, is accomplished and sustained by the power of God the Father, and it is in this sense that God [Page 15]the Father is the only person who truly “hath immortality.” Unfortunately for this argument the Holy Ghost is still a person who is immortal, never to die, and who, according to Matt Slick and all Christians, is “eternal.”11 Traditional Christians who endorse the Athanasian Creed affirm that the Holy Ghost is equally uncreated and infinite with the other members of the Trinity. It is therefore not wise to look to Paul’s doxological eruption of praise as a technical theological guide: God the Father, frankly, is not the only person who “hath immortality.”

“Dwelling in the Light”

Paul next describes God the Father as dwelling “in the light which no man can approach unto.” The motif of God dwelling behind a cloak of light, smoke, cloud, or fire that hides him from the eyes of mortal men is found throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word often used for this shroud of light or cloud is “kabod” (“doxa” in the Greek Septuagint), often translated as “glory.”12 The kabod of God emanates from him and simultaneously represents his presence as well as protects unworthy mortal eyes from beholding him. Referring to God’s presence among Israel in the wilderness following the exile, the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament suggests that:

Yahweh is present only in the “pillar of cloud” in the tent of meeting. The cloud indicates God’s presence while at the same time concealing God’s radiance…Thus “cloud” and “fire” symbolize God’s being and [Page 16]presence, while at the same time concealing God’s nature.13

Notable examples of this phenomenon in the Old Testament include the aforementioned pillar of smoke and fire that accompanied the wandering Israelites (Exodus 13:21-22, 19:18, 33:9), the “clouds” and “fire” that surround and emanate from God (Psalm 97:2), and the cloud that filled the temple, equated with the “glory of God” (1 Kings 8:10-11). Ezekiel also describes the “fire” and “brightness” of God (Ezekiel 1:4, 26-28). In each instance God’s physical presence is manifest by the kabod, but his physical form is simultaneously hidden.

The kabod of God is frequently understood to be a protection and a shield for mortal man because it was believed that a man or woman would face death were he or she to see the face of God. Upon seeing the burning bush (itself a shroud of fire), Moses hides his face because he is afraid to look upon God (Exodus 3:6). God explicitly stated to Moses in Exodus 33:20-23 that Moses cannot see God’s face and live; therefore when God appears to Moses his “glory” (kabod) will pass by, and God’s hand “will cover thee,” protecting Moses from death. The father of Samson, on seeing an angel of God, appears to be momentarily confused and fears that his death is imminent because he thinks he has seen God (Judges 13:21-23). In Exodus 19 [Page 17]God instructs Moses to keep the people away from God’s kabod for their own protection:

18 And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly… 20 And the LORD came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the LORD called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up. 21 And the LORD said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish. (Exodus 19:18-21)

In the New Testament the kabod of God is frequently described in terms of light, such as the “bright cloud” at Christ’s transfiguration that accompanied the light that emanated from Christ himself (Matthew 17:1-8), the “rainbow” of John’s vision of God (Revelation 4:3), and, most relevantly, the “light” described by Paul (Acts 22:6, 1 Timothy 6:16). In 1 Timothy 6:16, immediately after referring to the unapproachable light that God dwells in, Paul notes that “no man hath seen nor can see” God the Father. The connection between these two statements is obvious: No man has seen nor can see God the Father because God dwells in light (God’s kabod) that is unapproachable by fallen, mortal humans. On this point evangelical author and theologian Gordon F. Fee agrees:

Him no one has seen or can see (cf. “invisible” in 1:17). These clauses reinforce his dwelling in unapproachable light and reflect a common OT theme (Exod. 33:20; cf. 19:21). The emphasis in these last two items is not the Greek one, that God is unknowable, but the Jewish [Page 18]one, that God is so infinitely holy that sinful humanity can never see him and live (cf. Isaiah 6:1-5).14

The reason God is unseen by mortal men is that men are not worthy to behold his face. Rather than describing an immaterial God who is in inherently unable to be seen by physical eyes, Paul is describing a God who theoretically can be seen but who is presently not seen. This is an important distinction. By way of analogy, a rock deep within the mantle of the Earth is presently unable to be seen by mortal eyes (the technology does not exist to retrieve it), but it is not inherently or metaphysically unable to be seen. The explanation for man’s inability to see God the Father does not lie in God’s non-physical nature but in God’s location behind a veil of glory impenetrable by mortal human eyes. Relative to humans, God is invisible only in practice, not in absolute reality.

