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I recently read Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums, translated as The Essence of Christianity. He was not completely unknown to me as I have read portions of his works in the past. Feuerbach, who was influenced by Hegel (though I wouldn’t classify his philosophy as Hegelian by any means) espouses a negative view of Christianity which is why, in part, I was so fascinated to read this work. When one like Feuerbach, who is noted for his opposition to Christianity, writes on its essence I am immediately intrigued to see how he wages his case.

The Essence of Christianity, which is arguably his greatest work, is divided into two sections: first, The True or Anthropological Essence of Religion, and second, The False or Theological Essence of Religion. Following these two main chapters is an appendix with further thoughts on a variety topics. I will not be able to address everything Feuerbach writes, but there are some main points to his philosophy worth noting.

  1. Man has made God in his own image.

According to Feuerbach, God is not real but a concept created in man’s image and possesses all the best traits innate to humanity. For example, if traits like love, honesty, integrity, wisdom and so forth are innately human characteristics, then we naturally want to create a God that has all of those traits as well. So, God is really no more than a reflection of us.

Feuerbach writes,

You believe in love as a divine attribute because you yourself love, and believe that God is a wise and benevolent being because you know nothing better in yourself than wisdom and benevolence. You believe that God exists, that therefore he is a subject or an essence – whatever exists is also an essence, whether it is defined as a substance, a person, or in any other way – because you yourself exist, are yourself an essence. You know no higher human good than to love, to be wise and good. Equally, you know no other happiness than to exist, to be a being, for your consciousness of good and happiness derives itself from your consciousness of being and existing yourself. God to you exists, is a being for the same reason that he is to you a wise, blissful, and benevolent being.

So, for Feuerbach, man is the starting point. Notice that the ground for justifying his points is the person (you believe in ______ because you yourself are ______). He uses this kind of argumentation throughout his book, but it’s tremendously weak. Just because there may be some commonality in attributes between God and man doesn’t disprove God’s existence. Likewise, there are human characteristics that are not so virtuous that God neither possesses nor delights in.

There’s no doubt that the Bible teaches that God created man in his image. The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes this image as “knowledge, righteousness and holiness,” but we don’t possess those the same way God does. God’s attributes are completely sinless and pure, while ours is affected by sin. We also know that God possesses both incommunicable attributes (omniscience, omnipresence, aseity, etc.) and communicable attributes (love, jealousy, anger, etc.). But none of those attributes are applied to humanity in a manner that would make us God.

2. Essence and knowledge are related.

Feuerbach struggles with the concept of total depravity and how that relates to knowledge of the holy. He finds it irrational that we would be called to know holiness apart from being innately holy ourselves.

Feuerbach articulates it in this manner,

Religion further denies goodness as a quality of man’s being; man is wicked, corrupt, and incapable of good; but, in contrast, God is only good – the good being. It is demanded of man to conceive the good as God, but does this not make goodness an essential determination of man? If I am absolutely, i.e., by nature wicked and unholy, how can holiness and goodness be the objects of my thought – no matter whether these objects are given to me internally or externally? If my heart is wicked, my understanding corrupt, how can I perceive and feel the holy to be holy, the good to be good?

When I read this I was reminded of the apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 7:8, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” This text states that though there is nothing good in us, there is the capacity to desire to do what is right. In order for Feuerbach to understand how this coalesces there must be clarity concerning sin (particularly concerning its guilt and pollution), the work of the Holy Spirit, and how God’s law is already imprinted on our heart (Romans 1:18-20).

But to return to Feuerbach’s assertion for a moment that one cannot be expected to know holiness and be incapable of good, again, that doesn’t disprove God’s existence. There are many unfathomable truths in Scripture, but that doesn’t make them any less true. God’s existence is not dependent upon our comprehension.

3. Feuerbach’s case for Atheism.

As I have already stated, Feuerbach is an atheist. It seems that what drives his atheism is simply empirical evidence. An atheist might say, “Show me tangible evidence that God exists and I will believe.” But, as with the other points, there are weaknesses in this argument.

Feuerbach writes,

The existence of God must therefore be in space – in general, a qualitative, sensational existence. But God is not seen, not heard, not perceived by the senses. He does not exist for me, if I do not exist for him; if I do not believe in a God, there is no God for me. If I am not devoutly disposed, if I do not raise myself above the life of the senses, he has no place in my consciousness. Thus he exists only in so far as he is felt, thought, believed in; – the addition “for me” is unnecessary. His existence therefore is a real one, yet at the same time not a real one; – a spiritual existence, says the theologian. But spiritual existence is only an existence in thought, in feeling, in belief; so that his existence is a medium between sensational existence and conceptional existence, a medium full of contradiction. Or: he is a sensational existence, to which however all the conditions of sensational existence are wanting: – consequently an existence at once sensational and not sensational, an existence which contradicts the idea of the sensational, or only a vague existence in general, which is fundamentally a sensational one, but which, in order that this may not become evident, is divested of all the predicates of a real, sensational existence. But such an “existence in general” is self-contradictory. To existence belongs full, definite reality.

