Are gods physical beings? It appears that, in general, earlier cultures considered them to be such, but religion has developed away from that idea toward that of their being pure spirit. Of course, gods can TAKE physical form if they want, but they don’t HAVE to. The idea of a god having a true form that they couldn’t show was pretty common, as with Semele dying instantly when she saw the true appearance of Zeus.
I wonder if the same thing would apply to seeing a PICTURE of the true appearance of Zeus.
There were still plenty of physical representations of Zeus, but they were presumably how he would manifest himself to humans, not how he actually looked when in all his divine glory.
The forms that Zeus could take in Greek mythology were pretty esoteric on occasion, like the shower of gold he uses to impregnate Danae.
Still, it appears that the ancient Greeks were consistent in saying that Zeus HAD a physical form, even if it was one we mortals couldn’t comprehend. This seems to have applied even more to the Norse gods, as Odin giving up one eye in exchange for a drink from Mimir’s well wouldn’t have been much of a sacrifice if he didn’t need eyes. So what about Yahweh, the God who clawed his way to the top of modern religion by declaring all the others frauds? Yeah, I’m being rather flippant here, but as an atheist I can’t say I view monotheism as inherently superior to polytheism. It does appear to be the trend that was followed in most cultures, however, and it is linked to the idea of a non-physical God. After all, if your deity is all-pervasive, why limit it to any physical representation? This is probably part of why graven images were condemned in Judaism, although as I’ve mentioned before I feel there was also an element of elitism involved there.
As with many subjects, the Bible is hardly consistent on whether God has a physical form. You don’t need to look any farther than the very first chapter of Genesis to see an indication that he is indeed corporeal, as he creates humans in his own image. Indeed, both male and female are said to be in his image, so does God look like both genders at once? Certainly the idea that God is male has lasted even until today, and I have to wonder how and why a non-physical being would have a gender.
In Exodus 33, Yahweh tells Moses, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live,” which expresses a similar idea to how Zeus couldn’t show his true form to mortals. A few verses later, God shows his “back parts” to the prophet. In other parts of the Moses story, Yahweh manifests himself as a burning bush and a pillar of flame, although we don’t exactly know how physical these forms were.
I suppose the idea that gods could be non-corporeal went along with the one that ANYTHING could be non-corporeal. In ancient religion, not only did the gods live in physical places you could presumably get to if you tried hard enough, but so did dead people. The underworld was literally underground, and Heaven actually in the sky above our mortal realm. In Genesis, the firmament is said to separate Earth from Heaven, suggesting God lives on top of the dome of the sky. It’s quite likely that the idea of spiritual entities developed when it became clear you COULDN’T physically reach the homes of the gods or the dead. Some Greek philosophers claimed that the gods were made of aether or quintessence, the fifth of the classical elements according to Aristotle. Plato thought of aether as a more magical kind of air, while Aristotle considered it something else entirely. The idea of this mystical substance continued into medieval times, when it was thought to be what the stars were made of. Since then, we’ve learned what stars are really composed of, but gods still remain a mystery.
I can say that, for my part, I’m not really a believer in the spiritual. Saying that something exists without a physical form strikes me as a convenient excuse, especially when you try to give it traits that only physical objects are known to have, like consciousness. How can something be conscious without a brain? Throughout history, there have been many things that have been thought to be outside human understanding, only for them to be quantified later on. And even if there are things it turns out we’ll never know, there doesn’t mean there ISN’T a rational explanation for them. Obviously, though, I could be wrong.