Written by Ray Cotton

How to Choose Right From Wrong

After four years at Harvard University as an undergraduate, one student proclaimed in his graduation oration that there was one central idea, one sentiment which they all acquired in their Harvard careers; and that is, in one word, confusion.

That same year, Harvard’s graduate-student orator said, “They tell us that it is heresy to suggest the superiority of some value, fantasy to believe in moral argument, slavery to submit to a judgment sounder than your own. The freedom of our day is the freedom to devote ourselves to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true.”{1}

Our universities are teaching students that there are no solid guidelines to life. Since everything is relative, they are totally free to create anything they want out of their lives. Students are told that no one has a right to tell them how they ought to live. Decisions about right and wrong are strictly up to them. It makes no difference what they choose to make of their lives. Students are not encouraged to ask the traditional questions about the usefulness of life or the value of an exemplary life. As the above graduate student pointed out, they don’t even want you to take your own conclusions about life seriously. It is a philosophy of ambiguity. It is the philosophy of humanistic existentialism. Many today are striving to break away from traditional values and embrace a sense of futility. Today we see it in the lives of teenagers who have “tried everything” and found life to be wanting. We see it in the life style of the “survivalists” who have given up hope in God and the future, holing up in defense of a coming catastrophe.{2}

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the fathers of humanistic existentialism, the world is absurd, lacking any concept of ultimate justification. Sartre declares we have no ultimate purpose or plan to our lives. We are nothing and are therefore free to make ourselves into anything we want to be.{3} It doesn’t even matter if you believe in your own proclamations because there is no more reason for you to exist than for you to not exist. Both are the same. The existentialist says you can just pick and choose your values. It makes no difference. There is no transcendent truth or power beyond man himself. Sartre doesn’t believe in any God, nor does he believe that there is any preconceived design. There is no principle of authority to determine action. He says one must invent an original solution for each situation.{4} Therefore, in the sovereignty of his freedom, man creates his own values. Morality is rooted in human choice. Man alone gives his life its importance. Mankind must somehow transcend a life of absurdity and despair.

Is this humanly created reality true or are those who believe it trying to live in a dream world? Is the existentialist trying desperately to deflect the true absurdity and despair of his position? Is this the view of life that we expect our college students to be learning?

The Foundation of Existentialism

Prior to World Wars I & II, modern man believed that through science and human engineering an ever better world was evolving. They believed that mankind was getting better, that peace and prosperity would reign. They were convinced that we had finally figured out how to live together in harmony and to build a better world.

Then came the rude awakening of two world wars and the hideous crimes against human beings perpetuated by Hitler’s Third Reich. Out of the continuing frustration and destruction of World War II came a new philosophy of life. It was a philosophy conceived by those who had lost hope, who could only see the chaos. They lost their hope in any ultimate meaning for life. They were unable to see beyond the carnage of war-torn Europe. Their view of life was called humanistic existentialism.

Men like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus sought to establish a new view of life, a “new humanism” with a whole new set of values. Prior to these men, the need for a transcendent force, a higher authority beyond man himself, helped set limits and gave guidance to our lives. An example of this transcendence would be the Ten Commandments, given to man by God. These new philosophers defined transcendence in an entirely different way. They saw transcendence only in their own aims and goals. For the existentialists, transcendence was a way to escape what they saw as the meaninglessness of life by establishing aims and goals to make whatever they wanted out of themselves, to create their own reality. For them there were no norms or standards, other than what they might choose to agree upon among themselves.

You have to realize that for these existentialist thinkers, all human activities were equivalent in value. Human activity amounted to the same thing “whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.”{5} However, without God, there can be no transcendent view of human nature because there is no God to have a conception of it.{6} Man is merely an evolved animal. Today we see many young people caught up in this attitude of cynicism and despair. They just don’t care anymore. Life has become jaded. Many young people pass their time in a fantasy world of drugs, music and sex.{7}

Man’s nothingness forms the foundation of existential thinking. Man is an empty bubble floating on a sea of nothingness.{8}

Trying to build an ethic for life based on the philosophy of existentialism is quite a challenge. Not only do the existentialists have to create a set of values to live by, but first of all, they have to create optimism out of a view of absurdity and despair. It is called an ethic of ambiguity because each person has no one to answer to but himself. There is no one else to blame, each individual is without excuse. Life is merely a game to be won or lost, to seek to become one’s own hero.

