God told Moses, "You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live." (Exodus 33:20) In some circles, this is interpreted to mean that God is a Celestial Prig. This Celestial Prig allegedly cannot abide even a whiff of wickedness in His all-holy presence, so if you should blunder into that Presence or be brought there, you, as a sinner, would be zapped. Of course this is total nonsense. Well, not total; it does contain a grain of truth, which I intend to point out, but first, let us debunk this unbiblical, unchristian, primitive notion of God.
Biblical examples usually given to back up the doctrine of the Celestial Prig are the stories of Uzzah, of Abihu and Nadab, of Ananias and Sapphira, all of whom were struck dead.
Uzzah’s story takes place as King David is transferring the Ark of the Covenant to the capital city. Now the Ark, besides containing holy relics, (Hebrews 9:4) was also the place where God dwelt. More specifically, the gold-covered lid of the Ark had a carving of a cherub on either side of it, and God’s glory dwelt between the cherubim. Although the general population was forbidden to touch the Ark, Uzzah arrogated to himself the privileged responsibility of steadying it during its journey. “Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the LORD was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the ark of God.” (2 Samuel 6:7)
Was it because Uzzah approached too closely to the Lord that he was struck dead, or was it not rather because he had disobeyed Him? That the latter is the case is clearly shown by the fact that the Ark, whereupon the Lord dwelt, was was then taken to the house of Obed-Edom, the Gittite, where it remained for three months. “And the Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his household. Now it was told King David, saying, ‘The Lord has blessed the house of Obed-Edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God’."
Nobody in Obed-Edom’s house died from being in direct proximity to the Lord. On the contrary, they were blessed.
Moreover, afterward, human beings carried the Ark without being zapped: “So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with gladness. And so it was, when those bearing the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, that he sacrificed oxen and fatted sheep”. (2 Samuel 6:11-14)
I Chronicles 15:26 tells us specifically the men carrying the Ark were Levites.
Merely touching the Ark, then, did not kill a person; only touching it in disobedience did. Being in close proximity to the Lord was in itself neither harmful nor unsafe, but to the contrary, a blessing.
On to the next story that allegedly teaches the doctrine of the Celestial Prig.
Abihu and Nadab were priests in the Tabernacle, who decided to ignore God’s commands concerning how HE wished to be worshipped, and undertook to worship Him in ways of their own devising.
Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. And Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD spoke, saying:
'By those who come near Me
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified.'"
And Aaron was shocked. (Leviticus 10:1-4, verse 4 being from the Septuagint)
Again, was it from being in close proximity to the Lord that these men died? No, it was from disobedience. Their brothers serving in the same Tabernacle remained alive and unharmed, impure though they undoubtedly were, as all of us are.
On to the New Testament case.
Ananias and Sapphira were Christian converts. The original Christians sold all their possessions and put the proceeds into a common fund, but Ananias (no relation to Ananias the High Priest or Ananias who baptized Saul) and his wife, Sapphira, kept back part of their profit for themselves, laying the rest at the apostles’ feet.
But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God."
Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.
Now it was about three hours later when his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter answered her, "Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?"
She said, "Yes, for so much."
Then Peter said to her, "How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out." Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things. (Acts 5:3-11)
In none of these stories do we see people who have died because they saw the Lord or because they were in His direct presence; on the contrary, they died because they sinned; and in sinning, they were separating themselves from Him.
So none of these stories serves to prop up the doctrine of the Celestial Prig who cannot stand being in the presence of wickedness. The doctrine of the Celestial Prig is not biblical.
In fact, the one man who did actually see God, Isaiah, was not zapped. On the contrary, he was purified. Isaiah writes:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said:
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!"
And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.
So I said:
O wretched man that I am!
I am stunned;
for being a man and having unclean lips,
I live among a people having unclean lips,
and I have seen the King,
the Lord of Hosts, with my eyes!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said:
"Behold, this has touched your lips;
Your iniquity is taken away,
And your sin purged."
(Isaiah 6:1-7, verse 5 is Septuagint)
St. John, in two places, (John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12) assures us, “No man has seen God at any time.” What are we to make of Isaiah’s account now? Obviously, that it was a vision, not a literal, physical event. We should have known that anyway, as there is no way a burning coal could literally take away wickedness, any more than picking a rose could stop thunder; nor were Isaiah’s physical lips blistered. The coal showed the prophet’s cleansing in a symbolic way.
