Most would contend that the term “existentialism” is confined to the intellectual community and is divorced from the practicality of everyday living. Quiet to the contrary. An existential perspective of man’s existence has spread throughout society. Could it be that the stranglehold existentialism has on the secular realm is the result of the mutual influence of existential theology flowing from the merging of polluted streams? As the prophet Amos asked, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3 – KJV). Far too often society and segments of the church walk closely in step. The majority of the population may not be able to define existentialism, yet its philosophical presuppositions have permeated societal thinking. While existentialist philosophy has many branches, (1) where did its seeds begin to first germinate, (2) can it succinctly be defined, and (3) why is it, whether philosophical or theological existentialism, so dangerous and destructive?
Most philosophers and theologians trace the roots of existentialism back to Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). One might summarize that Kierkegaard’s conclusions regarding Christ and the Christian faith were not derived from the reflective study of the objective truths of Scripture as the final authority in shaping the life of the believer. When engaged in the study of Scripture one’s personal and subjective experiences were regarded as more important and authoritative than the objective truths of the Written Word. Since the Word of God is not the final authority, one’s ideas and experiences become determinative in how Scripture is to be interpreted. In his work Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard wrote regarding objective and subjective truth, that “subjectivity becomes the truth. Only in subjectivity is there decisiveness, to seek objectivity is in error.”  Approaching the Bible with subjectivity is spelled out in his words, “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”  Approaching the Bible looking for truth that is agreeable to me is not letting the Bible speak authoritatively as truth even when my sinful nature is pricked by the tip of the Living Sword.
The Evangelical position is that the Bible is the God-breathed, divine revelation of God’s progressive unfolding of events that culminate in the redemptive work found in Jesus Christ. However, existential theology sees the Bible as a book couched in the mythical world of the time in which it was written and should be regarded as obsolete for universal authoritative value. The view of Kierkegaard that subjective experiences are more authoritative than the Bible, gave rise to liberal theology where the Bible becomes subordinated to one’s subjective philosophical ideas and experiences. Theologians such as D.F Strauss, Rudolph Bultmann, and Paul Tillich contended that because of the Bible’s mythological motif, the orthodox position that the Bible is to be one’s objective authority is a presupposition that is unacceptable. When one adopts such a position and elevates one’s subjective experiences over the objective truth of Scripture, the result is that man is acting in autonomy. The concept of one’s “existence” is not shaped by the authority of Scripture but by one’s autonomous ideas and personal experiences which become authoritative. For the existentialist, personal experience and acting on one’s own convictions are essential in arriving at the truth.
Existential theology/thought helped water philosophical existentialists such as Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre and others, whose mantra was “existence before essence.” The authority of Scripture teaches “essence before existence.” “Essence before existence” means there are certain things that are true about human nature or “essence” before one exists. Each person is created by God, who has designed each individual with certain qualities and capacities, as well as designed each person with value, meaning, and purpose. Each person has been endowed with an interconnective “essence” that makes us human. The Psalmist says we are wonderfully designed by our Creator (Ps. 139), and He places us on earth for a certain purpose and plan. This is seen in Jeremiah who the Lord said He knew and called to be a prophet before he was formed in his mother’s womb (Jer. 1:5) or in John the Baptist who was born to be the Forerunner of Christ. In other words, it was essence before existence. As their lives unfolded, meaning and purpose came from discovering the assignment for which they were created.
Existentialism teaches that regarding humanity there are no eternal essences from the hand of the Creator which precede existence; you exist first, then it is the responsibility of each person to create their essence by one’s own choices and decisions. The human self was not created with destiny, but we create our fate. Instead of being divinely aided in the unfolding of God’s purpose and plan for our lives, we are abandoned with the task of creating our destiny through our choices and actions. If a divine mind has not with purpose created, then one is autonomous. There is no absolute, fixed, or eternal nature or essence outside one’s self to which one is dependent; one is dependent only upon themselves. Existentialism says we exist first, and then it is up to each person to create their essence. Existentialism says a person’s existence is not dependent upon a moral, holy, and loving God who created each individual. So, at the heart of existentialism is emphasized one’s personal freedom, individual responsibility, and deliberate choices are essential to the pursuit of self-discovery of life’s meaning, divorced from a Divine purpose or plan. There is no ultimate authority outside of one’s self.
The Bible teaches human beings possess a certain “essence” and a certain “nature” that precedes our “existence,” which began in the mind of God. Existentialism, on the other hand, says my “essence” is not dependent upon anything but me. Each individual creates their essence, their nature, their moral compass a part of any Supernatural Being who created them. According to existentialism, a person is self-defined and dependent upon themselves, therefore, are free to create their morality, develop, define, and decide what their “essence” will be without dependence upon a Source (God) outside themselves. Thus, the existential definition, “existence precedes essence.” Sadly, such thinking has infiltrated many circles of Christendom, creating bankrupt and destructive theology.
