I ended my last post on suffering with a comment about “the mysterious will of a personal, powerful, just, and compassionate God.” I can just about hear a critic responding, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! You Christians always take refuge in mystery, but you won’t let us do it. Your insane ideas are mysteries while the difficulties with our materialism are contradictions. Well, I think that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”
This is a reasonable response given the way many believers do retreat into mystery whenever they cannot explain something. The oft-heard reply, “It’s a mystery; you just have to believe it!” means something like, “I’m scared of facing hard questions, and you are an evil person for asking them.”
By way of contrast to the carping critic and the befuddled believer, I think it is helpful to distinguish two legitimate uses of “mystery.”
First we may speak of a mystery when the general principles of a matter are tolerably clear, but the details and specifics far exceed our comprehension. Quite a few laypeople have a basic grasp of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. They know that as an object approaches the speed of light, its mass approaches infinity; they know that gravity bends space and slows clocks. They may even appreciate how Minkowski’s space-time interpretation of Special Relativity helped Einstein to formulate his General Theory of Relativity. Not many laypeople, however, can make any sense out of the series of partial differential equations that express Einstein’s theory in mathematical form. Those equations are a mystery.
That is what I meant by “the mysterious will of God.” The Bible’s general explanation of human suffering is clear. The Bible explains the origin of human suffering; several of the purposes suffering serves in the lives of believers and non-believers; what God has done and will do to end suffering; and even how suffering fits into God’s comprehensive plan for human beings. These things are not, properly speaking, mysteries. I have written quite a bit about them elsewhere.
The mystery of suffering lies not in the general picture. It lies in the specifics of the countless happenings in the lives of the billions of human beings who inhabit our planet. It would be, in principle, impossible to write a book that would explain everything about everybody. Of course, people are always making guesses about such things: “This happened to me because….” I can’t prove it, but I suspect that these guesses are totally wrong ninety percent of the time and less than half right even when they are partially correct. What God is doing in our individual lives is mostly a mystery to us.
Second we may speak of a mystery when we have clear evidence that two apparently incompatible things are both true. With careful thought, we may be able to define and describe them in such a way that they no longer appear contradictory, but we still have trouble putting them together in our imaginations.
Light is a good example. By the mid-19th century, it was clear that light acted like waves on the surface of water, but in 1905 Albert Einstein showed that it also acted like bullets shot from a gun. How can light be both waves and particles? Our minds have trouble picturing such a thing. We can, however, speak of these two behaviors of light in a non-contradictory way. Light propagates as a wave, but it is absorbed as if it were a stream of particles. In other words, light behaves in different ways in different situations.
Light is like the doctrine of the Trinity. God is both three and one, but He is not three in the same way that He is one. He is one essence and three persons. Although it is difficult to define essence and person, it can be done in a non-contradictory way. The mystery arises from our inability to find any exact parallel to the Trinity in creation. There is not another being to whom we can adequately compare Him. In other my writings, I have explained why many of the common illustrations of the Trinity are more misleading than helpful, and I have provided some other illustrations (and explained their limitations). My point is that the Bible’s statements about the Trinity are clear enough, but our world lacks a suitable analog that would enable us to understand how God experiences His threeness and His oneness. The great mystery is not in the doctrine of the Trinity, but in God’s inner being.
(It is worthwhile pointing out that the so-called trinity of the great gods in Hinduism is quite different from the Biblical picture of God. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva do not act together with one purpose and one energy in every divine work, as the Father, Son and Spirit do.)
Why does it make sense to accept one mystery, but not another? The wave-particle nature of light suggests two criteria. First, there is compelling evidence that both aspects of light’s behavior are true. Second, the mathematical equations that bring these two behaviors together also describe many other phenomena as well. The result is Quantum Mechanics, one of the two most powerful theories of the twentieth century. (The other is the General Theory of Relativity.) We can fruitfully apply these two criteria to the doctrine of the Trinity.
