Everyone has beliefs which they express in the way they think, speak and act. Religious beliefs are expressed through behaviour in everyday life, but they are also expressed through worship. To be able to worship, you need to know what it is you are worshipping and therefore it is necessary to be able to describe the thing you worship - in this case, God. So each religion has developed its own way of trying to describe what God is like. Sometimes God is described in a personal way, either as he or she, and given human characteristics. This suggests that God can be personally involved in the ordinary lives and experiences of human beings. At other times, God is distant and beyond our understanding, e.g. God created and oversees the world. It is important that we understand the language that is used in religion, so that we can understand what it means and how limited it is.

We can begin to do this by thinking for ourselves what God could be like if he exists. If there is such a thing as a creator God, what is "it" like? One of the problems in trying to understand what God could be like is that we first have to try to get rid of childhood ideas about God.

Draw sketches in the boxes below to describe the captions. Then write a paragraph in response to the following: "If God were a piece of furniture or a flower, what kind would he be and why?"

God is like a rescuer who gets you out of trouble

God is like a policeman who makes sure you keep the law

God is like an old man in the sky looking down on us

God is like Santa Clause, he gives us things we want

Describing God

Four words that are often used by theologians and philosophers to try to describe what God is like are immanent, transcendent, personal and impersonal.

It is important to try to understand what is meant by each of these terms. In some aspects of religions, it seems that God is above and beyond human experience. In other aspects, it seems that God can be experienced in the normal course of everyday life.

Immanence: To describe God as immanent is to say that he is involved in the world, he is not separate from it. This means that God can act in the course of human history.

Transcendence: To describe God as transcendent means that he is beyond and outside the material world. This means he is not limited by the world in terms of time, space and what he can do.

In some religions, God is described as both transcendent and immanent. In this way, he can involve himself in the world and affect the course of history, but he is also not limited by the boundaries of the world. For example, in the Christian religion, God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and is therefore immanent, but he is still beyond the world and separate from the material reality and this is described as God the Father. Christians believe in the trinity of God - three persons in one nature. The Father (the transcendent), the Son (immanent) and the Spirit, which is God present in human beings. The Spirit unites the two ideas of immanence and transcendence.

Personal: To say that God is personal means that he is a conscious individual being - like a human being. If God is like a person, how can he be everywhere at the same time or answer prayers? Religions often describe God as personal because it makes him more accessible and approachable.

Impersonal: To say that God is impersonal is to say he does not have any human characteristics. If this is so, what is God like? Is he a spirit or a force? Can humans have a meaningful relationship with an impersonal God? Some people have tried to describe an impersonal God by using prime numbers. A prime number (e.g. 1,3,5,7,13,17) can be divided by 1 or itself. It is an absolute number, that cannot be broken down and understood in terms of other numbers. God can be seen in this way. God is an absolute being which is indivisible and can only be understood in terms of itself.

Understanding God

Describing God as personal - like a human being - is limiting. All the ways we have of describing a personal God are based on the characteristics of human beings and this in itself is limiting, since God must be more than this - greater than a human.

Therefore, to describe God in these terms limits him and us in our understanding of him. It is impossible to imagine God without some explanation of what he is like, and any description can only be based on human imagination. So, although religions can describe certain aspects of God, they can never describe him completely. It would be impossible to understand something that is much greater than ourselves. Some religions have images of God, which help people relate to him. For example, in Hinduism God appears in many forms which each represent an aspect of God. Other religions, however, forbid any kind of image of God, because they feel that this may limit the understanding of God to that image, and that followers would begin to worship the image rather than God. Both Islam and Judaism forbid images of God.

Most religions believe this personal and immanent God to be the only aspect of God. They also view God as transcendent - beyond the world, and therefore impersonal - not relating to us. To understand how God could see everything and know everything, religions describe him as beyond the world. To be creator of the universe he must be beyond it. If he was not separate from the universe and beyond it, he could not have existed before it and therefore created it, and he would be limited by the world. Most people's understanding of God is that he is not limited and therefore must be transcendent. This transcendence means that there are aspects of God that are not personal - they are beyond this - they are impersonal.

God in different religions

People can only worship if they have some understanding of what they are worshipping. Each religion has found different ways of expressing God even though in his entirety he is not knowable. Thinking about different ways religions express what God is like may help you to form your own opinion about what God could be like. Think about this Indian fable.

