Anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time will have heard others referring to ‘mystery’. Biblically, mysteries are not what we tend to mean by that word. We usually consider something that is entirely unclear to be a mystery. But, in the Bible, a mystery is something that was hidden but has now been revealed (so, in a sense, it is no longer a mystery as we understand mysteries).
But there is a sense in which there are mysteries, that still remain a bit mysterious to us. Often, when people reference mystery, they mean this is a thing that we just can’t fully comprehend. It’s not that we don’t believe it, or that it doesn’t make sense, just that we can’t fully plumb the depths of whatever it is.
For example, there is a fair degree of mystery when it comes to the trinity. It isn’t that the doctrine doesn’t make sense. Nor is it that we don’t really understand it properly so we don’t really believe it. Rather, when we appeal to mystery, we’re saying that we can’t fully comprehend the depths of the doctrine. In other words, we are never going to fully understand – with perfect understanding – all there is to know about God. Some things are, and will remain, a mystery.
So, appeal to mystery is not entirely wrong. We can only know anything about God based on what he reveals about himself. And unless God has revealed absolutely everything there is to know about himself (and he hasn’t because no book could possible contain all that), we are left with some things that we don’t know about him. Those things are a mystery.
But all too often, we are a bit quick to appeal to mystery. I am reminded of a section of William Lane Craig’s introduction to his book The Only Wise God:
When my wife Jan and I were studying in Cambridge, England, we stopped into a local Christian bookstore. When the saleswoman asked the subject of my research, I explained that I was studying the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. “Oh well,” she replied with a smile, “we can’t really know the answer to that, can we?” For too many Christians, easy appeal to mystery has become a substitute for the labour of hard thinking…. This is not to say that theology has no place for mystery, but that such an appeal ought to be made only as a last resort after much hard thinking.
Whilst I don’t share Craig’s view of God’s sovereignty and human freedom, he is entirely right to highlight this easy appeal to mystery. All too often, what we mean by ‘mystery’ is something closer to, ‘I can’t really be bothered to think about it too much.’ Others, perhaps, use to mystery as code for, ‘I have reached the limits of my knowledge.’ But they often fail to recognise there are others who haven’t exhausted their knowledge and have managed to reach credible conclusions on the question in hand with the evidence available. Something being a mystery to me, doesn’t necessarily mean it is a mystery – in the normal meaning of that word – with answers that cannot be known. Mystery, properly, refers to something that cannot be known, not something that I happen not to know.
Again, let me stress, mystery exists. There are things that are simply beyond human knowledge. But we need to be careful that we don’t offer a handwaving reference to mystery when the evidence to discern the answer – and others who may have thought it through more fully – do exist. There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘I don’t know’, but let’s not let the limits of our personal knowledge become our de facto grounds for insisting everyone’s knowledge must be similarly limited. Mystery is what cannot be known, not what we don’t care to think too much about or apparent contradictions we don’t want to think through.