The Image of the Invisible God

In scripture Christ is called “the image of the invisible God”. As such Christ is supremely important to our access to and understanding of God. As God made his goodness pass over Moses and declared his graciousness and compassion, Christ shows us the Father in his words and in his works. Three important philosopher-theologians: Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas developed theories to explain the process of coming to see and know God in a form of “intellectual vision”.

One of the challenges of religious belief in modern times is that many of the things we are supposed to believe in and refer to in our religious practices are not things that we see or sense with our physical senses. God, for example. We might ask, as many have asked, “Why doesn’t God just show himself to everyone?” Wouldn’t that clear up a lot? Why does God have to be so seemingly “hidden” and why is faith, whatever its purported virtue, even necessary? Some of the explanations for this may sometimes seem kind of forced and unsatisfactory. I think this is something that has to be addressed. And I actually think it’s quite an interesting subject. Not just in terms of apologetics, justifying belief in God or any number of other things we don’t sense with the physical senses. But also interesting just as a way of thinking about the nature of reality and the kinds of things that make it up and undergird it. It gets into some very interesting theological and philosophical issues.

In studying this question my main sources for insight have been the scriptures and a set of important Christian philosopher-theologians. Three in particular:

1. Origen of Alexandria (184 – 253)
2. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)
3. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

What’s interesting to me in looking at these three is their continuity and consistency. We might be tempted to think sometimes that people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago must have been less intelligent, educated, or sophisticated than we are in modern times. A few minutes of reading Aristotle can very quickly dispel that notion. And the same goes for these three. In most points I find that their ideas about God, and most things, are the most well-reasoned of any you could find from anyone, ancient or modern. Very few people today, believers or not, have thought about God as rigorously or deeply as they did. And when we look at God as found in scripture and explained systematically by these philosopher-theologians it makes more sense why the world is the way it is and why we stand in relation to God in the way that we do.

Let’s look first at some scriptures. There are many scriptures that talk about seeing or not seeing God. Some examples:

John 1:18 – “No one has seen God at any time.”

Matthew 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.”

Exodus 33:11 – “So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”

Exodus 33:20 – “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”

Isaiah 6:1,5 – “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple… So I said: Woe is me, for I am undone! …For my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts.”

Many passages about seeing God but apparently not all consistent. What to make of that? It could be that the passages are simply inconsistent. A consequence of the texts being authored and compiled by different authors and redactors. It’s certainly the case that it was compiled by different authors and redactors. So that’s one possible explanation. But I think there are more theologically interesting explanations. Apparent contradictions often have a lot of potential to provoke interesting philosophical insight. Whether or not that moves us closer to or further from truth is another question. It can do either. But I think in what follows it moves us closer to truth as well as philosophical insight.

The first of our philosopher-theologians, Origen of Alexandria, in his book On the First Principles (Περὶ Ἀρχῶν), makes an important distinction between things that are (1) not seen and (2) invisible:

“For the same thing is not to be understood by the expressions, ‘those things which are not seen,’ and ‘those things which are invisible.’ For those things which are invisible are not only not seen, but do not even possess the property of visibility, being what the Greeks call asomata, i.e., incorporeal; whereas those of which Paul says, ‘They are not seen,’ possess indeed the property of being seen, but, as he explains, are not yet beheld by those to whom they are promised.”

I think this is a very useful distinction that helps address some of the bafflement over why God would purposely conceal things from us. With this distinction we can see that in at least some cases it may not be that God is purposely concealing things that we would otherwise be capable of seeing, but rather that some things are just not visible by nature. Origen says of John 1:18.

“Moreover, John, in his Gospel, when asserting that ‘no one hath seen God at any time,’ manifestly declares to all who are capable of understanding, that there is no nature to which God is visible: not as if, He were a being who was visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because by the nature of His being it is impossible for Him to be seen.”

This pertains specifically to physical sight and the physical senses. No one sees God with physical sight. But the same verse says that “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” The only begotten Son declares God to us. So we do have access to God but it is through other means than physical sight and senses.

Now, there are cases where deliberate concealment serves some instrumental purpose. Jesus apparently spoke almost entirely in parables, to the point that when he did speak directly it was very unusual. For example, in John 16:29 his apostles say: “See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech!” But that was more the exception. Jesus deliberately made his teachings a challenge for his disciples. “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:11-13) There are many potential reasons for this form of teaching. One is just the benefit of Socratic “midwifery”. Students sometimes learn things better when they have to work harder for them. So there is that. But I don’t think deliberate concealment is applicable everywhere. There are things unseen. But there are also things that are intrinsically invisible.

