“God is Omnipresent”. What do we mean by that statement? Oftentimes we are told that as part of our basic tenets of belief, we are to subscribe to the fact that God is “Omniscience”, “Omnipotent”, and “Omnipresent”. “Omniscience”, or “all knowing” we understand. Even “Omnipotent”, or “all powerfull”. But “Omnipresent”? What does that word mean?
Is God Everywhere?
Does it mean God is everywhere, even inhabiting the blocks of wood or stone which people carve into idols? This is one interpretation which is much subscribed to by New Agers, some Hindus, and animinsts. They believe that God is everywhere in the universe. There is “god” in us, each of us has the “divine spark”, and our ultimate aim is to join our divine spark with the all encompassing, all present God which is in the universe. When we die our divine spark is released from the mortal body to be merged and be one with the One (called variously as “Brahmum”, “Nirvana”, “God”, etc.) Therein lies the basis of concepts like “we are masters of our own destiny”, “self-incarnation”, “feel good” (eg. the popular “chicken soup for the soul” series), because of the simple “fact” that we are “god” (or at least have some part of god in us) - but that is another subject which I will not go into here.
However, through misinterpretation or misinformation, Christians have observed the so-called similarity between the doctrine of Omnipresence of God with the New Age concept, and some have actually gone over and embraced (and even taught) the doctrine of Omnipresence as explained by the New Agers. Thus we have “inner healing”, “listening to your inner voice”, “emotional freedom within”, “deep meditiation”, “awareness”, “neurolinguistics” and other such cliches. These practices are especially prevalent in charismatic circles, where oftentimes an overemphasis on spirituality has slipped over into obsession with “the inner self”, and reliance on the experiential over the expositional. If God the Holy Spirit is in you, why not pray to the god within you, so the reasoning goes. Traditionalists are not too far off either. Some have gone into the extent of venerating (even worshipping) “holy” places and “holy” objects (eg. church buildings, crucifixes, icons, and even the communion bread) in the belief that God is physically present there.
So, with all the misunderstanding over the term “Omnipresence”, what actually do we mean when we confess that our God is “Omnipresent”? Does it mean God obeys Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, or behaves like Schrodinger’s cat?
Where is God?
To begin, we usually ask ourselves where the members of the Godhead (Trinity) are presently. God the Father? Well, Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father, who is in heaven...” (Matt. 6:9). So, God the Father is “in” heaven, not on earth, or in the universe or part of the universe. The apostle John saw a vision of God the Father in heaven, sitting on His throne (Rev. 4). Therefore He is not amorphous (like being a part of the universe or is composed of the universe).
Jesus Christ? We know from the Gospels that He is fully God and fully man, physically resurrected and ascended to heaven, and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father (Heb. 8:1). He is not everywhere and anywhere (certainly not in the communion bread/host (Heb. 9:24-26)). He is presently in heaven, awaiting the time of the Second Coming when He will physically return to earth (1 Thess 4:15-17). Now, Matt. 28:20 has Jesus saying to His disciples, “Lo, I am with you always”. The obvious question here would be, if He is at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, how can He be here with us and there with God? If He is there with God in what sense is He here with us?
Having raised that question concerning Jesus, we now turn to God the Holy Spirit. This is the area where most misunderstandings occur, and most of it is due to our concept of who the Holy Spirit is in relation to the attribute of Omnipresence. Because our understanding of the Trinity is not complete, we attempt to dissect the Godhead into 3 parts (like above), and attribute “Omnipresence” to the Holy Spirit, since the Father and the Son are both in heaven. Therefore any physical or spiritual experience of God anywhere is attributed to the Holy Spirit. However, taken to a logical conclusion, if the Holy Spirit is a person (John 14:16-17,26), he cannot be in two places at the same time. Therefore, the error creeps in when we try to explain away this contradiction with “omnipresence” by regarding the Holy Spirit more as a “force” or “influence” than a person. This results because we try to understand God in our human terms and experience. But how can one put something which is infinite into a finite mind? It is like trying to square a circle, to make God fit into our experience of Him.
Understanding of God - Theology
The only way by which “Omnipresence” can be understood is to regard God as a whole, the Trinity, and not as three separate parts, each with their unique attributes or properties. In fact, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds specifically state that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are of the same essence and being, not “similar”, although their functionality may be different. So, how do we understand the “Omnipresence” of God? To do that, let us go back to the beginning, to a study of our understanding of God (the word dreaded and vilified by charismatics - “Theology”).
The Infinity of God
God is infinite. This means not only that God is unlimited, but that he is unlimitable. In this respect, God is unlike anything we experience. Even those things that common sense once told us are infinite or boundless are now seen to have limits. Energy at an earlier time seemed inexhaustible. We have in recent years become aware that the types of energy with which we are particularly familiar have rather sharp limitations, and we are approaching those limits considerably more rapidly than we imagined. So also the ocean once seemed to be an endless source of food, and a dumping place so vast that it could not be contaminated. Yet we are becoming aware that its resources and its ability to absorb pollution are both finite. The infinity of God, however, speaks of a limitless being.