“…Which No Man Can Approach Unto.”

Is it possible for God to strengthen or transfigure a person such that he or she could penetrate the kabod of God and be sustained in his presence? There are important instances in the scriptures in which this exact thing has taken place. This special, sacred blessing comes to some of those chosen by God to do his work, Moses being one prominent example. As mentioned above, Moses is warned that he cannot see God’s face and live, and yet on occasion God makes an exception to the rule for Moses and his associates. In Exodus 24:9-11 the author expressly states that Moses and the elders accompanying him “saw the God of Israel” and that God did not punish them for it. In Exodus 33:7-11 the general method by which Moses received God’s words and then relayed them to Israel is given. [Page 19]Moses would enter the tabernacle to commune with God, and the kabod of God in the form of a cloudy pillar would cover the tabernacle, simultaneously announcing and shielding the presence of God from Israel. Inside the tabernacle Moses, as the agent of God, was privileged to speak to God “face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (see also Deuteronomy 34:10). According to Fabry,

Moses spoke with Yahweh “face to face” (Numbers 14:14; Exodus 33:11). In these passages Yahweh removed the concealing cloud, which actually represents an element protecting the partner in dialogue with God: when Moses came down from Sinai, his face reflected the radiance of the kabod (Exodus 4:29-35). All the Israelites were allowed to see the cloud and fire, but only Moses was allowed to look on Yahweh without his “veil.”15

This mode of communication is spelled out in such an explicit manner precisely because it was special and unusual. The general rule is that men do not speak to God face to face, but Moses was privileged to do exactly that. Later in the same chapter this privilege of visual contact with the Lord’s face is revoked (Exodus 33:19-23). It is a unique privilege reserved for rare and special occasions.

The patriarch Jacob was another who was blessed to see beyond the kabod of God (Genesis 32:30). After a nighttime encounter with God, Jacob calls the place of his vision “Peniel,” because, in his words, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” The special mention that his life was preserved after seeing God is testament to the fact that this was an exception to the general rule. The prophet Isaiah sees God in vision and fears for himself, shouting, “Woe is me! for I am undone…for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:1-7) Isaiah’s fear is calmed by a seraphim who declares Isaiah to be clean and holy, rendering him able to sustain the sight [Page 20]of God. The author of Hebrews noted that Moses’ faith was strengthened because he saw “him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27). This is an especially interesting comment, suggesting that God’s invisibility is only invisibility in practice, not in reality, and that exceptions exist to the rule.

The Book of Mormon contains a well-known example of a mortal man being privileged to see beyond the kabod of the Lord and gaze upon his physical form. The Brother of Jared sees the pre-incarnate, physical form of Jesus Christ in the spirit16 because “never has man come before [the Lord] with such exceeding faith” (Ether 3:9-16). In this moment “the veil was taken from off the eyes of the brother of Jared,” a reference to the removal of the Lord’s kabod and the strengthening or momentary transfiguration of Jared’s physical body and mind so that he could endure the experience. Father Lehi likewise sees the kabod of God in the form of a pillar of fire and is later privileged to see beyond the kabod to see God sitting on his throne (1 Nephi 1:5-8). In the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith describes a vision of Jesus that he shared with Oliver Cowdery in which the “veil was taken from [their] minds” and Jesus appears in light “above the brightness of the sun” (D&C 110:1-3).

Most important to the present discussion, in Joseph Smith’s retelling of his First Vision experience he variously refers to a “pillar of fire” or “pillar of light,”17 “pillar of flame,”18 “pillar of [Page 21]light… above the brightness of the sun,”19 and “brilliant light.”20 The fire and light is equivalent to the ancient Hebrew notion of God’s kabod, or glory. In a fascinating secondhand account by Joseph’s friend Orson Pratt we receive further insight into Joseph’s experience with the kabod of God:

And, while thus pouring out his soul, anxiously desiring an answer from God, he, at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be at a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending toward him; and, as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness, and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance round, was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but, perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hopes of being able to endure its presence. It continued descending, slowly, until it rested upon the earth, and he was enveloped in the midst of it. When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system; and immediately, his mind was caught away, from the natural object with which he was surrounded; and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness.21

