Christian Existentialism?

Is Christian faith a leap-of-faith theology? Is universal human experience projected into the stories and moments which make up the Biblical narrative, so that they are for us, myth?

Rudolph Bultmann follows the existentialism of Heideggar, claiming that Heideggar essentially says the same thing about reality as the New Testament, yet wholly apart from it. For a little background, Heideggar contended that our being (“sein”) is just there (“dasein”), so that is has a certain “throwness” to it, extended in time and space. This is a reality we encounter every waking moment. We wake up in the morning and we are there – just there. However, we also encounter the reality of nothingness. We all stare nothingness in the face every waking moment. When we wake up in the morning, we are there instead of not there. Why? Why something, or someone, rather than nothing, and no one? This is the core existential question. How we decide to live knowing that the whole of our existence is radically contingent, knowing everything could and would go on without me? There are those who fill that tension with “externals”, who cram in the noise of everyday living and mundane concerns to keep us from feeling the unbearable weight of the tension of the dark drab meaninglessness of our self-existence. For Bultmann & Heideggar this is cowardly. And for Bultmann, Jesus’ essential significance for us stems from the fact that he alone kept the tension of his contingency at the forefront. He stared death in the face fearlessly, even to the point of death on the cross.

The Bible, then, is an expression of this existential answer for the church, and it must be “demythologized” to find its core existential message. Heideggar was said to “chuckle” that Bultmann put existential significance specially in Jesus, for if this is all true, then Jesus is just one expression of a particular faith-community.

But can the Bible be seen as essentially an existential statement projected into certain forms belonging to the faith-community of the first century alone, so that we who are now more advanced can shed the forms of the Biblical narrative for its striking existential core of meaning?

Looking at how the Bible speaks of Jesus will help us answer this question.

Colossians 1:13-17 says

“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, because by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. And he Himself is before all things, and in him all things subsist.”

First of all, what does it mean that Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation”? Does that mean He is a created thing, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses would contend? “Firstborn” is a term used throughout the scripture, and is often used to denote superiority or dignity, such as in Ps. 89:27, used in the same way here. The “He is” in the Greek can also be taken without reference to time, meaning that outside of time Jesus is both the image of God and firstborn of creation, with “of creation” meaning superior over creation (Greek note: Objective genitive).

This all trends toward what Herman Ridderbos said: “It can even be maintained that by the name Image of God in the passages in question Paul intended to elucidate “the eternal relationship of the Father to the Son” (Paul, 71), whereas firstborn over all of creation implies a definite priority of the uncreated Son with reference all things created (Paul, 82).

What confirms all this is verse 16, which says “by Him all things were created”, and we aren’t left thinking “what are ‘all things'” because Colossians says all things in heaven and earth, which corresponds to the visible and the invisible. And what’s more, this is a clear kickback to Genesis 1 – “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, so that Jesus’ divine being is said here to be eternal. He is without time and space.

What about the “throwness” of being? The confrontation with nothingness? Could it be that the scriptures are expressing the eternality of Jesus as a way of saying that our existential experience reaches beyond even time and space? There are two reasons this can’t be the case. 1) The “because” of verse 16 makes Jesus stand far above “all things” (the all things of Genesis 1 which would include humanity), they existing not only by him, but for him. And 2) verse 17 says “in him all things subsist” (could also be translated “hold together” or “cohere”). This means that all contingent beings, or things, are only being there (“dasein”) by and for Jesus. How then, could the cross be an expression of the tension of his radical contingency in facing nothingness? In Jesus is everythingness. In Jesus are all contingencies, so that the scriptures flatly contradicts this existential approach to scripture.

And yet, let us not forget that although all things exist by and for Him, verse 13 makes it clear that this same One took on flesh and dwelt among us. The One in whom all contingencies exist became contingent! Of course, He did not leave His eternal nature behind (as if by subtraction), but assumed (added) humanity to His person to redeem His people. In this way the atemporal became temporal, the One outside of time entered in, and so we must relate to Him as both God and man. We must see the eternal purpose of God in the Son (outside heavens & earth, visible & invisible), and yet we must see the history of God’s purpose unfolding not only by and through the Son, but with Him as the center figure.

It is this unfolding of revelation which provides for our turn toward Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism. My argument is essentially the same as the one toward Bultmann and Heideggar; that is, when focusing so specifically on the individual-existential situation, the explicit and scriptural grand narrative and overarching purpose becomes obscured and discarded at the very cost of its meaning. The interpreter comes either with the presupposition that they ought to only listen to what pertains to this aforementioned existential anxiety (brought about by Kantian philosophy, but that is for another time), or they allow scripture to speak for itself and interpret itself as it pertains to that very existential quandary (and every other type & topic). Let me recap what Kierkegaard argues in his work “Fear & Trembling”, which centers on the narrative of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22.

