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HISTORY of Christian Theology
Sigmund Freud 1926Sigmund Freud wrote that religion is a delusion created by our subconscious mind in its attempt to deal with fear. He taught that humans are subject to three innate fears: the fear of death, the fear of the destructive forces of nature, and fear associated with suffering and the physical demands of life. He believed that humans sublimate these fears by repressing them and then transmuting and redirecting them through the culturally acceptable expression of religion. For Freud, God is nothing more than our subconscious desire for a father figure in the sky to protect us from harm, and heaven is simply our fantasy of a place without labor and suffering.

There is no question that fear plays a role in human social interaction, including many religious beliefs and practices. Consequently, fear has played a role in religion through the ages, but is that all there is to religion? What is the interplay between fear and religion? What role does the reality of pain, suffering and mortality play in religion, and in Christian theology particularly?

The Scream

Theological Based Fears

Most religions are based on the premise that something is wrong with the world that impedes the realization of our ultimate objective, happiness, which is often viewed in temporal terms. Religions generally strive to, 1) explain this human predicament of people aspiring to an ideal temporal existence that is beyond their reach, and 2) explain the presence of evil and injustice that plagues every community. Theology is basically the worldview of a religious tradition regarding the nature and purpose of existence and the fundamental problem that we need to overcome in order to realize our ideal existence.

monk meditatingEastern religions generally assert that the real problem we deal with is Maya, the universal illusion of reality, and our need to completely reintegrate with the eternal essence to achieve moksha or realize the blissful state of nirvana here and now. Islam claims that human forgetfulness is the obstacle we need to conquer. According to Eastern Christianity the problem is our separation from God, while Western Christianity views the problem as sin.

adam and eve expulsion from the gardenReligions often relate creation stories that help explain the purpose of existence and what went wrong to cause this mortal human predicament. Traditional Christian theology teaches that an all loving omnipotent God created the universe and everything in it. Because God was good, everything he created was good. However, because humans were created in his image, he gave us a rational mind and free will, which our first parents used to disobey God and introduce sin, suffering and death into the world. So, God sent his son, Jesus Christ, to die and save us from death and sin.

Historical Perspective

Augustine taught that the purpose of God’s law (commandments) was to terrorize us so that we would seek God’s grace through prayer.

In the 5th Century, Augustine introduced the concept of original sin that, according to Augustine, all humanity automatically inherits from Adam at birth. Due to this inherited sin, and subsequent personal sins, everyone is damned to suffer in hell except those whom God has elected to save. We are made right with God–righteous and justified–through the atonement of Christ and his grace that is accessed through the sacraments of the Church, prayer and good works. Augustine taught that the purpose of God’s law (commandments) was to terrorize us so that we would seek God’s grace through prayer.

hellFear of eternal torment, resulting from death while in a state of mortal sin, dominated medieval thought. This fear grew in the late Middle Ages to encompass fear of temporary punishment in purgatory for venial sins that were not so grievous that they would send one to hell forever. With short life expectancy during the Middle Ages, fear of punishment in the afterlife was a communal anxiety.

confessionalThe Church played a huge role in this personal drama and in the economy of medieval society. Priests were the gate-keepers of the means to escape this torment. They were the only ones who could provide access to God’s grace through the Church sacraments. Consequently, penance and mass became commodities of salvation. Economics is basically a study of societal priorities. Where we spend our money demonstrates what is important to us. In the Middle Ages, salvation was big business. For example, the inhabitants of the small town of Wittenberg, with a population of just four to five thousand people, purchased nine thousand masses in 1519 – two years after Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the church door of this same town. That was over two hundred masses each and every week in this small community. This was a normal practice throughout Europe at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.

Europe was primed for a change when Martin Luther challenged the assumptions undergirding medieval society. Instead of a special ordained class of priests who, for a fee, were the sole conduit to the means of grace, Luther insisted on a priesthood of all believers. He asserted that God’s grace alone is what saves us. So, we need to have faith and confidence in that free gift of grace. Faith alone, not good works, saves us from the torment of hell, and once a person is baptized a Christian, doubt becomes his enemy. The challenge we face is anfechtung, which literally means “attack,” but Luther used it more to mean “temptation” or an assault from the devil raising doubts in our mind regarding our saved status. He insisted that we will be saved if we simply trust in God’s promise of salvation that he extended to us when we were baptized, even as an infant.

Luther adopted Augustine’s idea that the purpose of God’s commandments is to make us realize how impossible it was to keep them, so we would become terrified of hell fire and flee to God’s grace. Unfortunately, instead of increasing universal piety among his followers, Luther was shocked to discover that many took his teachings to be a license to sin. This dichotomy did not escape other Christian leaders who liked many of Luther’s ideas, including John Calvin.

