Dangers of Existentialism

Dangers of Existentialism (Conclusion)

The second part of this series by Edward Heppenstall.

EDWARD HEPPENSTALL, Professor, Loma Linda University

EXISTENTIALISM'S dependence upon,  and appeal to, the subjective repudiates the authority of any body of beliefs, or the fixity of the eternal truths of Scripture. It is a revolt against fixed systems and doc­trines on the basis that such a set formula tends to separate thought from life. Abso­lutes, universals, are simply verbal expres­sions, and do not possess actual reality. Only the existential word is real and rele­vant. The word of truth is always contem­poraneous. It has never been given with finality for all men.

If Christianity were a doctrine, the relationship to it would not be one of faith, for only an intel­lectual type of relationship can correspond to a doctrine. . . . The realm of faith is thus not a class for numskulls in the sphere of the intellectual, or an asylum for the feebleminded. Faith constitutes a sphere all by itself, and every misunderstanding of Christianity at once may be recognized by transform­ing it into a doctrine, transferring it to the sphere of the intellectual'

If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the ob­jective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.=

In existentialism, faith and doubt be­long together. In Scripture faith depends upon the certainty of what one believes. The principles of truth in Scripture are certain for all men, believers and unbe­lievers. If they are not, then how can one communicate with an unbeliever at all?

If truth cannot be understood without faith, all discussion with unbelievers would be impossible. Truth is truth for the be­liever because it is knowable and valid for all men irrespective of personal faith.

For existentialism it matters little what a man believes, so long as he believes it with passionate involvement. In the light of the sinfulness of man, extended to the whole of man's being, personal decision needs some moral and spiritual context, some authoritative norm, some guiding principle to test and try every claim to have experienced truth. How is one to dis­tinguish between "I choose" and "I feel" since truth is subjectivity? In shifting the emphasis from the objective truth to the individual's inwardness, who or what is going to correct any deviation from truth or save from self-deception?


Existentialism involves a return to im­mediacy with God in terms of an intensity of feeling, passion, and often ecstasy. These emotional involvements are claimed to have significance for man's relationship with God, bringing man into the very pres­ence of the divine. This achievement of a religious faith is by way of ontology (be­ing), which affirms that man possesses deep within his being the capacity for im­mediate access to God and religious real­ity, an inner awareness whereby man can know God directly. Immediacy magnifies the miracle of some immediate encounter with God.

Martin Buber declares:

What is the eternal, primal phenomenon, present here and now, of that which we term revelation? It is the phenomenon that a man does not pass, from the moment of the supreme meeting, the same being as he entered into it.

At times it is like a  light breath, at times like a wrestling bout, but al­ways, it happens. . . . Man receives, and he receives not a specific "content" but a Presence, a Presence as power.3

Emil Brunner asserts: 

Revelation, as the Christian faith understands it, is indeed, by its very nature, something that lies beyond all rational arguments . . . which can be attained only through divine self-communication' We know God only through personal confronta­tion, no longer identified with concepts of any kind. "Truth is encounter." 5

The problem raised by existentialism is not an easy one. The Bible speaks of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit as an es­sential factor in Christian experience. The chief concern of the church, however, is for the genuineness of fellowship with God. Why should the church oppose the claim to immediacy if it leads to an en­counter with God?

Since encounter with the supernatural is the claim common to all religions, in­cluding those which are non-Christian, how shall man determine what is true and what is false?

Existentialism does not relate itself to the categories of the infallible Word of God. It therefore sets forth a view of man's relationship to God far different than that revealed in Scripture. The God of the Bible is the speaking God. Communion with God is possible only between persons as rational beings. Once it is insisted ac­cording to the Bible that human reason must think harmoniously with the revealed truth of Scripture, the necessity for a given objective truth becomes obvious. God con­fronts us, not in ecstasy or emotional pas­sionateness, not only as subject, but as ob­ject in terms of the revealed will and Word of God. Any claim to fellowship with God that dispenses with the rational category of fixed truth in the Word of God is open to the charge of demonic confrontation.

