Articles and Outlines - World Religions - Existentialism


Author: Christian Information Ministries
Date: 6/6/2003 11:05:50 AM

C.I.M. Outline #50

I. Introduction
A. Existentialism as a philosophy, or world and life
view, is largely a 20th century phenomenon.
It is the very antithesis of Christian belief in that it
asserts the total autonomy of man. Hence it is one of
the most virulent forms of humanism. It spread rapidly
because its adherents often convey its message in more
artistic form rather than in dry philosophic tomes.
Instead, their medium is often novels, plays, art, or
movies. They are often profoundly moving and
entertaining because they speak to real human conditions.

B. One cannot properly understand the current state of
western civilization without a minimal understanding of
existentialist philosophy. It's influence is
all-pervasive. The violence and breakdown of modern
society in the 20th century can largely be attributed to
this philosophy. R. C. Sproul says: "I doubt if there
has been any philosophical system that has had as much
influence on American culture in the twentieth century as
this school of thought." LIFEVIEWS, p.28.

C. Definition: There are of course many variants of
existentialism, including various religious forms. This
outline is concerned mainly with secular existentialism.
A common thread running through all secular forms is
contained in the following definition:

"On the testimony and evidence of existence, life is
patently chaotic, incoherent, meaningless, and hence
absurd; consequently, the only responsible and honest
intellectual and emotional response is to turn to the
imperatives of the human spirit, to assert the freedom
and autonomy of the self in order to impose meaningful
form on the chaotic flux of existence." Clifford
Edwards, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, 5/12/67.

Ponder this definition and see if it doesn't reflect much
of our prevailing culture.

II. Background and Origin of Existential Thinking. The roots of

A. Autonomous thinking (general)

This is as old as the original rebellion in Eden. It is
man yielding to the satanic temptation of desiring to be
as God, i.e., rejecting all outside (transcendent)
sources of authority. Jean Paul Sartre, one of the
leading existentialist thinkers said: "There was
nothing left in heaven...nor anyone to give me
orders...I am doomed to have no other law but mine...Man
is the being whose project is to become God." (Note how
this closely parallels what the New Agers are saying)

B. The failure of enlightenment humanism. (specific)

1. Existentialism was a reaction against the naturalism
and philosophic materialism of the Enlightenment.
This naturalistic humanism resulted in a universe
which was impersonal and could ultimately not be
known. Sire says: "Naturalism places us as human
beings in a box. But for us to have any confidence
that our knowing we are in a box is true, we need to
stand outside the box or to have some other being
outside the box provide us with information
(theologians call this "revelation"). But there is
nothing or no one outside the box to give us
revelation, and we cannot ourselves transcend the

2. The idea that a transcendent, creator God does not
exist is fairly unique to this century. If there is
no infinite, personal, creator-God who transcends
His creation then there is no infinite reference
point which can give meaning to the particulars of
life. Man is alone, there is only the cosmos, and
man's consciousness of himself.

3. The two great wars fought in Europe were devastating
to the worldviews and culture based on naturalistic
humanism. Out of this void existentialism came.

III. The Goal of Existentialism

The goal of existentialism is to escape nihilism
(meaninglessness). Nihilism being the denial of all truth
and value. Notice the nihilism in the following quote:
"There is no system of philosophy to spin out. There are
no ethical truths, there are just clarifications of
particular ethical problems. Take advantage of these
clarifications and work out your own existence. You are
mistaken to think that anyone ever had the answers. There
are no answers. Be brave and face up to it." Donald
Kalish in TIME, p.24. 1/7/66.

Albert Camus, a leading existentialist said: "In the
darkest depths of our nihilism I have sought only for the
means to transcend nihilism." Camus believed that the one
who lives an authentic existence is the one who rebels
against that absurdity and creates meaning.

The existentialist answer, therefore, is that the
individual creates his own reality and meaning inside his
own head.

