Modalism: The illusion of three persons in one God.

On those who believe God is sometimes Holy Spirit, and sometimes Jesus.

Modalist /'mod.əl.ɪst/ adj. Believes God has multiple personas, approaches, functions, or aspects of his nature—which other Christians confuse with trinity.

[Modalism /'mod.əl.ɪz.əm/ n.]

When Christians don’t believe God’s a trinity, either they fully embrace unitarianism and insist Jesus isn’t God, or they kinda embrace unitarianism and insist Jesus is God… but God still isn’t three. He’s one. But he looks three, from our limited human point of view.

Why’s he look three? Time travel.

No, seriously. Time travel. I know; time travel hasn’t been scientifically documented. It’s still just theory. But we’re all familiar with science fiction, so we have a general idea of how it works.

If you don’t: Imagine a man, whom we’ll call Doc Brown. (I know; real original of me.) Brown has a time machine. He hops into it and travels 30 years into the past. There, he encounters himself from 30 years ago—the younger version of Doc Brown. If you were to stand there and observe this, it looks like there are two Doc Browns, interacting with one another. In fact they’re both the same guy: Brown got his personal timeline to loop around, and one segment of it overlaps another segment of it.

Well, says the modalist, this is kinda what God does. God exists outside of spacetime, which they’ll call “eternity.” This was a theory St. Augustine of Hippo originally pitched—and it’s bogus, ’cause it violates the idea God’s omnipresent. But a lot of Christians buy the whole outside-spacetime idea, ’cause they grew up hearing it, and it sounds clever and intelligent, and repeating it makes them sound clever and intelligent. Anyway, bear with me, ’cause modalists kinda need it to be true. It’s the basis of their theory.

Okay. So in this “eternity,” time’s a zero-dimensional point. There’s no past nor present nor future. It’s all now—all an eternal present instant to whoever’s in there. God lives in there; it’s where heaven’s located. (Somehow there’s music, which is entirely based on time, in heaven regardless. Sorry; had to digress to point out the logical inconsistency. Back to it.)

God decided to step outside this zero-dimensional point, enter our one-dimensional timeline, and become human. This’d be Jesus. But when Jesus (and we) look back at “eternity”… it’s not vacant. Because God’s still in there. He’s always in there. There’s no timeline, and no stretch in this timeline where God stepped out of it. It’s a zero-dimensional point, remember?

It’s like Doc Brown and his overlapping timelines. Looks like God’s in two places at once, but that’s an illusion, based on our lack of understanding about “eternity.” That is, unless we’re clever enough to figure it out—and modalists figure they’re just that clever.

Anyway, that’s why Jesus always had a Father to pray to: The Father was still, and is always still, back in “eternity.” But there never were two persons; just one person with a bendy timeline.

Same deal with the Holy Spirit: Whenever God steps out of “eternity” in the present day to do stuff—and doesn’t do it in Jesus’s human body—that’d be the Holy Spirit. And sometimes the Spirit overlapped Jesus’s timeline. But God wasn’t really in three places at once; it only looks it.

So this time-travel explanation is the most common way I’ve heard modalists explain the trinity. I don’t know who invented it, but it’s pretty clever. It’s rubbish, but it’s clever rubbish.

Sabellius: The original explanation for modalism.

Before science fiction fans came up with the time-travel explanation for the trinity, there were the original guys who came up with modalism. There’s Noetus of Smyrna in the 100s, and Praxeas of Asia Minor and Sabellius of Rome in the early 200s. Sabellius was the guy who articulated it clearest.

Sabellius really liked to imagine God as his Father; which is fine, ’cause he is. He figured fatherhood is a central, vital attribute of God: If he’s not Father, he’s not really God. Really disliked any idea of God which wasn’t Father.

Problem is, Jesus isn’t the Father. He’s the Son. Yet still God. Sabellius figured if Jesus were really God—and God is Father—Jesus oughta also be Father. Otherwise he can’t actually be God.

You know, like those people who figure almightiness is a central, vital attribute of God, and therefore Jesus can’t have depowered himself to become human, Pp 2.7 or he wouldn’t be God anymore. It’s yet another case of someone’s favorite definition of God, applied willy-nilly, getting in the way of describing God as he actually is. Sabellius wouldn’t accept any explanation which made Jesus less than God, but it required that Jesus be the Father… so it ditched the idea of more than one person in God.

Sabellius’s explanation was God is always Father. And Jesus is God. But God isn’t always Jesus. Ordinarily God’s in Father-mode, reigning from afar, making cosmic plans, judging the universe, or otherwise being the Almighty.

And sometimes God functions in Jesus-mode: When he needed to become human, or create the world, or save the world, or make personal appearances. If God’s gotta interact with humans in a physical, tangible, human form, he’ll do it as Jesus. When he chooses to not do it in a human form—when he needs to empower Christians, inspire prophets, or stop the weather—he’ll do it in Holy-Spirit-mode.

God switches modes as necessary. Just like someone with three jobs, whose job duties are so very different, overlap so little, you’d think he was three guys. Like a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick-maker. But turns out they’re all the same guy. Looks like God is three, but he’s really not.

The obvious problem with Sabellius’s theory—the reason orthodox Christians like Athanásios of Alexandria couldn’t buy it—was that this sort of behavior isn’t consistent with a God who’s truly trying to reveal himself to his people. He looks so much like three persons, acts so much like three persons, that we couldn’t help but come to that conclusion… and why would he want us to come to that conclusion if it weren’t so? It’s like 10,000-year-old trees in a 6,000-year-old universe: It implies God is trying to deceive us.

The scriptures describe God in three persons, who interacted with one another. Like when the Father spoke to the Son at his baptism: “You’re my beloved son.” Lk 3.22 Either that’s an accurate depiction of God, or it’s a trick, and the early Christians didn’t care for the idea of God as a liar.

Plus, here’s an idea which weirded out the church fathers: If the Father, Son, and Spirit are the same person, what’s that mean when Jesus suffered and died? Did it mean the Father and Spirit also suffered and died on the cross? Son, Spirit, and Father all went into the grave? (So who was ruling the universe?)

True, whether we like an idea, whether we’re comfortable with an idea, isn’t a valid reason to accept or reject it. Sabellius’s idea made him comfortable, and pleases many a Christian who can’t wrap their minds around the trinity and like an easier explanation. But there needs to be more evidence for it than warm fuzzy feelings.

The scriptures reveal a triune God, not a God who switches identities like a con artist. He’s not sometimes one person, sometimes another. He is, and always has been, in all of time and space, three persons. Simultaneously. Not because God did some jiggery-pokery with his personal timeline, nor took advantage of some in-time/out-of-time differences between “eternity” and spacetime. There’s no such thing as an environment where God’s not simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Yeah, we don’t know how God is both three persons and one being. But the solution to this paradox isn’t to ditch it, and demand he be one or the other. Or to figure God’s deceiving us about being three persons. ’Cause that’s the problem if Sabellius—and the modalists who still kinda stick with his ideas—are correct. If God’s trying to make us think he’s way stranger than he really is, why would he do that?

Especially since, through Christ, he’s gone to such trouble to become less strange?—to become human, and meet us at our level?