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Is Ultimate Reality an impersonal ‘Life Force’ or a personal Creator?

Pantheism—Many Far Eastern religions embrace a pantheistic worldview: the belief that the universe is an emanation of God.

Pantheism identifies the Creator with the creation: all substances, forces and laws in this universe are essentially God in manifestation. “God is All and All is God.” Ultimate Reality is an impersonal ‘Presence’ permeating all things—from the smallest atom to the largest, swirling galaxy. This is not a personal Creator who delights to interact with his creation, but a mere ‘cosmic energy’ (a supreme level of consciousness) expressing ‘Itself’ as minerals, plants, animals and human beings. In absolute pantheism, God does not exist apart from these things.

Modified pantheism, also called panentheism (pronounced pan’-en-the-ism), declares God to be the principle behind nature, the essence of life within all of creation. “God is in All and All is in God.” He is both immanent and transcendent; he is in the world, yet beyond it.

Causal principle—Some religions and teachers reduce the Source of all things to nothing more than an underlying “Causal Principle.” The Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism expressed this opinion in a recent interview, claiming that “there is not an autonomous being [God] ‘out there’ who arbitrates what you should experience and what you should know; instead, there is the truth contained in the causal principle itself.”1

Personal versus impersonal God — Contrary to the idea of a causal principle, the Bible teaches that there is a God ‘out there.’ He is a personal God (one who thinks, remembers, hears, speaks, plans, expresses emotion, demonstrates character, exercises will, and makes choices and judgments based on reason). Biblical revelation declares the universe to be a creative act of God, not an emanation of his own being. It also indicates that God is not contained by his own creation; rather, he transcends it. Yet this ‘External God’ promises to manifest himself to those who call upon his name and indwell their hearts. So, a personal relationship with him can be received and experienced. He is also personally involved in the affairs of this world.

As some interpret it, an impersonal ‘Life Force’ would have to be a non-thinking, non-emotional, non-volitional cosmic Presence, incapable of hearing, seeing, communicating or interacting with human beings. Challenging this concept, the Bible questions, “He who planted the ear, shall he not hear? He who formed the eye, shall he not see?” (Psalm 94:9) A cosmic energy force requires an elaborate system of magic formulas, incantations, symbolic rituals and other manipulative, esoteric methods to operate its power. A personal God is more interested in relationship than rituals—he desires from his offspring sincere love, adoring worship and submission to his Word and will.

In the Old Testament, we discover the God of Judaism to be a very personal God that cared for his people in a very personal way. He powerfully opened the Red Sea before them as they fled from Egypt. He audibly declared his Ten Commandments from trembling Mount Sinai to the entire camp of Israel. In their wilderness journey, he compassionately fed them with manna out of heaven and supernaturally produced water out of a rock to quench their thirst. An impersonal cosmic energy could never intervene in such ways for “Its” followers.

The incarnation—Then it happened, a pivotal event that would forever change the human race. The God of Abraham, attempting to communicate his true and personal nature even more effectively, visited the earth in a bodily form and walked among men. By angelic revelation, this incarnation of Deity was given the name Jesus (in Hebrew, Yeshua meaning “salvation”). This unique “man” was such a complete and perfect personification of God that he even asserted, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) Of course, not only did he image the Everlasting Father during his earthly existence; Jesus always has been and always will be “the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15)

Two kinds of life—Far Eastern, pantheistic worldviews teach that the life of creation is the life of God, that the former is actually an emanation of the latter. In opposition to this view, the Bible teaches that there are two kinds of life—natural life (the life in the plants, animals and every human being) and divine life (the supernatural life of God). Natural life is not the same as divine life. The Bible differentiates between these two by using two different Greek words for the word “life.” Generally speaking, when the natural life (temporal life) of a human being is being described, it is psuche (pronounced psoo-khay’). When divine life (everlasting life) is being described, the Greek word is zoe (pronounced zo-ay’).

The breath of God—The existence of two kinds of life is excellently illustrated by what took place in the creation and fall of Adam (the person identified in the Bible as the first human being). After God shaped Adam from the dust, he breathed into his nostrils the “breath of life.” (Genesis 2:7) What actually entered into Adam? Maybe we should first ask what God breathes. Does he inhale oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen? Does he have to breathe the gases that fill our atmosphere in order to live? Of course not! When God breathes, surely he breathes his own divine essence. When he breathed into Adam’s nostrils, he breathed himself, his very own being, into this progenitor of the human race and Adam became a “living soul” (a Holy Spirit infused soul—Genesis 2:7).

When Adam fell, he lost this vital principle, this divine breath. The life-imparting Holy Spirit that enabled him to constantly commune with the Father in a personal way exited from his soul. Adam was still alive physically, but because of sin’s entrance, he was dead spiritually. Though he still possessed natural breath, he no longer possessed divine breath. Though he still possessed natural, physical life and a fallen soul, he no longer possessed divine life. All of Adam’s offspring have since been born into a similar state of spiritual death. We have natural life (psuche), which is a gift from God, but until salvation takes place, we are devoid of divine life (zoe).

The Bible records a very significant happening that took place after Jesus arose from the dead. After appearing to his disciples in the upper room, he breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22) In essence, he was restoring to them what Adam lost—the breath of divine life. This could not happen until the blood of Jesus was shed, to cleanse the hearts of his disciples and qualify them for the indwelling of the presence of God.

Conclusions—It is important to note that when Christians are filled with this divine life of God, they do not become God any more than water becomes lemon juice when the two are mixed to become lemonade. Rather, they merge into oneness. The Spirit of God blends with the spirits of those persons he redeems, enabling them to have communion with him and to yield to the influence of his indwelling personality. However, both God and those he indwells maintain their separate and distinct identities.

We need to focus our attention also on God’s initial statement concerning the creation of man. He said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26 KJV) This was fulfilled a number of ways, but one primary point needs to be emphasized. A basic law of nature is the fact that any living thing reproduces after its likeness. The genetic blueprint is passed on to the offspring to perpetuate any given species. Giraffes do not reproduce elephant-like offspring, neither do mice produce horses. Giraffes produce giraffes and mice produce mice. There is a perpetuation of like physical characteristics and like nature. On the basis of this observation, the following two logical conclusions can be reached:

  • If the highest expression of God is impersonal, then we who have been made in his image should also, on the highest level, be impersonal. But if God is a personal Being, on the highest level, we also should be personal beings. Christian doctrine pronounces this latter view the correct one.
  • We know that it is possible for a personal being, a human, to produce a force or energy source that is impersonal, but theoretically, it does not seem possible or logical that an impersonal force could actually produce personal beings. Even Hazarat Inayat Khan, the Sufi Universalist, insisted, “If God has no personality, how can a human being have a personality—we human beings who come out of His own Being.”2 Can an inanimate object like a rock produce an animate object like a tree? Of course not! Can a flow of electricity give birth to a host of angels? Absolutely not! Then the question must be asked, “Can an impersonal God produce personal beings?” Logic would dictate that our answer be in the negative.

1 Kenneth L. Woodard, “The Other Jesus,” Newsweek Magazine (March 27, 2000) p. 56, Excerpt from The Good Heart by the Dalai Lama.

2 Dr. H. J. Witteveen, Universal Sufism (Rockport, assachusetts: Element, 1997) p. 95.

Copyright © 2003 Mike Shreve

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Written by Mike Shreve