First, compelling evidence. The compelling evidence for the Trinity is, in a word, Jesus. As I suggested in my previous essay, the New Testament consistently shows us God interacting with God. God in human flesh speaks to God as His Father. And yet this God in human flesh insists that there is but one God. An acceptance of the Trinity begins with the FACT of Jesus. The biblical Jesus has been often distorted or denied, but it has not been found easy to get rid of Him. He is too powerful a figure for that. In every age, there have been those who tried to remake Jesus into something easier for the human mind to digest, but if we leave Him as we see Him in the New Testament, we have the embryo of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
“Trinity” is not a biblical word. It was made up in the third century by a theologian who wanted a shorthand way of expressing what the Bible teaches. The tri-unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit leaps off the pages of the New Testament. There we see three who act together in distinct ways, but they penetrate each other so fully that they are one Being, one life.
A Christian is someone who has found the New Testament portrait of Jesus so attractive and compelling that he has cast himself on Jesus as Savior and committed himself to Jesus as Lord. Therefore, the very best way for a non-Christian to hold on to his unbelief is to avoid reading the New Testament with a seeking heart. As soon as one is committed to following Christ, if He should prove Himself true, then that person is in real danger of becoming a convert. Jesus said, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17).
Second, explanatory power. It took a little over three centuries for the early church to come to grips with the amazing data of the New Testament. It was clear from the beginning that Jesus was divine, but it was very hard to come up with ways of speaking about God that did justice to the full scope of the Bible’s teaching. Every possible aberration of the biblical picture was tried and found wanting. As soon, however, as suitable terms and definitions had been agreed upon, the church began to realize that it had been given an inexhaustible treasure. Like quantum mechanics, the doctrine of the Trinity provided answers for all sorts of problems it had not been devised to explain.
For example, philosophy has been unable to solve the problem of the one and the many: Is reality ultimately one (Hinduism) or is reality ultimately a set of disconnected facts (materialism)? If reality is one, are the particulars illusory? If reality is many, is there any overarching purpose toward which all the individual things are moving?
The doctrine of the Trinity insists that ultimate reality is both one and plural. Individual people really do exist, and history has a unified direction and goal set by the one God. Both of these truths are essential for making sense out of suffering. If our individual existence is an illusion, so is suffering. If history has no goal, our pains are real but meaningless.
The earlier essays in this series pointed out that we cannot adequately explain why we are outraged by suffering if ultimate reality is impersonal. We might not want to suffer, and by placing ourselves in another person’s shoes, we might feel sorrow at the sufferings of others. Even animals sometimes appear to grieve the loss of a companion. Aversion to pain, sorrow, and grief are not problematic. Outrage, however, arises from a sense of injustice, a sense that a great moral wrong has been committed. As that old atheist, Friedrich Nietzsche clearly saw, (and as some of the “new atheists” seem determined to ignore) true moral wrong depends on true moral righteousness.
Moral righteousness is always personal and relational—one person can be rightly related to another. Two stones cannot be rightly related to each other. In the Bible, righteousness is not a standard above God, which He must obey. Neither are right and wrong determined by God’s arbitrary command (which appears to be the case in Islam). God’s righteous character consists of the right relationships between the members of the Trinity. The Father loves the Son and gives Him all that He has; the Son loves the Father and obeys Him perfectly; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son together uniting them in perfect harmony. (See my The Beauty of God for a Broken World, chapter 10).
The foundation for our moral outrage at suffering reflects a deep sense of a broken relationship, a sense that a covenant between persons has been violated. That is exactly what the Bible claims has happened. God’s covenant with man has been violated; man’s covenant, under God, with other men has been violated. But God’s inter-Trinitarian covenant insures that these other covenants will eventually be put right.
Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity turns out to be essential for understanding—
Ø our own personhood,
Ø the nature of righteousness,
Ø the reason for our outrage at suffering,
Ø and the reason for our hope that all that is broken will be made whole.
When we accept the mystery of the Triune God, a great light shines into our darkness. That is the reason the church treasures this marvelous doctrine.