[Page 22]From Orson Pratt’s account we receive several interesting details. Joseph’s surprise that the light did not consume the “leaves and boughs” echoes the surprise that Moses felt upon encountering the burning bush that similarly “was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2-3). Pratt may have intended this parallel to be made by his readers. We also learn from this account that Joseph experienced a “peculiar sensation throughout his whole system” just at the moment that the light, or kabod, of God fell upon him. Pratt must have learned of this unusual detail from Joseph Smith himself. It is tempting to suppose that this describes the moment in which Joseph’s physical body is transfigured so that he can endure the sight of God. The experience of Joseph Smith is similar to that of Moses and other ancient prophets singled out to see beyond the otherwise “unapproachable light” of God’s glory. The natural man, in his fallen mortal state, is forbidden and protected from seeing God’s physical form by the kabod of God, but this is a general rule which, like most rules, has proven exceptions. Paul’s words should be read in light of this.

John 6:46

Returning to the aforementioned YouTube video, on facing Slick’s criticism of Joseph Smith based on his interpretation of 1 Timothy 6:16, the LDS teens faithfully call upon their seminary training by citing Old Testament visions of God as evidence that God can in fact be seen. Matt Slick is prepared with a reply:

Jesus [said], “not that any man has seen the Father” [in] John 6:46, so they are seeing the pre-incarnate Jesus, never the Father.

Before addressing Slick’s conclusion that Old Testament theophanies are of Christ, a brief look at his use of John 6:46 is necessary. The passage indeed has Jesus saying “Not that any man has seen the Father…,” but Slick fails to quote the rest of [Page 23]the passage, which reads, “…save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father.” By consciously omitting the latter half of the passage, Slick appears to be subverting the true intention of Jesus’s teaching, which is that he which is “of God” is privileged to see God the Father. Some Evangelicals may contest this point by arguing that the reference to “he which is of God” is a reference to only Jesus Christ. However, the Bible refers to other individuals as being “of God” as well (cf. 1 Samuel 2:27, 9:6-10, John 8:47, 1 Timothy 6:11, 2 Timothy 3:17, Titus 1:7, 1 John 5:19). Furthermore, according to the dominant Christology espoused by mainstream Christians, Jesus’ nature is “fully man and fully God,” otherwise known as the Hypostatic Union.22 If Jesus is “fully man,” and yet is capable of seeing God the Father (according to John 6:46), then it is not wise to argue that a man, by definition, cannot see God the Father.

Sensus Plenior

Slick’s broader argument is that all visions of God in the Old Testament were actually visions of the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ. He reasons that because the New Testament doesn’t allow for man to see God the Father, the logical conclusion is that all Old Testament theophanies are visions of the Son, not of the Father. Of course, the relevant Old Testament pericopes do not specify that the God being seen is the pre-incarnate Christ. Slick’s conclusion that it is the pre-incarnate Christ is only possible by reading it through the lens of other scripture, in this case Slick’s reading of the New Testament.

This basic method is a common one throughout all of Christianity. Interpreting a passage of scripture through the [Page 24]lens of earlier or later scripture is an important part of the Judeo-Christian hermeneutical tradition historically referred to as sensus plenior, or “fuller sense.” It rests on the belief that the deeper, fuller meaning of a passage of scripture can sometimes be revealed only by contextualizing it with other passages of scripture composed separately, even if by different authors widely separated by time and space.

The first generation of Christian writers canonized this method by seeing prophecies of Jesus Christ in the writings of Hebrew prophets. Latter-day Saints are not an exception to this tradition; passages of LDS scripture are regularly interpreted in light of other passages of scripture. A relevant example of this LDS practice is that most Latter-day Saints would likely agree with Slick that the theophanies of the Old Testament are primarily of the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ. They arrive at this conclusion by reinterpreting Old Testament events in light of modern LDS revelations (most notably 3 Nephi 15:5). Latter-day Saints have no theological issue with Slick’s claim that Old Testament theophanies are generally of God the Son, not God the Father.

At first glance this may appear to undermine LDS arguments that appeal to Old Testament theophanies to demonstrate that God the Father can be seen. However, as has been argued above, biblical warnings about man’s inability to see members of the Godhead are due to God’s kabod, which both represents God’s presence and hides him from sinful eyes. Whether it is God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Ghost, the visual inaccessibility by mortals to the members of the Godhead is due to the glory that emanates from them, an impenetrable barrier to mortal eyes except in those cases in which God chooses otherwise.

