A Simple Illustration of the Trinity

Too often I have sat in churches where teachers have tried to illustrate the Biblical concept of the Trinity. The problem is that almost without exception, these illustrations are wrong, wrong, wrong! (Please note, that my repeating wrong three times is not the simple illustration of the Trinity -- just emphasis.)

Common but Bad Illustrations

I remember one pastor using the example of a man being a Father to his son, a son to his father and a husband to his wife. See? A Trinity. Yes, it is a Trinity, but it is not the Biblical Trinity because it is an example of Modalism or Sabellianism. The Trinity is not God presenting himself in three different forms or modes. The Trinity teaches that each of the three persons of the Trinity are separate persons each of which is fully God.

Another example was by a well-meaning teacher as part of a kids' sermon. She pulled out a "boom box" which was a single music system with a radio, a CD player and a cassette player built in. See? Three things in one. Certainly, that's the Biblical teaching of the Trinity. Unfortunately, no. This is not the Biblical Trinity because while the stereo is one thing made up of three things, the CD player is not the boom box, the cassette player is not the boom box and the radio is not the boom box. It is much like the example of the three parts of an egg: the yolk, the white and the shell. Since there are three things in one egg, that's an example of the Trinity, right? No, it isn't because the individual parts are not the egg.

So, what's a Sunday School teacher to do? How can the Sunday School teacher or the youth leader present a true illustration of the Trinity? Well, I have developed one that I have run past several people and I have yet to have anyone who has demonstrated that the illustration is not Biblical. Moreover, it is an illustration that can be used (when properly set up) to defeat the claim that the Biblical Trinity is illogical. So, I want to present it here.

Defining the Trinity

When illustrating the Trinity, I start by giving a basic understanding of what the Bible teaches about the Trinity. I follow the lead of Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason in identifying the following as the core of the Biblical teaching of the Trinity:

1. There is only one God.
2. The Father is fully God, the Son (Jesus) is fully God and the Holy Spirit is fully God.
3. The Father is not the Son, and neither the Father nor the Son are the Holy Spirit.

The first of these core teachings is seems undeniable from any fair reading of the Scriptures. Perhaps the clearest statement can be found in Deuteronomy 6:4 which reads, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one." There are many other Biblical references that can be cited to support this first propostion.

The second core teaching is spread throughout the Bible, but rather than re-invent the wheel, let me quote from an article called The Trinity (Triunity) of God by J. Hampton Keathley, III on Bible.org,

Here it can be unequivocally demonstrated the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Furthermore, the New Testament teaches us that these three names are not synonymous, but speak of three distinct and equal Persons.

(1) The Father is called God (John 6:27; 20:17; 1 Cor. 8:6; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 4:6; Phil. 2:11; 1 Pet. 1:2).

(2) Jesus Christ, the Son is declared to be God. His deity is proven by the divine names given to Him, by His works that only God could do (upholding all things, Col. 1:17; creation, Col. 1:16, John 1:3; and future judgment, John 5:27), by His divine attributes (eternality, John 17:5; omnipresence, Matt. 28:20; omnipotence, Heb. 1:3; omniscience, Matt. 9:4), and by explicit statements declaring His deity (John 1:1; 20:28; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8).

(3) The Holy Spirit is recognized as God. By comparing Peter’s comments in Acts 5:3 and 4, we see that in lying to the Holy Spirit (vs. 3), Ananias was lying to God (vs. 4). He has the attributes which only God can possess like omniscience (1 Cor. 2:10) and omnipresence (1 Cor. 6:19), and He regenerates people to new life (John 3:5-6, 8; Tit. 3:5), which must of necessity be a work of God for only God has the power of life. Finally, His deity is evident by the divine names used for the Spirit as “the Spirit of our God,” (1 Cor. 6:11), which should be understood as “the Spirit, who is our God.”

