Radio Waves and the Presence of God

Anyone who has read the Bible knows about the apparent tension concerning where God is. According to some parts of the Bible, God seems to be very far away. For example, in Psalm 113, the psalmist writes that God “sits enthroned on high,” and that he “stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth.”[1] Similarly, Jesus says that in his pre-incarnate state, he was “above” whereas his human audience is “below.”[2] Though Jesus’s comment is obscure to say the least, his point is crystal clear: Whatever “above” and “below” mean, we know that God is distant. Finally, this agrees with our experience of God. When I look outside my window, I do not see God because God is not there.

However, at the same time, the Bible clearly teaches that God is omnipresent or everywhere. According to the Bible, there is no place that we could look at and say, “God is not there.” Instead, God is present and active in his creation. Thus, in Exodus, for example, God is present in the bush as he speaks to Moses.[3] Similarly, the psalmist asks God, “where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”[4] The psalmist then says that even if he goes to the extreme ends of creation, God is already there. Finally, in the New Testament, Paul tells a group of philosophers that God “is not far from any one of us.”[5] Finally, this, too, agrees with our experience of God. When I pray, meditate on scripture, or preach sermons, I am aware that God is present in and around me.

It would seem, then, that the Bible and experience both show us that God is distant and yet present, aloof and yet active, or, to use theological terms, transcendent and yet immanent. In one sense, God is far from us and is seemingly untouched and unconcerned by the happenings of everyday life; however, in a different sense, he is always nearby and is highly interested in what takes place on earth.

One way of understanding this paradox is by an analogy. There are certain sounds that we cannot hear for various reasons. One example would be the high-pitch tone that some businesses use to keep teenagers away. The frequency is so high-pitched that younger people can hear the aggravating noise; however, most adults have lost the ability to hear the tone with age.[6] Whether you can hear certain tones can even predict your approximate age.[7] In other words, these noises can be present around some people without being heard.

The teenager repellent isn’t the only example, however. At this moment, you are being inundated by radio waves.[8] Since you’re a human being, you don’t have the senses required to interpret them. Instead, they bounce off of your eyes and ears without you ever being aware of them. To interpret a radio wave, we must use equipment like radios and speakers. Though radio waves are always around us, we simply don’t have the ability to see or to hear them.

In a sense, then, radio waves, like God, are immanent and transcendent. They are immanent because they pervade and indwell every corner of our world. We can’t get away from them, we can’t run from them, and we can’t evade them. They are in our room when we sleep, they are buffeting us while we shop at Wal-Mart, and they are reverberating in our churches on Sunday mornings. However, at the same time, they also transcend us. Though they’re always nearby, they exist in a part of the universe that we aren’t equipped to understand nor to interpret. For that reason, we find it easy to forget about them; indeed, were it not for science, we would never even suspect that they exist. Thus, radio waves, like God, are both immanent and transcendent.

When we consider God, we find a similar idea of immanence and transcendence. God is always nearby, even when we don’t realize he’s there. For that reason, God is aware of everything we do and say. Similarly, God can be active in all of his creation at once, even in ways we wouldn’t expect. He can use mundane, natural events—even sinful actions—for his purposes because he is present in the mundane and in the natural. God’s immanence teaches us that God is present and active in the world he created, in the regular events of life, and even in the hearts of those who don’t know him through Christ.

At the same time, God is transcendent. God does not exist in a way that we are able fully to understand. Instead, he surpasses and eludes us at every turn. Like radio waves, God’s existence would go completely unnoticed were he not to reveal himself to us. Since God is above and beyond his sin-wracked creation, we can trust that he has not been affected by sin. He has not gotten his hands dirty by participating in sin because he is not in his creation, he is beyond it. Similarly, God is metaphysically distinct from his creation. His existence is not tied to the existence of the universe. Whereas we need air, water, and food to survive, God knows no such necessities. All things came from him, and there is nothing to which he must give an account. Because he is transcendent, we can have confidence in God’s character, power, and independence.

Thinking about where God is can be difficult to understand; fortunately, we aren’t without analogies. Though we are unaware of them, radio waves throw themselves against us throughout our entire lives. In a sense, then, they are immanent and transcendent, near and far away. Though God is not a radio wave, he does have the similar quality of being both immanent and transcendent. He is always nearby us and is highly active in the world; at the same time, however, he is not dependent on the world nor is his character affected by the evil that takes place on earth.

Notes & Sources

[1] Psalm 113:5-6, all scripture quotations are from the NIV.

[2] John 8:23.

[3] Exodus 3.

[4] Psalm 139:7

[5] Acts 17:27

[6]“Kids Be Gone: High Pitch Only Teens Can Hear Used as Deterrent (Audio),” Huffington Post, last modified December 6, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/04/23/high-pitch-only-teens-can_n_98304.html.

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXhRmv1mrs4

[8] The radio wave analogy comes from Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 286.

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