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On Resolving Biblical Paradoxes

The other day on Facebook, I got into a brief discussion that involved the doctrine of the Immutability of God, in this case, Does God ever change His mind? In my answers, I found myself employing a paradigm that helps me resolve apparent biblical paradoxes. In doing so, I realized how incongruous my thinking could sound.

  • Is God sovereign and totally immovable?
  • Or can Man lean into God, through prayer or appeal, and move God’s hand?

I tend to think both are true and I wanted to take a minute to explain why.

One of the most helpful books I’ve ever read on the subject of biblical paradoxes is Hugh Ross’  Beyond the Cosmos. In it, Ross lays out a paradigm for resolving biblical paradoxes. And Christian theology is full of them.

Some of the most noteworthy biblical paradoxes are:

  • The Trinity — How can three persons be one?
  • Divine Sovereignty — How can man be free to choose and yet be predestined?
  • The Deity of Christ — How can Jesus be fully God and fully Man?
  • The Crucifixion — How can God be eternally alive and yet die?
  • God’s Omnipresence — How can God exist simultaneously in the past, present, and future?

The subtitle for Ross’ book is The Extra-Dimensionality of God: What Recent Discoveries in Astrophysics Reveal About the Glory and Love of God. String Theory postulates the existence of multiple dimensions, that outside of our four dimensions of height, width, depth and time, there are other dimensions. These theories have changed the way scientists view and study the universe.

In multiple dimensions, things that appear contradictory are often resolved.

In this light, Ross poses the question: Is a triangle a circle? The correct answer is… yes and no. It all depends on how you look at it.

On a two-dimensional plane, triangles CANNOT be circles. If you were to draw a triangle and a circle on a piece of paper (which, for our purpose, constitutes height and width), they would not be the same. However, if a third dimension was added, that of depth, the triangle can become a cone, a series of concentric circles. For instance, imagine rolling that piece of paper into the shape of an ice cream cone; its funnel is circular. (A more detailed discussion of this and similar illustrations can be found HERE.) So in two dimensions, triangles cannot be circles. But in three, triangles ARE circles.

Physicists currently believe that there are well over five dimensions, with some models going as high as 20. Why is this important? Just as the added dimension helps us resolve the triangle / circle paradox, Ross asserts that understanding the multi-dimensional nature of the universe can help us resolve many apparent biblical paradoxes.

Scientists are just now realizing what the Bible has said all along: That something exists OUTSIDE our universe as well as our senses. The Bible is unique among the world’s sacred writings because it describes God as existing outside the reaches of time and space. For example, Scripture often refers to “the beginning of time” (II Tim. 1:9, Titus 1:2, Eph. 1:4), that the visible was constructed from the “invisible” (Heb. 11:3, Col. 1:16-17), and that time is “relative” to God (Ps. 90:4, II Pet. 3:8). Whereas most people conceive of God as existing IN THE UNIVERSE, the Bible describes the universe as existing IN GOD.

So how does this all apply to the resolution of paradoxical biblical concepts? In the same way that triangles can both BE / NOT BE circles, it is possible that theological paradoxes, concepts that appear in tension, can be resolved by a deeper understanding of the nature and complexity of the universe.

Let’s use Calvinism and Arminianism as an example. I call myself a “modified Calvinist.” What I really mean is that I believe God is completely sovereign and Man is genuinely free (with qualifications). Typically, Christians see this as an either/or and divide into two camps. But just like a triangle both CAN and CANNOT be a circle, in an extra-dimensional universe, two opposites can be true.

  • In four dimensions, God cannot be both Human and Divine or three Persons in One.
  • In four dimensions, we cannot both be free to choose and predestined.
  • In four dimensions, it is not possible that God transcends time and enters it.

Nevertheless, in a multidimensional universe, it is possible that all these things are true. Somehow God is BOTH human and divine. Somehow I am BOTH predestined and completely free. It all depends on how you look at it.

We, in our finite minds and four-dimensional confines, are not able to logically resolve many of these paradoxes. In fact, Scripture often describes “mystery” as being built-in to the fabric of the universe. Moses wrote thousands of years ago, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut 29:29). It is unclear what these “secret things” are. Nevertheless, it’s possible that modern physics has uncovered what the Bible calls “things revealed,” and that this understanding of multiple dimensions may provide a paradigm for resolving some of these biblical paradoxes.

So when you hear me suggest that God is totally immovable and never changes His mind AND Man can lean into God, through prayer or appeal, and move God’s hand, this is why I can believe that.