The principle of sensus plenior is another tool for Latter-day Saints to contextualize 1 Timothy 6:16 and similar passages. In the Doctrine and Covenants the following insight is provided: [Page 25]“For no man has seen God at any time in the flesh, except quickened by the Spirit of God” (D&C 67:11). In the Pearl of Great Price Moses has a marvelous vision of God the Father and his many creations. The aftereffects of this experience are illuminating:

And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the Earth. And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing…But now my own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him. (Moses 1:9-11)

In this passage, Moses sees the face of God and lives to tell about it because God’s glory was upon him, and he was transfigured. Moses’s reference to “spiritual eyes” contrasts with “natural eyes,” or in other words the eyes of the “natural man” left to his own devices without the strengthening and protection of God’s power. These modern-day scriptures comport very well with the biblical teaching that man cannot see God unless quickened or protected from God’s kabod. Following in the long Judeo-Christian tradition of sensus plenior, Latter-day Saints can easily understand how the words in 1 Timothy 6:16 do not contradict Joseph Smith’s First Vision. The same principle can be applied to John 1:18, which notes that “no man hath seen God at any time.” Taken together with the entirety of scripture, ancient and modern, this passage clearly is referring to “unaided” man. Latter-day Saints argue, therefore, that Joseph Smith was transfigured, or quickened, by [Page 26]God’s glory such that he was able to view the face of God the Father while in the flesh.

It is not anticipated that non-Mormons interested in this issue will accept the validity of interpreting biblical passages through the lens of modern LDS scripture that they do not accept as inspired or holy. Jews, for example, would likewise reject Matt Slick’s claim that all Old Testament theophanies are of the pre-mortal God the Son, a claim he arrives at only by reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. Nonetheless, non-Mormons must accept the basic logic of the practice: within the framework of a particular religious tradition (in this case, Latter-day Saint), it is wholly consistent to interpret scripture with other scripture that is a part of that tradition.

Conclusion

God the Father dwells behind a curtain or veil of unapproachable light and glory (kabod), which is not penetrable by the eyes of unaided mortal man. Only in rare instances of grace is a mortal strengthened by God’s power to the point that he or she can pass through this barrier and endure the vision of God. Paul’s doxological description of God’s transcendence over man in 1 Timothy 6:16 should be interpreted in that context. God is capable of revealing his physical self to man. Such was the case with Moses and other ancient prophets, and such was the case with Joseph Smith.


  1. Joseph Smith—History 1:16. 

  2. http://carm.org/

  3. Matt Slick, “Can the Father be seen?” at the CARM website, at http://carm.org/can-father-be-seen (accessed November 7, 2012). 

  4. 1 Timothy is traditionally ascribed to Paul the Apostle, though modern scholars now recognize that this “pastoral” epistle is pseudepigraphal. For purposes of homogeneity in conversation between Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity (especially, in this case, between Matt Slick and myself), I will continue to refer to the writer as “Paul.”. 

  5. All Bible passages quoted are from the King James Version. 

  6. Slick, “Can the Father be seen?”. 

  7. Experienced by the author circa 2010. Also, for a representative chatroom conversation between Slick and an unknown Mormon named “Alex” see Matt Slick, “Did Joseph Smith see God the Father”, http://carm.org/did-joseph-smith-see-god-father

  8. Carmvideos, “Boise, Idaho Temple rededication with Matt Slick and others” YouTube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkYSQoPf0ts&feature=plcp

  9. Slick, “Can the Father be seen?”. 

  10. James L. Bailey and Lyle D. Vander Broek, Literary Forms in the New Testament: A Handbook (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 74, available online at http://tinyurl.com/mhgtg3y (accessed Aug 11, 2013). 

  11. Slick briefly describes the nature of the Holy Ghost on his website. Matt Slick, “The Holy Spirit,” http://carm.org/holy-spirit

  12. William J. Hamblin, “‘I Have Revealed Your Name’: The Hidden Temple in John 17,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 74-75. 

  13. David N. Freedman, Mainz B. E. Willoughby, “‘ānān” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament XI, eds. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 256, available online at http://tinyurl.com/b9ctulr (accessed Feb 3, 2013). Cf. Gerhard Kittel, “doxa” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, eds. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 178-81, http://tinyurl.com/bkqt55b (accessed Feb 3, 2013); Roger Cook, “God’s ‘Glory’: More Evidence for the Anthropomorphic Nature of God in the Bible”, FairMormon, http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/publications/gods-glory-more-evidence-for-the-anthropomorphic-nature-of-god-in-the-bible (accessed November 11, 2013). 

