I’m having a difficult time trying to explain the trinity to someone who is not a believer an I find it quite difficult, any suggestions on how to simplify the concept of three in one god to a non believer?
Well, your difficulty in explaining the Trinity to your friend is quite natural since the concept has been historically hard to explain. It’s been so difficult that some Christian sects have just repudiated the concept altogether, such as the Jehovah Witnesses.
I think it’s helpful to start by explaining how Christians came up with this description for God. Why invent this paradoxical (some would say contradictory) vision of God’s nature in the first place? Well, that may actually be a mark in it’s favor as revealed Truth. Indeed, who WOULD invent something like this? Certainly not someone interested in winning converts through a user friendly religion!
So it begins like this: Christians believe in one God. We’re monotheists. We accept the testimony of Moses who said in Deut 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” But then secondly, we realized that there came a man (Jesus) who claimed to be One with this one God. And not merely “One” in the sense of being “on the same page” as God, but One in the sense of being one in nature, character and being. But He wasn’t just God taking Human form for a while, because this Man claimed a relationship WITH God as well as being God himself. He referred to God as his Father, and he was his Son. Thirdly, this Man also taught that God would send his very Presence in a special way on his Followers. And again, this wasn’t just God sending forth his power, but a distinct person from God is named, the Counselor, the Spirit of God. So now you have three entities, all claiming to be God, to have all the divine prerogatives of Godhood, and yet all are not just “modes” of this One God, they exist independently and simultaneously. The moment that confirms these three persons co-exist is Matt 3:16,17, the Father speaks from heaven, the Spirit descends like a dove and the Son is baptized.
So there it is, One God existing eternally in three Persons – the Trinity. This is not what we believe because we WANT to believe it, or because we made it up. It came to us by revelation and so it’s not entirely clear to anyone HOW this is true about God, because it seems illogical. So some have tried to give illustrations to help ease the tension.
But all attempts to come up with metaphors for the Trinity to make it “easy to understand” eventually break down. The reason they do, is because they all either minimize the true Oneness or Threeness of God. Together they can help to make the Trinity a little more accessible, but none is a perfect analogy.
Here’s a few famous ones:
- A man is a Husband to his wife, and he’s a Father to his children and he’s a worker on the job. There’s just one man, but he’s three people in different situations. Weakness: it compromises the THREENESS of God because the man is never in his roles simultaneously, co-existing side by side with his “alter egos”. He’s only ever one of these. But the Trinity is Father Son and Spirit, at the same time, all the time.
- Water is made up of three atoms – two hydrogen and one oxygen. Together they make one cohesive element, but it’s made up of three distinct parts. Weakness: it compromises the ONENESS of God because if you break the three atoms up, you don’t have water. Each are not fully water themselves but only when all the parts are put together. Each member of the Trinity is fully God, not 1/3 of God.
- Water is able to take three forms, solid, liquid and gas, yet these distinct forms are still just one element. Weakness: it compromises the THREENESS of God because water is not simultaneously all three phases.
- An egg is made up of three parts, the nucleus, white and shell, yet all the parts form just one egg. Weakness, it compromises the ONENESS of God because the parts are not fully “egg” in themselves.
Despite the weakness in each, you might find each of these analogies to be helpful in explaining the Trinity. As long as you come back to this simple formula, God is One in Being, Three in Person – you are staying true to the Biblical data about God’s nature. “Never comingling the Persons, never dividing the Being.”
How can this be? It is not perfectly explainable and Christians rest in the fact that if every part of God’s nature as revealed to us was perfectly agreeable to us, we might wonder if we made a God in our own image. But the Trinity is not the kind of God I would have invented or wanted. Yet, Jesus revealed this is the God who is.
Probably the most helpful analogy to me is the one put forward by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity. It doesn’t violate the THREENESS or ONENESS of God by lifting the paradox out of our limited playing field. Imagine a world where it’s entirely 2 dimensional. All creatures exist with length and width, but no depth. And all these creatures exist as squares on a perfect grid. They relate only along their sides and each square has only one “face”. Now imagine into this 2D world there descends a square from a 3D world. This being interacts with the other squares touching their length and width, but he says that while he is a square, he is nevertheless different from them. In fact, he says, I’m what we call a cube. What’s a cube?, they ask. He says, it’s a special square, where I’m actually 6 squares, 6 faces within ONE square. How can that be?, they ask. They have no way in their 2 dimensional world to assimilate the idea that a square could be eternally 6 squares and yet still be just one thing. In their world, 6 squares are 6 entities. We of course, can see how adding a dimension makes the 6 in 1 paradox possible, but they cannot.
Likewise, we cannot see how the 3 persons can coexist within the 1 being of God. Surely it’s either THREE gods or it’s ONE god in three modes! We can’t see the way it can fit in our scope of experience and in our space/time reality – it’s illogical, self-contradictory! But if we can understand how the difference between 2 dimensions and 3 dimensions can make the impossible possible with squares, surely in the extra dimensionality of God’s eternal existence, it’s not inherently impossible for the 1 God to exist in 3 persons.