I was reading the message board in a popular apologetics forum a few weeks back and came across a question that dealt with the three-in-one nature of God. The question was from someone with a Muslim friend who was questioning whether we as Christians believe God has one “spirit” or three. Her friend’s inquiry arose from the words of Jesus in Luke 23:46, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”
Christians must be able to provide an answer to theists and non-theists alike, when certain beliefs we have seem to go against logic – such as the idea of “Trinity” (God as three in one). To someone outside the Christian faith, the idea of “three in one” may be hard to palate: if these Christians believe that 2 + 1 = 1, do they reserve the right to redefine all basic truths? Is this idea of trinity just a convenient construction to reconcile diverse and non-compatible scriptural claims about God? I have always felt quite comfortable with the concept of Trinity but I haven’t spent too much time polishing my explanation. Stumbling onto this question from the apologetics forum served as the catalyst to flesh out my understanding. I’m not sure if the response I provided in the moment was helpful in her situation, but she liked the response, and because I think it has explanatory power, I felt drawn to further develop the idea.
Approaching the idea of Trinity by looking at the “spirit” of each member is uniquely helpful because we may get tripped up over the idea of God (a non-physical, infinite entity) as a physical being. Jesus used analogy extensively in scripture so I believe it is fair to use an analogy to attempt to explain this situation as well:
Imagine that God is a vast, unimaginably large body of water. Floating on the top of the water are His created beings. Let’s say the beings floating on the water are flat, like leaves, and can only see upwards, out of the water. If God wanted to show himself to them, He could cause Himself to become physically distinct from Himself such as forming a steady arc of water that splashes up over His people. This correlates to God coming into the midst of His people as Jesus Christ (God the Son) to relate to them in a new way. God the Son is a distinct manifestation of the Father but has the same exact representation or essence (Hebrews 1:3, John 10:30) – an essence called “spirit”, for “God is spirit” (John 4:24) – this is why it works to look at God’s “spiritual” nature as a uniform substance, like water, in this analogy. All water everywhere has the exact same structure and attributes (aka nature); when the created beings that are floating in the ocean, ask what they are supported in, or what the arc is, regardless of how much water they come in contact with or what kind of characteristics the water has at different times, the answer is simply “water”. (In our case, the “water” happens to relate to us personally!)
In the Luke passage, Jesus committing His Spirit back to the Father is like the arc of water falling back into the pool, but keep in mind, the arc is not being created or destroyed because the same molecules making up the arc were there before, during and after the splash. (Important, because the Son is not a created being.) And of course, if God wants to continue His manifestation in arc form indefinitely (as we believe scripture testifies to), that is up to Him. God the Holy Spirit is another manifestation of God, one that, according to scripture, remains in a non-physical form, communicates with people directly (on a spiritual level), and can come to live within His own created beings (Romans 8:9). In the body of water analogy, the Holy Spirit manifestation of God is the water that is directly acting upon the beings floating on the water, but underneath, invisible to them. Though unseen, it is supporting them as they bob on the water – a quiet signal to His presence.
All analogies break down, and two-dimensional explanations rarely fully explain the three-dimensional reality, but I hope this analogy can help those looking for ways to explain the three-in-one nature of God.