No man has seen God at any time. What God said to Moses, then, is not exemplified by Uzzah, by Abihu and Nadab, or by Ananias and Sapphira. None of these saw the Lord. None was in closer proximity to the Lord than others who survived. All of them were flagrantly disobedient. They died not because God is dangerous, but because sin is, although this statement needs some qualifying; keep reading.
Yet there is a sense in which Christians, at least, have indeed seen God. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Looking at Jesus, then, do we see revealed any Celestial Prig? Is that what Jesus is? If God cannot abide even the whiff of wickedness in His Presence, how is it He Himself consented to be born into this wicked world? Shouldn’t He rather have sent an angel than to have come in Person? If God cannot tolerate sin, how is it that He actually sought out sinners and ate with tax collectors and allowed a whore to weep all over His feet and anoint Him with oil and dry Him with her own hair? (As a matter of fact, Christ our God allowed Himself also to be descended from a prostitute, Rahab.) If God cannot abide sin, why did God the Son harbor Judas among His most intimate friends? Why did Pontius Pilate and Herod not drop dead when He stood before them, or they sat before Him? In fact, why did not everybody He met drop dead at the sight of Him, as Peter was afraid he might? “Depart from me, Lord,” he said, “for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus did not depart from him, and Peter lived. Even when Jesus cleansed the Temple, he only overturned the tables. He could have zapped the sinners, but you can be sure it was not long before they were right back at it. If God cannot abide sin, why did Christ allow Himself to die between two thieves and murderers? Even those who whipped Him and spat upon Him and mocked Him and drove the nails through Him who dwelt above the Ark were not zapped on the spot, due to the incomprehensible forbearance of our God. The earth shook, the Sun was darkened, the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, but nobody was zapped. In fact, the opposite: graves opened, and saints arose from them. If God is a Celestial Prig Who cannot bear the presence of evil, how did He manage to descend to the very bowels of hell?
No, the doctrine of the Celestial Prig is not Christian. God is no prude. God is an adult deity. He can handle evil.
Moreoever, His nature is so entirely unlike our own that nothing we do is able to change Him in the least. He is totally independent of us. He is immutable. He is not kindly disposed toward you one moment and ready to kill you the next, or vice-versa. Instead, He always loves you, no matter how displeased He may be with your undertakings. The doctrine of the Celestial Prig is forced to teach that He must be changed in order for us to be saved. But Scripture tells us the very opposite: first, that He does not change; and secondly, that His unchanging nature is precisely why we are not zapped!
James 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
Malachi 3:6 For I [am] the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.
Lamentations 3:22 [It is of] the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.
God is love, and love is infinitely stronger than evil. Love does not avenge evil but (what is infinitely better!) corrects it, heals it, abolishes it the same way knowledge abolishes ignorance.
He deals with evil by displacing it with His Goodness and also by thwarting it. In Job 5:12, we read: “He disappoints the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform [their] enterprise.” And that brings us to the grain of truth in the lie of the Celestial Prig, because the fact is, you could conceivably find yourself among the disappointed. And that’s putting it mildly. God, in His love, frustrates our evil intents and stops our evil deeds, which is always good for us, not to mention for our victims. Yes, it is always good for us to cease eroding our character, mutilating our souls, numbing our consciences – and God in His mercy may shorten our days if necessary to keep us from that. (We children of Adam were all going to die anyway, so we can’t exactly say God will kill us, but He will decide when the time is right for each of us to leave this life and enter the next.) You could conceivably find yourself among the zapped!
But it won’t be because you came too near to God, but rather because you were too far from Him, Who is your only safety. It won’t be because, like some prissy old woman needing a flask of ammonia under her nose to revive her, God is so scandalized by your sins, but because He is rescuing you from racking up any more everlasting regrets -- and/or He is delivering others from your schemes. And/or for some other good, kind, compassionate, loving, reason we may or may not be able to discern.
Sinning, not God, is hazardous to your health.
God is your only safe haven.