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.
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.