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Encyclopedia > The nature of God
This article focuses on the concept of singular, monotheistic God. See deity, gods, or goddesses for details on divine entities in specific religions and mythologies.

God is a term referring to the concept of a supreme being, generally believed to be ruler or creator of, and/or immanent within, the universe. The concept of a singular God is characteristic of monotheism, but it is not always possible to draw a sharp distinction between some forms of monotheism and some forms of polytheism (see also henotheism).

Some concepts of God may include anthropomorphic attributes, while others hold it impossible or blasphemous to imagine God in any physical form. Some hold that God is necessarily morally good (see summum bonum). Others feel that God is beyond the understanding of human morality. Negative theology argues that no true statements about attributes of God may be made at all, and some hold God to be beyond the understanding of humanity altogether. Some mystical traditions ascribe limits to God's powers, arguing that God's supreme nature leaves no room for spontaneity.

A singular God is necessarily unique (but see Trinity, Dualism). Still, different traditions and understandings of the concept may cause disagreement among believers regarding the God revered by others. Belief in a single God may give rise to concepts of absolute morality, and also to a claim of exclusivity (see Chosen people).

Some espouse an exclusionist view, seeing the God venerated by others with different beliefs as inferior or nonexistent. Others hold an inclusionist view, assuming the God venerated by others to be the same God under a different name. Many people hold personal, sometimes even secular interpretations of God, typically in agreement with a concept of an "Absolute Infinite".



Earliest attestation of the Germanic word in the 6th century Codex Argenteus (Mt 5:9)

The word God continues Old English/Germanic god (guţ, gudis in Gothic, Gott in modern German). The original meaning and etymology of the Germanic word god have been hotly disputed, though most agree to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European form *ǵhutóm, which is a passive perfect participle from the root *ǵhu-, which likely meant "libation", "sacrifice". Compare:-

The connection between these meanings is likely via the meaning "pour a libation".
Another possible meaning of *ǵhutóm is "invocation", related to Sanskrit hūta.

The word God was used to represent Greek theos, Latin deus in Bible translations, first in the Gothic translation of the New Testament by Ulfilas.

Also some people in the world, mainly Hindu, believe that the word God, is actually an acronym(G.O.D.). The acronym stands for Generator, Observer/Operator, Destroyer. This belief although rare, is held quite dearly by some people.


KJV of 1611 (Psalms 23:1,2): Occurrence of "Lord" (and "God" in the heading)

The development of English orthography was dominated by Christian texts. Capitalised "God" was first used to refer to the Judeo-Christian concept, and may now signify any monotheistic conception of God, including the translation of the Arabic Allah.

In early English bibles, the Tetragrammaton was rendered in capitals: "IEHOUAH" in William Tyndale's version of 1525. The King James Version of 1611 renders

  • YHWH as "The Lord"
  • Elohim as "God"
  • Adonay YHWH and Adonay Elohim as "Lord God"
  • kurios ho theos as "Lord God" (in the New Testament)

The use of capitalisation, like for a proper noun, has persisted, to disambiguate the concept of a singular God from pagan deities, or, in the Christian view, false idols, for which lowercase god was continued to be applied, mirroring the use of Latin deus. Pronouns referring to God are also often capitalised, and traditionally in the masculine gender, i. e. "He", "His" etc.

Names of God

Main article: Names of God

The generic term God is the proper English name used for the deity of monotheistic faiths. Different names for God exist within different religious traditions.

  • Jehovah, Yahweh (based on the Hebrew name YHVH (יהוה) and Elohim are some of the names used for God in the Christian Bible
  • See The name of God in Judaism for Jewish names of God. (Note: when written or typed as a proper noun, some observant Jews will use the form "G-d" so that "the written name of God cannot be desecrated". Some Orthodox Jews consider this inappropriate because English is not the Holy Language.)

History of monotheism

See also monotheism.

The religions widely thought of as monotheistic today are of relatively recent origin historically, although Eastern religions (notably religions of China and India) that have concepts of panentheism are difficult to classify along Western notions of monotheism vs. polytheism, and sometimes have claims of being very ancient, if not eternal.

In the Ancient Orient, many cities had their own local god, but this henotheistic worship of a single god did not imply denial of the existence of other gods. The Hebrew Ark of the Covenant adapted this practice to a nomadic lifestyle, paving their way for a singular God. The cult of the solar god Aten is often cited as the earliest known example of monotheism, but even if Akhetaten's hymn to Aten praises this god as omnipotent creator, worship of other gods beside him never ceased. Early examples of monotheism also include two late rigvedic hymns (10.129,130) to a Panentheistic creator god, Shri Rudram, a Vedic hymn to Rudra, an earlier aspect of Shiva, which expressed monistic theism, and is still chanted today, the Zoroastrian Ahuramazda and Chinese Shang Ti. The worship of polytheistic gods, on the other hand, is seen by many to predate monotheism, reaching back as far as the paleolithic. Today, monotheistic religions are dominant (mainly due to the missionary efforts of Christianity and Islam), but polytheism, and to a lesser extent also animism, survive.