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{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Jay DiNitto October 12, 2012, 5:47 AM

    At least you picked a Friday to broach a heady topic, Mike. =)

    The problem isn’t with the nature of the divine but with our intellect: paradox rushed into us after the fall and we’re working with the pieces. The Hebrew way of looking at things was that God has to be experienced, not formulated, to be apprehended (formulations, the theology, comes later, downstream from experience with God…it can’t come through rationalism) . Our being can experience paradox but our intellect can’t.

    The paradoxes within Christianity, or any religion, is such a stumbling block for some of us because we are far too entrenched in Platonic/Hellenistic thought processes for uncovering truth. If an object doesn’t conform to logic or hold compatibility with what we already know to be true through our senses/experience, it’s rejected as a candidate for truth. Either that, or that it will someday be known at some point in the future through the back catalogue of humaity’s accumulated a posteriori knowledge (scientific imperialism). But that precludes the supernatural’s nonexistence in the first place, since the supernatural, by nature, should not be apprehendable by our intellect.

  • Tim George October 12, 2012, 7:55 AM

    And this is the reasons I don’t have to be a modified anything to believe in the responsibility of man, freedom of the will, and the absolute sovereignty of God. There are many things about how God works all that out that neither I nor anyone else understands. Those who try to explain what God does not are the ones who plant the seeds of heresy.

    String theory is interesting. Why do you think I watch a show like Fringe for five years with the other few faithful that have stuck with it through all of its mulch-dimensional, multi-universe story lines? But will quantum physics, string theory, or any other intellectual gymnastics of man ever resolve the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility? Not in any of our nor any others’ lifetimes.

  • Jason Joyner October 12, 2012, 8:21 AM

    Good thoughts Mike. We are still learning so much. It does open up ways to understand God better and get past some apparent paradoxes.

    I also believe in truth in tension. If the Word gives two competing views, I have a hard time pushing a doctrine all the way to one side or the other, diminishing one in the process. We have a finite mind and can’t fully understand it all. I like what Tim said about trying to explain something too much sowing the seeds of heresy.

    One time a prophetic type came against the idea of balance. He said balance is an Eastern philosophy. God is who He is, and there’s no balance. Well, that may be true, but from our perspective we can’t fully see or know right now. I still use the truth in tension idea.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller October 12, 2012, 11:37 AM

    Ha! Jason, I don’t know what “balance” meant to the person to whom you refer, but there’s lots in Scripture to indicate God is ALL about balance. Just read in Deut. about how God’s people were not to veer to the right or the left. Hmmm. And if we think about His attribute, it’s hard to ignore the ways in which He’s balanced: just and merciful, transcendent and incarnate, righteous and the sin-bearer.

    I guess I see how some might think “balance” would include good and evil or wise and foolish. So it’s true that God does not have a balance of divine qualities and human flaws. His love is all love, pure and unmixed. As is His holiness. But so is His jealousy.

    The bottom line, I believe, is to trust God because He is God, whether I can figure out how He can pull off the seeming contradictions, or not. I think it’s fine to speculate. We learn in Scripture that Abraham speculated God would raise Isaac from the dead. That’s how he resolved the contradiction God presented him with. Though his idea turned out to be wrong, his faith in God’s power was absolutely right.


    • Melissa Ortega October 16, 2012, 8:45 AM

      I may be wrong, but I believe what Jason was saying isn’t that God isn’t balanced. God is perfect. It is man’s attempt to weigh him on a human scale of knowledge/understanding that is never going to produce a level scale. How can one be the scale for a thing which weighs more than the scale itself? Eastern philosophy tries to encourage man to enter into a balanced state with the universe, but in reality, God is always tipping the scale. We will never find a level little bubble in human thinking that contains all of God.

  • Les October 12, 2012, 12:31 PM

    Absolutely love it when you (or anyone else for that matter!) is willing to get into this kind of thing. There’s a thing I tell my kids when we’re talking about not understanding why God let’s things happen sometimes that seem bad to us, or when discussing paradoxes like this. I tell them, for us it’s all reaching and guessing, but it all makes sense from a God’s eye view. From his view, he sees all dimensions, because he made them all. And those myriad dimensions are no more or less real or pertinent to his design than the ones we can see. Even trying to wrap our heads around it, while a good exercise for the mind, is so utterly impossible, that I believe it to be one of the fundamental reasons people end up atheist. They simply don’t want to believe that there is more to reality than what they can perceive or understand, when the faith perspective, which in fact agrees with science, would lead us to awe and wonder at a universe rich in depth and dimension that could only possibly be fully understood by it’s creator.