And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? . . . To the law and to the testi­mony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.6

In rejecting the revealed truths of Scrip­ture and the objective nature of revelation, existentialism deprives man of any crite­rion whatever to distinguish between truth and error, between the Holy Spirit and a false spirit. If Satan confronts man as an angel of light in some form of immediacy, how would man be able to distinguish be­tween the voice of God and the voice of the devil? If Christ is any judge at this point, His appeal to Scripture, "It is written," in exposing the devil himself, still holds true for Christians in every age. Any reli­gious philosophy that conceives of man's relationship with God above and outside the sphere of conceptual revelation in Scrip­ture lays men wide open to the deceptions of mysticism, sentimentalism, spiritualism, and every form of questionable supernat­uralism. Instead of recovering the rele­vance of truth, it involves the surrender of the eternal truth of the Word of God. Exis­tentialism is the rallying ground for the growing trend of our day toward a pro­fessed supernaturalism that could easily give up the Spirit's witness to the truth of Scripture for extremes of emotional and psychological fantasy.

Traditional Christianity has always in­sisted upon the personal and intimate na­ture of God's relationship to man. But this relationship is not born of uncertainty about the truth of Scripture. All the "pas­sionate inwardness" of man's initiative alone cannot attain to the God who speaks to man through His Word.

Any claim to immediacy apart from the fixed word of truth in Scripture easily be­comes deceptive, unrelated to the reality of truth at all. If there is no fixed truth in Scripture, what guarantee can men have that the immediacy they claim to experi­ence corresponds to the reality of truth it­self? By what standard are men to test and correct this "passionate inwardness"? How are men to know that these involvements constitute the truth?

Obviously, existentialism is only stand­ard for testing its "passionate inwardness" as its own passionate commitment. But since sinful men are prone to pervert the truth, this immediacy can only leave man in a state of utter uncertainty. Unless man has direct access to truth normatively given by God by which men may test and correct their own fallible feelings they are left to their own devisings. When existentialism asserts that the only certainty man has is his own passionate involvements, it exposes him to a thousand and one false claims to know God in some other way than that re­vealed in Scripture.

The very nature of sinful man involves restrictions and limitations to the nature of divine-human communication. One of the chief concerns of the Christian church must be for the genuineness of commun­ion with God, because of the possibility of a counterfeit at the very point where truth and trustworthiness are so essential. The church must not countenance any immedi­acy that cannot stand the test of the Word of God. The Biblical communion with God brings the mind and life into harmony with the given truth of Scripture. Here man gains his true being and the purpose of God's revelation is realized. Here exist eternal categories that need no demythol­ogizing. These categories belong to men in every age.

In Scripture, when God condescends to draw near to man through the Spirit, the prophet, or the apostle, the mind's grasp of rational knowledge given by God is both heightened and clarified. Everywhere the Spirit confirms the Word, and the Word in­sists that the God whom man claims to en­counter be the God of Scripture.

Existentialism rejects the a priori knowl­edge of God in Scripture in favor of an inward immediacy. In so doing, it is in grave danger of becoming the victim of other supernatural powers that fight against God.

Men come to a true relationship with God within a conceptual frame of refer­ence by the inspired Word of God. God comes to man in His Word through the Holy Spirit. The rational categories of truth are not belittled. Rather is the mind exercised so that, by means of a trustworthy knowledge of God, man can choose truth intelligently and become involved to his ultimate salvation


1 Kierkegaard, Concluding, Unscientific Postscript, book 2, part 2, chapter 3, "The Subjective Thinker."

2__________ Op. Cit. "Truth Is Subjectivity."

3 Martin Buber, I And Thou. (Trans'ated by Ronald Gregor Smith, Edinburgh. 1937.)

4 Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason (Philadelphia: West­minster Press. 1946). p. 206.

5__________  The Divine-Human Encounter (London: S.C.M.
Press. 1944)., po. 46, 47.

6 Isa. 8:19. 20. 

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EDWARD HEPPENSTALL, Professor, Loma Linda University

November 1968

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