The existence of God

See also arguments for and arguments against the existence of God.

Arguments for God

Arguments for or against the existence of God date back to classical times.

  • Ontological arguments argue God exists by necessity or definition — that God's existence can be determined from consideration of his, her, or its nature alone.
  • Teleological arguments argue that the structure of aspects of the Cosmos, such that the high level of complexity seen in the universe or the apparent fine-tuning of physical constants, require a divine designer.

A more comprehensive list of such arguments can be found in Arguments for the existence of God.

Arguments against God

Alternately, there are a variety of arguments against the existence of God.

  • Incompatible-properties arguments contend that many of the properties often assigned to God are logically inconsistent with each other.
  • Burden of proof is the logical position that the existence of a God is an extraordinary claim that should be rejected until proved to exist by extraordinary evidence.
  • Cosmological argument. One argument for the existence of a god is the cosmological or primary cause argument: Everything we know to exist in the universe has been caused by something else, so the universe must have a cause. Although this seems syllogistic at first, it is actually a recursion that stops short in its induction, forming merely a circular postulate. One can extend the argument as, if god created the universe who created God? In other words, if everything must have a cause or precedent then what or who came before God? And if God could exist without a cause or a precedent then why does the universe need a cause or precedent?


Fideism maintains that all attempted proofs and disproofs of God's existence are misguided, as belief in God must depend on faith rather than any rational arguments or proofs. This argument makes the existence of God a spiritual "question" as opposed to an intellectual one. Fideists often quote scripture as support for their claim, such as Hebrews 11:6.


Theology is the study of religious beliefs. Theologians attempt to explicate (and in some cases systematize) beliefs; some express their own experience of the divine. Theologians ask questions such as: What is the nature of God? What does it mean for God to be singular? If people believe in God as a duality or trinity, what do these terms signify? Is God transcendent, immanent, or some mix of the two? What is the relationship between God and the universe, and God and mankind?

  • Theism holds that God is both transcendent and immanent; thus, God is simultaneously infinite and in some way present in the affairs of the world. Catholic theology holds that God is infinitely simple and is outside of time. Most theists hold that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, although this belief raises questions about God's responsibility for evil and suffering in the world. Some theists ascribe to God a self-conscious or purposeful limiting of omnipotence, omniscience, or benevolence. Open Theism, by contrast, asserts that God has limits. A few people use the word "monotheism" to refer to the belief in God and use "theism" to refer to any belief in gods, i.e., monotheism or polytheism.
  • Deism holds that God is wholly transcendent: God exists, but does not intervene in the world beyond what was necessary for God to create it. In this view, God is not anthropomorphic, and does not literally answer prayers or cause miracles to occur.
  • Monotheism holds that there is only one God, and/or that the one true God is worshipped in different religions under different names. It is important to note, however, that monotheists of one religion can, and often do, consider the monotheistic god of a different religion to be a false god. For instance, many Christian fundamentalists consider the God of Islam (Allah) to be a false god or demon (although theologians and linguists argue that "Allah" is merely the Arabic word for "God," and not the literal name of a specifically Muslim god). Many Jews consider the messiah of Christianity (Jesus) to be a false god and some monotheists (notably fundamentalist Christians) hold that there is one triune God, and that all gods of other religions are actually demons in disguise (as in 2nd Corinthians 11 (http://wikisource.org/wiki/Bible%2C_English%2C_King_James%2C_2_Corinthians#Chapter_11) verse 14). Eastern religious believers and Liberal Christians are more likely to assume those of other faiths worship the same God as they.
  • Dystheism is a form of theism which holds that God is malevolent as a consequence of the problem of evil. Dystheistic speculation is common in theology, but there is no known church of practicing dystheists. See also Satanism.

Most believers allow for the existence of other, less powerful spiritual beings, and give them names such as angels, saints, Djinn, demons, and devas.

Conceptions of God

Jewish, Christian and Muslim conceptions

Judaism, Christianity and Islam see God as a being who created the world and rules over the universe. God is usually held to have the properties of holiness (separate from sin and incorruptible), justness (fair, right, and true in all His judgements), sovereignty (unthwartable in His will), omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), omnibenevolence (all-loving), and omnipresence (all-present).

