A paradox is when two things are both true, but the two seem to contradict each other. Many philosophers from the ancient Greeks onwards have noted the importance of recognising paradox in their quest to understand the nature of life in this confusing world. I have heard it said that some modern philosophers claim that the greatest truth is found in paradox. However, paradox can seem illogical and confusing.
In Christian doctrine, there is often the call to keep things in balance, not to over-emphasise one side or the other in the many differences of opinion that arise. The more I have studied the Bible over the years, the more I have come to appreciate that in Christian doctrines there are many many paradoxes. We all have a tendency to desire to keep things simple, and when faced with a paradox we tend to chose either one side or the other.
The purpose of this article is to show the wide variety of paradoxes in Christian doctrine, and the way the existence of these paradoxes explains why there are so many disagreements within the church on issues of doctrine, but also why false teaching and heresies can develop, and cause many to be led away or confused.
Examples of paradox
Here are some of the significant examples of paradox in Christian doctrine. We should note that these include many of the central truths of the Christian faith, including the nature of God and the person of Jesus. This is in no way intended to be an exhaustive list. They are not listed in any particular order, and each are important. This article is not the place for an in-depth explanation of each of these, but these are given to show the wide variety of paradoxes that are found. On other pages of this website some of these topics are explained in greater detail.
1. The nature of God as revealed through his names.
In the Hebrew of the OT, there are two main names of God which are used most frequently. Each of these names is also used in combination with other titles. The first is “Elohim” (often translated “God”) which describes the all-powerful Almighty Creator God of the universe (Gen 1). This God can seem to be a bit remote and rather frightening. The second is "Yahweh" (often translated “LORD” in capital letters) which is the personal name of God who called Moses to bring his people out of oppression in Egypt (Ex 3). This is the God who sees the suffering of his people, and wants intimate relationship with them. In these two names we are shown that within God himself there is a paradox that we need to appreciate, and incorporate into our understanding and relationship with him.
In different streams of the church there often opposing tendencies in their understanding of God. Some groups tend to emphasise the “otherness” of God, the mystery of God, which can make God seem distant, unknowable, and rather frightening. Others emphasise the fact that God wants a close relationship with his people, will answer their prayers and bless them with anything they ask for. The danger is that God can almost become an indulgent “Father Christmas” figure, and the motivation to follow him becomes almost selfish: “What can God do for me?” The challenge is to keep both aspects of his nature and character in tension.
2. Jesus being fully God and fully human.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is introduced as the eternal Word of God, who created the world together with the Father (Jn 1:1). The “I am” statements are profound statements of his deity, as he takes the personal name of God and applies it to himself. However in his gospel, John also describes the real humanity of Jesus, who was tired and thirsty (Jn 4:6-7), and had a physical body which could be touched, even after the resurrection (Jn 20:24-25).
Through the early centuries, there was much debate over the nature of Jesus, whether he was fully divine and / or fully human. Eventually, in the great statements of the Christian faith in the Creeds, he was affirmed as being both divine and human. These creeds were developed in response to a variety of heresies, which either claimed that Jesus was not truly divine or not truly human, and so stimulated the church to define its doctrine.
In the nature of Jesus there is a paradox, as he is not 50 percent divine and 50 percent human, but 100 percent both. Logically this can be confusing, or even can seem to be a nonsense. However, this is the revelation of Jesus we are given, and therefore need to affirm both sides of his nature, the divine and the human.
3. The Bible being inspired by God and written by people
All Christian denominations affirm that the Bible contains writings that are inspired by God, and most treat it as the authoritative Word of God which should be used as the basis of faith and practice. The Bible itself claims this divine inspiration (2 Tim 3:16). The issue is how this divine inspiration actually functioned in the writing of the books. The books of the Bible were not a result of some miraculous discovery of inscribed stones or written documents, or dictation from an angelic being. They were not written by some sort of automatic writing, by which the authors went into a trance and received the words from God without their minds being involved. Instead, we see that each of the many authors of the books of the Bible exhibit their own particular literary style and use of vocabulary, but also express their own particular practical concerns and even emotions. Because of this, we can respect the Bible as the divinely inspired Word of God, but at the same time appreciate the variety of styles, concerns and fallen characters of the divinely inspired authors.
