How old is God? And Other Conundrums

 on February 2, 2024

Some books have such thought provoking titles that you hardly feel you need to read the book. I still think from time to time about, Do What you Love: the Money will Follow, though I confess I never got round to reading it. Another such was J.B.Phillips, Your God is Too Small, written some sixty years ago, but still worth reading. And yes, I have read it.

I for one know that my God is too small, and sadly always will be. One reason for this is the images we developed in childhood, and which never completely leave us—even though we know they are wrong. In my life, my first image of God was that of the rector of the church where I grew up. He was, it seemed to me, very tall and definitely old. He was bald, wore glasses, and was very kind. Oh, and he was always wearing a cassock and surplice when I saw him. If he was God’s representative, then presumably that’s what God was like. It made perfect sense.

The old man God

As an adult, I can laugh at this now. But the fact I know the image is wrong doesn’t mean it has completely gone away. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Think of all those cartoons mocking the idea of God. (The Far Side comes to mind.) They invariably portray God as a very old man—always a man—with a white face, long white hair, bushy eyebrows, and a long white robe. The reason those cartoons work is that everybody recognises the caricature. They tap into our childhood memories. If our subconscious image of God was a shiny pink pyramid, to take a silly example, we wouldn’t get the joke.

Of course, as we grow, we try to replace those childhood images with something more adult. But it’s difficult. C.S.Lewis tells of a young woman he knew whose parents taught her “to regard God as a perfect ‘substance’; in later life she realised that this had actually led her to think of [God] as something like a vast tapioca pudding. To make matters worse, she disliked tapioca.” So thinking of God as impersonal is not exactly an improvement on the old man in the sky. At least you can imagine talking to the old man. Tapioca, not so much.

One of the problems of the “old man” image of God is the “old” part. Of course, it makes sense. God has aways been there. A million years is nothing to God. Therefore, obviously, God must be very, very old— and, like the rest if us, must look his age. The trouble is, what seems obvious about God is often wrong. In particular, there are some wildly unhelpful ideas which get smuggled in under cover of “very, very old.” Old, for instance, can imply a certain degree of infirmity, and perhaps a loss of memory. Old people tend to be rather slow and cautious. I am not casting aspersions. I speak from first-hand experience. If God is like that, then God is probably going to be something of a drag on my life. God is likely to be very conservative, and unlikely to embrace the future with a great amount of enthusiasm. And is that kind of God someone I want to entrust my life to? Hardly.

The youthful God

Sometimes people question the usefulness of theology. But actually theology can be deeply useful, even practical. Come to think of it, if theology is talk about God, we’re already doing it. Here’s a prime example. Christian theology believes that God the Creator was incarnate in a unique way in Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, the author wrote themselves into the drama of the human race, to become a character in the story alongside all the others. Thus, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.

But think what this implies. When God became a human being, God could presumably have become incarnate as an old man—long beard and bushy eyebrows included—if that was going to give us an accurate image of the Creator. But in fact God chose something different— a young man at the height of his powers. A young man who was radical in his approach to life, love, and religion. A young man who led the way with such determination that it was difficult for people to keep up with him. A young man who delighted the marginalised and horrified the establishment. How old is God? Christian tradition would say God is about thirty years old.

Why does this matter? Because what we think about God will shape our lives, for better or for worse.

I remember, as a child in Sunday School, hearing what bad things idols were, but never having a very clear idea of what they were, or why they were so bad. Now those rules about idolatry make more sense. For example, the Psalmist mocks idolatry, but then explains the problem: “Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them.” (Psalm 135:18) We become like the things we worship. So if the object of our worship is less than God, then our growth will also be less than our Creator has in mind for us.

I love a prayer of Bishop George Appleton’s, as he reflects on this question in the light of the resurrection: “O Christ my Lord, again and again I have said with Mary Magdalene, “They have taken away my Lord and I know not where they have laid him.” I have been desolate and alone. And thou hast found me again, and I know that what has died is not thou, my Lord, but only my idea of thee, the image which I have made to preserve what I have found, and to be my security. I shall make another image, O Lord, better than the last. That too must go, and all successive images, until I come to the blessed vision of thyself, O Christ, my Lord.”

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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