Can the world be God’s “body”?

Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash

I would like to venture some speculative reflections on the matter of whether or not the world can be thought of as the “body” of God from a Christian and Biblical point of view.

At first glance, one might think that the answer is obviously: No. God is said to be the creator of the world and cannot be identified with anything within it. Likewise, Christ taught that God is Spirit (John 4:24). Spirit is not body! Moreover, the Church has always rejected the notion that God is a material or bodily being. So how can we say that the world is God’s body?

This initial objection helps us to gain a clearer notion of what is meant by the question being pursued here. The thesis under consideration is not that God might be a bodily being, but whether the world might be thought of in some sense as the body of God. You might say: How can God have a body if He is not a bodily being? I would respond: In the same way that a human being can have a body without being himself or herself identifiable with the material body. Let us pursue the thought further.

I am going to take for granted that none of us can be identified with our bodies. Our bodies may be very “close” to us, they might be said to “belong” to us in a certain sense, but we cannot be identified with them. Here is a reason to think so. You can explore every part of a body and never find the person or self to whom the body belongs. You make a quick judgment in your mind that the body is of that person, but if you go looking for the person in any part of the body, you will never find him or her.

Photo by v2osk on Unsplash

I find this insight becomes especially clear when we consider how often we associate the person with the face of a body. You can take yourself to be looking at a person by looking at the face, but as soon as you focus on any part of the face, you find that you are no longer looking at the person but rather at his or her body. You can even look into a person’s eyes and think that you are looking at the person, but once you study the eyes more closely, you find that they are just these fleshly bulbs with a hole in the center that eventually leads into the brain. The person is not found in the eyes or in any part of the body at all. We simply take the body as a whole as belonging to the person. Nor is the body itself the person. The body can be present when the person is not: e.g., when the person is unconscious or inaccessible because of a coma or some illness or demonic possession or death or whatever. The visible body that appears is taken by us to belong to the person, but it is not the person.

The person is “behind” the body somehow. The person is a subjectivity that is inaccessible to us directly. What is the connection with the body, then? It is obvious. The body is the means by which the person expresses itself in the world. You cannot know what I am seeing or feeling or thinking directly, but only if I express it in some way through my body. My body is an external appearance of my “inner” life. My body and what I do with it is the way that I make myself known to others who cannot see me directly but can see my body.

The suggestion, then, is that the world might be the body of God in this sense: God is invisible and not directly perceptible, but the visible world is the means by which He makes Himself known to us, just as our own bodies are the means by which we make ourselves known to others.

But now it is important to make another important clarification. When I say that “the world” might be thought of as God’s body, I do not mean the Earth in particular. Nor do I mean any physical thing in particular or even the total collection of physical things. By “world,” I mean this shared “environment” or “stage” in which everything happens. All particular beings exist in virtue of the fact that they are to be found here on this stage. It is this whole “stage” in which everything happens that is taken to be the “body” of God. And it is said to be His body because it is where He makes Himself known to us.

I think this conception of things can be reconciled with Christian teaching and the Bible. Indeed, I think it is evident that many of the writers of the Scriptures took for granted that what happens in the world is reflective of God’s will and His character. Christ said that it is demonstration of God’s love and perfection that the sun shines and the rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matt. 5:44–45). James also teaches that it is better for us to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that” (Jas. 4:15). Another way of saying the same thing: what happens in the world is an expression of God’s will. Just as what we do with our bodies expresses what we want, so also the world, that “stage” or “environment” in which everything exists, expresses what God wants.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that it is easy to know what God wants. My body is small in comparison to the whole world, and even then, what I do with it — what I say and how I act—can easily be misunderstood by others. How much more, then, is it hard to understand what God means to be communicating, given that His body is immense and He expresses His wishes through absolutely everything that happens in the world! But it is still true, in spite of this difficulty, that the Bible and Christianity more generally teaches that God’s will can in at least some instances be revealed through what happens in the world.

This, therefore, is a sense in which it makes sense to say that the world is God’s body. The idea is not that God is a material being. Rather, it is that God expresses His will and thoughts and character through what happens in the world, just as we do this on a smaller scale with our own bodies.

I have a PhD in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.