4. The physical creation declared good by God, but fallen
In the creation account, after each day of creation, “God saw that it was good” (Gen 1). God created a perfect world without sin and death, in which there was no suffering or hardship. However, when Adam disobeyed God, the ground was also put under a curse (Gen 3), so that creation itself is now groaning (Rom 8:19-23).
When we look at and enjoy the physical creation, or watch the nature programmes on television, we can appreciate the wonders, design and beauty of God’s creation, as the Psalmist did, “I lift up my eyes to the hills ...” (Ps 121:1). However this world is also full of horrible things, which cause much suffering, death and destruction. We continually hear of natural disasters on the news, such as earthquakes, tsunamis or hurricanes. We can often be troubled by these, and ask why does God allow these things to happen, but we need to remember that creation is also fallen, and is no longer in the condition that God made it or intended it. So the physical world we live in is also a paradox of being good, but fallen, beautiful but horrible.
At the end of the Book of Revelation, the glorious hope for the believer is being back in the garden in the presence of God (Rev 21-22), where much of the language used in Genesis is repeated. Paradise lost in Genesis is paradise regained in Revelation.
5. Human beings being created in the image of God, but are fallen
This is similar to the previous example, but is essential for us to understand and appreciate. Every human being, whether they believe in God or not, shares some of the characteristics of God because we are made in his image (Gen 1:26). It is this that separates us from the rest of creation, including the animals. As humans, we have the creative ability to imagine things in our minds, and then make them happen. Humans can show great care and love to others. We also have the opportunity to live in a relationship with our Creator as we are spiritual beings.
The bad news is that since the fall (Gen 3), human beings are also fallen, and living in rebellion against their Creator. This means that the nature of human beings is also a paradox. Each person is capable of doing wonderfully creative things, as well as being caring and compassionate, but unfortunately are also capable of being selfish, destructive, uncaring, and even the extreme of doing unspeakable horrors, as each human being has a sinful nature.
After people come to Christ, they are still not perfect, but share the fallen nature of humanity. It is important to remember that Christians are merely forgiven sinners, who are hopefully on a journey and process of sanctification.
6. The Kingdom of God being here but not yet here
During his ministry, the main message that Jesus brought was that the Kingdom of God has come (Mk 1:14-15). He explained the nature of the kingdom in many of his parables (Mk 4). Through the New Testament we see that sometimes the Kingdom has come, and sometimes the Kingdom is yet to come in the future. Theologians often call this “The now, but not yet”. The kingdom is here in that we can receive salvation and become members of the body of believers, with the task of extending that kingdom. However, the blessings we have now are merely a foretaste and guarantee of the far greater blessings we will enjoy when the kingdom comes in its fullness.
This leaves us with yet another paradox. As believers, we can live in the blessings of the kingdom, such as having sin forgiven, having a relationship with God and receiving a sense of destiny and purpose in this life, and great hope for the future. However, at the same time we need to remember that we are still living in a fallen world, facing the limitations of that fallen world, including accidents, sickness, aging and ultimately physical death, as well as the consequences of the sin of other people, like crime, murder and persecution.
This can help explain what can be a perplexing and worrying question that believers may have. Jesus can and does bring physical healing as a demonstration of the arrival of his kingdom, and that healing is frequently, but not always, in response to our level of faith in him. However, often people pray for healing, but are not healed, or even die, and unfortunately that may cause us to doubt our faith. Even worse is when others, particularly church leaders, criticise us for our lack of faith, which just adds unjustified condemnation to what is already a difficult situation. We need to remember that we are not yet living in the age to come, when the kingdom will come in all it fullness. We are still living in a fallen world, subject to sickness, aging, and ultimately physical death. Even if Jesus does heal physically, it is only temporary, as we will all die, unless he comes back first. All the people healed by Jesus in the gospels, or even raised from the dead, ultimately died. Even during his ministry, Jesus did not heal everyone who was sick, showing that physical healing is not guaranteed in this life.