Ryrie writes: “Matthew 28:19 best states both the oneness and threeness by associating equally the three Persons and uniting them in one singular name. Other passages like Matthew 3:16-17 and 2 Corinthians 13:14 associate equally the three Persons but do not contain the strong emphasis on unity as does Matthew 28:19.”18

The New Bible Dictionary, adds to this the following evidence:

The evidence of the NT writings, apart from the Gospels, is sufficient to show that Christ had instructed his disciples on this doctrine to a greater extent than is recorded by any of the four Evangelists. They whole-heartedly proclaim the doctrine of the Trinity as the threefold source of redemption. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost brought the personality of the Spirit into greater prominence and at the same time shed light anew from the Spirit upon the Son. Peter, in explaining the phenomenon of Pentecost, represents it as the activity of the Trinity: ‘This Jesus … being … exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear’ (Acts 2:32-33). So the church of Pentecost was founded on the doctrine of the Trinity.

I only need to point to two verses to demonstrate that the Father is not the Son and neither is the Holy Spirit. Luke 3:21-22 is the conclusion of the baptism of Jesus by John. The verses read:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."

In this verse, the three persons are all present. Jesus has just been baptized and is praying, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in bodily form, and the voice of the Father comes from heaven and speaks about Jesus (the Son). As Greg Koukl humorously adds, note that at no time does Jesus' lips move.

Advice on Using the Illustration as an Apologetics Tool

Before actually getting to the illustration, let me give some advice to people who want to use this as a tool for apologetics with skeptics. Do not go on to the illustration unless and until you can reach an agreement on the three core Biblical teachings. It is my experience that unless the skeptic acknowledges the three core beliefs in advance of the illustration, the skeptic will always return and start arguing against the three core facts once the illustration is given.

The Illustration

So, the question becomes what can be used to illustrate the Trinity? What one "Thing" can be made up of three "things" where each of the three "things" are fully the "Thing", but each of the three "things" are distinct from each other?

The answer is a treaty.

Let's suppose that there is a treaty entered between England and Germany. How many treaties are executed? Actually, there are three: a treaty executed in English, a treaty executed in German, and a treaty executed in French (the language of the United Nations). Each of the treaties is fully the treaty -- they are not just copies of the treaty. The English treaty is fully and actually the treaty separate and apart from the others. The French treaty is fully and actually the treaty separate and apart from the others. Likewise, the German treaty is fully and actually the treaty separate and apart from the others. Yet, there is no question that the treaties are different: one of the treaties is written in English, one in French and one in German. They are written on separate pieces of paper.

So, you have one "Thing" (the treaty between England and Germany) can be made up of three "things" (the English treaty, the German treaty and the French treaty) where each of the three "things" are fully the "Thing" (the treaty between England and Germany), but each of the three "things" are distinct from each other.

The one objection that I have heard to this particular illustration is that it is not sufficiently concrete. By that the objectors mean that it's not like an egg where all three parts can be seen. But I simply note in response that God Himself is not purely physical so it should not be expected that the illustration would be somewhat non-physical.

An Even Simpler Illustration Easily Used with Kids

A similar illustration that any Sunday School teacher plays on the same principle and uses something that can be found around most churches: the Bible. The teacher should take to class three different Bibles. The effect is most dramatic if the teacher take Bibles in different languages, but it can also be illustrated effectively using different versions of the Bible, say the King James Version, the New International Version and the New American Standard Bible.

Hand the three copies to three different children. Have them all read the same verse in the three different versions (it helps to find verses that read dramatically differently in each of the three versions in advance). Ask the children if the Bibles are different. The answer is, of course, yes. Then ask them if there is more than one Bible -- that is, more than one "Word of God." The answer is no.

Just as in the treaty illustration, you have one "Thing" (the Bible) can be made up of three "things" (the NASB Bible, the NIV Bible, and the KJV Bible) where each of the three "things" are fully the "Thing" (the Word of God), but each of the three "things" are distinct from each other.

No analogy, of course, is perfect. A perfect analogy is an identity, and there is nothing in this universe that will be an identity with God. However, it is hopefully an illustration that can give people a beginning glimmer of how the Trinity can be understood.


Hey BK. that's a good post. I agree with your views of the Trinity of cousre. I hate to be critical but I'm surprised that you leave out the importance of understanding the authority of the Creeds in setting the doctrine.