Jews, Christians and Muslims often conceive of God as a personal God, with a will and personality. However, many medieval rationalist philosophers of these religions felt that one should not view God as personal, and that such personal descriptions of God are only meant as metaphors. Some within these three faiths still accept these views as valid, although many of the laity today do not have a wide awareness of them.

In Eastern Christianity, it remains essential that God be personal; hence it speaks of the three persons of the Trinity. It also emphasizes that God has a will, and that God the Son has two wills, divine and human, though these are never in conflict. The personhood of God and of all human people is essential to the concept of theosis or deification.

Biblical definition of God

16th century Christian view of Genesis: God creates Adam (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel)

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) characterizes God by these attributes: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." (Exodus 34:6–7)

The Hebrew Bible contains no systematic theology: No attempt is made to give a philosophical or rigorous definition of God, nor of how God acts in the world. It does not explicitly describe God's nature, exemplified by God's assertion in Exodus that "you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live". Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible are the words omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent used to define God in a systematic sense.

Although scripture does not describe God systematically, however, it does provide a poetic depiction of God and His relationship with people. According to the biblical historian Yehezkal Kaufmann, the essential innovation of Biblical theology was to posit a God that cares about people, and that cares about whether people care about Him. Most people believe that the Bible should be viewed as humanity's view of God, but theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel described the Biblical God as "anthropopathic", which means that one should read the Bible as God's view of humanity, and not as humanity's view of God.

Similarly, the New Testament contains no systematic theology: no attempt is made to give a philosophical or rigorous definition of God, nor of how God acts in the world. The New Testament does, however, provide an implicit theology as it teaches that God became human while remaining fully God, in the person of Jesus, and that he subsequently sent the Holy Spirit. In this view, God becomes someone that can be seen and touched, and may speak and act in a manner easily perceived by humans, while also remaining transcendent and invisible. This appears to be a radical departure from the concepts of God found in Hebrew Bible. The New Testament's statements regarding the nature of God were eventually developed into the doctrine of the Trinity.

Kabbalistic definition of God

Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) teaches that God is neither matter nor spirit. Rather God is the creator of both, but is himself neither. But if God is so different from his creation, how can there be any interaction between the Creator and the created? This question prompted Kabbalists to envision two aspects of God, (a) God himself, who in the end is unknowable, and (b) the revealed aspect of God who created the universe, preserves the universe, and interacts with mankind in a personal way. Kabbalists believe that these two aspects are not contradictory but complement one another.

Negative theology

Main article: Negative theology.

Many early Christian saints and medieval philosophers argued for apophatic theology, the idea of approaching a knowledge of God through negative attributes. For example, we should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; all we can safely say is that God is not nonexistent. We should not say that God is wise, but we can say that God is not ignorant. We should not say that God is One, but we can state that there is no multiplicity in God's being.

God as Unity or Trinity

Jews, Muslims, and a small fraction of Christians are unitarian monotheists. The vast majority of Christians have been and still are Trinitarian monotheists.

  • Unitarian monotheists hold that there is only one "person" (so to speak), or one basic substance, in God. Some adherents of this position consider Trinitarianism to be a form of polytheism.
  • Trinitarian monotheists believe in one God that exists as three distinct persons who share the same substance/essence; the Christian version of this is called the Trinity, the Hindu version Trimurti. Trinitarians hold that the three persons have the same purpose, holiness, and sovereignty, and therefore each can be worshiped as God, without violating the idea that there is only one God to which worship belongs.
  • Mormons believe that there are three separate divine personages. One of these personages is a spirit without a body referred to as the Holy Ghost. The other two personages are spirits with perfected or glorified (often called celestial) bodies referred to as Heavenly Father (or less commonly "Elohim") and his son, Jesus Christ. Mormons hold that God is a Holy Man who advanced to his divine status through a repeatable process of progression. They believe that by following their religion's teachings, humans can literally become gods (sometimes phrased as "become like Heavenly Father") at some point after death and resurrection; this is also called Exaltation.
  • Hasidic Jews hold that there are ten Sefirot (emanations) of God. Each of these are more distinct than a characteristic, but less distinct than a separate personage.
  • Dualism is the idea of two, nearly equal divine entities, one being the good God, and the other being an evil god, or Satan. All beings are under the influence of one side, or the other, if they know it or not. Zoroastrianism is an example of dualism.

Aristotelian definition of God

Main article: Aristotelian view of God.

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle discusses the meaning of "being as being". Aristotle holds that "being" primarily refers to the Unmoved Movers, and assigned one of these to each movement in the heavens. Each Unmoved Mover continuously contemplates its own contemplation, and everything that fits the second meaning of "being" by having its source of motion in itself, moves because the knowledge of its Mover causes it to emulate this Mover (or should).