So there’s that distinction; between the merely unseen and the intrinsically invisible. But what kinds of things are intrinsically invisible? Would this commit one to belief in supernatural things? In a certain sense I’d say, “yes”, which might be off-putting if you lean more secular or have more secular commitments. But I’d also say that most people tacitly assume or take for granted certain intrinsically invisible things anyway; things that are beyond just those things that subsist in the natural world. Even if we don’t realize it.

One example is abstractions. We make use of abstractions all the time. Some examples are: quantity, quality, relation, causality, possibility. We use these kinds of abstractions to make raw sense data intelligible. For example, we project causation onto events. When one billiard ball moves toward another, comes into contact with the second, and then the second billiard ball starts moving, we say that the first billiard ball caused the second billiard ball to move (by collision and transfer of momentum). That makes sense but we don’t actually see that causation. We see events and those events are only intelligible to us in terms of causation. But we don’t physically see the causation itself. We only “see” it in the intellect. The sciences are essentially projects of characterizing non-physical structures, laws of nature, to explain the data of empirical observations and experiments. We don’t want just isolated data points. We want to be able to describe relations and make predictions.

This way of thinking about the world is by no means obvious. Augustine of Hippo described in his autobiography, Confessions, how he had a very hard time understanding non-material entities. He “could not imagine any substance, but such as is wont to be seen with [the] eyes.” This made it difficult for him to think about God.

“But what else to conceive of Thee I knew not… I was constrained to conceive of Thee… as being in space, whether infused into the world, or diffused infinitely without it. Because whatsoever I conceived, deprived of this space, seemed to me nothing, yea altogether nothing, not even a void, as if a body were taken out of its place, and the place should remain empty of any body at all, of earth and water, air and heaven, yet would it remain a void place, as it were a spacious nothing.”

This is a very natural way to see the world. And I think it’s the way most people think of the world today and even the way we are educated to think. The modern outlook is very materialist or physicalist. Materialism and physicalism are defensible positions. But they’re not the only defensible positions. And I don’t think they hold up very well to extensive philosophical scrutiny. And it’s that kind of philosophical scrutiny that ultimately led Augustine to think past his materialism. He encountered this in the work of the Platonists:

“Thou [God] procuredst for me… certain books of the Platonists.”

“But having read then those books of the Platonists, and thence been taught to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Thy invisible things, understood by those things which are made.”

This is the essence of the process of the natural sciences that we go through even if without thinking about it. We come to understand incorporeal truths “by those things which are made”. We infer causation from the observation of events. We develop theories about laws of nature from empirical data. In Platonist thought this is movement along Plato’s “divided line”, an analogy he introduced in the Republic, moving from visible things to intelligible things.

In Plato’s thought this process of intellectual ascent has a single ending point, which he calls “the Form of the Good” [ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα (he tou agathou idea)]. Plotinus (205 – 270) called this ultimate principle “the One” [το ἕν (to hen)]. Augustine of course, being Christian, just called this God. The intellectual ascent ultimately leads to the Christian beatific vision, The immediate knowledge of God which the angelic spirits and the souls of the just enjoy in Heaven.

Both Origen and Augustine have theories of a certain form of vision that is distinct from physical vision. For Augustine this is his notion of “intellectual vision”. Origen describes it as a kind of seeing as knowing. In On the First Principles Origen says:

“It is one thing to see, and another to know: to see and to be seen is a property of bodies; to know and to be known, an attribute of intellectual being… [the Son] did not say that no one has seen the Father, save the Son, nor any one the Son, save the Father; but His words are: ‘No one knoweth [ἐπιγινώσκω (epiginosko)] the Son, save the Father; nor any one the Father, save the Son.’ (Matthew 11:27) By which it is clearly shown, that whatever among bodily natures is called seeing and being seen, is termed, between the Father and the Son, a knowing and being known, by means of the power of knowledge, not by the frailness of the sense of sight. Because, then, neither seeing nor being seen can be properly applied to an incorporeal and invisible nature, neither is the Father, in the Gospel, said to be seen by the Son, nor the Son by the Father, but the one is said to be known by the other.”

Augustine develops a similar idea, what he calls “intellectual vision”. In his book On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram) Augustine distinguished between three sorts of vision.

1. Corporeal Vision
2. Imaginative Vision
3. Intellectual Vision

Quoting from Augustine:

“These are the three kinds of visions… The first, therefore, let us call Corporeal, due to the fact that it is perceived by the body and revealed by the body’s senses. The second, let us call Imaginative; whatever is not truly of the body, and yet however is to some extent, it is said imagination correctly already: and in any case it is not material, it may be however similar to the body, is in the image of the absent body, nor is the gaze distinguished from itself for that purpose. The third is called Intellectual, from intellect, due to the fact that it is mental, of the mind.” (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis 12.7.16)

Augustine demonstrates the use of these three kinds of vision by giving an example of three levels at which a person can understand the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) He says:

“Here in the reading of this one command, ‘love thy neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew. 22, 39), occur three types of vision: one is of his eyes, which appears in the writing itself; another is of the human imagination in which one’s neighbor is thought of in his absence; and third of these, which is love as such, as seen by the intellect.”

