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.