7. The Second Coming of Jesus being soon, but a long time
Through the NT, there are many predictions of the second coming of Jesus. It is certain that Jesus will come back, but we are not told when that will be. When reading the NT, we can get the impression that Paul and the other writers believed that the Second Coming of Christ will be within their lifetimes, while in other places it could be an event distant in the future.
In part of the Olivet Discourse, Jesus said that the Son will come at an unexpected hour like a thief in the night, and calls on his people to be awake (Mt 24:36-44). In Matthew, this is followed by a series of parables, in all of which there is a master who is coming, but who will be delayed (eg Mt 24:25-51). This gives a tension between a sense of imminence, that Jesus could come at any time (perhaps later today), or that he may come many years after our lifetime on earth. This gives another tension and paradox. We need to be ready to meet him if he comes soon, while at the same time planning for the future and getting on with life, living in obedience to his calling.
8. God’s sovereignty and man’s free will
This has been one of the most controversial issues in the church for many centuries, but also needs to be seen as a paradox. It is frequently stated in both OT and NT that believers in God have been chosen as part of God’s elect, eg Rom 9. However, in some mysterious way, that in no way diminishes our human responsibility to decide to repent and believe the Good News (Mk 1:15). So we have to emphasise both sides, and resist the tendency to favour one side or the other. Calvinists tend to emphasise God’s sovereign election, while Arminians emphasise human responsibility. Extreme versions of both sides can actually land up being a false teaching. The challenge is to hold both in tension. Yes, God is sovereign and all-knowing, including knowing the future, but that is no way diminishes our human responsibility before him. How this works remains a mystery beyond our human understanding. When Paul considered this puzzle in Romans chapters 9-11, he ended his discussion with a declaration of praise, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33).
The purpose of the doctrine of election is to give the believer great security and a knowledge and feeling of being loved by Almighty God, but is not intended to lead us to presumption or to treat our relationship with God lightly. There are frequent instructions in the NT to run the race with faith and to persevere to the end. In other words, we have to take up our human responsibility to maintain our faith.
Again this means we have to live in a tension of paradox. As believers, we can enjoy the blessings of being chosen by God, being elect, or predestined, but we still need to take up our personal responsibility to work out our faith in fear and trembling.
9. The problem of suffering
The great problem of suffering is probably one of the greatest challenges to the Christian faith because we believe in a good God who is also all-powerful. Again there is a paradox in this question. God desires to bless his people, but we are still living in a fallen world filled with sin and suffering.
In the Wisdom writing in the OT, we also see this tension. There are many proverbs and verses in the Psalms which speak about God wanting to bless and prosper his people. However, we must balance these with the difficult question about the righteous suffering, as found in the Book of Job.
Benefits of appreciating the nature and existence of paradox
One great benefit of appreciating the nature of paradox is that it helps us to keep
balanced, and to aid in the quest to avoid extremes, disagreements and splits. The great tragedy of Church history has been the splits and divisions that have so frequently arisen between different groups, each of which may claim to be “Biblical”, but so often effectively deny the faith through their lack of love.
Paradox helps explains some of the big questions of faith
It is important to remember that the Bible is not a textbook of academic systematic
theology. Rather it contains pastoral or applied theology. The writers took the great theological truths of the Christian faith and applied them to their readers in their particular situation. In some situations, one side of the paradox needed to be emphasised, and in other situations, the other side needed to be stressed.
