It seems like more and more I am afforded opportunities to engage in conversations with Christians who struggle or reject long-held orthodox beliefs of the church.
“How could you believe in a loving God who sends people to hell?” Or “How could you say your monotheistic when you believe God is three persons?”
These aren’t questions from people who disdain God. On the contrary, I find that they have a deep, profound love for God. But the more that I reflect on these conversations, the more I realize that there is a common thread – whether discussions center around the Trinity, judgment and hell, or predestination. At the core of the frustrations to understand these doctrines is not the complication of the doctrine itself but rather the individual’s approach to the doctrine.
Simply put, they often don’t understand the difference between a paradox and a contradiction.
The law of non-contradictions dictates that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. I can be a father and a son at the same time, but I can’t be a father and a son in the same relationship. I can’t be my own son. So even though I say I am a father and a son, what I’m saying may seem like a contradiction, but a deeper understanding reveals that it’s merely a paradox.
The word paradox can be broken into two parts. Para means alongside. Dox comes from the Greek word dokein, which means to seem or appear. So a paradox is two statements that appear to be a contradiction when alongside one another.
If you think about it, the Bible is full of paradoxes. Jesus said, “You must lose your life to save it.” At first glance, it seems like a rather archaic and contradictory statement, but when we see that Jesus is talking about a losing and a finding or saving in different senses, we realize it is quite a reasonable statement. It’s merely a paradox, not a contradiction.
Another well-known paradox is found in Genesis 2:24 – “The man shall be united with his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” That seems like a contradiction. How can two beings be one flesh? But when we consider that the existence as humans is not the same as a marriage relationship, we realize that such a statement does not break the law of non-contradictions. It’s merely a paradox.
To the outsider, saying that God is one and three persons appears as a contradiction. How can someone be one and three at the same time? But that is not what Christians claim. Christians claim that God is one in one thing and three in another. God is one in essence and three in persons.
It breaks down a little because we have trouble distinguishing the word essence, being, and persons in our modern culture and language. To better understand this, we must look at the Latin word persona. This word has its roots in theater. Often times actors would play multiple roles in a play, and so in order to distinguish which role they were playing at a particular time, they would wear a mask. The mask was called a persona. In one scene, they might wear a particular mask and speak as one character, but in another scene, they might speak through a different mask, portraying a separate character. All the while, the actor is the same being.
Grappling with paradoxes is important in a variety of complex theological doctrines beyond the Trinity. For example, the doctrine of predestination is a paradox. For many individuals, they reject predestination because it appears contrary to the human experience where one makes a decision to follow Jesus. How can one be chosen by God and make a decision to follow Jesus? Isn’t that a contradiction? Either God chooses or man chooses. No, not exactly. God choosing and man choosing is not a contradiction or something altogether opposite or contrary. It is a paradox. They are two statements that are not the same in sense and in time.
One of the hot topics among liberal theologians is the idea that there is no hell. How can God be all-loving, and yet send people to eternal damnation? We can save the discussion about justice, righteousness, depravity, and the consequences for sin for another day, but for the sake of this conversation, we also can see a paradox. A merciful judge is not the opposite of a judge demanding justice. There is a different relationship occurring between the two statements.
Christians ought to be very careful about dismissing doctrines explicit in Scripture. Yes, they can be difficult to understand, but that should not surprise us. The Lord tells us in Isaiah 55:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
We can rest assured that when we come to a difficult doctrine, or statement, or action of God, we will not be left with a God who contradicts Himself. However, what we may find is the most puzzling paradox. It is when we unravel the different relationships and the different layers of time and eternity within that paradox, we see a dazzling, profound complexity in the Being of God.