This is a very simple example from which Augustine demonstrates multiple layers of understanding. And this is similar to the levels of ascent in Plato’s divided line with likenesses of visible things, visible things, and the ideas abstracted from them, visible to the intellect. In reading a text there is the physical visual sensation in which we see the ink imprinted on a page. But while reading that we also think about what things the ink refers to, which is a more sophisticated level of understanding. And finally we can gather general principles from the particular thoughts generated by the text. In the case of this example: from ink, to the thought of one’s neighbor, one eventually thinks about the general principle of love itself. And love as such has no visible image. It is understood thoroughly by the intellect, no doubt accompanied by corresponding sentiments. Augustine says of the things seen in intellectual vision that they “have no images resembling them. The objects of intellectual vision are perceived proprie (“in their own nature”), not imaginaliter (“through a representation”).

Virtues like love are important objects of intellectual vision. And intellectual vision of the virtues is closely tied to the intellectual vision of God. Augustine says:

“This spiritual nature, therefore, in which not the bodies, but similarities to bodies are expressed, having visions of an inferior variety, as that of the mind, even the light of intelligence… they do not have any similar material forms; even as the mind itself and all good dispositions of spirit to which they are opposed in their vices, which are correctly condemned and are even condemned in men. To what end is the intellect to be understood, except truly in some other way? And thus love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control, and so forth, of such by which he is drawn near to God (Galatians 5:22-23) and God himself, from whom all things, through whom all things, in whom all things (Romans 11:36).” (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis 12.24.50)

The idea here being that the mind being able, through intellectual vision, to understand important moral abstractions like the virtues is also able, in a similar way, to eventually understand God, from whom these moral virtues emanate. There’s an interesting example of this kind of vision in Exodus.

In Exodus 33 it says that, “The Lord spoke to Moses face to face.” Not only that but, “as a man speaks to his friend.” They were in close proximity, both in space (of some kind) and in their regard for one another. It is repeated, several times in this chapter, that Moses had found “favor”, חֵן (chen), in the eyes of the Lord. And this favor is repeatedly mentioned as the reason that the Lord grants Moses’s entreaties.

Whatever had happened in verses 11 Moses requests even more. In verse 18 he says: “Please, show me Your glory.” Your כָּבוֹד (kabod). God’s response is interesting. He says: “I will make all My goodness [טוּב (tub)] pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (verse 19) Moses asks to see God’s glory (kabod) and God responds that he will see his goodness (tub). God also declares his capacity to be gracious [חָנַן (chanan)] and to be merciful [רָחַם (racham)].

We see more of this in the next chapter, Exodus 34, in which God proclaims the name of YHWH, saying: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful [רַחוּם (rachum)] and gracious [חַנּוּן (chanun)], longsuffering, and abounding in goodness [חֵסֵד (chesed)] and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7) Traditionally this act of self-revelation is known as the Thirteen Attributes. This prayer, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, is recited in times of crisis to beseech God to show mercy. It contains thirteen Names and descriptions of God, all of them referring to God’s compassion in various situations. In this remarkable theophany, self-revelation of God, to Moses what we have recorded is a revelation of attributes.

Isn’t that interesting? In what way would Moses, or any other person, perceive these kinds of attributes? Mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice? I think Augustine’s theories make sense here. We could think about them at the three levels of vision: corporeal, imaginative, and intellectual. There are the words for these attributes, taking physical form as ink on a page, pixels on a screen, or sound waves in the air. Then we can imagine, or maybe remember, particular examples of these attributes in individuals, maybe people we know, or people in the scriptures, like especially Jesus Christ. And then we can perceive in the intellect the attributes as such: mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice. And when we do this we are closer to perceiving God himself.

Full perception of God would seem to be beyond our possibility in mortality. The third of our philosopher-theologians, Thomas Aquinas, talks about this in his Summa Theologiae. This comes up in Question 12, Article 11: “Whether anyone in this life can see the essence of God”. Aquinas concludes:

“God cannot be seen in His essence by a mere human being, except he be separated from this mortal life. The reason is because, as was said above, the mode of knowledge follows the mode of the nature of the knower. But our soul, as long as we live in this life, has its being in corporeal matter; hence naturally it knows only what has a form in matter, or what can be known by such a form. Now it is evident that the Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things… This can be seen in the fact that the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things, the more it is capable of receiving abstract intelligible things. Hence in dreams and alienations of the bodily senses divine revelations and foresight of future events are perceived the more clearly.”