Now, is not that the way most people live their lives? This is the human problem, man wants to be his own god, be free to create his morality, and decide for himself what his “essence” or moral compass will be without interference from or dependence upon a Divine Being. By asserting “existence before essence,” existentialism rejects the existence of a common human thread or essence that connects humanity; therefore, one can create their own essence. Adopting such a presupposition has given birth to transgenderism and many other moral and gender-related isms. It is not an Omnipotent Creator who determines my gender, I do. Regardless of my biological gender at birth, I am free to change it because I am my own boss and the creator of my essence. As well, abortion can be embraced because, after all, it is “existence before essence.” There is no intrinsic value or purpose in the unborn until there is a birth or existence. Of course, the Scripture teaches otherwise.
The difference between secular/humanistic/atheistic existentialism and theological existentialism is the difference between Tweedledum and Tweedle-dee. Existentialism in any form is destructive for many reasons.
First, existentialism dismisses the Bible as the final authority for moral and spiritual truth. Philosophical existentialism dismisses the Bible altogether and theological existentialism elevates one’s personal experience as authoritative over the objective truth of Scripture. The Bible is not viewed as divinely inspired and the authoritative starting point of truth. If one’s personal experiences are authoritative, then what is true for me may not be true for you. Any time the Bible is relegated to a position other than authoritative, then man’s experiences and ideas will soon become the authoritative norm. Existentialism promotes individualism not surrender to divine values which call for one to deny themselves and submit one’s will to the Lord.
Second, in existentialism, truth becomes subjective or relative. Since Scripture is not the final authority to shape man’s thoughts, each of us must develop our truth as it best fits us. Truth is ever-evolving. Since there is no universal Moral Law, each man is found doing that which is right in their own eyes and doing what is best for them, to the exclusion of thinking of others. Anytime subjectivity is embraced as truth, it leads to a subjective and individualistic theology and lifestyle, divorced from submissiveness to the One who created us.
Third, existentialism abandons humanity to a Creator who is depersonalized. Since one is not born with a creative destiny and purpose by the Creator, then instead of discovering His purpose and plan for one’s life one must create their own. This leaves one’s life in confusion, chaos, and meaninglessness as the Creator is not personally interested in me. The moral slide today into moral degeneration and transgenderism is the result of individuals who see their lives as having no creative purpose or destiny by a personal Divine Being and feel abandoned to create their destiny. Existentialism depersonalizes God and always leaves a person empty and groping in the dark as to the meaning of life.
Fourth, existentialism makes man autonomous. If it is “existence before essence” then I am my boss. Existentialism, in the final analysis, is man acting in autonomy. There is no Moral Law Giver or Benevolent Creator who is interested in the individual so I am abandoned to my own choices and decisions. Man’s desire to be autonomous flows from his sinful nature, which seeks to dethrone the Creator and place “I” on the throne. Existentialism doesn’t deal with human fallenness and the need for man’s redemptive transformation.
Fifth, existentialism in any form will always leave a person without hope. Existentialism has no Good News for sinful man. Existentialism makes man the captain of his ship. The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, finds Christ at the helm of the ship. Men today need a Gospel that finds Christ as Lord of all, not a Gospel tainted with the existential presuppositions that the Bible is no longer relevant or that you and I are the determinative authority as to our destiny. Existential theology and philosophy are bankrupt and leave men without hope, without redemption, without assurance, and leaves man building their destiny on the sand of their machinations and manipulations.
Our very existence is dependent upon the very God who created us, and we are not left to determine our own “essence” but there is a Loving Benefactor and Moral Law Giver who has revealed His truth to us in the Written Word, the Bible, and the Living Word, Jesus Christ. Having built into the fabric of the universe what is right and wrong, He has created us just as He intended and each of us with a purpose, and has provided for us in Jesus Christ redemption leading to a transformed life. To yield to the truth our existence is dependent upon Him leads to a life of fulfillment, hope, and assurance. For one to create their own “essence” is to lead to frustration, confusion, and ultimate failure. Let us not be among those who seek to create their own “essence” but yield to the one in whom the fullness of God dwells, Jesus Christ.
 Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, (Princeton Press: 1952), 181.
 Kierkegaard, Journals and Notebooks, (Princeton Press: 2007), 1A, 75.
 D.F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus Christ Critically Examined, (London: 1846), Vol. 1, 73.
 Rudolph Bultmann, Existence and Faith, (London: 1957), 92.
 Emil Fackeheim, Metaphysis and Historicity, (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1961), 37.
One thought on “THE DESTRUCTIVE INFLUENCE OF EXISTENTIALISM”
Thank you for this article. One of the greatest attractions of a biblical world view in our culture today is the realization that God has defined man, and we are not left on our own to define ourselves. Instead of writing our own script or “narrative” we are privileged to walk in pathways he has chosen for us (Eph. 2:10) and are being built into our proper place, the church (Eph. 2:22).