We wrote into the cadre fuels for membership that one must accept hte Nicene creed for this just this reason, that the creeds are the authority for doctrine.

I think it's also important to point out that there is no good analogy of anything, most especially the Trinity. The term for "person" they used "persona" means identity. The mas worn by Greek actors in a tragedy. The thing they share is substance or essence, hamousios. Three identities in one essence or substance.

To that extent the boom box may not be that bad of an analogy. I use three pieces of fruit in one bowl. That's probably not that good an analogy either suffers the same weakness as the boom box.

the Treaty thing is brilliant but requires a legal understanding. Leave it to a lawyer to think of that one.

How about the Trinity is like an injunction? o Never mind ;-)
Adam Pastor said…
Greetings BK

On the subject of the Trinity,
I recommend this video:
The Human Jesus

Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

Yours In Messiah
Adam Pastor
Edwardtbabinski said…
An analogy proves nothing. An infinite number of analogies still proves nothing. Analogies do not prove that a "Trinity" exists, nor that you understand what a "Trinity" is.

Do you believe a "treaty" is miraculous? Maybe you believe everything is a miracle. But you have proven nothing. Catholics and existentialist Christians as well as mystical religious believers admit there are mysteries. Holy mysteries like "the Trinity." But that's not good enough for Evangelical apologists. They want to try and nail their understanding to the floor with ... analogies. Like trying to crucify Jesus with wet noodles instead of nails. Analogies prove nothing.

The late president of the Institute for Creation Research used to argue using analogies taken from the world of physics that Jesus' dual nature could be "understood" like the dual nature of light as "both wave and particle," or that the Trinity could be "understood" like the triune dimensions of space, "height, width, depth." I believe the analogies are found in Many Infallible Proofs by Henry Morris. However, analogies abound, they are fecundant beyond dreams, analogies are what poets use, and they know no bounds, not being limited only to dualistic and triune analogies. Nature is filled with ones, fours, and other combinations. Not just twos and threes. And Einstein proposed that nature consisted of four dimensions, with time being the fourth, while today's string theorists dream of 11 or more dimensions. There also remains the search for particles that travel faster than light, tachyons. And there are more than just three states of matter today, sold, liquid, gas, are but three of the known states of matter, there's five or six that have been discovered, including plasma, and one or two other states.

Your example of a human treaty merely involves verbal agreement between two or more human societies that have evolved different languages, but who are able to communicate using the same general ideas but different words. It doesn't prove that the Germans and French and their agreement are "three in one," whatever that means.

And also, if Jesus was fully God and fully man, having a fully human nature and fully human will yet distinct from his divine nature and divine will, then what about that "man" part of Jesus? Since the God-man Jesus is of the Trinity, is "man" now of the Trinity in some sense? Is the Trinity a little more like a Quaternity since Jesus was born?

Hindus have a Triune view of deity too, Vishnu, Shinva, and one other God, and all three are part of a larger God or reality, and frmo that larger God flow an infinite number incarnations.
BK said…
Uh...Edward. I am not using the analogy to prove that the Trinity exists, but merely to illustrate how three things can be one Thing in a similar way as the Bible describes the Trinity. It also can be used to counter the idea that it is a logical impossibility.

Good grief, take a breath.
Anonymous said…
I went to Catholic school from first grade straight through law school, went to Church every week and was very devout for much of my life. So I've heard my share of trinitarian analogies, and I have to say your treaty analogy is about as good as I've heard. Then again, I'm a lawyer too.
The treaty analogy, an analogy only a lawyer could love.

actually I do like it.
"An analogy proves nothing. An infinite number of analogies still proves nothing. Analogies do not prove that a "Trinity" exists, nor that you understand what a "Trinity" is."

BK said it, not tryign to rpove with it, just illustrate the concept. In this case however it does prove soemthing.It proves what law school can do for you.

Do you believe a "treaty" is miraculous? Maybe you believe everything is a miracle.

that is ridiculous. do you even have the slightest idea what analogies are? where did you ever get the idea that analogies have ot so perfectly mirror their analogs counterparts that have to be on the same metaphysical order? That's literaliing a metaphor.

