Many ancient texts, including the Bible, note that seeing God brings death to the person (Exodus 19:21; Exodus 33:20; Judges 13:22; Moses 1:5, 11; D&C 84:22). But then we also read of some who claim they saw God and lived to tell about it (see especially Genesis 32:30; Exodus 33:11; Moses 1:2). What’s going on? Which is it?
I think the reason for this apparent contradiction is because the ego self does, in fact, die in the direct experience and perception of God. The psychological “self,” the identity of who we think we are, vanishes from our consciousness in that sublime encounter. The body itself does not die, only our sense of “self” or “I” in consciousness passes away temporarily. The actual neuronal activity that maintains our conscious sense of an individual “self” in the brain actually shuts down, is subdued, or goes offline (some have noted that this may be in the Default Mode Network in the brain). There is no typical “I” that remains in the conscious mind. That ego/”flesh”/”natural man” is entirely consumed and “dies.”
This is sometimes called ego death or ego dissolution. In Christianity I think it is symbolized in the crucifixion, the sacrifice, the self-surrender of “not my will (ego), but thine be done,” and “of my own self (ego) I can do nothing” (Luke 22:42; John 5:30). It is kenosis, self-emptying, complete selflessness, egolessness, “I”-lessness. I perceive it is what is happening when people have “out-of-body” experiences, not that they actually left their body, but they felt like they did, as people lose even the conscious sense of their bodily skin boundary, and these experiences may also coincide with visions of the Divine (2 Cor. 12:2-3; D&C 137:1).
This is sometimes called transfiguration. One “knows as they are known,” or from a point of view outside the typical ego center (1 Cor. 13:12). One “loses one’s life (ego), and finds one’s Life” (Matthew 10:39). Without the ego “self” to comment on and judge all experience, one then attains the viewpoint of “God,” where all things are perceived to be one’s Self, one’s Being, and there is no separation between subject and object. All “others” are Me. All things are Me. All perceptions, all experience, all being, all of reality is Me. All is One. I become One in God, as God, and see the world very differently, as infinitely interconnected, saturated with Love (pure union), full of Beauty and Glory (no ego to defile it), and as One Great Whole. This is symbolized in the atonement, or at-One-ment. One sees things clearly, things “as they really are,” because there is no ego to judge or comment or think or categorize or analyze.
And then the ego-self eventually comes back online in consciousness, the ego is “reborn,” our “self” is “born again,” not by water breaking from our mother’s womb, but out of pure “Spirit,” in Consciousness itself (John 3:5). One’s sense of “self” is resurrected, or brought back to life, with an entirely new perspective on Life and Being and Reality, having had a Vision outside of one’s typical individual separate “self” perceptions and beliefs. One realizes that this particular body, this mind, this ego, is an essential part of a greater Reality that is fundamentally One. This is radically transformative, a conversion experience, a salvation/liberation from ego, a fundamental “change of mind” (metanoia/repentance).
I think it’s also the reason that many scriptures say that no one has seen God, or that one cannot see God “in the flesh” (John 1:18; John 6:46; Moses 1:5; D&C 84:21-22). The “fleshy” person we think we are (our ego) doesn’t see God, cannot see God, because there is no “person” or ego-self left in that experience to observe it. That “person” does not see God. All consciousness of the personal “self” we think we are falls completely away in that unitive at-One-ment in Divine consciousness. What then is left to see God if there is no person, no self-identity? Only God is left to see and know God.
The 12th century Sufi mystic Balyani put it this way:
No one sees Him except Himself,
no one reaches Him except Himself and
no one knows Him except Himself.
He knows Himself through Himself and
He sees Himself by means of Himself.
No one but He sees Him.
This, I believe, is essentially the same view expressed in these New Testament scriptures: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God…” (John 1:18; cf. John 6:46; Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22).
Seeing God means becoming one in God, allowing our egoic “self” to pass away from consciousness, to “put off the natural man” (Mosiah 3:19), and in no other way can we see and know God. This theme seems to be present in nearly all religious, spiritual, and secular systems in the world, symbolized in a wide variety of ways, words, images, mythologies, and practices.
“Blessed are the pure in heart [no ego]: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).