  14. Gordon F. Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984), 5-6 of ch. 17, available online at http://tinyurl.com/akbc6d3 (accessed Feb 3, 2013). 

  15. Henz-Josef Fabry, “‘ānān” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament X1, 256, online at http://tinyurl.com/b9ctulr

  16. Latter-day Saints believe that all spirit is physical matter. See Doctrine & Covenants 131:7-8. 

  17. Dean C. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” in Opening The Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820-1844, ed. John W. Welch with Erick B. Carlson, (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), 5. In the 1832 account, Joseph initially wrote “pillar of fire” but scratched out the word “fire” and replaced it with “light,” thus rendering it “pillar of light.” This may reflect the difficulty that many prophets seem to have in describing heavenly scenes with limited human vocabulary. 

  18. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” 8. 

  19. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” 14. 

  20. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” 18. 

  21. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” 21. 

  22. The “Hypostatic Union” is a formulation of Christ’s nature dating back to the early centuries of Christianity, which affirms that humanity and divinity are simultaneously present in the person of Jesus Christ. Latter-day Saints agree with this basic concept but for different reasons. Mainstream Christians generally believe that humanity and divinity are mutually exclusive. 

17 thoughts on “Can a Man See God? 1 Timothy 6:16 in Light of Ancient and Modern Revelation

  1. Latter-day Saints argue, therefore, that Joseph Smith was transfigured, or quickened, by God’s glory such that he was able to view the face of God the Father while in the flesh.

    Why do we not instead argue that Joseph’s first vision was just that – a vision, and not a visitation? After all, as Joseph himself said, “When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven.” (JS-H 1:20) This more than hints that he was taken up in spirit into heaven.

    • Log-

      Can you provide credible documentation to establish the fact that visions incorporate real-time communications from God to the recipient of the vision, like visitations do?

      If not, that may be the answer to your question.

      “When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven.”

      “This more than hints that he was taken up in spirit into heaven.”

      I don’t know why it hints at that.

      A person can certainly be exhausted from a spiritual experience or from being transfigured to see God, without having been taken up into heaven.

      The verbiage in Joseph’s narrative that “When I came to myself again” is remarkably similar to the Moses narrative following his transfiguration and communication with God:

      “And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth. And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man” (Moses 1:10)

      • Can you provide credible documentation to establish the fact that visions incorporate real-time communications from God to the recipient of the vision, like visitations do?

        Sure. See this, too.

        However, the only documentation of post-resurrection visitations I am aware of are the accounts of the Savior’s visitations to his disciples in the Old World, and the accounts contained in 3 Nephi. He also mentions this:

        3 Nephi 15:23
        23 And they understood me not that I said they shall hear my voice; and they understood me not that the Gentiles should not at any time hear my voice—that I should not manifest myself unto them save it were by the Holy Ghost.

        This suggests to me that to us, the Gentiles, the Lord only manifests himself by the power of the Holy Ghost – in vision, and not visitation – at least, not until all flesh sees him together.

        The verbiage in Joseph’s narrative that “When I came to myself again” is remarkably similar to the Moses narrative following his transfiguration and communication with God.

        I agree, it is remarkably similar. It may even be the same kind of thing occurred.

        Moses 1:11
        11 But now mine own eyes have beheld God; [u]but not my natural[/u], but my spiritual eyes, for [u]my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence[/u]; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him.

        Likewise, other accounts suggest themselves, too. In particular, this one.

        2 Corinthians 12:2
        2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.

        It seems plausible to me, therefore, that Moses, Joseph Smith, and Paul were caught up in spirit into the presence of the Lord.

        I think if someone else was standing next to Joseph Smith, he would only have seen Joseph Smith, just as it was for those journeying with Paul.

        • I don’t understand how you have determined that Paul had a vision instead of a visitation.

          In Acts 26:16 we are given additional detail regarding Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. We are informed that Christ “appeared” to Paul, making him an eye witness of the resurrection.

          That sounds rather like a visitation to me.

