When you think of the place where God dwells, do you imagine it being a place of intense light, or thick darkness? That seems like an easy question; after all, darkness is evil, and light is good - at least that’s what all of our movies have taught us. Paul even tells us straight up in his first letter to Timothy that God absolutely dwells in unapproachable light:
“...He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)
But if you were to peruse a book or a blog article written by some silly atheist devoted to finding every supposed contradiction in the Bible, you would certainly find that this question has a couple of wildly different Scriptural answers. For exhibit B, take a look at what Solomon the Wise has to say about the place where God dwells:
“Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said that He would dwell in thick darkness.’” (2 Chronicles 6:1)
First, I think that this statement begs the question: where exactly did He say that?
Well, at the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses “drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21). We see the same description of the mountain in the recounting of the event in Deuteronomy 4:11. But other than these descriptions - and plenty of references to God coming in the storm clouds in judgment throughout the prophets - there is not a direct utterance from God in the Old Testament using exactly these words. The closest thing we have is from Exodus:
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.’” (Exodus 19:9)
So it seems pretty safe to assume that this is what Solomon was referring to when he said that “the Lord has said that He would dwell in thick darkness.” After all, he was at that moment watching the cloud of the Shekhinah glory descend and fill the newly dedicated temple.
But which one of these is true? Does He dwell in light or darkness? Are the silly atheists right in thinking that this is a contradiction? And if it’s not, then what glorious truth can we discern about God from this paradox?
To get to the heart of the matter, I think it’s very important to point out that - as Paul teaches us - God dwells in unapproachable light. It can’t be approached - like, at all! It is so bright and intense that we could not survive even beginning to move in the direction of its source (which is, of course, God Himself). When Moses asked to see this glory of the Lord, God had to hide him in a small cleft in the mountain so that only a little sliver of light could get in, and even then He only showed him His back as He passed by (Exodus 33:22).
Now if that’s the way God’s glory really is, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to conceive of why God would sometime need to dwell in thick darkness - like the darkness of a concealing cloud. He appears this way to His people at Mount Sinai and in the tabernacle and the temple because this is the only way that they can survive the experience. He wraps Himself in thick darkness in order to draw close - to have a relationship with His people.
That’s also what we see Him doing in the incarnation. When Jesus was born, rather than showing up once again in a cloud, the second Person of the Trinity approached His people clothed as one of us: in human flesh:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:5-7)
Though much ink has been spilled as to exactly what Jesus emptied Himself of, the plainest answer is that He laid aside this lethal glory. He did so in order to draw near to His people in the most intimate way possible - as one of us!
God’s wrapping Himself in the thick darkness of a cloud or in the lowly flesh of a man is a testimony to His astounding grace. His full glory is unapproachable to us because we are fallen, we are lawbreakers, and our wickedness suffuses every aspect of our beings and our cultures. What humanity became in the fall was something that is diametrically opposed to the shining and glorious goodness and perfection of our Creator - so much so that we could never, ever draw close to Him again. We had no hope. And He could have left us that way, but He didn’t. Instead, He covered Himself in darkness and came to rescue us.
That’s not a contradiction. That’s the Gospel.