For Kierkegaard the existential situation is not being and nothingness per se, but the tension is the same. Kierkegaard writes that “[m]ost people live completely absorbed in worldly joys and sorrows; they are benchwarmers who do not take part in the dance.” For Kierkegaard, taking part in the dance is a matter of faith. He says, “By faith I do not renounce anything; on the contrary, by faith I receive everything exactly in the sense in which it is said that one who has faith like a mustard seed can move mountains. It takes a purely human courage to renounce the whole temporal realm in order to gain eternity… But it takes a paradoxical and humble courage to grasp the whole temporal realm now by virtue of the absurd, and this is the courage of faith.” By faith, then, Abraham is said to enter in to the realm of absurdity by suspending his ethical judgments (i.e., that he should not kill his son). For Abraham this is not a mere infinite resignation to do what is absurd, but a step of faith, in which authentic existence is found.

To be a “knight of faith” the Christian existentialist must have faith in God and His word, just as His word to Abraham, even if it is capricious or counter-intuitive or absurd, because there is no reason, in this spacio-temporal realm, to accept “objective” values (be they moral or whatever) which cannot be tested by the senses – these are accepted by “faith”, or “blind faith”, to use a colloquialism.

Is this what Genesis 22 teaches? That we also should be like Abraham who make this irrational leap of faith into the nonsensible realm? It was the unfolding of revelation which turned us toward Kierkegaard, and that is where we begin. What was God revealing in Genesis 22?

Well, turn back a few chapters to Genesis 17, where God says,

“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations… I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Now, first of all, when it says in 17:1 that the Lord appeared to Abraham to speak this, was the moment in the realm of the non-sensical (Kantian “noumenal”)? Even if it were so, in chapter 18 the Lord appears as an man and sits down to eat with Abraham to give the message of Isaac’s birth (its significance being that through Isaac blessings would come to the nations – Gen. 18:18). How then is Gen. 22 taken as a leap of faith into the irrational? The Lord’s revelation to Abraham is not a guess, or an impression, or anything like it, but it is a clear revelation clearly spoken by God Himself, just as the Lord physically walked and spoke in time and space as a man with Adam (Gen. 3:8). Will we let the text speak for itself, or must we impose upon it certain parameters which outlaw its very message (i.e., that God spoke to certain men differently than he spoke to others)? In order for Kierkegaard to make Abraham’s experience analogous to ours, which he does, we must reject that God specially revealed Himself to Abraham in this way, but that would be to reject what the text plainly teaches about how God spoke with Abraham.

Second, the defining factor for the story of sacrifice is faith in God, not faith in the absurd, irrational, or non-sensical. Listen to what the author of Hebrews writes,

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (11:17-19).

How would blessings come to the nations, or kings come from Abraham – how would God’s word be true, if Abraham’s son was dead? When Kierkegaard describes the “knight of infinite resignation”, he puts forth a notion that to be infinitely resigned is necessary because the future and the outcome of our faith is entirely and completely unknowable to the rational mind. This is exactly the opposite of what the Bible puts forth as faith. While it was unseen that God could bring Isaac back from the dead, the character of God’s promise (“I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you”) is such that it is so sure to happen in time and space, that even miracles will be wrought that its end may come. It is fixed. To have faith in God is to have faith that what He says about time and space (our sensible realm) is the truth; and in fact, it is the only truth, so that irrationality is not having faith in God, and irrationality is believing anything other than what God has said (which, ironically, these existentialists are prone to do).

For this reason faith is not a faith in the irrational, but it is a faith in God, who is the measure of rationality! And to prove God’s faithfulness to His promise, that He would even raise one from the dead, He gave Jesus, who lived in space and time – the Son. The purpose of Abraham’s sacrifice is only seen fully in the light of God’s. Abraham cannot be seen as speaking with God in isolation from God’s unfolding of revelation, starting with Adam and ending with Christ (Heb. 1:1). In Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, that through his seed the nations would be blessed. So, then, because we are not directly players in the revelation of this promise (but recipients), to pattern our lives and existential quandaries after them would completely miss the point of what the Bible says about our personal lives in space and time.

So finally then, the faith once for all delivered to the saints is not an irrational one, but is unfolded by He who is ultimate rationality. It is not divorced from time and space, for Jesus, in whom all contingencies exist, entered into time and space to live and die, that our faith might be secure in God – and God has given sufficient proof to all men not only of His eternal power and divine nature throughout creation, but by raising His Son from the dead and seating Him in the heavens. A so-called “Christian Existentialism” does nothing but overthrow the message of the Bible by coming to it with terms that cannot and will not be justified with the text itself. The existential hermeneutic is a hermeneutic of unbelief – unbelief that God has revealed Himself, and that climatically in His Son.

May our God continue to save us from our self-sufficiency, save us from our thoughts of self-existence, and help us see that we may have eternal life in Christ, a life which escapes all fear of death or “nothingness” and makes void every notion of irrational faith through a faith grounded and vindicated in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, for we who believe are also seated with Him and wait for His further revelation from heaven. May He quickly come. Amen.


**Leaned upon Strimple on the Historical Jesus, Vos on Biblical Theology, Van Til for ultimate rationality, and the lecture material of Lane Tipton for Colossians.


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