Trinity At Rest

Could the quantum explain theology’s greatest puzzle?

Colin MacIntyre
May 30, 2018 · 6 min read


It is often said that to illustrate the Trinity, as noble a goal as it may be, is ultimately an exercise in futility. Theologians the world over have been trying for centuries to formulate a doctrinally sound, all-encompassing portrait of the Triune God. What stymies our efforts seems to be the fact that God is transcendent, and not all of His qualities are known (or are unknowable, as some citing Isaiah 55:8–9 adamantly maintain).

Yet there is one verse in the Bible, a comment by Paul, that, like a maddeningly dangled carrot, continues to fuel our pursuit:

From the creation of the cosmos, His invisible things are clearly perceived, understood from the things made: both His everlasting power and His deity. (Romans 1:20)

According to this, the deity —the nature of God —is clearly seen in the natural realm. Presumably, this includes His quality of being Three-in-One. But clearly?! Come on, if that is not an exasperatingly provocative proposition, I don’t know what is.

Is it saying we have been observing it all along, perhaps unconsciously, as we interact with the physical realm? Are we somehow failing to see the forest for the trees, as the saying goes?

Whatever the case, we know now that to sate the divine question of all questions gnawing at our minds, we must inevitably dive in to nature.

One popular illustration of the Trinity is the egg. A chicken egg consisting of a shell, a yolk, and a white, is altogether one egg. The three parts, taken together, create a unified whole. Aye, but there’s the rub. The problem with this portrayal, and all others like it, is that God, being a unified whole, cannot be divided into “parts” since the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are one in essence.

Another common illustration involves three states of matter — solid, liquid, and gas. For example, water exists as ice, liquid water, and vapour, and regardless of what physical state it is in, it remains H2O. The problem with this representation is that at different temperatures, water switches to a different mode. So while liquid water can become solid or gas, God the Father never becomes the Son or the Spirit. The idea that God manifests Himself differently at different times and in different contexts is called modalism, a conception that has long been considered heresy.

All of these attempts and more — St. Patrick’s three-leaf shamrock, geometric illustrations such as the triangle or triquetra (pictured at top), and so on — also have problems that preclude them from forming a coherent analogy.

British writer C.S. Lewis once made an effort to at least address the difficulty:

As you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you don’t leave behind the things you found on simpler levels; you still have them, but combined in new ways — in ways you couldn’t imagine if you knew only the simpler levels… On the Divine level, you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being… Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube.

One summer day in 2011, I was enjoying a brilliant BBC documentary called Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold. Totally engrossed, I was suddenly struck by a thought that actually brings us back to one of our aforementioned attempts.

Most people are familiar with three states of matter — solid, liquid and gas. Some who paid attention in high school may recall a fourth state — plasma — which is like gas, but ionized and possesses electromagnetic properties. Still fewer may have heard of a fifth state of matter, a state that is actually unknown in nature.

Pioneering investigations of a Bose-Einstein condensate in a random potential, produced by shining an optical speckle pattern onto the atoms.

In 1924–25, Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein predicted the existence of a superfluid, a theoretical state of matter which remained unseen until produced in a University of Colorado laboratory in 1995.

What is this state of matter exactly? According to MIT physicist Daniel Kleppner:

Matter can exist in various states. Atoms at high temperature (moving fast) always form gases. If you cool (slow) the gas, it becomes a liquid. If you cool (slow) the liquid it becomes a solid. But under certain circumstances, if you cool (slow) atoms far enough, to extremely low temperatures, they undergo a very strange transformation; one might say they undergo an identity crisis.

Kleppner goes on to say that each atom, instead of behaving like individual particles dotting space, begins to display wave-like properties, little wave-packets moving around — something extremely difficult to explain! And, as you go to even lower (slower) temperatures, the size of these wave-packets gets longer and longer —

And then suddenly, if it gets cold enough, they start overlapping. And when they overlap, the system behaves not like individual particles, but like particles which have lost their identity, they all think they’re everywhere. One can’t tell whether it’s this one or that one. They’re all in one great big quantum state, they’re all overlapping, they’re all doing the same thing, and what they’re doing is simply sitting at rest.

This is very difficult to visualize. I can imagine what it’s like to be an atom, running around, freely bouncing into things, sometimes going fast, sometimes going slow, but at this state, I’m everywhere at once, I’m at rest. All the atoms around are at rest, only there are not other atoms around, we’re all one great quantum system. There’s nothing else like it in physics, and certainly not in human experience. So just thinking about this causes me wonder and confusion.

Does that description sound familiar?

“They’re all doing the same thing.”

“Everywhere at once.”

“At rest.”

“Altogether one great quantum system.”

Jesus said in John 10:3,

I and the Father are one.

Add the third person, Holy Spirit, and we have the Trinity.

So while not rendering it any less profound, what if quantum physics provides our Trinity mystery with at least a category of approach? In other words, even if it still falls short in the apprehension department, this could at least lay a finger on the explicability problem of a Triune God.

But you see — and this may come as a surprise to some — for the biblical writers, the mystery was never the Trinity to begin with.

The mystery that has been hidden from the ages and from the generations, but that has now been made manifest in His holy ones… is the Anointed in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:26–27)

The mystery of the ages was not even the Incarnation, as profound an event as that was. The mystery that angels longed to look upon was the Messiah, Christ the Anointed, in a man. Think about that. The Trinity, through the Spirit, indwelling a fourth party.

For whoever has entered into his rest has also rested from his works, as did God from His.

Look at that, the book of Hebrews promising a resting state for God’s people!

That all may be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they too might be in us, so that the cosmos may have faith that you sent me here. (John 17:21)

Thank you for reading! See below for more great stories.

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