The Ultimate

Arguably, Eastern conceptions of The Ultimate (this, too, has many different names) are not conceptions of a personal divinity, though certain Western conceptions of what is at least called "God" (e.g., Spinoza's pantheistic conception and various kinds of mysticism) resemble Eastern conceptions of The Ultimate.

Hindu Conceptions of God

  • In Shaivism and Vaishnavism, Hindus believe that God, whether in the form of Shiva or Vishnu has six attributes. However, the actual number of auspicious qualities of God, are countless, with the following six qualities being the most important.
  • The number six is invariably given, but the individual attributes variously listed are Jnana (Omniscience), defined as the power to know about all beings simultaneously; Aishvarya (Sovereignty), which consists in unchallenged rule over all; Shakti (Energy), or power, which is the capacity to make the impossible possible; Bala (Strength), which is the capacity to support everything by His will and without any fatigue; Virya (Vigour), or valour which indicates the power to retain immateriality as the Supreme Being in spite of being the material cause of mutable creations; and Tejas (Splendour), which expresses His self-sufficiency and the capacity to overpower everything by His spiritual effulgence.; cited from Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, by Swami Tapasyananda.
  • Other six characteristics are listed as Jnana (Omniscience), Vairagya (Dispassion), Yasas (Fame), Aisvarya (Sovereignty), Sri (Glory), Dharma (Righteousness). Other important qualities attributed to God are Gambhirya (inestimatble grandeur), Audarya (generosity), and Karunya (compassion).
  • Chanted prayers, or mantras, are central to Hindu worship. Among the most chanted mantras in Hinduism are the Vishnu sahasranama (a prayer to Vishnu that dates from the time of the Mahabharata and describes Him as the Universal Brahman), Shri Rudram (a Vedic hymn to Rudra, an earlier aspect of Shiva that also describes Him as Brahman) and the Gayatri mantra, (another Vedic hymn that initially was meant as a prayer to the Sun, an aspect of Brahman but has other interpretations. It is now interpreted as a prayer to the impersonal absolute Brahman). Another famous hymn, Lalitha Sahasranama, describes the 1000 names of Devi, worshipped as God the Divine Mother, or God's Shakti or Power personified by Hindus.

Modern views

Mathematical definitions

The mathematician Georg Cantor identified God with the mathematical concept of the Absolute Infinite.

Kurt Gödel's "ontological proof" is a mathematical formulation of Saint Anselm's ontological argument.

Process philosophy and Open Theism definition of God

Process theology is a school of thought influenced by the metaphysical process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (18611947). Open Theism, a theological movement that began in the 1990s, is similar, but not identical, to Process theology.

In both views, God is not omnipotent in the classical sense of a coercive being. Reality is not made up of material substances that endure through time, but serially-ordered events, which are experiential in nature. The universe is characterized by process and change carried out by the agents of free will. Self-determination characterizes everything in the universe, not just human beings. God and creatures co-create. God cannot force anything to happen, but rather only influence the exercise of this universal free will by offering possibilities. See the entries on process theology, panentheism, and Open theism.

Posthuman God

Similar to this theory is the belief or aspiration that humans will create a God entity, emerging from an artificial intelligence. Arthur C. Clarke, a science fiction writer, said in an interview that: It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God, but to create him.

Another variant on this hypothesis is that humanity or a segment of humanity will create or evolve into a posthuman God by itself; for some examples, see cosmotheism, transhumanism, prometheism, technological singularity.


Some comparatively new belief systems and books portray God as Extraterrestrial life. Many of these theories hold that intelligent beings from another world have been visiting Earth for many thousands of years, and have influenced the development of our religions. Some of these books posit that prophets or messiahs were sent to the human race in order to teach morality and encourage the development of civilization. (See e.g. Rael).


  • Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Ballantine Books, 1994
  • Jack Miles, God : A Biography, Knopf, 1995. [1] (http://www.jackmiles.com/default.asp?ID=15)
  • Cliff Pickover, The Paradox of God and the Science of Omniscience, Palgrave/St Martin's Press, 2001.

See also

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:

  Results from FactBites:
CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Nature and Attributes of God (5893 words)
God cannot be classified or defined, as contingent beings are classified and defined; for there is no aspect of being in which He is perfectly similar to the finite, and consequently no genus in which He can be included.
But God is infinitely perfect and is necessarily what He is. It is true that some attributes by which certain aspects of Divine perfection are described are hypothetlcal or relative, in the sense that they presuppose the contingent fact of creation: omnipresence, for example, presupposes the actual existence of spatial beings.
God first destines a man to glory antecedently to any foreseen merits, and consequently upon this decrees to give the efficacious grace by which it is obtained.
  More results at FactBites »



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