For example, the readers of Ephesians were living in a place of great spiritual darkness, surrounded by the worship of pagan gods, and many different belief systems. These readers needed to know that they were secure in God’s love for them, so Paul begins his letter with a great declaration of the spiritual blessings in Christ (Eph 1:1-14), including being chosen (v4), destined (v5), being forgiven (v7) awaiting the promised inheritance (v14). By contrast, the readers of the Book of Hebrews were being tempted to abandon their faith and to return to the physical safety of Judaism. The author of Hebrews shows them the superiority of Jesus and his salvation over Judaism, urges them to maintain their faith, and gives severe warnings if they fall away (5:11-
The readers of Ephesians needed the encouragement to equip them for the spiritual battle they were living in. If Paul had given them the strong warnings in Hebrews, they would have become more discouraged, and more likely to give up. The readers of Hebrews needed the strong warnings. If the author had taught them about being chosen in Christ, without the warnings, they could easily have taken the teaching the wrong way, and used it as an excuse to back-slide, saying something like, “If Jesus loves us anyway, it really doesn’t matter what we do”.
Avoiding false teaching
Many false teachings arise when there is imbalance in any of these paradoxes, when one side is emphasised and the other side minimised. Heresies develop when the imbalance is taken to extreme and one side is ignored completely. It may be an obvious statement, but still helpful to appreciate in this context, that no one ever stands up and claims to be a false teacher, but each Christian teacher claims to teach the truth, and to be biblical. For example, various cults claim to be teaching the truth when they emphasise the humanity of Jesus at the expense of his divinity but are therefore rejected as teaching orthodox Christian doctrine.
What does it mean to be biblical?
To be truly biblical, when faced with paradoxical issues such as these, it is necessary to incorporate both sides into our understanding. It is all too easy to be selective and use the Bible to prove your own opinion, while ignoring the other side. For example, it is possible to find all the many verses which speak about God’s sovereignty, our election and predestination, while ignoring all the many passages which describe human responsibility before God and the importance of choosing to follow and obey him. Alternatively it is equally possible to select the reverse way round, emphasising human responsibility and ignoring God’s sovereignty. People following both options would claim to be biblical, but in fact neither are being genuinely faithful to the full revelation given in the Scriptures, so neither are actually being truly biblical.
Living with paradox and teaching paradox
This is one of the great challenges of the Christian faith, to learn to live within the tension of both sides of the paradox, not favouring one side at the expense of the other, but keeping the tension between both. It is “both and”, rather than “either or”. For people called to teach the Bible it is especially necessary to keep the tension, to keep their teaching balanced. Teachers and preachers need to teach both sides equally, showing their congregations that paradox is important, so they too can learn to live within the tension. In preaching, as in the examples from Ephesians and Hebrews above, it may be necessary at times to emphasise one side in particular pastoral situations, while still keeping the overall tension and balance.
So to look back at some of the examples given above, we are called to worship, love and obey a God who is all-powerful, almighty, and sometimes rather scary, so we need to live in the fear of the Lord. But he is also a God who also loves his people, and wants a close intimate relationship with them, to bring comfort and healing. When reading and studying the Bible, we need to respect it as the inspired Word of God, while at the same time recognise that each book was written as a message to real people in different situations in history about issues that affected them at that time. We follow Jesus, as the divine Son of God, present with God at the creation
of the world (Jn 1), but also the human Jesus who became incarnate and lived among us and was tempted in every way, but without sin, so is able to understand us in our weaknesses (Heb 4:15).
Both human beings and the physical world we live in was created perfect, but are fallen, so we need to have a theological belief system that can handle suffering, natural disasters and the consequences of the sin of others, while at the same time believing in a God who is good and wants the best for us, always remembering that we are living at a time when the blessings of the Kingdom of God have come, while we are still waiting for the full consummation of that Kingdom.
We also have to live in the difficult tension between God’s sovereign election and our free will, avoiding the extremes of fatalism, or living as if everything depends on our human determination and moral choices. The writer of Hebrews stated this succinctly when he instructed his readers to “strive to enter that rest” (Heb 4:11).