According to Calvin, some persons were chosen by God to be saved–the elect–while all the rest of humanity is condemned to hell.

Calvin helped form the beliefs of the Reformed tradition that emphasized the doctrine of predestination. According to Calvin, some persons were chosen by God to be saved–the elect–while all the rest of humanity is condemned to hell. Free will has nothing to do with one’s salvation. But, even under this theology, fear plays a major role. Were you one of God’s elect? How could you know? Calvin taught that one could know if you were saved by experiencing an inner or effectual call that changes your heart so that you have saving faith. Many refer to this born-again experience as conversion. But, even then, some people who think that they were born again, fall away and lose their faith. Hence, he taught that they did not receive the gift of perseverance. So, how can one be sure that your conversion experience produced enduring saving faith, and not just false temporary faith? Anxiety regarding the assurance of salvation became a major issue among many Calvinists, particularly the Puritans. They believed that if one had truly been born again, then one would experience the Holy Spirit working in them to produce works of righteousness as fruits of the Spirit. So, they were constantly examining their life, and unfortunately other’s lives as well, to see evidence of these fruits of the Spirit.


Great Awakening

This fear of damnation became the major theme of America’s First Great Awakening

This fear of damnation became the major theme of America’s First Great Awakening before the Revolutionary War. Charismatic preachers like George Whitfield attracted crowds of thousands as they terrified their listeners of the horrors of hell. Jonathan Edwards grabbed peoples’ attention with his allusion of them being a disgusting spider dangling over a fire. Sermons of hellfire and damnation also played a central role in the Second Great awakening a generation later, and continues to influence much of the evangelical movement today. This influence was is so strong that even some Mormons, who reject the concept of predestination, view life primarily as a test to prove our worthiness in order to go the highest degree of heaven.

Fear, Faith and Love

Through the centuries, untold millions have turned to God when faced with the reality of their fallen state. However, Western Christianity’s focus on sin, justification, and salvation seems to have generated a religious culture based on fear. Each tradition seems to foster its own particular anxiety. Catholics often are concerned about dying in a state of mortal sin. Lutherans wonder if they truly trust God, and Calvinists question if they have really been born again and have enduring, saving faith, while many Mormons wonder if they are good enough. Each is concerned about something different, but each is often worried none the less.

This is perplexing because faith, hope and charity are the antithesis of fear.

Jesus teaching childrenThis is perplexing because faith, hope and charity are the antithesis of fear. As Paul told the Galatians, the fruits of the Spirit include love, joy, faith and peace (Gal 5:22), which are incompatible with fear. John wrote, “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18). To some extent, the good news of the gospel is not finding a home in the hearts and minds of many Christians, even some of its most devoted adherents. In all their scurrying about, they have missed the boat. Consequently, they limit the blessings God offers them. This dearth of spiritual blessings gave rise to the charismatic movement in the 20th Century. It is based on the premise that all Christian denominations have the Gospel, but many followers fail to grasps the full gospel and the blessings it offers. This movement cut across denominational lines, including both Catholics and Protestants, and has now become mainstreamed into evangelical Protestantism.

The paradox of anxious Christians stems from an over emphasis on sin, that shifts our focus from Christ to ourselves. We are all imperfect, so no wonder uncertainty and fear increase. This comes from mistaking an essential concept of Christianity for its central or most important element. Some Christians are blinded by a flash of light in our dark world shrouded by ignorance of eternal truth, and then fail to realize that this ray of truth heralds the dawn of an even brighter day illuminated by a fuller understanding and appreciation of God and his glory. Gleaning truth from all of our Christian traditions can broaden our perspective, increase our understanding, and eliminate fear. Even though it is easy to identify doctrines we disagree with in Christian traditions different from our own, each tradition still includes ideas that have merit which may increase our understanding and improve our relationship with God. Consider the following concepts.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition, that predates Augustine and his concept of original sin, teaches redemption centered on unification with God instead of justification from sin. This approach emphasizes one’s spiritual and emotional relationship with deity, even mystical, instead of a rational approach. According to Eastern Orthodox doctrine, the purpose of human existence is theosis (a form of human deification), that is realized through the synergy (or cooperation) of human activity and God’s operations. We become whole, complete, and sanctified through God’s atonement which enables us to become unified with God. Under this approach, the focus shifts from sin and fear to one’s personal connection and relationship with God and feeling his love.

Catholic emphasis on their sacraments as means of grace provides confidence regarding one’s status with God. Fear is a biproduct of uncertainty, so reliance on the efficacy of the redemptive power of baptism, penance, and the Eucharist is reassuring. Most Protestants don’t realize that Luther’s doctrine is based on this sacramental reliance. Luther’s foundational doctrine is that we can trust God’s promise of absolution which is expressed in these sacraments, in spite of our folly.