God is not miraculous

I think you are totally confused.
TruthOverfaith said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael R said…
The illustration of the union which I think is closest is that of marriage. Scripture refers to the union of Christ and the Church, and I think this is probably the best way to describe the unity of the three members of the Trinity. But at first glance this falls short by one person.

If we’re going to attempt to illustrate a non-physical reality, we’re going to have to separate ourselves from physical illustrations. Every physical illustration breaks down in some manner.

As best I understand it, the teaching of the Trinity is summarized in three statements:
1. God is three persons.
2. Each person is fully God.
3. There is one God.
(This comes from Systematic Theology, by Wayne Grudem)

Allow me to attempt a non-physical illustration which is mathematically and logically coherent, understandable to us in the physical realm and which (I believe) fully satisfies each of those three statements:


This is the definition of the value of 1. The key to this definition is the equal sign, because it is a statement of being: that meaning or value exists. As a form of the verb ”to be”, the equal sign is the ”I Am”, or the eternal statement of existence that ties all parts of the equation together. (I Am = Yahweh = Eternal One)
(For this reason 1x1x1 doesn’t work, because there’s no statement of being.)

This definition of 1 is composed of three necessarily distinct operators (or roles, or persons) which carry uniquely separate functions: Numerator, Denominator, and Result.

1. There are three operators,
2. Each operator is fully 1,
3. By definition, there is only one value of 1.
4. The Numerator is not the Denominator or the Result, the Denominator is not the Numerator or the Result, and the Result is not the Numerator or the Denominator.
5. Each operator is necessary for the existence of the other two:
6. This illustration is handy, because God describes himself in Deuteronomy 6:4 as ”One”. (Not that the value 1 is God, but that God describes himself by the singular nature of the value 1.)

Comparison to Scripture:
Deuteronomy 6:4
”Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

1 Corinthians 8:6 would allow us to fill in the Numerator as the Father, because the right half of the equation comes from, and is defined (begotten) by the left half.
”yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came”

1 Corinthians 2:10b allows us to fill in the denominator as the Holy Spirit.
”The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.”

1 Corinthians 2:9-10a allows us to fill in the Result as the Son, Jesus. Consider that we cannot receive Christ unless the Spirit makes him known to us.
”However, as it is written:
“No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him” —
but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.”

Hebrews 1:3
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.
A study of the Greek sounds more like ”perfect replica or duplicate” of God’s nature.
(See also Matthew 1:20, Luke 1:35, 1 Corinthians 2:14)

Comparison to known heresies:

This avoids Modalism, because there are three different operators, not one operator.
This avoids Arianism, because the Result is co-eternal with the Numerator and the Denominator, while proceeding from them.

This avoids Subordinationism, because the Denominator and Result (Spirit and Son) are of one substance with the Numerator, and therefore share the same attributes.

This avoids Adoptionism, because the Result exists from the same moment that the Numerator and Denominator exist, and vice versa.

This avoids Tritheism, because there is only one value of one involved in the definition.
Michael R said…

Other considerations:
This satisfies the second Law of Thermodynamics that we observe in nature, that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Consider how we derive this:

0=0 (There is nothing, and it’s changing into nothing)
0=1-1 (Both sides still independently evaluate to nothing)
1=1 (0+1 = 1-1+1) (Logically unmeaningful; is a tautology)
1/1=1 (Logically meaningful, because there is a translation of value into a different and understood representation)

1 as a concept exists by its very nature. It is an eternal Truth that has neither beginning nor end. There has never been a point, nor will there ever be one, when 1/1≠1.

Please note that I say all this as an attempt to demonstrate the validity of the illustration of three-in-oneness, not as an attempt to "prove" the existence of God. That can only be done as he reveals himself to us in Scripture.
Anonymous said…
There is only one BIble - KJV. Any other versions (especially NIV) should not be considered a "bible". They carry many errors and wrong teachings. KJV is the closest accurate version we have and should use.
BK said…
Anonymous, I think you are wrong, but that isn't the point. The illustration does show how three things can be one thing, that's all.

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