The existentialist wills himself to be free and in so doing wills himself to be moral.{9}

Existentialism Collides with a Biblical Worldview

We live in a world that has been characterized as “plastic”, without value and sterile. Many have forgotten what it means to live, to be fully human. Hours are spent in front of the TV, in a world of fantasy and escapism. Many people are becoming devoid of human warmth and significant human interaction.{10}

In this essay I have examined the ethics of humanistic existentialism.To fully understand ethics one must have considerable clarity about what it is to be human.{11} Is man an evolved animal required to create his own essence, as the existentialist would say? Though there is freedom to choose our own actions, there is no significance in our actions. Choices are made in the face of meaninglessness. The values of existentialism are anchored in the world of ordinary experiences. Their values come from what is. And for the existentialist what is, is man’s absurd condition.{12}

How does existentialism compare to a God-centered, theistic view of ethics? For the Christian, ethical values are revealed to man by God. Perfect freedom lies only in service to God.{13} The existentialist defines God as “self-caused” and then says there is no God because it is impossible to be self-caused. The Christian says that God is “uncaused”, not self-caused. If you want absolute freedom, it is all too easy to deem God nonexistent. Even Sartre admits that “since we ignore the commandments of God [concerning] all value prescribed as eternal, nothing remains but what is strictly voluntary.”{14} Throwing off all limitations and declaring his atheism, Sartre explains the process in his autobiography:

I had been playing with matches and burned a small rug. I was in the process of covering up my crime when suddenly God saw me. I felt His gaze inside my head and on my hands….I flew into a rage against so crude an indiscretion, I blasphemed….He never looked at me again….I had the more difficulty getting rid of Him [the Holy Ghost] in that He had installed Himself at the back of my head….I collared the Holy Ghost in the cellar and threw Him out.{15}

Aldous Huxley, another famous existentialist, said:

For myself, no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was … from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.{16}

The truth of Huxley’s words ring out loud and clear. All around us we find individuals rejecting the truth of God’s word and embracing false doctrines that allow them to vent their passions and immorality. Satan loves to get us discouraged and despairing, then he shows us a false way out that caters to our old fleshly nature, a way that allows us to do as we please.

The Bible says that we are in bondage either to sin or to God. We will serve one or the other. Our only choice is to decide who or what we will serve, the God of the Spirit, or the god of the flesh. The choice is ours.

Rejecting Biblical Truth Ultimately Leads to Despair

How did modern philosophy arrive at such a seemingly absurd state? In the late nineteenth century certain scholars assaulted the Bible and Christian beliefs. This “higher criticism” was promoted by men dedicated to the destruction of orthodox Christianity. In their minds the Bible was no more than a novel, a book of fiction with some good moral lessons. This movement was the spiritual legacy of the Enlightenment which put the claims of religion outside the realm of reason. Natural law, based on human reason alone, was slowly substituted for biblical law. Christian faith was separated from historic reality. The focus of all studies was shifting from God to man.

The real motive of higher criticism of the Bible was purely ethical. Men and women don’t like the idea of having to be obedient to God. Therefore, they denied the historic validity of the Bible. This denial was based on an evolutionary model of human morality and human history. They sought to separate ethics from faith{17} in order to free themselves from God’s final judgment.

Kierkegaard, a 19th century philosopher, is considered the father of existentialism. He took this idea of the separation of faith and reason and said that we could not know God rationally. Therefore, he tried to reach God by what he called an irrational leap of faith.Since it was not rational to believe in God, but it was necessary, you must believe irrationally.Sartre and Camus simply took the next step when they said belief in God was not only irrational, but unnecessary.

Therefore, modern man started the path to a meaningless life when he questioned whether man could know God. Indeed, when man questioned even God’s ability to communicate with man, this led the existentialist to ask, “If God is dead, isn’t man dead also?” This existential death of man has lead to apathy, absurdity and ambiguity.The philosopher Bertrand Russell said it best when he said:

What else is there to make life tolerable? We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night and to emptiness. Sometimes a voice of one drowning, and in a moment the silence returns. The world seems to me quite dreadful, the unhappiness of many people is very great, and I often wonder how they all endure it. It is usually the central thing around which their lives are built, and I suppose if they did not live most of their lives in the things of the moment, they would not be able to go on.

Rejection of God’s grace creates a world of hopeless despair. Existentialism leaves man without hope. In contrast, the Christian has the hope of eternal life based on faith in a living, personal God whom we can personally experience with all our mind, body and spirit.

