The first of the three problemata asks the question, "Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?" Johannes defines the ethical as universal, as applying to all at all times. The ethical is the telos, or end goal, of everything outside itself, and there is no telos beyond the ethical. The telos of the single individual is to become a part of the universal by annulling his singularity. Johannes notes that if the ethical is the highest we can aspire to, then Hegel is right in calling the single individual a "moral form of evil," but he is wrong not to condemn Abraham as a murderer.
Faith is the paradox that the single individual can rise above the universal. If this is not the case, then Abraham is lost and faith has never existed, "precisely because it has always existed." Faith is a category that is impervious to thought, because it cannot be mediated: mediation takes place by virtue of the universal and faith is above the universal. Abraham's ethical relationship with Isaac is that the father should love the son more than himself. Because he does not follow this ethical principle, he is not a tragic hero: he is either a murderer or a knight of faith.
Johannes presents three examples of fathers sacrificing children without moving beyond the ethical. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia so that the Greeks could win the Trojan War; Jephthah sacrificed his daughter because he promised God a sacrifice if he should defeat the Ammonites; and Junius Brutus put his sons to death for plotting against the state. In each case, though, these fathers kill their children for the good of their people as a whole, and can thus be understood and wept for as tragic heroes.
Abraham, on the other hand, is not at all related to the universal: his is a private matter between himself and God. He acts only for God's sake (God demands a proof of faith) and for his own sake (to prove his faith), which are ultimately one and the same. Abraham experiences temptation, but this temptation is the ethical itself, that which might hold him back from his duty to God. Hence, the need for the category of the religious. Because speech expresses the universal, Abraham cannot speak about his ordeal, nor can he be understood or wept for like a tragic hero might. He might arouse our admiration, but he also appalls us, since what he does is a sin according to the ethical. The paradox is that he places himself, as a single individual, in an absolute relation to the absolute: he is not justified by anything universal, but precisely by being a single individual.
A deed is made heroic, not by its results, but by its origins, by the motives that shaped it. Abraham cannot be justified by the result--that he got Isaac back--and so he cannot be understood as a hero. To judge greatness in terms of results is to pass over all the anxiety, distress, and paradox involved in the deed itself. Mary was similarly great, since her suffering was personal. She had to give birth to God and yet she could not speak about it to anyone. While we may not understand faith, we are not excluded from it. Faith is a passion, and passion unites all human lives.
Each of the problemata follow a pattern: first, Johannes defines the ethical as the universal and then he shows that if Hegel is right in this definition, Abraham is a murderer. This method is typical of the irony that is so pervasive in Kierkegaard's writing. Rather than assert outright that he thinks that Hegel is wrong, Kierkegaard assumes an alternative persona (in this case, Johannes de Silentio) who seems at least somewhat convinced by Hegelianism. He then follows the logical consequences of Hegelian ethics until he runs up against an absurdity--in this case, that Abraham is a murderer. Johannes never directly asserts that there must be a flaw in Hegelian ethics, but instead leaves it up to the reader to decide: either Hegel is right and Abraham is a murderer, or Hegel is wrong and we must acknowledge faith. The element of choice left to the reader is also central to Kierkegaard's thought: he places a great deal of emphasis on the freedom of the individual and on the freedom of choice.
What is meant by the "teleological suspension of the ethical"? Telos is a Greek word meaning "end" or "goal." Hegelian ethics is teleological because all actions are thought to be done with a particular end purpose in mind, namely, that the single individual should annul his individuality in order to become one with the universal. The highest good on an ethical level is to be a tragic hero and sacrifice oneself for the good of all. Agamemnon, for instance, must renounce his personal, fatherly affection toward his daughter so that he can do what is good for the Greeks as a whole.
The question of whether there is a teleological suspension of the ethical asks whether there might be some higher cause, some higher end goal, which might cancel out our ethical obligations. According to Hegel, there is none: the universal as expressed in the ethical is the highest telos there is. However, Abraham is willing to murder his son for his own sake only, and not for the benefit of any higher ethical principle. According to Hegel, then, Abraham is a murderer. Johannes suggests alternatively that there is a teleological suspension of the ethical, that Abraham suspended his ethical obligation to Isaac on behalf of some higher telos, the telos of faith.
Johannes speaks of the religious as a new category, one that has not yet been discovered. Hegel and the Greeks both seem to deal only with the aesthetic and the ethical, but Abraham is surely not expressing either of these categories. Johannes says that the ethical can be mediated, that it is universal. According to Hegel, all thought takes place by virtue of mediation: two conflicting ideas can be mediated into a synthesis, which is then brought into conflict with a new antithesis, and so on. But this mediation takes place on the level of ideas that can be expressed, that can be understood by all, and which are thus universal. Because Abraham's ordeal is not universal, but is rather the experience of the single individual, it cannot be mediated. Because it cannot be mediated, it cannot exist in the realm of thought, it cannot be understood, it cannot be ethical.
If we have only the aesthetic and the ethical to choose between, Abraham must express the aesthetic, since he does not participate in the universal. But if this is the case, Johannes suggests, "then Abraham is lost, then faith has never existed in the world precisely because it has always existed." If faith is merely an expression of the aesthetic then we all have faith, but faith becomes something petty and low, something the Hegelian is right in saying that we must move beyond. If faith is merely an expression of the aesthetic, then there is nothing special at all about Abraham and we are wrong to admire him. If we acknowledge Abraham's greatness, then we acknowledge that Abraham does not express the aesthetic and we must thereby acknowledge that there is a third category, the religious, which is above the ethical.
Johannes brings out the point that the religious is above the ethical by showing that for Abraham, the ethical is a temptation, just as the aesthetic is a temptation for the ethical. Agamemnon was tempted by the aesthetic, to hold on to his personal love for his daughter, but rose above this love in order to do what was good for all. Abraham was tempted by the ethical, to obey his ethical obligation to love his son, but rose above this love in order to obey God's command. Had he refused God's command, he would have been behaving ethically, but instead he rose above the ethical and did his duty to God.