This is consistent with the statement by God in Exodus that:

“You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”

What followed after this is (maybe) an intriguing illustration of the partial but necessarily incomplete vision of God that a human may have in mortality. God says:

“Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”’ (Exodus 33:20-23)

God says that Moses will see his back [אָחוֹר (achor)] but not his face [פָנִים (panim)].

What’s going on here? It would seem that Moses’s experience of seeing God must be limited. We might ask, as we asked at the beginning of this episode, is this limitation due to God deliberately withholding the complete vision? Or is it just an intrinsic limitation of the nature of the thing being revealed? To use Origen’s distinction, is the face, panim, of God merely “unseen” or is it actually “invisible”, not capable of being seen physically?

Rabbi Sforno (1470 – 1550) commented on this verse saying (in God’s words): “Your inability to see what you would like to see is not due to My depriving you, personally, of such an experience, but is rooted in man’s inability to see such things unless you had died first, as an eye of flesh and blood cannot see such things. You would be fatally blinded before understanding anything you would see.”

Both Aquinas and Sforno hold that no human can see the essence of God on this side of death. Sforno says “an eye of flesh and blood cannot see such things”. And Aquinas says that “Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things.” Knowledge of the divine essence can be approximated, as Aquinas says, “the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things”. But full knowledge and intellectual vision of God can only be received after physical death, which is why, like Moses, no mortal person can see God and live.

The issue of God and images is prominent throughout the Torah. Making images to worship, even images of the Lord God interestingly enough, are strictly forbidden. The golden calf may have been an attempt to make an image of the Lord God himself. But that didn’t make it any less egregious. The Israelites are given the commandment:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image [פֶסֶל (pesel)]—any likeness [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)

We find an expansion on this commandment in Deuteronomy:

“Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the Lord your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-19)

The text here is primarily concerned with the ethical issue of how the Israelites are to conduct themselves, what they should and should not do. But there’s an interesting hint here to a metaphysical matter as well that underlies the ethical. “For you saw no form [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire.” It’s not just the case that the Israelites shouldn’t make carved images of the Lord; based off of some image that was present but forbidden for them to copy. There wasn’t even an image there. It wouldn’t even be possible in principle for them to make an image of the Lord because there was no temunah.

This is interesting to compare with a couple verses in the first chapter of the Bible:

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image [צֶלֶם (tzelem)], according to Our likeness [דְּמוּת (demuth)]; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image [צֶלֶם (tzelem)]; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

Human beings are made in the image of God. Notably by God. The Hebrew words used here are not the same, but I think the concept is similar enough. In what way are humans created in the “image of God”, in the [צֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (tzelem elohim)]? One interesting thing about this tzelem is that it has both male and female manifestations. A lot of possibilities here but one thing I’ll observe is that attributes like humanness, maleness, femaleness, along with virtuous attributes like mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice are abstract concepts that in the philosophies of Augustine and Aquinas are understood most fully by the intellect, rather than through physical form or the image of physical form.

Aquinas developed his theory of knowing and seeing God extensively in his Question 12 of the Summa, Prima Pars: “How God is Known By Us”. First, Aquinas affirmed that it is indeed possible for a created intellect to see the essence of God:

“Since everything is knowable according as it is actual, God, Who is pure act without any admixture of potentiality, is in Himself supremely knowable. But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect.”

Aquinas says that God is not only knowable but “supremely knowable”. God is “pure act”. Here he’s making use of the Aristotelian concepts of potentiality and actuality. Aristotle understood God to be supremely and recursively intellectual, as “a thinking of thinking” [νοήσεως νόησις (noeseos noesis)]:

Quoting from the his Metaphysics:

“Hence it is actuality rather than potentiality that is held to be the divine possession of rational thought, and its active contemplation is that which is most pleasant and best. If, then, the happiness which God always enjoys is as great as that which we enjoy sometimes, it is marvellous; and if it is greater, this is still more marvellous. Nevertheless it is so. Moreover, life belongs to God. For the actuality of thought [νοῦ ἐνέργεια (nou energeia)] is life, and God is that actuality; and the essential actuality of God is life most good and eternal. We hold, then, that God is a living being, eternal, most good; and therefore life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God; for that is what God is.” (Metaphysics 12.1072b)

“The actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality.” But what is the subject of that thought? Aristotle says: “Mind thinks itself, if it is that which is best; and its thinking is a thinking of thinking (noeseos noesis)”. (Metaphysics 12.1074b)

This being the case, God is supremely intelligible by the intellect. Whatever limitations human beings have to seeing the essence of God in their intellect is due to limitations in the capacities of their intellects, rather than in the intrinsic intelligibility of God. Aquinas says:

“But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect; as, for example, the sun, which is supremely visible, cannot be seen by the bat by reason of its excess of light.”