One day, three blind men came across an elephant. Each wanted to know what the elephant was like, and began to touch the elephant. The first said the elephant was like a pillar, as he had only found his leg. The second said it was like a great fan, as he had found his ear. The third said it was like a jungle vine, as he had found its trunk. Each man had a different version of what an elephant was like. They were all partly right but none of them had gathered the whole truth.

Religions describe God in different ways. This does not necessarily mean that only one of them is right. Is it possible that they are all right in some way, but none of them can provide all the answers to the problem and questions that arise?


Christians accept that God is both personal and impersonal. They believe in a personal God that relates to humans. Through the Bible - in both the Old and the New Testaments - when God speaks, he speaks in first person:

I am the God of your father, Abraham Exodus 3:6
Hear my cry, O God,
listen to my prayer

Psalm 61:1
I will bring
you out
of Egypt

Exodus 3:17

Jesus instructs his followers to address God as 'Abba', which is Aramaic for 'daddy', suggesting that their relationship with God can be as close and personal as that of a child to a parent.

In the book of Genesis, God created the heavens, the earth, all living things and finally, human beings:

Then God said, 'And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us. They will have power over the fish, the birds, and all animals, domestic and wild, large and small.' So God created human beings, making them to be like himself. He created them male and female

Genesis 1:26-28

In the story, God clearly makes human beings to be 'like himself' - in his image. This suggests that, in some way, human beings are like God. We sometimes use expressions such as 'he is the image of his father.' By this we do not mean that the boy is exactly like his father, but that he resembles him closely. We might also say that 'he has the same personality as his mother,' meaning that he behaves like his mother and may thing like her in similar ways. In the same way, when Christians say that human beings have been created in the 'image and likeness' of God, they mean that they resemble God closely and may think and behave in ways similar to God, not that they are exactly like God.


Hindus believe that god is both personal and impersonal. On the one hand, he is completely outside our experience - he is the power and the energy that holds the universe together. If that power were to be withdrawn, the universe would simply no longer exist. On the other hand, God is also Atman - the soul, or spirit, that lives within each human being. The ultimate goal for the Hindu is to allow the Atman to be reunited with God. To do this the soul must move through a cycle of birth, death and rebirth until it has achieved perfection, when it will be released and become one with Brahman (God), the source of all life.

In Hindu tradition, God is Brahman who has no form and can be male or female, Brahman controls the world through three major aspects - Brahma (the creative aspect of Brahman), Vishnu (the aspect of Brahman which sustains the universe) and Shiva (the aspect which destroys so that the process of creation can continue).

Brahman is completely remote and beyond human understanding, but Hindus enjoy a personal relationship with God through avatars

An avatar is an incarnation (God taking on human form and becoming involved in human life) of supreme spirit, usually from the aspect of Vishnu.

Look at the pictures of Hindu deities below then suggest how a God is portrayed as impersonal and how is God shown as personal. Why do you think most Hindus prefer to see God in personal terms?

Picture A shows the God as Ganesh. I think that this reflects God as...

Picture B of Vishnu gives me the image that God is...

Picture C Shows Shiva and gives me the image that this reflects God as...


Look at these names of God from Islam. They have been deliberately divided into two groups. How does each group differ?

Lord of Creation

Lord of Daybreak





The truth

The Compassionate

The Merciful





The protector


Which of the names reflect God as awesome - a powerful force which is remote and beyond our grasp or understanding? Which names suggest he is impersonal and transcendent - beyond and above everything?

Which names suggest God is close, accessible and is involved in our lives?

The Qur'an, the sacred book of Islam, revealed by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad expresses this idea very clearly:

He is with you, wherever you are.

Surah 57:4
But he who repents after
he has committed wrong,
and makes amends, Allah
will graciously turn to him.

Surah 5:39
No vision can grasp him, but his grasp is over all
vision: he is above all understanding; yet he
himself knows everything.

Surah 6:103
He brings them out...from darkness
to light and directs them on to the
straight way.

Surah 5:16

Copy out those extracts which suggest God is personal. Copy out those which suggest God is impersonal. Finally which extract do you think offers the most appropriate description for God? Give reasons for your answer.

If someone believes in God they are most likely to interpret everyday experiences as God working in the world. Most of us can relate to the idea of feeling that life is good, but every now and again things go wrong, causing us to reflect and learn from the experience. Many religious people see God working in both the highs and the lows of life. Many of the prophets and saints testify to God working through the low points moulding and shaping people into useful beings through the disasters that affected their lives.