          While the event documented in section 76 contains visions of past and future events, just as the vision of John contained visions of future events, in the book of revelation, that does not mean that a visitation did not occur.

          John also had an angel literally appear to him in the midst of his vision, demonstrating that visitations can take place in the midst of visions. (22:8-9)

          A visitation can take place without God leaving the heavens. We know that the Lord spoke directly to Joseph and Sidney from heaven, during the vision known as section 767.

          That sounds like real time communication to me, which I would define as a visitation, not just a vision of a past or future event:

          “..the Lord commanded us that we should write the vision…”

          I find both of those examples less than compelling examples of visions where no literal, real-time visitation took place.

          “However, the only documentation of post-resurrection visitations I am aware of are the accounts of the Savior’s visitations to his disciples in the Old World, and the accounts contained in 3 Nephi. He also mentions this:

          “3 Nephi 15:23
          23 And they understood me not that I said they shall hear my voice; and they understood me not that the Gentiles should not at any time hear my voice—that I should not manifest myself unto them save it were by the Holy Ghost.

          This suggests to me that to us, the Gentiles, the Lord only manifests himself by the power of the Holy Ghost – in vision, and not visitation – at least, not until all flesh sees him together.”

          While I can see why you are interpreting the passage the way you are, I am not convinced that it is a correct interpretation. I think it is saying just the opposite.

          The point being made, in my opinion, is simply that the believing gentiles, through the power of the Holy Ghost, would be given the privilege of literally seeing the Father and the Son.

          This took place multiple times during the ministry of Joseph Smith.

          That is why Gentiles like Joseph, Sidney, Lyman and Zebedee became transfigured just like Moses did and had the heavens opened, and, in my opinion, had more than just a vision. They had a visitation. In many cases the Lord communicated directly to them.

          I suppose the term vision could mean different things to different people as also the term visitation could.

          Perhaps we are having a problem with semantics.

          The common definition of the word vision during Joseph’s time according to the 1828 Websters seems to link visions with being supernaturally informed about FUTURE events, not with a direct communication from God to the recipient:

          “4. In Scripture, a revelation from God; an appearance or exhibition of something supernaturally presented to the minds of the prophets, by which they were informed of future events. Such were the visions of Isaiah, of Amos, of Ezekiel, &c.”

          While some people interpret the 3rd Nephi 15:23 passage to indicate that the Gentiles are not given literal visitations like the Nephites enjoyed when Christ appeared to them, I see absolutely no support for such an interpretation.

          If you will closely compare the listing of gifts of the spirit given to Lehi’s seed in Moroni 10 to the listing of gifts of the spirit given to the gentile church in section 46 you will find that both groups are given the gift of the Holy Ghost for the same purposes, including gaining a testimony of Christ.

          In Moroni 10 states that-

          “..ye may know that he is, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

          In section 46 it says-

          “..to know that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world..”

          Both groups can know and see God by the power of the Holy Ghost.

          Although some may assume that to know by the Holy Ghost only has to do with spiritual “promptings” and “visions” and not with literal visitations, there is no valid scriptural basis for such a belief.

          When Moses was transfigured to be able to behold God, it was by the power of the Holy Ghost.

          It is impossible to stand in the presence of God without being transfigured by the power of the Holy Ghost.

          One of the most vivid accounts of a literal visitation of the Father and the Son to a group of gentiles was given by Zebedee Coltrin who participated in witnessing a visitation from the Father and Son in the School of the prophets:

          “At one of these meetings after the organization of the school, (the school being organized_ on the 23rd of January, 1833, when we were all together, Joseph having given instructions, and while engaged in silent prayer, kneeling, with our hands uplifted each one praying in silence, no one whispered above his breath, a personage walked through the room from east to west, and Joseph asked if we saw him. I saw him and suppose the others did and Joseph answered that is Jesus, the Son of God, our elder brother. Afterward Joseph told us to resume our former position in prayer, which we did. Another person came through; he was surrounded as with a flame of fire. He (Brother Coltrin) experienced a sensation that it might destroy the tabernacle as it was of consuming fire of great brightness. The Prophet Joseph said this was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I saw Him.

