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How Do You Explain the Trinity?

You have probably heard some illustrations that are supposed to help explain the Trinity. One of the most common examples is the egg. Everyone knows an egg has three elements: the yoke, the white, and the shell. Each element is distinct from the other, yet they all combine to make up an egg. Just like the Trinity, right? Well…not really.

Yes, all three elements of the egg make up the egg, but each element by itself isn’t an egg. You can’t isolate the shell and say, “This is an egg.” The next time you have guests for breakfast, try scrambling up a couple of eggshells for them. We guarantee they will think you’re one egg short of a full omelet.

The shell is part of the egg, but separated from the other two parts, it isn’t truly an egg. By comparison, if you isolate Jesus or the Holy Spirit or God the Father and say of each one, “This is God,” you would still be right. They are all God, but they are not each other. Jesus is equal to God, but He isn’t God the Father. The Holy Spirit is equal to Jesus, but the Holy Spirit isn’t Jesus.

In his book, Understanding the Trinity, the Oxford scholar Alister McGrath, who has a background in science as well as theology, provides a better illustration. Jesus allows us to “sample” God in the same way a sample of air in a container allows us to identify the elements in the atmosphere. The whole atmosphere isn’t held in a container of air any more than God is contained only in the person of Jesus. Yet the sample gives us a completely accurate picture of the atmosphere, just as Jesus gives us a completely accurate picture of God (See John 14:6-10). McGrath writes,

Because Jesus is God, he allows us to find out what God is like, to have a direct encounter with the reality of God. And because God is not totally identical with Jesus, he remains in heaven, in much the same way the earth’s atmosphere remains there, despite the fact that we’ve taken a small sample of it. (p. 125)

The reality is that God is just too big for us to handle. He’s certainly too big for us to fully understand. Knowing this deficiency, God came down to our level and became a human being. In this way, says McGrath, he “makes himself available for us in a form which we can cope with.”

The same principle holds true for the Holy Spirit, only in this case the Holy Spirit helps us understand Jesus. Christian doctrine tells us that the presence of the Holy Spirit among the followers of Jesus is the same as the presence of Jesus himself (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 27 and Ephesians 4:15-16). This is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples on the night before he was crucified,

“I will talk to the Father, and he’ll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you. This Friend is the Spirit of Truth. The godless world can’t take him in because it doesn’t have eyes to see him, doesn’t know what to look for. But you know him already because he has been staying with you, and will even be in you!” (John 14:15-17, The Message).

As you come to better understand this dynamic relationship between God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, you will be able to better explain the Trinity. McGrath writes: “To encounter the Son is really to encounter the Father and not some demigod or surrogate. To encounter the Spirit is really to encounter the Son and hence the Father.” (p. 129)

From Answering the Toughest Questions About God and the Bible by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz. 

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Christianity 101 is a collection of books and digital resources by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz that talk about God in a way that encourages people to grow in their faith.