Not only bats for that matter. Even we humans cannot see the sun directly. But that’s not because it’s not invisible, but rather because it’s too visible. It produces more light than we can handle. That’s a physical analogy. In the case of God the analogy is to intellectual visibility, or intelligibility. If we can’t see God with our intellectual vision it’s not because God is intrinsically unintelligible but rather because God is too intelligible, of greater intelligibility than we are able to understand. Nevertheless, Aquinas does think it is possible for created intellect to see God’s essence. It just needs the aid of divine grace.

In Question 12, Article 4 Aquinas responds to the question of “Whether any created intellect by its natural powers can see the divine essence”. Aquinas concludes that:

“It is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power… To know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone; and this is beyond the natural power of any created intellect; for no creature is its own existence, forasmuch as its existence is participated. Therefore the created intellect cannot see the essence of God, unless God by His grace unites Himself to the created intellect, as an object made intelligible to it.”

Aquinas is appealing to the fundamental ontological difference between created things and their creator. He says, “To know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone.” God is the only self-subsistent being, whose existence is not derived from any other thing. For created beings it’s not natural to know this kind of self-subsistent being. But this kind of knowledge can be given by grace.

So Aquinas is quite optimistic about the possibility of a created intellect seeing the essence of God, with the aid of divine grace. What is the nature of that seeing? Is it with physical sight? Here Aquinas is consistent with both Origen and Augustine. Consistent with Origen’s concept of God’s physical invisibility.

In Question 12, Article 3 Aquinas addresses the question of “Whether the essence of God can be seen with the bodily eye?” He says:

“It is impossible for God to be seen by the sense of sight, or by any other sense, or faculty of the sensitive power. For every such kind of power is the act of a corporeal organ.”

Aquinas makes the case that the kind of sight in which the created intellect may see the essence of God is a sight of some other kind, other than physical sight. He uses the example of Ephesians 1:17-18.

“Likewise the words, ‘Now my eye seeth Thee,’ are to be understood of the mind’s eye, as the Apostle says: ‘May He give unto you the spirit of wisdom… in the knowledge of Him, that the eyes of your heart’ may be ‘enlightened’”.

Wisdom [σοφία (sophia]) and knowledge [ἐπίγνωσις (epignosis)] may enlighten the “eyes of the heart” [τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς τῆς καρδίας (tous ophthalmous tes kardias)]. In talking about “eyes of the heart” we’re clearly speaking of something other than physical vision. It’s seeing in another way.

Speaking further of this “intellectual vision” Aquinas says:

“The sense of sight, as being altogether material, cannot be raised up to immateriality. But our intellect, or the angelic intellect, inasmuch as it is elevated above matter in its own nature, can be raised up above its own nature to a higher level by grace.”

“We have a more perfect knowledge of God by grace than by natural reason. Which is proved thus. The knowledge which we have by natural reason contains two things: images derived from the sensible objects; and the natural intelligible light, enabling us to abstract from them intelligible conceptions.”

Bringing this is all to conclusion I’d like to look at examples from scripture in which we are able to see God through His self-revelation in Christ. Paul says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God [εἰκὼν τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου (eikon tou theou tou aoratou)]” (Colossians 1:15). That seems almost like an oxymoron. How can there be an image of something that’s invisible? I think that here again, as in many instances before, we have to think about the possible different meanings of the words so that they can make sense. Two important terms here are image [εἰκών (eikon)] and invisible [ἀόρατος (aoratos)]. Starting with the invisible, we could say that there are aspects of Christ that are physically visible and others that are physically invisible. Christ’s body is certainly visible. But since Christ is God he also has divine attributes that are invisible, just like those of the father. The senses in which Christ is an image are quite rich. Certainly he is a physical image in his body. Paul says that in Christ “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” [σωματικῶς (somatikos)] (Colossians 1:9). Jesus himself also says:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)


“He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.” (John 14:9-11)

This can certainly pertain to Christ’s body. But Jesus also points to his words [ῥήματα, (rhemata)] and to his works [ἔργα (erga)]. Not only Christ’s body, which most of his do not physically see, but also his entire way of life, his words and his works, as recorded in the scriptures, show us the Father. And those certainly are available to us.

In Matthew Jesus says:

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)

In inviting us to learn from Him Christ points to His attributes, that he is “gentle and lowly in heart”. Recall how God revealed Himself to Moses when Moses had asked to show him his glory. God made his goodness pass before him and proclaimed his graciousness, compassion, longsuffering, truth, forgiveness, and justice.