However, as children of the Great Lawgiver, we each have an innate sense of justice, so we naturally doubt the efficacy of the promise of these sacraments unless it is accompanied with a knowing and sincere offer of faith by the participant. This highlights the value of Calvin’s teachings regarding the assurance of salvation realized through the experience of being spiritually born again and feeling the Spirit of God working within you.

priest, orthodox patriarch and minister

Each of these traditions teach unique Christian concepts that, when combined, can lead to a life of peace and confidence instead of doubt and fear. We may not agree with all of the tenets of these divergent faiths, but they each can broaden our understanding and our appreciation of the foundations of our own faith. This increased faith helps individuals to feel God’s love which diminishes the fear one feels in this world of uncertainty. How does this approach affect Freud’s innate fears?

Freud’s Three Physical/Temporal Based Fears

Death–The End.

… Or is it? We need to know, for “if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor 15:32). “[I]f Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” (1 Cor 15:14). Not only is the resurrection the foundation of Christian doctrine, it provides a basis for a moral society. If this life is all there is to our personal existence, then nothing else matters except what we each individually want. Established morals no longer exist. If life does not have a purpose but is meaningless, then Paul was right, let’s enjoy what we can get out of life right here and now because tomorrow we die and that is all there is. But, if death is not the end, and we were created for some greater purpose than carnal pleasure, then there are eternal consequences to our actions. If the universe was created then everything is subject to laws set by its creator, the Great Lawgiver.

Moral Relativism

Western society was founded on Judeo-Christian principles of morality which continues to be the foundation of our civil law. Arguably, much of the advancement of society can be attributed to this underpinning Christian influence. However, moral relativism has steadily increased and currently is accepted as the primary moral philosophy of modern society. Currently, 75% of America’s college professors teach that there is no such thing as right and wrong. Today, many if not most people believe that right and wrong are not absolutes, but are decided by each person individually, i.e., morals are relative. This idea of moral relativism is the concept that ethical standards, morality, and views of right and wrong are culturally based and therefore are subject to a person’s individual choice. We can each decide what is right or wrong for ourselves. You decide what’s right for you, and I’ll decide what’s right for me. Consequently, morals vary from one situation or person to the next. Essentially, moral relativism stands for the proposition that anything goes, because life is ultimately without meaning.

Friederich NietzscheHow did our culture transform from a Judeo-Christian morality-based society to an amoral society? It started with the Age of Enlightenment where intellectuals began to question all accepted truth, which is not bad in and of itself. But, through this process they abandoned faith and replaced it with an assumption that God did not exist and that death was the end. During this time, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who I greatly admire in many other respects, taught that nothing was inherently good or bad. Later, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) declared that “God is dead,” and that moral values are relative to each individual’s goals. American anthropologist William Sumner (1840-1910) argued in his 1906 work Folkways that what people consider right and wrong is shaped completely by the traditions, customs, and practices of their culture. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) cautioned social scientists against using the standards of their own culture to evaluate their subjects. She insisted that universal morals do not exist but that each society constructs their own customs and morals. Then, Finnish philosopher-anthropologist Edward Westermarck (1862–1939) articulated a detailed theory of moral relativism. He viewed all moral ideas as subjective judgments that reflect one’s upbringing. He claimed that the differences in beliefs among societies proved that there was no innate, intuitive moral compass. To him, moral judgments can only be deemed correct when viewed relative to some particular point of view (for instance, that of a culture or an historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over any other, so no trans-cultural judgment regarding the correctness of a culture’s morals could possibly be justified. Any appeal to any standard would always be merely personal or at most societal. All of these ideas are based on Nietzsche’s premise, God is dead and there is no personal existence after death.

But, are standards of right and wrong mere products of time and culture? Is morality really just a neutral concept? Certainly, if there is life after death then there is more to our existence than the transitory desires of mortal life. An afterlife presupposes a creator or some universal force that brings meaning to life. Purpose creates priorities from which morality is established. If the only purpose in life is simply to satisfy individual desires then morality is subjective and relative to individual and cultural perspectives. But, if there is a God and life serves his greater purpose then there are objective moral standards that apply across cultures and individual positions, whether people accept these standards or not.

The very concept of morality would not even exist unless we had a moral compass.