IV. Major Themes of Existentialism

A. Existence precedes essence, i.e., doing is more
important than being.

The essence of a man is known only a posteriori, that
is, after he acts. Sartre, said: "...[A]t first, he
is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and
he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there
is no human nature, since there is no god to conceive
it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be,
but he is also what he wills himself to be." ESSAYS IN

A man, therefore, is the sum total of the acts that
make up his life, no more, no less. When a man is
alive (or conscious), he is a subject. When he is
dead, and only then, is he an object.

B. Reason is inadequate

Existentialists oppose reason to arrive at truth
because certain universals have to exist which they
oppose. Existentialists emphasize passion and will.
Their emphasis is not on ideas, but the thinker who has
ideas. Notice this mood in the following quotes:

"Science as we know it has outlived its usefulness."
Everett Mendelsohn, Harvard Biologist

"Reason is a limited skill...there is also spiritual
knowledge and power." Theodore Rozak, Historian

"Equally important are mystery, ambiguity, illogical
contradiction, and transcendent experience." Abraham
Maslow, Psychologist

C. Freedom as opposed to determinism

The naturalism of the previous century was reductionist
in that it reduced all reality to material. The
universe was a closed system governed only by chance
and natural law. Man is nothing but a complex
electro-chemical machine. How then could man's acts be
significant? The old rationalistic humanism tried to
elevate man but the result was he merged into the
woodwork. Bertrand Russell said "Man is nothing but
the phosphorescence of slime." Existentialism is a
reaction against this kind of determinism. The extreme
is seen in the behaviorism of B.F. Skinner (see CIM
Outline #48).

D. Subjectivity over Objectivity.

Truth is personal, not propositional or objective.
There is no universe other than the universe of
individual human subjectivity. There are no
universals, only particulars.

"[W]e remind man that there is no legislator but
himself; that he himself thus abandoned, must decide
for himself." Sartre (Abandoned by whom or what? we
might ask.)

"Man does not discover values; he creates them." Sartre

E. Since there is no standard to live well we should live
much. (Go for all the gusto!) For the existentialist
it was man's feelings and passion which made him a man.
Feelings are the standard for truth. It is true if I
feel strongly about it. ("How can it be wrong if it
feels so right?")

VI. Christian Critique

Like all humanist philosophies existentialism contains
within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

A. The number one critique of existentialist philosophy is
the inconsistency with which they live their lives. If
man is truly free, and values are relative, why should
Sartre, for example tell the U.S. to get out of Vietnam?
(Which he in fact did.) Current existentialists are
likewise advocates of causes. In reality, all
non-christian philosophies must at some point borrow
("smuggle: might be a better word) ethical values from
Christianity in order to live. Sartre himself seemed to
admit this near his death. See: IS MAN THE MEASURE,

B. Existentialism is opposed to rationalism yet they write
very rational books using all the laws of logic to
convince readers that irrationalism is the way to
meaning. If they did not employ the universals of
language how would we understand their art?

C. If values are relative how can any society exist? If
every man does what is right in his own eyes what can
hold society together? How can they cohere against an
enemy? From the OT book of Judges we know the answer.

D. Existentialists deny any absolutes exist yet they treat
human subjectivity and freedom as absolutes.

VII. Conclusion:

To understand existentialist philosophy as a christian is
to weep real tears for a lost humanity. The current
popular movie, FOREST GUMP, is billed as a "feel good
movie" as opposed, I assume, to those which are so violent
they assault the senses. However, this movie should not
make Christians feel good! We may appreciate its artistry,
but the basic philosophy of this movie is existentialism,
and it is this total rebellion against any transcendent
values which give us the violence we see today in art and

The writer of Ecclesiates also pondered the questions of
meaning and existence, but he came to a different
conclusion. His solution was the acknowledgement of the
existence of a personal Creator Who revealed Himself. His
essence precedes existence and gives life meaning. See
Chapter 12.

For Further Reading:

Barrett, William. IRRATIONAL MAN.
Geisler, Norman L. IS MAN THE MEASURE? See Chapter 3.
Schaeffer, Francis A. ESCAPE FROM REASON.
Sire, James W. THE UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR. See chapter 6.
SOCIETY TODAY. See Chapter 3.

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