Augustine proposed that we could move up through levels of vision from the corporeal to the imaginative to the intellectual. If there’s something to that I’d propose that the most fruitful way to do this is through Jesus Christ. In my Christo-centric theology Christ is always the Way [ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos)].

So let’s return to the question at the start of this episode. Why doesn’t God just show himself to everyone? Wouldn’t that clear up a lot? Why does God have to be seemingly “hidden” and why is faith, whatever its purported virtue, even necessary?

We see that the understanding of traditional Christianity, both in the scriptures and in the history of theology, is that seeing God is necessarily a different kind of seeing than that of physical sight. This is a consequence of God’s intrinsically invisible nature. As Origen said, it’s not that God could be seen physically and simply decides to hide Himself from us. Rather seeing God is a process of intellectual vision, with what Paul calls the “eyes of the heart” [τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς τῆς καρδίας (tous ophthalmous tes kardias)]. So how is this done? At the end of the day it comes down to basic Christian practice. Reading of scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship in the Church, and all the sacraments. All this theoretical background isn’t necessary to engage in the process. But if the question over why God doesn’t reveal Himself to everyone physically has bothered you it could be helpful. I find it helpful and think others may find it helpful, even though it’s quite demanding. We have the scriptures and we can read about Jesus Christ, his life, words, and teachings. As we read these words and think about them and put them into practice they will expand our understanding, so that we can grasp the fullness of these attributes in our intellect. This is the Way to the Father, always through Christ, eventually to be able to see, with the eyes of the heart, the very essence of God.

The Tikal-Calakmul Wars

One of the great things about Mesoamerican history is that we know so much about it. Names of places like Tikal, Calakmul, and Copán might inspire images of stone temples with a mysterious, long-lost history. This may have been true one hundred years ago. But today we know a great deal about their history because we can read their writing. We know the names of their rulers. We know important things that they did. In fact, they put a lot of effort into making sure their histories were preserved for posterity. Thanks to these records we have some very exciting and interesting history.

One of the great things about Mesoamerican history is that we know so much about it. Names of places like Tikal, Calakmul, and Copán might inspire images of stone temples with a mysterious, long-lost history. This may have been true one hundred years ago. But today we know a great deal about their history because we can read their writing. We know the names of their rulers. We know important things that they did. In fact, they put a lot of effort into making sure their histories were preserved for posterity. Thanks to these records we have some very exciting and interesting history.

One of the most important things to understand about Mayan politics in the Classic Period was the rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul. The clashes between these two states dominated the region. These are often called the Tikal-Calakmul Wars and they took place between 537 to 744. These two states forged complicated networks of alliances with other states as they competed for dominance. It’s great history, full of violence and intrigue. Other key players in the great wars included Dos Pilas, Copán, Quiriguá, Naranjo, and Caracol. This period of warefare can be divided into three warring periods: The First Tikal-Calakmul War (537–572), The Second Tikal-Calakmul War (650–695), and the Third Tikal-Calakmul War (720–744).

In what follows I will give a historical narrative of events in the Tikal-Calakmul Wars without referring to all the archeological evidence and glyphs that were used to construct it. This kind of detailed background is available in Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler’s excellent book The Ancient Maya.


Before the ascendancy of Calakmul, Tikal had been the dominant power in the region. One of the most important events in the history of Tikal occurred in 378 when it’s ruler, Chak Tok Ich’aak I (Great Jaguar Paw), was killed by foreign invaders. Chak Tok Ich’aak was defeated by one Siyaj K’ak’ (Fireborn) ostensibly under the auspices of Teotichuacan. Siyaj K’ak’ was serving under Spearthrower Owl, possibly the ruler of Teotichuacan. The first ruler of the new dynasty was Yax Nuun Ayiin I. The new dynasty installed in Tikal was thereafter influenced by Teotihuacan culture mixed with Mayan culture. Tikal exercised significant influence over states in the region in ways that would set the stage for the alliances in the Tikal-Calakmul wars. In 426, Tikal installed K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ as the first ruler of Copán. Copán in turn founded the vassal state of Quiriguá in 426. Calakmul was a less important power in the region until the onset of the First Tikal-Calakmul War in 537.

The First Tikal-Calakmul War (537-572)

Calakmul began to wield more influence in the region after Yaxchilan captured the rulers of Bonampak, Lakamtuun, and Calakmul in 537. After its defeat by Yaxchilan, Calakmul retaliated and conquered Yaxchilan. Calakmul then began to show more ambition, conquering other states. In 546 Calakmul defeated Naranjo and installed Aj Wosal as ruler. This gave Calakmul hegemony over Naranjo and extended its sphere of influence. Meanwhile, in Tikal, Wak Chan K’awill oversaw the inauguration of Yajaw Te’ K’inich II in Caracol. Wak Chan K’awill may have been reacting to Calakmul’s growing power by strengthening an alliance with Caracol. In any event a Tikal-Caracol alliance was not to last.

