Can God be known? Or is God forever a mystery, completely beyond what humans can comprehend?
The Bible gives us some insight on this in the book of Acts.
When he is brought before the Greek high court and asked to explain himself, Saint Paul starts by telling the Athenians, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god’ (Acts 17:22-23).”
It seems to me that many American Christians are like the Athenians. They’re “religious in every way” (they go to church, read their Bibles, and pray regularly); but they worship an “unknown God.” Since they read their Bibles and have heard a lot of sermons, they know a lot about God – but most don’t really know God on a personal level.
Paul, for his part, isn’t content to let the Athenians continue worshipping a God they don’t know, boldly stating that “what therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you”(Acts 17:23).
Paul goes on to say that God “allotted the times of their (humans) existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us” Acts 17:26-27).
All of us, in other words, have something in us that yearns to know God; and this in itself is evidence that on some level, God can be known – and wants to be known!
The most astonishing claim that Paul makes in this passage is that the unknown God can be known in the person of Jesus.
“While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” he says, “because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed – and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)
Those who have known Jesus – through His life, death and resurrection – now have a much clearer picture of who God is and what God is about. They no longer have an excuse for worshipping an “unknown God.”
But what about us, 2000 years later? Since we have never met Jesus in the flesh, how can we know Him – and the God that He reveals?
Jesus Himself gives us an answer to this in the gospel of John. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever,” Jesus says. “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:16-18).
Jesus is revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, who lives within us (along with the Father and the eternal Logos (Christ spirit)). It is this inner presence, more than anything else, which shows us who God is (though we also get important revelations from Scripture and church tradition).
Getting to know the inner presence of God isn’t a quick and easy thing. It takes time to be able to know ourselves well enough to hear that inner voice and recognize it.
There’s another way, however, to know God – and this is through the people we know.
If you have a hard time imagining what God might be like, try this exercise: think of the one person you most enjoy spending time with. It could be a spouse, friend, parent, child, sibling – anyone close to you whose company you enjoy. Now imagine what this person would be like if they were present everywhere in the universe, had potentially unlimited power, and loved everyone the way they love you.
In a very real sense, this is what God is like – though God also transcends any images we may have of Him.
Can God be known? Yes, I believe She can – through Jesus, through the Holy Spirit within us, and through other people that we know.
God is certainly a mystery, and to some degree will always remain so. We will never reach a point where we know all there is to know about God. But in another sense, this is a mystery who can be known personally – and loved.