The infinity of God may be thought of from several angles (eg. space, time, power, etc.). We shall think, in our present context, in terms of space. Space here is defined as dimensional co-ordinates, and not as the “space” of “outer space”. Here we have what has traditionally been referred to as immensity and omnipresence. God is not subject to limitations of space. By this we do not mean merely the limitation of being in a particular place - if an object is in one place it cannot be in another. Rather, it is improper to think of God as present in space at all. All finite objects have a location. They are somewhere. This necessarily prevents their being somewhere else. The greatness of finite objects is measured by how much space they occupy. With God, however, the question of whereness or location is not applicable. God is the one who brought space (and time) into being. He was before there was space. He cannot be localized at a particular point. There can be no plotting of his location on a set of co-ordinates. This seems to be a function of his immateriality or spirituality. There is no physical body to be located at a particular place. Consider here Paul's statement that God does not dwell in manmade shrines, because he is the Lord of heaven and earth; he made the world and everything in it (Acts 17:24-25). When Paul says that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), it does not mean than God physically takes up residence in our physical flesh & blood (gk: sarkos), at street address xxx, body number yyy. What is the function of the temple (tabernacle)? It is the place to worship and commune with God, and as such is to be kept holy. God did not physically dwell in the box called “the Ark of the Covenant”. Rather, He met with His people there, and His presence “dwelt” in the midst of the Israelite camp. Similarly, we cannot confine God to the box which we call our body. Rather, our body is to be kept pure and holy because with it we worship and commune with God.
The Presence of God
Another aspect of God's infinity in terms of space is that there is no place where he cannot be found. We are here facing the tension between the immanence of God (he is everywhere) and the transcendence (he is not anywhere). The point here is that nowhere within the creation is God inaccessible. Jeremiah quotes God as saying, 'Am I a God at hand.... and not a God afar off?" (Jer 23:23). The implication seems to be that being a God at hand does not preclude his being afar off as well. He fills the whole heaven and earth (v. 24)(but is not the heavens or the earth per se). Thus, one cannot hide himself "in secret places" so that he cannot be seen. God speaks of heaven as his throne and the earth his footstool; the idea that man can confine God by building him a dwelling place is, then, sheer folly. The psalmist found that he could not flee from the presence of God - wherever the psalmist went, God would be there (Psa. 139:7-12). Whether the psalmist ascended to heaven or made his bed in Sheol, God would be there. Jesus himself carried this concept a step further. In giving the Great Commission, he commanded his disciples to go as witnesses everywhere, even to the end of the earth, and he would be with them to the end of the age (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). Thus, he in effect indicated that he is not limited either by space or by time.
Here as in so many other respects there is a sharp contrast between God and the false gods. It is clearly seen in the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. One of the taunts which Elijah hurled at his opponents when Baal failed to answer was that perhaps he was on a journey. If Baal was off somewhere else, he could not also be there to send down fire. Jehovah, however, does not have this problem. He can be in countless places and involved with many different situations simultaneously.
For many of us, certain places have sacred connotations. We may have received special blessing from God when we were in a particular geographical location. If, upon moving to another location, things do not go as well, we may be tempted to think that God is not there. Or a particular house of worship or a special place within a building may have taken on extra significance because of God's past working. We may find it difficult to adjust to a change, but the problem is psychological, not theological. God is not localized. He has not been left behind. He is available to us wherever we may be. We are not restricted to worshipping him in a sanctuary. It is good to assemble with other believers in a regular place of worship, but God is not prevented from meeting with us because we have been unable to come to this special place. Nor does God have any difficulty dealing with needs and problems which arise in widely differing locations at the same time. He does not, however, move from one place to another as a sort of divine superman who flies at infinite speed. Rather, he simply has access to the whole of the creation at all times.
God is Omnipresent
From the above arguments, we can see that the reason why we have so much problems with the concept of “Omnipresence” is because we have tried to fit God into our limited understanding and experience of time and space. Einstein postulated that time and space is “spherical”, and we are all within the confines of that sphere. If God is outside the sphere (because He created that sphere), then all our physical equations do not apply to Him. God is omnipresent, not because He is or has to be everywhere, but that he is not limited either by space or by time and can be in countless places and involved with many different situations simultaneously. This is what we mean by the Omnipresence of God. If our God can be localized in space, then our God is too small.
At the end of the day, the believer will have to know that we must not restrict God into our frame of mind. Otherwise, we become god and not Him
References & Further Reading:
“Christian Theology” by Millard Erickson (Baker Book House)
“The Foundations of Christian Doctrine” by Kevin Conner (Sovereign World)