Tikal and Caracol broke whatever alliance they had and the two states went to war with each other in 556. But things were going to get worse for Tikal. In 561, a new ruler named Sky Witness came to power in Calakmul. One year later, in 562, Wak Chan K’awill was captured by Caracol, which had switched alliances and joined Calakmul. Under this new Calakmul-Caracol alliance Wak Chan K’awill was offered as sacrifice and Tikal suffered significant loss of prestige and influence. Tikal did win some less significant battles in the years following, such as a victory over Caracol in 564. But by 572 Tikal was thoroughly defeated and the First Tikal-Calakmul more came to a close. That same year Sky Witness died.

After the First Tikal-Calakmul War, Tikal entered a period of hiatus. During this time Calakmul strengthened its hegemony. In 579 Scroll Serpent came to power in Calakmul. In 611 Scroll Serpent launched a major campaign against Palenque. The reason for this campaign is not known for certain but Palenque may have been a Tikal ally and this may have been part of the larger conflict between the two states. This attack on Palenque was an impressive logistical achievement and a fine demonstration of Calakmul’s power and ambition. It was a long-distance campaign. Palenque lies nearly 300 km from Calakmul and the army needed to cross several rivers, including the Usumacinta, to get there. As an aside, it was during this time that the future king of Palenque, K’inich Janaab Pakal I, was a young boy. K’inich Janaab Pakal I (603-683), or Pacal the Great, would later become one of the most famous rulers in Mesoamerican history. Pacal’s tomb is also one of the most impressive tombs to have been discovered in the Americas.

There was also trouble within the Calakmul alliance. Caracol and Naranjo were both allies of Calakmul but they were also longtime enemies of each other. In 626 Caracol launched two attacks on Naranjo. Caracol’s king, Tajoom Uk’ab’ K’ak’ was dead shortly after in 630, possibly from conflict with Naranjo. In 631 it seems that Calakmul’s ruler, Yuknoom Head, dealt with these inter-alliance conflicts by conquering Naranjo and torturing its ruler.

Meanwhile in Tikal, Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II founded the vassal state of Dos Pilas in 629, installing his own son, B’alaj Chan K’awiil, as its ruler. B’alaj Chan K’awiil was going to have an important part to play in the upcoming resurgence of conflict with Calakmul. Tikal’s influence was beginning to resurface and become a threat to Calakmul, which was now becoming accustomed to its preeminent position.

The Second Tikal-Calakmul War (650–695)

In 636 one of the most important rulers in Maya history came to power in Calakmul. His name was Yuknoom Ch’een II, also known as Yuknoom the Great. He was to reign for 50 years from 636 to 686. In 650 Yuknoom the Great launched an attack on Dos Pilas, Tikal’s recently formed vassal state. This began the Second Tikal-Calakmul War. The ruler of Dos Pilas, B’alaj Chan K’awiil, was the son of the late Tikal ruler Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II. B’alaj Chan K’awiil was forced to flee from Dos Pilas to Aguateca.

In 657 Yuknoom the Great attacked Tikal itself, which was now under the rule of Nuun Ujol Chaak. If Nuun Ujol Chaak was the son of previous ruler, Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II, he would have been the brother of the exiled Dos Pilas ruler B’alaj Chan K’awiil. If these two were indeed brothers they were about to be engaged in a fracticidal conflict of shifting alliances. In any event, Nuun Ujol Chaak was forced to flee Tikal. That same year B’alaj Chan K’awiil accepted Yuknoom the Great as his overlord and Dos Pilas, the vassal state Tikal had founded, moved into the Calakmul alliance.

After submitting to Calakmul, B’alaj Chan K’awiil was able to return to Dos Pilas but 15 years later, in 672, he was forced to flee again. That year Nuun Ujol Chaak attacked Dos Pilas and B’alaj Chan K’awiil fled to Chaak Naah. Seemingly in relentless pursuit, Nuun Ujol Chaak burned down Chaak Naah, forcing B’alaj Chan K’awiil to flee yet again, this time to Hix Witz. In 677 Calakmul defeated Nuun Ujol Chaak at Pulil and B’alaj Chan K’awiil was once again able to return to Dos Pilas.