Can Human Beings Live the Existential Life?

How many of your acquaintances are demonstrating by their lives that they believe there are significant ethical implications in the decisions they make and the activities they are involved in? Do you know people who live life caught up in self-preoccupation, doing only that which gives immediate pleasure? Are they filling their lives with movies, TV, sports and other preoccupations which shield them from dealing with the ethical reality of their lifestyle?

In this essay I have been discussing the ethics of humanistic existentialism, an ethic of freedom in ambiguity. It is an ethic that says man is nothing except what he or she decides to create of themselves and whatever choice they make really doesn’t matter.

It sounds absurd, and it is, but sadly it is the ethic often being taught on the college campuses. One philosophy professor at a major university in Texas proudly informs his classes that he is an atheist and that his goal is to show the class that they can develop a system of ethics without a belief in a god. Of course he is right. One can design a set of relativistic ethical standards, but it is an ethic built on sand. An ethic of ambiguity will never give the support these students need in the hard world of reality. Did Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the leading writers in existentialist theory, hold to their position till the end? There is evidence that they did not. From a dialogue recorded in 1980 when nearing his death, Sartre came very close to belief in God, perhaps even more than very close. He made a statement that may show his acceptance of the grace of God. He said,

I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.

In this one sentence Sartre seems to disavow his entire system of belief, his whole life of dedication to existentialism. If this is true, it is a condemnation of humanistic existentialism by Sartre himself.{18}

What about Albert Camus? According to Rev. John Warwick Montgomery, an internationally respected Lutheran minister and author, there was a retired pastor of the American Church in Paris who told him that Albert Camus was to have been baptized within the month of his tragic death and that Camus had seen the bankruptcy of humanistic existentialism.{19}

All this is second hand information, but it does cast a shadow upon the ethics of existential humanism. Either we live a life of hope or of despair. Regardless of the claims made, existential humanism does not leave room for hope. Simone de Beauvoir, the mistress of Sartre and also an existentialist writer, came the closest of any of these writers to the real truth when she said it was reasonable to sacrifice one innocent man that others may live.{20} This is the foundation of the whole gospel message of Christianity: Jesus Christ, the innocent Son of God, died that all men might be saved. Meanwhile the existentialist stands alone with hope only in one’s self. He is alone in a world without Christ, instead of being secure in the knowledge of Christ’s love and redemption. Praise God that He is there and He is not silent!


1. Robert N. Bellah, et al., The Good Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991), 43, 44.
2. C. Stephen Evans, The Philosophy of Despair: Existentialism and the Quest for Hope (Dallas: Probe Books, 1984), 17, 71-72.
3. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism and Ethics.” Moral Education. Barry I. Chazan and Jonasa F. Soltis, Eds. (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1973, reprinted from Existentialism, New York: The Philosophical Library, 1947), 11-61.
4. Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, Trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1991), 142.
5. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, Trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square, 1965), 627.
6. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, Trans. Philip Mairet (London: Methuen, 1948), 28.
7. Evans, 72.
8. Norman L. Geisler, Is Man the Measure? An Evaluation of Contemporary Humanism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983), 40-41.
9. De Beauvoir, 24-25.
10. Evans, 74.
11. Linda A.Bell, Sartre’s Ethics of Authenticity (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1989), 28.
12. Otto Bollnow, “Existentialism’s Basic Ethical Position,” Contemporary European Ethics, Joseph J. Kockelmans, Ed. (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1972), 332.
13. Philip Thody, Sartre: A Biographical Introduction (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), 72.
14. Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, 23-24.
15. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words (New York: George Braziller, 1964), 102, 252-253.
16. Quoted by Stanley L. Jaki, Cosmos and Creator (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1980), 116.
17. Gary North, The Hoax of Higher Criticism (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), 9-48.
18. Geisler, 46-47.
19. John Warwick Montgomery, “Letter from England,” “On the Reliability of the Four Gospels,” New Oxford Review (May 1994), 22-24.
20. De Beauvoir, 150.

©1996 Probe Ministries.

Ray Cotton is the former finance director and treasurer of Probe Ministries. He received a B.S. in business administration/management science from the University of Northern Colorado, a certificate in Christian studies from the Center for Advanced Biblical Studies, and an M.A. in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. He now serves in a ministry to international students.

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