          When asked about the kind of clothing the Father had on, Brother Coltrin said: I did not discover his clothing for he was surrounded as with a flame of fire, which was so brilliant that I could not discover anything else but his person. I saw his hands, his legs, his feet, his eyes, nose, mouth, head and body in the shape and form of a perfect man. He sat in a chair as a man would sit in a chair, but this appearance was so grand and overwhelming that it seemed I should melt down in his presence, and the sensation was so powerful that it thrilled through my whole system and I felt it in the marrow of my bones. The Prophet Joseph said: Brethren, now you are prepared to be the apostles of Jesus Christ, for you have seen both the Father and the Son and know that they exist and that they are two separate personages.”

          • These are things I see no need to contend over; after all, no man’s opinion is worth a straw.

            [T]he things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God. – Joseph Smith

      • Indeed, this seems directly relevant.

        3 Nephi 28:12-16
        12 And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words, he touched every one of them with his finger save it were the three who were to tarry, and then he departed.

        13 And behold, the heavens were opened, and they were caught up into heaven, and saw and heard unspeakable things.

        14 And it was forbidden them that they should utter; neither was it given unto them power that they could utter the things which they saw and heard;

        15 And whether they were in the body or out of the body, they could not tell; for it did seem unto them like a transfiguration of them, that they were changed from this body of flesh into an immortal state, that they could behold the things of God.

        16 But it came to pass that they did again minister upon the face of the earth; nevertheless they did not minister of the things which they had heard and seen, because of the commandment which was given them in heaven.

        It seems we have no unambiguous accounts of individuals being taken up into heaven bodily, and we have unambiguous accounts of individuals being taken up into heaven spiritually.

  2. It seems to me that the Evangelical’s argument asserts a radical distinction between God the Father and God the Son, which undermines their insistence that they uphold the Nicene Creed in its assertion that the Father and Son are of “one substance”. The claim that the pre-mortal Christ is Jehovah and can be seen while acting as God/Jehovah, while the Father must remain hidden, introduces a fundamental distinction between the Father and Son that does not seem to be allowed by the Creeds. It is a contradiction as significant as the insistence of the Creeds that Christ was resurrected in his body and ascended to heaven, yet the triune God of which he is part has no body.

    Asserting that there is a fundamental difference in nature beteen the Father and the Son creates a much more significant problem for trinitarians than the passage from Timothy presents for Mormons, who are not inclined to hang weighty deductions about God on a single sentence whose main purpose is to praise God rather than specify details about his nature that could be used as axioms in a chain of reasoning.

  3. What would Matt Slick say about the martyr Stephen’s experience. He was “full of the Holy Ghost” and looked into heaven and saw “the glory [kabod] of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And said, ‘I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God'” (Acts 7:55-56). Here Stephen is filled with the Holy Ghost (one member of the Godhead) and he sees Jesus, the Son of Man (the second member of the Godhead), and he also sees God. He must have seen him, how else would he have known that Jesus was on his right side?

  4. I think of Stephen’s vision of the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God. God here must be God the Father. That said, Stephen died shortly after making his declaration. The injunction is that one cannot look upon God and live. Of course, Stephen died of being stoned and there is no hint of him dying because of the injunction.

    I think too much argument about a distinction between visitation and vision has been made. We call it the First Vision. I do think of it as a vision, not unlike visions many prophets have had. I don’t think a vision has to mean being taken up into Heaven either (or that Joseph came to lying on his back looking up into Heaven hints at being taken up into Heaven), rather, by some process, he was able to see and perhaps more importantly speak with the Father and the Son and hear them. How that happened is less important than the fact that it did happen and what They told Joseph.

    “Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” (Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17).

    Seeing a vision is not somehow less miraculous than experiencing a visitation and in reality, I am not sure if the distinction means all that much.

    • It seems to me that the discussion of visitation vs. vision is moot. From the scriptures cited by the participants, it seems not only that people having the experience can’t make the distinction themselves, but that physical visitations and incorporeal images are both referred to as visions.

      So, since nobody can really can tell the difference between the two, or whether there even is one, I think it’s safe to file this under “doesn’t matter,” and move on.

  5. I enjoyed the article. Two questions:

    Why is it assumed without question that God the Father is the one referenced in verse 16? In verse 15, “King of King and Lord of Lords” is clearly the Savior in Revelation 17:14. Is “his” and “he” in verse 15 clearly God the Father in the Greek? Cannot Chirst bring about His own appearnce?

    Second: is a vision a non-interactive video? Is it in high-def or super high-def? Is there a paper dealing with the differences between vision and visitation?

