What is existentialism?

Existentialism is more of an orientation surrounding philosophical thought than it is a philosophy on its own. It reached its prime in Europe during the first part of the twentieth century as a counter-response to the Enlightenment, which emphasized human reason as supreme over all else. Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines existentialism as: "a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad."

With the horrors of World Wars I & II, along with the severe economic crashes that happened in the 1920s and 30s, it quickly became clear that modernist claims that human reason alone can overcome all was not true and that believing so was nothing more than fooling oneself into false hope. Thus brought about the rise of existentialism. Existentialism is focused on experience and unanswered questions, believing—to a fault—that rational thought is not important or accurate in comparison with one's own experience of being. This mindset can make it difficult to settle on concrete truths. Therefore, existentialism majorly downplays the power of human reason and attempts, sometimes despairingly, to find the overall meaning within a life surrounded by the chaos of the world. Existentialists tend to be suspicious of rational order within the world or the mind, and the search for meaning through life experience takes first priority. Existentialism places primary emphasis on the experience of being, in whatever capacity, and it places rationalism on the back burner.

So, what is a Christian perspective on existentialism? Existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard shared his opinion that Christianity cannot be confined to rationale alone, because it carries larger relational and emotional significance. There are ways in which Christianity and existentialist thought align. For instance, both would agree that placing all hope in human reason is foolish. But where existentialism would claim that experience is the most important thing and that many things are hopeless or unable to be known or overcome, the Christian has hope in Christ and the grace of God that enables believers to overcome.

There will always be components of the human life that cannot be understood by our own human rationale. This is a point at which existentialists may lose hope or claim that life is meaningless, but Christians have the hope that God knows all things and He can choose to reveal whatever He deems appropriate to us through His Spirit. Christianity affirms these two beliefs about the future: God will bring ultimate justice to the world, and those who trust in Jesus Christ as Lord have a steady supply of hope for a better reality in the future and eternity: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you" (1 Peter 1:3–4; see also Jeremiah 29:11; John 14:1–6).

Related Truth:

Rationalism vs. empiricism – What is a Christian view?

What are the philosophical beliefs of secular humanism?

What is the definition of idealism?

What is realism? What is a Christian view of realism?

Christian worldview - What is it?

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