The conflict between Tikal, Dos Pilas, and Calakmul came to a head in 679, when Dos Pilas and Calakmul finally defeated and killed Nuun Ujol Chaak. The battle was apparently very bloody and celebrated for this fact. In 682 B’alaj Chan K’awiil commissioned inscriptions to commemorate his struggles and ultimate, glorious victory over Tikal. Famously, the inscriptions speak of “pools of blood” and “piles of heads” in the great battle. B’alaj Chan K’awiil spent a lot of effort to assure his legacy, quite successfully it seems. B’alaj Chan K’awiil also strenghtened his position through marriage alliances. He produced his heir, Itzamnaaj Balam, through a wife from the nobility of Itzan. Through his second wife came a daughter, named Lady Six Sky.

Meanwhile, Caracol’s influence began to decline after a defeat at the hands of its old rival, Naranjo, in 680. Caracol’s deposed king, K’ak’ Ujol K’inich II, fled. In 682 the daughter of Dos Pilas ruler B’alaj Chan K’awiil, Lady Six Sky, was chosen as ruler of Naranjo. She proved to be an exceptional leader and appears on several monuments. She was never formally ruler herself but carried out royal functions and seems to have been the de facto ruler. In 688 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Chaak become official ruler of Naranjo but he was only 5 years old at the time. He was probably Lady Six Sky’s son and she almost certainly acted as regent for quite some time. Lady Six Sky seems to have lead Naranjo in 8 military campaigns in the first 5 years of K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Chaak’s reign, including a victory against Tikal in 695.

Meanwhile, in Tikal a sleeping giant was growing. In 682 Jasaw Chan K’awill I came to power and launched an ambitious cultural revitalization program. This program included the construction of temples and tombs that pointed back to Tikal’s glorious past, before it lost it’s preeminence to Calakmul. It was clear that Jasaw Chan K’awill I’s revitalization not only pointed to a glorious past but looked forward to a similarly glorious future. This was an ominous sign for Calakmul.

In 695 the Second Tikal-Calakmul War came to a climax. Tikal recorded that it successfully confronted Calakmul, “bringing down the flint and shield” of its ruler, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ak’. In an important symbolic move, in a world rich in symbolism, Tikal captured a huge effigy of one of Calakmul’s patron deities. Jasaw Chan K’awill I celebrated his victory with ceremony and inscriptions. Ever one to connect Tikal’s glory to the past, he chose to hold his victory celebration on the anniversary of the death of Spearthrower Owl, father of the Yax Nuun Ayiin I, who had replaced Chak Tok Ich’aak I as ruler back in 379.

The Third Tikal-Calakmul War (720-744)

The great victory of Tikal over Calakmul in 695 changed the course history in the region. It went a long way to restore Tikal’s prestige and dominance. But there were still some important events in the region following this great battle. The Third Tikal-Calakmul War involved two very key players: Copán and Quiriguá. Recall that before the wars, Tikal had founded Copán in 426, installing as its ruler K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Copán in turn founded its own vassal state of Quiriguá in 426. This system of relations was critical to what would follow.

In 725 the ruler of Copán, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (18-Rabbit), installed K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat as a subordinate ruler in Quiriguá. But by 734 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat had declared Quiriguá independent from Copán. Things got even more complicated a couple years later. As a subordinate state to Copán, Quiriguá had been, by extension, subject to Tikal. Quiriguá had been part of a network of alliances tied to Tikal. But in 736 Calakmul’s ruler, Wamaw K’awiil, met with K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat and forged an alliance. Quiriguá had switched sides.

Quiriguá was a smaller state than Copán and presumably less powerful on its own. But with a superpower like Calakmul backing it, Quiriguá was able to challenge and actually defeat Copán. In 738 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat captured his former overlord, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, and beheaded him. It was a dramatic reversal.

However, Calakmul was ultimately not able to permanently thwart Tikal’s regained dominance. In 743 Tikal conquered El Peru. In 744 also defeated Naranjo and then Calakmul itself ending the Third Tikal-Calakmul War.


The history of both kingdoms was much less glorious following the events of the great battle of 695 and the battles between Copán and Quiriguá. In fact, the entire region seems to have entered into a decline, at least as far as organizational complexity is concerned. The reasons for the decline of the Classic Maya civilization are heavily debated. One theory is that the Tikal-Calakmul Wars took such a toll on the inhabitants of Mesoamerica that it led to a collapse. Other theories include drought, climate change, overpopulation, and mismanagement of natural resources. Popular theories like drought focus on external forces that we can measure and quantify archeologically. But it is also possible that various cultural trends contributed to a change in the structure of the civilization. But a simultaneous decrease in the amount records being kept at this time makes cultural causes difficult to corroborate. Eventually new powers like Uxmal and Chichen Itza came to dominate in Terminal Classic and Postclassic.

Additional Reading

Sharer, Robert J., and Loa P. Traxler. The Ancient Maya. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2006.

Edwin Barnhart. Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2015.

Simon Martin, and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2008.