A necessary consequence of this contradiction is Atheism. The existence of God is essentially an empirical existence, without having its distinctive marks; it is in itself a matter of experience, and yet in reality no object of experience. It calls upon man to seek it in Reality: it impregnates his mind with sensational conceptions and pretensions; hence, when these are not fulfilled – when, on the contrary, he finds experience in contradiction with these conceptions, he is perfectly justified in denying that existence.

Feuerbach states his position very clearly. There is no need for me to further expound on his atheistic view. So, instead I will proceed to explain, with as much succinctness as possible, why his argument (like the others already mentioned) is extremely weak.

First, the theism/atheism discussion is much more than about one issue: whether or not God exists. There are many sub-issues that need to be explored, addressed and considered. This issue is far more profound than simply God’s empirical existence. As a theist, I believe that the Bible teaches there is a start point and an end point to this discussion.

My starting point comes from Colossians 1:15-17,

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For 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 is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

My end point, or conclusion, comes from 1 Corinthians 1:20-25 (cf. Psalm 14:1),

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Now, to go from the starting point to the conclusion a series of small steps, or sub-discussions, must take place. The goal for the theist is to present that everything the Bible says about God is true. That is far greater than an empirical argument – that is a transcendental argument. To say it another way, the goal is not merely to show God’s existence but to show he is the source of all meaning.

Second, Feuerbach presupposes God’s existence. When Feuerbach writes, “He does not exist for me, if I do not exist for him; if I do not believe in a God, there is no God for me,” even that does not disprove God’s existence. So, if there is no God for Feuerbach does that mean that God may still be possible for others? Is Feuerbach speaking only for himself? Regardless of the answer to that, the fact remains that Feuerbach presupposes the existence of God in his refutation.

4. Contradiction in the Trinity.

Given what has already been explored in Feuerbach’s thought, it is no wonder that his view concerning the Trinity is simply wrong.

Feuerbach writes,

RELIGION gives reality or objectivity not only to the human or divine nature in general as a personal being; it further gives reality to the fundamental determinations or fundamental distinctions of that nature as persons. The Trinity is therefore originally nothing else than the sum of the essential fundamental distinctions which man perceives in the human nature. According as the mode of conceiving this nature varies, so also the fundamental determinations on which the Trinity is founded vary. But these distinctions, perceived in one and the same human nature, are hypostasised as substances, as divine persons. And herein, namely, that these different determinations are in God, hypostases, subjects, is supposed to lie the distinction between these determinations as they are in God, and as they exist in man, – in accordance with the law already enunciated, that only in the idea of personality does the human personality transfer and make objective its own qualities. But the personality exists only in the imagination – the fundamental determinations are therefore only for the imagination hypostases, persons; for reason, for thought, they are mere relations or determinations. The idea of the Trinity contains in itself the contradiction of polytheism and monotheism, of imagination and reason, of fiction and reality. Imagination gives the Trinity, reason the Unity of the parsons. According to reason, the things distinguished are only distinctions according to imagination, the distinctions are things distinguished, which therefore do away with the unity of the divine being. To the reason, the divine persons are phantoms, to the imagination realities. The idea of the Trinity demands that man should think the opposite of what he imagines, and imagine the opposite of what he thinks, – that he should think phantoms realities.

Feuerbach views the Trinity as a contradiction, even stating that it is both polytheistic (which it is not) and monotheistic. So, the essential characteristics of the Trinity, according to Feuerbach, are transfers of human personality. The persons of the Trinity are the sum of what is perceived in human nature.

Of course, none of what Feuerbach writes has any Scriptural justification. He dives into this discussion of theism and attempts to do so using a non-theistic epistemology. The persons of the Trinity are not parts of God. Jesus is not half-man, half-God. The substance of the Trinity is not founded upon human rationality, imagination, personality or anything else Feuerbach posits.

5. Contradiction in the Sacraments.

Feuerbach makes the assertion that the Sacraments lead to superstition and immorality. He writes,

But though the Lord’s Supper, or a sacrament in general, is nothing without a certain state of mind, without faith, nevertheless religion presents the sacrament at the same time as something in itself real, external, distinct from the human being, so that in the religious consciousness the true thing, which is faith, is made only a collateral thing, a condition, and the imaginary thing becomes the principal thing. And the necessary, immanent consequences and effects of this religious materialism, of this subordination of the human to the supposed divine, of the subjective to the supposed objective, of truth to imagination, of morality to religion, – the necessary consequences are superstition and immorality: superstition, because a thing has attributed to it an effect which does not lie in its nature, because a thing is held up as not being what it in truth is, because a mere conception passes for objective reality; immorality, because necessarily, in feeling, the holiness of the action as such is separated from morality, the partaking of the sacrament, even apart from the state of mind, becomes a holy and saving act.

So, according to Feuerbach, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper in his body and blood he was leading others to both superstition and immorality. It is superstitious because, if I understand Feuerbach correctly, bread and wine do not contain the effects of the gospel (I am being simplistic here), and it is immoral because it leads to a false sense of holiness.

Undergirding all of Feuerbach’s points, and this one is no different from the others, is the notion that divine authoritarianism ultimately injures our freedom of thought. In order to maintain freedom from such authoritarianism, Feuerbach resorts to self-extrapolation as a means of refuting God’s existence. And such a course is neither wise nor intelligent.