Questions Skeptics Ask #1
I just picked up Guy P. Harrison’s book 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian. He writes as a committed unbeliever in order to help Christians “grasp why so many people think Christianity doesn’t make sense” (10). From time to time, I’d like to take chapters or sections of his book and try to offer answers both for the honest skeptics out there as well as for other Christians talking with friends or family or neighbors about these kinds of questions.
Harrison begins the book by asking whether Christianity makes sense, and he’s not talking about minor inconsistencies or supposed contradictions, he’s talking about the big picture, the central, most important parts of Christianity. And to Harrison’s credit he gives a fairly short, succinct, and accurate restatement of the gospel, and immediately turns to analyze it phrase by phrase and begins with the concept of the Trinity. He recognizes rightly that the Trinity is essential to the Christian faith. Without the Trinity there is no gospel, no Christian religion.
So Harrison asks whether the Trinity makes sense. “God is Jesus and Jesus is God. How can we say that God sent his son and sacrificed him for us when they are the same being?” (14) Related, “if Jesus was God and knew that he would return to heaven after his death, where is the big sacrifice?” (14)
First, we need to establish that what “makes sense” is often highly debatable. Some human beings believe that the fetus developing inside the uterus of a woman is not a human being and therefore it “makes sense” to give the woman the right to terminate the pregnancy at her discretion. Others believe that from the moment of conception another human being has entered the world and is entitled to all of the same rights and protections any other human being enjoys in this world, and therefore it “makes sense” to consider any and all harm done to the developing human being as a crime against human nature. Appealing to what “makes sense” begs the question, since what Hindus and Muslims think “make sense” may seem utterly ridiculous to an atheist or a Christian. What makes sense to a Russian may seem scandalous to an Ethiopian. But for our purposes here, let’s merely assume that what makes sense need only be considered logically plausible, that is, not inherently contradictory. Obviously any number of plausible explanations may have greater or lesser degrees of likelihood or be more or less persuasive to someone, but to the extent that an explanation can make sense to another human being, we ought to respect its potential veracity, even if we are not yet convinced of its truth.
In the case of the doctrine of the Trinity, we are talking about the potential for there to be a Being that exists in some fashion as one and in some other fashion as three. There is obviously some sense in which God, in order to be God, must be very much unlike anything in our experience. But it is nevertheless reasonable to ask whether the idea in itself makes sense in any way given our experience of life in this universe. On the surface there is actually a great deal that lends itself to the plausibility of such a Being existing. We speak routinely of things having both unity and diversity, oneness and multiplicity, and we instinctively know that we are speaking in different ways. A husband and wife that are “one” are united, working together, agreed, and yet we recognize that this does not obliterate their distinctive personalities and existence as individuals. We speak this way of nations: America, we claim, is “one nation” and “indivisible.” Nevertheless, there are many ways in which Americans are divisible and represent many nations. The point of the pledge is to emphasize unity and a particular kind of “oneness” and loyalty. There is also a certain kind of oneness in terms of government, currency, even geography. The oneness is literal in those ways, and yet, Americans also take pride in their geographic distinctives, cultural differences, state loyalties, etc. Finally, we assume a certain kind of unity and diversity in the world more scientifically and in nature. There is an assumption of a certain amount of uniformity that gives scientific investigation credibility while at the same time, it is the difference that keeps us searching. We assume that gravity and basic math and material behavior have certain constants, but it’s the aberrations and differences that keep us guessing and searching. But if it was all difference all the time, there would be no reason to search because you could never learn anything. Nothing you learned in one part of nature could be expected to apply to another. Likewise if everything was the same, there would be no reason to search or study because there would be absolutely nothing new to learn. Thus, to postulate a Being who is both one and three, like and unlike, a unity and a diversity is not at all irrational or unthinkable. And the more you think about, the more it makes sense that everything in the world in some ways reflects the nature of its Triune Creator.
Finally, and only briefly for now, the Trinity also makes sense with regard to the atonement, the death of Jesus for our sins. What Christianity recognizes is the fundamental divide between God and humanity, between Creator and creation. All the great Christian heresies have been in some fashion an attempt at solving this riddle by narrowing the gap, by either elevating humanity to a near-divine status, or else bringing God down in some way to our level. The only other alternative has been to postulate intermediaries, as in neoplatonism or confused mixtures of God and man as found in Arianism and Mormonism. But the Trinity makes sense because it insists that we not demote God and we not promote man, and yet it makes a way possible to imagine how God Himself might bridge the gap. Jesus is God, but the missing step in Harrison’s analysis is the Incarnation, the doctrine that teaches that God the Son, the second person of the Trinity became a true human being. Jesus is fully God and fully man. Granted, this is a bit like explaining that on the moon there is much less gravity or bit like explaining to a child that a caterpillar can actually become a butterfly or where babies come from. It can initially seem a bit farfetched. But in order to say whether it makes sense or not, you would need to try the explanation out. What if the answer to many of the world’s problems really was a human being who was somehow at the very same time God the Maker of all things Himself? Why couldn’t the One who created caterpillars and gravity and human beings also make a way for Himself to be born into this world as a true man? Why couldn’t He take on that kind of existence and live and die truly as a perfect and yet fully human man? And if He were truly human, wouldn’t His death in place of sinful men be a true sacrifice?