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Difficult to define, difficult to demolish, existentialism has insidiously wormed its way into the very heart of evangelicalism.

What does existentialism teach and do?

In its adoption by Christianity the following aspects of existentialism can be seen:

[1] Existentialism focuses on subjective experience rather than objective truth.
Rather than judge the rightness or wrongness of an experience by the objective Word of God, existentialism interprets the Word of God by the experience. Experience decides what is truth rather than truth authenticating or invalidating the experience. Thus the Bible is interpreted to fit personal or corporate experiences rather than personal and corporate experiences being approved or disapproved by the Bible.

[2] Existentialism focuses on the personal rather than on the universal.
For any individual ‘truth’ is what is ‘true for me.’  Each person’s perception of truth will be different from another’s.  Thus I can read a Bible passage and get ‘truth’ and you can read the same passage and get different ‘truth’. In this existential mentality there is no room for that passage to have one meaning for all people, because existentialism does not view truth in that way.

[3] Existentialism focuses on the immediate and changing rather than on the eternal and constant.
That same passage that was ‘truth’ for me yesterday may not be ‘truth’ for me today, because it does not do anything for me today. Or, it might speak a different ‘truth’ for me today. This variability of ‘truth’ has nothing to do with the finiteness of our minds and our inability to take in all of God’s truth in a given passage of the Bible at one time. It has to do with the existential concept of ‘truth’: that ‘truth’ is what is ‘true for me’ at my particular moment of existence.

[4] Thus in existentialism truth is relative rather than absolute.
It varies from individual to individual. It varies from moment to moment. It is not fixed. It is not complete. It is not final. It has no boundaries. This means that every individual is free to believe whatever he/she wants to believe, and whatever they believe is what is ‘truth’ for them.

[5] Existentialism seeks meaning and identity in the mystical rather than the factual.
Having discarded all objective sources and definitions of truth the existentialist has only one place left to look for truth: within. One’s own personal perceptions of reality - one’s experiences, one’s impressions, one’s feelings, one’s ideas and opinions - these define and decide what is believed or felt to be truth. The existentialist becomes a ready prey for anyone and anything that can gain access to his/her mind and emotions.

Specific expressions of existentialism in the church

So that we can recognize when we have been taken captive by an existential mentality we will now look at some particular expressions of existentialism in the church.

[1] When a preacher or teacher ‘shares’ rather than teaches.
The impression is given that he/she is sharing some revelation of truth that he/she has received rather than teaching God’s eternal, unchangeable, absolute truth which which God wants everyone to know.

[2] When members of a Bible study group are asked to tell ‘what this verse means to me’.
This implies that each answer is God's truth. But that is not necessarily so. While I might perceive that this is what the ‘verse is saying to me’ that may or may not be what God is actually saying in the verse. This method only honours God’s Word as truth if all of the answers are indeed part or all of the eternal, unchanging truth that God put into that verse. What a verse ‘means to me’ is not the issue; the issue is ‘what is God saying in this verse - what does this verse mean in its context in Scripture?’

[3] When an individual or group has an experience and uses that experience as a criterion by which to judge and understand what God’s truth is.
It might be the experience of 'tongues', or a dream, or involvement in ecstatic phenomena, or a coincidence that had certain repercussions. On the basis of the experience a conclusion is drawn about God and God’s truth, and the teaching of the Bible is then interpreted so as to accommodate and even teach the supposed ‘truth’ learned from the experience. That the person or group has had an experience is not in question. What is in question is the validity of using the experience to define, interpret and arbitrate truth.

[4] When individual verses of the Bible are used by Christians to obtain guidance in decision making.
The Bible, God’s changeless, universal, eternal truth, is here used in a straw-pulling exercise, in which verses jump out of their context and ‘speak to me’, supposedly telling me whether I must marry Bob, or go to Africa, or purchase a particular house. Verses which God spoke - eternal, changeless, universal truth about Christ and his salvation - are relativised and existentialised to apply to my particular, personal, temporal decision. The fact that thousands of Christians have moved into full-time service on the basis of such 'guidance' does not validate the method. It is also fact that many have made plans and decisions on this same basis and those plans have failed. That some of these decisions are consummated is testimony to the gracious, sovereign hand of God upon us, condescending to our fears and our weakness, forgiving our misuse of his Word, and working in and with that misuse to extend his Kingdom.

What can we do to avoid existentialism?

Simply, believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and that as such it is true truth:

Absolute, not relative.
Eternal and constant, not momentary and changing.
Objective, not subjective.
Universal, not individual.
Factual, not mystical.
Christ-centred, not me-centred.
Fixed and final, not open-ended.
Independent and self-authenticating, not dependent on my perceptions.

God’s Word is true, and it is truth, whether I believe it or not.
God’s Word is true, and it is truth, whether I respond to it or not.

God’s Word stands in judgement over me and my beliefs: I do not stand in judgement over it.

At the ultimate end of all things I will be judged by my response to God’s Word: how ludicrous for me if I, duped by the existential denial of objective truth, should today interpret, measure, define and judge that truth by my own changing experiences and inner perceptions.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2012