Do we believe in one God or in three gods? How do we explain it? What do we do about it?
I had never expected to meet a Muslim from Lebanon during my family medicine rotation at the Indian Health Service Hospital in Barrow, Alaska in December, 1990. Nonetheless, there I was, eating flat bread in his living room with a few other friends who also happened to be visiting Barrow a month after the sun went down. It was 30 below outside but warm and comfortable within, with conversation ranging from the weather to politics to local events and back to politics again. I stumbled as I tried to say “Good Afternoon” (Masah al Kheir), and the other phrases in Arabic that my new Lebanese friend patiently taught me, in between tending pots and trays to prepare what turned out to be a delicious meal.
During our Lebanese feast the conversation turned to religion. My friend explained some of the differences between Islam and Christianity. Many of the moral teachings seemed similar, and the Muslim view of God somewhat resembles that of Jehovah in the Old Testament. The greatest difference between the Children of Allah and the Children of Jehovah was how they treated Jesus. The Sons of the Scimitar called him a prophet, but the Sons of the Savior called him Lord and God (John 20:28). Our talk turned to Jesus, the Jewish carpenter, with me describing how He came to earth as fully man and fully God, died for our sins and rose again. Thoughout my Lebanese friend objected that God has no son, and that Christians are really believers in three gods, not one. The conversation stayed friendly and the others seemed to enjoy it as well. Eventually our afternoon meal, complete with the tasty honey-flavored dessert, was over. The party began to disperse because blizzards were expected and the little light remaining was almost gone. My Lebanese friend and I met more times during my six weeks in Barrow and had good fun. We haven’t been in contact for two decades, but whenever I think of him I say a short prayer for his life and for his eternity.
Since then I have had the privilege of spending a fair amount of time with Muslims and Christians from the Middle East. One theme repeats itself; how can Jesus be fully man and fully God? Who is the Holy Spirit, and what does He do? Does this doctrine, the doctrine of the Trinity, not make us tritheists instead of monotheists?
It should come as no surprise that this question is a common difficulty for people as they consider the claims of Christ. Paul reported as much in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. I cannot fully explain the Trinity any more than I can fully explain the sovereignty of God versus the responsibility and freedom of man, the Incarnation, or any other of the profound mysteries that are part of the Christian faith. However, I can throw a little light on it.
The objection seems simple; Father + Son + Holy Spirit = 1+1+1 which equals three gods. However what works for men in this case does not work for God, in which the correct equation is Father (infinite God) + Son (infinite God) + Holy Spirit (infinite God) = infinite + infinite + infinite = infinite. In the case of infinite beings, their sum is infinite; it could never be any other way.
Another interesting question is: if God has existed forever by Himself, if love is necessarily between persons rather than within a person, and if God created the universe, how could love have ever entered human existence? What about selflessness, loyalty, or any one of the dozens of other things that have to be done between people? One can imagine God, acting alone, devising the Great Mechanism that is known as our universe, but one cannot imagine that same God, all alone in eternity, adding the interpersonal elements that He personally has never known to the lives of men. Does not the presence of relationships in our world require relationships in heaven above?
Other questions abound. If God is totally transcendent, beyond space and time, how could He ever make Himself known to us? Would not the perfect God have had to move within time for us to understand Him? But if He stayed within time, who would be left in eternity to sustain the universe He had made. Does not the nature of time and space require a triune God, or at least a biune one?
The cultural context of the Bible is vastly different from Western cultures today. The secular gods in first century Palestine were essentially glorified humans; bickering, warring, procreating, deceiving, and doing everything that spoiled adolescents enjoy so much. To be a polytheist at the time was to indulge in this paradigm. Jesus stepped onto the scene claiming to be God (John 8:58), and yet claiming genuine distinction from the God the Father. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one in thought, one in action, and one in word; yet somehow they are distinct persons (Matthew 3:16-17).
My Muslim friend from Lebanon struggled with the question of how God could be three in one; how Jesus could be God. Perhaps a better question is, in light of the universe as we know it, how could it be any other way?