The Bible reveals some things to us that are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). We recognize some of these things in our experience, but when we try to define or explain their essential nature or how they actually work, we find ourselves utterly perplexed.
Take, for instance, the Trinity. Relating to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is, in many ways, much easier experienced than explained. A child can believe in, interact with, and trust the triune God, but the combined power of the greatest theological minds of the past two millennia have not been able to explain triune mechanics. We know it works, but we don’t know how.
Or consider the coexistence of God’s universal, absolute sovereignty (John 1:1–3; Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 1:3) and human personal accountability for our moral choices (Matthew 12:36; Romans 2:2; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 9:14–23). We know this reality by experience. We can all point to God’s sovereign interventions in our lives that go way beyond appealing to our wills, and yet we know instinctively that we are not machines, and that we are responsible for our moral choices. We know it works, but we don’t know how.
“The deeper scientists have delved into the nature of nature, the more mysteries they have discovered.”
Some find such mysteries troubling, wondering if the realities are so hard to understand because they’re not just conundrums, but contradictions. Some scholars consider such mysteries to simply be esoteric religious nonsense. They encourage folks to place their faith in more concrete and certain things, like discoveries in the physical sciences.
Interestingly enough, though, the deeper scientists have delved into the nature of nature — in an effort to comprehend how physical reality works at its fundamental levels — they too have found themselves utterly perplexed.
Once upon a time, it seemed like Newtonian (classical) physics would eventually answer the biggest questions for us. In the euphoria of Enlightenment optimism, some confidently believed that “equipped with unlimited calculating powers and given complete knowledge of the dispositions of all particles at some instant of time . . . Newton’s equations [could be used] to predict the future, and to retrodict with equal certainty the past, of the whole universe” (Polkinghorn, 1).
But with the dawn of the 20th century, this intoxicating hope was sobered by the discoveries of quantum mechanics. The brightest minds in physics reeled as they peered into the subatomic world and saw stranger things than anyone had ever imagined.
They saw atomic particles move from one location to another with no apparent lapse of time. They saw particles “entangle” with other particles (invisibly and inexplicably connect), so that a change in one particle instantaneously produced the opposite change in the other particle, no matter the distance between them — even if separated by billions of light years. They saw particles “tunnel” through barriers that should have been impenetrable. They saw particles behaving both like particles (think tiny balls) and like waves (think sound or light waves) simultaneously. And they saw an indivisible particle pass through two separate openings at the same time.
In other words, they observed phenomena that, according to classical physics, were contradictory nonsense. But extensive, rigorous experiments over the past century have confirmed that the various phenomena, enigmatic though they are, do indeed occur. Physicists know that quantum mechanics works, but they don’t know how. Does that sound familiar?
What’s the Matter?
“Not only is the universe stranger than we think; it is stranger than we can think.”
The strange nature of quantum mechanics has called into question long-held assumptions about the fundamental nature of matter. As one physicist said, “after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is.” One implication is that materialism is not nearly the self-evident, straightforward, common sense worldview promoted by popular atheists.
Instead of the certain world of Newtonian physics, “quantum physics teaches [us] that the world is full of surprises” (Polkinghorn, 87). The pioneers of the field were so surprised by their discoveries that they must have frequently repeated this quote to each other, since its origin is attributed to many of them: “Not only is the Universe stranger than we think; it is stranger than we can think.”
Who Knows the Mind of God?
Stranger than we can think. If this is true of the universe, how much more should we expect it to be true of God himself? Quantum mechanics is hard to understand; do we think Trinitarian mechanics shouldn’t be? Our brains struggle trying to reconcile how a particle can pass through two separate openings at the same time without dividing. Should we be surprised that we struggle to reconcile the coexistence of God’s sovereignty and human accountability?
It’s surprising how easily we forget that with God, we’re dealing with a person whose intelligence, power, and complexity so far exceed our comprehension that we have no metaphor or superlative that can even remotely do him justice. We should expect perplexing conundrums. And if we’re paying attention, we can see in the quantum conundrums the same marks of genius that are present in the Christian conundrums. They are revealing God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20).
“If quantum mechanics has proven impossible to understand, should we expect any less of Trinitarian mechanics?”
Paul, after eleven chapters of unsurpassed human attempt to explain the most glorious mysteries of salvation, couldn’t help but break out in worship of an intelligence so far beyond his:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Romans 11:33–34)
The Bible reveals some things we find extraordinarily hard to understand — inscrutable things that perplex, confound, and even disturb us. But nature reveals traces of the same designer. When we run up against conundrums that show us the limits of our intellectual capacities, we don’t need to follow cynical doubts. But like Paul, our limits can lead us to awe-filled worship.