  • D.M. Dutcher October 12, 2012, 3:52 PM

    Edwin Abbot in his book Flatland gave a similar argument but in reverse.

    There’s a hexagon in a 2-D land. One day, he meets a very unusual circle. The circle seems to be able to not only make himself larger and smaller at will, he can become invisible, see everything and teleport all around. The strange circle explains himself: he is actually a 3-D sphere, come to preach the gospel of the third dimension to the hexagon.

    The varying of size is done as the sphere intersects the flat plane of 2D-land. If he intersects it at different points, he appears as a 2-D circle of different sizes, as only a cross-section or layer of him can even exist in 2-D. He seems to know everything because he can see the entire 2-D plane, and he teleports because he just lifts himself up and intersects it at different points.

    This is similar to your argument in a way. What we see as paradoxes might be representations of a higher nature that we simply can only perceive in part. There’s only so much that a creature bound by time, language, causality, and the limits of place and form can understand without transcending it. In Flatland, the Sphere can only bring the Hexagon into the third dimension to make him understand and perceive correctly. Some truths may be like that.

    I’d be careful though about placing credence on multiple dimensions. If more than 4 exist, God created them as well, and His nature would still transcend them. It might reveal more, but it also might not. I forget who said that if you marry the spirit of the age, you soon will be a widow. The same with using science to prove faith.

    • Melissa Ortega October 16, 2012, 8:58 AM

      “if you marry the spirit of the age, you soon will be a widow”

      LOVE THIS!

      I love your hexagon and sphere explanation too. : )

      • Melissa Ortega October 16, 2012, 9:00 AM

        Oh, and I looked up the source of the quote, and it is Spurgeon.

      • D.M. Dutcher October 16, 2012, 2:20 PM

        Abbot’s explanation, not mine. Flatland’s a great book, because he manages to give an idea of how alien certain types of life are to each other, and how hard it is to understand that difference. Good for math-minded people too.

        • Melissa Ortega October 16, 2012, 2:56 PM

          I tried to explain this difference between God and man once to my Sunday School class once by asking them to imagine describing the color green to a blind man. Of course, they had no idea how to do it without using something else one could already see.

  • Lyn Perry October 12, 2012, 4:01 PM

    I think these descriptions work – paradox, balance, tension, mystery. It’s what I like about biblical studies. One can understand and accept the fundamental truths of scripture without being “required” to grasp or articulate some of the profound theological ramifications these truths lead to.

    • Lyn Perry October 14, 2012, 3:57 AM

      Mike, btw, are you a harmonizer or are you comfortable with accepting that there are 14 to 16 disciples who are called “the 12” in the gospels?

      • Christian October 14, 2012, 7:13 AM

        What is this? I don’t even…

      • Mike Duran October 14, 2012, 7:29 AM

        Actually, Jesus had a large pool of disciples. Like the 72 he commissioned in Luke 10:10-23. There were clearly circles of disciples. Even in the Twelve, there was the three (Peter, James, and John). So I don’t think the “disciple” issue is a paradox.

      • Lyn Perry October 14, 2012, 12:01 PM

        Maybe not the best example, but possibly typical of synoptic disagreements. I know some conservatives are strict harmonizers; I’m not and am comfortable with conflicting accounts.

  • Melissa Ortega October 16, 2012, 9:10 AM

    I have Ross’s books but haven’t read them yet, but based on the above, I may move them up on my to-read list! I was recently handed John Hartnett’s Starlight Time and the New Physics. Pretty interesting so far, but already I feel an expectation of the scientist still being “outweighed” in the end by God’s glory. I still love watching someone try to find Him with all their heart! And I think he may have developed some decent new quantum theory on the way.

    I came to believe in these paradoxes a long time ago, but I can’t explain them – which is why they are paradoxical! However, I have come to recognize a certain amount of discomfort among those who tend to more theological argument when they find a thing which one must simply say “it can’t be explained.” There seems to be some strange equivocation with this statement and “it can’t be believed.” They are not the same, and when faced with this, few argue – but in essence, it’s what happens as soon as one arrives at a paradox. It’s like a diamond, and man’s effort to shine light on it draws attention to the colors which split and reflect from its prismatic deep (I am Apollos! I am Capulet! I am Paul! I am Montague!) – when really they should just be admiring the diamond.

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