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Chapter One: Defining God

Section 6: Three's Company

The Trinity undermines the Christian claim that there is only one God.

Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity; Casabindo Church, Peru

If God exists, is there only one of him or are there many?

1.6a How many gods?

Christianity claims to be monotheistic (one god) while appearing to be polytheistic (many gods). Reviewing what this means and how it came about may help us to understand the concept of God.

We will start by looking at the New Testament - the specifically Christian element of the Bible - and then see how the image of God developed during the first four hundred years of the Christian era.

1.6b Who was Jesus?

Three key figures emerge in the NT: God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We know that God is the omnipotent creator of the universe, but it is not clear from the Bible who Jesus is. There is certainly something special about him; he not only claims to have a special relationship with God, but he performed miracles, was crucified, returned from the dead and ascended to heaven.

There is strong evidence - discussed in The Jesus Myth - to suggest that Jesus never existed. But it is not directly relevant to this chapter, so for the moment we will accept the New Testament claim that Jesus did live in the early years of the Common Era.

None of this means Jesus was God. God may have been working through him as he had worked through other men. Jesus himself never claimed to be God. He does not deny it when Peter calls him Christ ("the anointed"

Chapter One: Defining God

Does God exist? Before we try to answer that question we need to have a clear idea of who or what God is. How do we describe God? What versions of God are on offer?

1.1: God, faith and religion
Do they need each other?

1.2: What is God?
God comes in several styles and models

1.3: Perception and reality
Is what we see what we get?

1.4: The evolving God
From prehistory to today

1.5: El, Yahweh et al
The Old Testament family of gods

1.6: Three's company
The Christian Trinity

1.7: Allah
Over to Islam

1.8: Majors and minors

1.9: The unknowable God
Is he there?

1.10: Your god or mine?
Made in our image

1.11: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter Two
Problems with God

The real God – if such a thing exists – may be very different from the god portrayed by Jewish, Christian or Muslim scripture.

But whichever picture of God we look at - from the Bible and Koran to the images presented by other faiths and believers - we are confronted by problems. When examined closely, God's nature is so contradictory that it is unlikely, if not impossible, for him to exist.

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- with the same meaning as Messiah), but this role is similar to that of Mohammed the Muslim Prophet - it makes him human, not divine.

1.6c Making God

So, if the Bible does not tell us that Jesus was divine, where did that idea come from? The answer lies in the early church, which spent centuries debating the nature of God and deciding which of the many books written at the time were the authoritative Word of the deity.

Organised religion, like any other activity which brings people together for a common goal, is both a means of co-operation and a political power structure. For three hundred years after Christ's death, individuals and groups argued over theology. Many of these discussions focused on Jesus - was he fully God and only partly human (Apollinarianism), less than God but more than human (Arianism), fully God and not human (Docetism) or only a prophet (Ebionitism)? Which concept of God won through depended not so much on the truth of the proposition, but on the political strength of those who proposed it.

It was only at the Council of Nicaea in 325, almost three hundred years after Jesus was reportedly crucified, that the idea that God is "three persons [Father, Jesus, Spirit] but one substance" became the official dogma. This notion has persisted through subsequent divisions of the church into Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and traditions; it is rejected only by minor sects and Mormons.

1.6d Room for one more on top

For many believers, however, three men were

Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia: The Annunciation: National Gallery, Washington DC Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia
The Annunciation
National Gallery, Washington DC
not enough; a mother-figure in Heaven was required. As time passed, Jesus' mother, Mary, was allotted increasingly greater reverence by the Church and the idea took hold that, unique among humans, she was born without Adam and Eve's Original Sin.

Worship of the Virgin became ever more popular, as did appeals to the saints - holy men and women who were believed to have a special relationship with God and who could influence the deity's decisions. But by the time of the Reformation, in the early sixteenth century, a backlash had started. The goal of Protestants was not simply to sweep corruption and hangers-on out of the Church, but to clear out Heaven at the same time. Out went Mary and the saints, although the notion of the three-in-one-god remained.

1.6e Choose your god

Whatever the history of the church and whatever the reality of God, the key point being made here is that people's conception of the deity - the way they see God - has changed, is changing and will always continue to change. And the fact that God comes in alternative forms - God the Angry Father, God the Loving Jesus, God the Ethereal Spirit, God the Mother Figure - allows Christians to interact with the personality most suited to their needs. The least popular of this quartet of deities is the Holy Spirit, because he is the least mentioned in the Bible and he is the vaguest in people's minds; nonetheless, Christians insist that he is a person in his own right.

This polytheism arises because Christians consider God to be knowable - if you know someone you know their personality and can interact with them. In contrast, Jews and Muslims worship a single, unknowable God, a god that theoretically has a much vaguer personality. Yet even in Islam, believers do not present united front. Like Catholics and their saints, Shia Muslims pray to the historical imams in the belief that they carry special favour with God.

Hinduism is similar to Christianity in that it has many gods which are seen as manifestations of the one and only godhead. The difference between the two is that Hindus are happy to accept they are polytheists while Christians insist, against all the evidence, that they are monotheists.

In this section we have seen that the Trinity undermines the Christian claim that there is only one God. More importantly, we have further shown that concepts of God change over time and from believer to believer; many, if not all, of these concepts may be irrelevant to God himself, if he exists. In the next chapter we look at the Muslim version of the deity.

Next: Chapter One: Section 7

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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