  6. Note that the verb “to see” doesn’t necessarily require photons interacting with retinas. It can also be synonymous with the verbs “to understand” and “to comprehend.”

    This is how many Christians explain passages such as Matthew 5:8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The logic is that since God cannot be seen, this promise must mean that the pure in heart will come to know and comprehend God. See?

    But that interpretation can serve either side of this argument. For example, I read John 1:18 in this light. “No man hath seen God at any time; [Jesus] hath declared him.” The second clause sets the context for the first. “Declaring” God has nothing to do with seeing him physically; it has everything to do with understanding and comprehending him.

    Thus in this verse John is teaching the same principle given by Jesus himself in Matthew 11:27: “All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.”

  7. James Stutz makes a handful of critical mistakes in attempting to discredit Matt Slick…

    Stutz openly accepts the idea of interpreting scripture in light of scripture (sensus plenior)….but oddly fails to do so in evaluating the idea that man can see God the Father as he stays largely in 1 Timothy 6 and John 6, presumably because he thinks (a) he can knock those verses down, and (b) if he succeeds in doing so the idea that man cannot see the Father falls apart entirely.

    Let’s look at 1 Timothy 6:16. It is important to understand that Christians use this verse in speaking to Mormons using MORMON definitions, not Christian ones. For a Christian, looking through the lens of God’s triune nature, what this verse means is that the nature defined as “God” is what is immortal, lives in unapproachable light and of whom no one can see or has seen. However, in Mormon theology, “God” referred to in this verse is the Father, who Joseph Smith claimed to see in spite of the fact this verse teaches he could not have. So Slick, using MORMON definitions is correct. Stutz switches back and forth to a Christian view of the Godhead to attempt to confuse the issue . This is a CATEGORY MISTAKE FALLACY.

    In his analysis of John 6:46 Stutz betrays his lack of scholarship by committing a VERY BASIC exegetical fallacy sometimes referred to a “Language Linkage Fallacy” whereby he does a word study in a language not used by the author. He quotes John 6:46 as reading:

    Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father. (John 6:46 KJV)

    From this, Stutz pulls out other verses that refer to different people being “of God” (in ENGLISH) attempting to create the idea that in certain circumstances, people CAN see God (which is actually a fallacy in itself known as a SPECIAL PLEADING fallacy). Stutz cites 1 Samuel 2:27, 9:6-10, John 8:47, 1 Timothy 6:11, 2 Timothy 3:17, Titus 1:7, 1 John 5:19 as verses to support his case. The problem is that he is using an ENGLISH translation (one that suits his needs) to create the argument, when the original writings were in Hebrew and Greek. In Greek, John 6:46 the word translated “of” is “para”, which, in the genitive (used here) means “from” (which is how it is translated in almost all other translations). However, NONE of the other verses cited by Stutz use “para”: John 8 and 1 John use “ek”, in Titus and Timothy a word for “of” is not written but implied by the sentence structure, and the LXX for Samuel (since we are comparing Greek) uses “pros”. So there is no direct comparison for Sturtz to make.

    Lastly, Stutz fails to account for other verses that, in the context of Mormon theology, show the Father to be invisible:

    Colossians 1:15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:
    (Col 1:15 KJV)

    1 Timothy 1:17 Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
    (1Ti 1:17 KJV)

    Hebrews 11:27 By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible. (Heb 11:27 KJV)

    Or that man shall not see God and live (as Joseph Smith claimed to do):

    Exodus 33:20 And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. (Exo 33:20 KJV)

    Lastly, in his review of John 6, Stutz attempts to call into question Christian theology by stating:

    “Furthermore, according to the dominant Christology espoused by mainstream Christians, Jesus’ nature is “fully man and fully God,” otherwise known as the Hypostatic Union. If Jesus is “fully man,” and yet is capable of seeing God the Father (according to John 6:46), then it is not wise to argue that a man, by definition, cannot see God the Father.”

    In doing so, Stutz is guilty of the error he claims Slick makes by failing to account for the SECOND part of the proposition: the fact that Jesus is not JUST fully man, he is ALSO fully God. His “God nature”, obviously does not preclude himself from being in his own presence.

    In short, James Stutz’ use of academic words and phrases are not sufficient to explain the obvious contradiction of Joseph Smith’s claim to have seen the Father when Stutz relies on logical fallacies and makes elementary errors in hermeneutics and exegesis to do so.

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