Contrary to Westermarck’s proposition that varying beliefs prove that there can be no universal moral standard, each of us has a conscious and knows what is right and wrong regarding basic moral issues. We each know that it is better to hug a child than to torture a child for some sick hedonistic pleasure. Of course, some priorities are simply preferences based on time, culture, and individual tastes and really have nothing to do with moral standards. Additionally, every culture corrupts the inner moral voice of its citizens in various ways. Yet, there still exists a universal God-given moral compass inside each of us that guides us when dealing with eternal ethical issues. This is one of the major arguments C.S. Lewis makes regarding religion and why he converted from atheism to Christianity. The very concept of morality would not even exist unless we had a moral compass. It would not mean anything to us just as we would have no idea of darkness unless there were light. He further argues that we each become annoyed with others when they ignore this innate moral code and concept of fairness. We demand, “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”

On the other hand, moral relativists are moral nihilists, otherwise they are incoherent. Moral relativists either have to reject any discussion regarding normative morality or concede that all disagreeing parties to the argument are correct. In order to attempt to maintain a coherent argument, moral relativists either have to deny the existence of morality or redefine morality. Interestingly, often the very people who dispute the existence of God and moral absolutes are the ones who feel the most entitled and demand that others give them their “fair share” of what life has to offer. On one hand they deny any restrictive application of morality on themselves while they appeal to our innate moral compass to demand benefits from society. They just can’t really ignore the reality of our innate moral sense of justice we all inherit from our Father-in-Heaven, the Great Lawgiver.

Societal Ills

All fear is based on uncertainty and loss. So, when you combine moral relativism with Freud’s remaining two fears, 1) the destructive forces of nature, and 2) the fear caused by the physical demands of life, you are left with a society ruled by selfishness, which destroys civility, the essence of civilization.

A significant aspect of this temporal world is the introduction or emphasis of limited resources. Because our memory is limited to our experiences from birth until death, time appears finite and becomes extremely valuable. Likewise, material seems finite so we value material things. Even art that is primarily tied to our emotions becomes more valuable if it is part of a limited edition. This perception of a finite world creates the setting for our selfish tendencies to have greater sway than in a purely spiritual eternal realm. Thus, this temporal existence naturally creates a situation where we are enticed by both good and evil, love and selfishness. This physical environment enables us to make choices and exercise our agency. Through this process of making decisions and learning from our actions, we have an opportunity to grow and become more like God or become carnal and selfish.

Western society has generally accepted the idea of moral relativism and consequently has abandoned many traditional Judeo-Christian values and replaced them with ever changing politically correct rules. And, in the process, traditional moral values fall and people begin to “call good evil, and evil good.” Throughout Europe churches have become museums; around the world families are disintegrating while casual sex runs rampant; inter-cities in the United States have become war zones between rival gangs and the police; and “The United States is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose (poisoning) deaths.” When we abandon a principle-based society we end up with competing groups of self-interested individuals wrestling over what benefits they can grab from each other. In many regards, society is disintegrating as it abandons religion in fulfillment of William McGuffe statement in his textbook that was a mainstay of America’s public-school system for nearly 100 years from the early 1800’s until the 1920’s:

Erase all thought and fear of God from a community, and selfishness and sensuality would absorb the whole man.

“Erase all thought and fear of God from a community, and selfishness and sensuality would absorb the whole man. Appetite, knowing no restraint, and suffering, having no solace or hope, would trample in scorn on the restraints of human laws. Virtue, duty, principle, would be mocked and spurned as unmeaning sounds. A sordid self-interest would supplant every feeling; and man would become, in fact, what the theory in atheism declares him to be–a companion for brutes.”

The finality of death is a reality we all face and most fear. The lack of faith in an afterlife creates the great natural fear, death, which leads to moral relativism, a root cause of many societal ills. We are eye witnesses of the truth that without the counter-balancing influence of faith, society devolves and people become carnal, sensual, selfish, full of greed, avarice and violence. On top of the individual pain and suffering inflicted on humanity when people abandon their moral moorings, immoral behavior is a drain on society. Just think of all of the expense incurred to secure property with locks, bars, fences, alarms and security guards. Imagine the blessing to society if more of the bright minds of attorneys, accountants and engineers were spent creating wealth instead of dealing with disputes, exploring tax loopholes and conducting audits to verify the truth of statements, or implementing cyber-security measures to repel thieves. The more a society abandons morality the more it needs to spend to protect its citizens and their assets.

Even so, individuals still try to placate their moral compass by pretending that moral relativism is “more fair” than our traditional stance on morality. In a 2002 column, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly asked, “Why is it wrong to be right?” O’Reilly states the problem with moral relativists is that “they see the world not as it is, but as they want it to be.” They fail to live in reality. Pilate’s rhetorical question, “What is truth?” reverberates down through the ages causing earthquakes in the lives of those who ignore it or fail to answer it correctly. Truth is what actually was and how things actually are. Unfortunately, individuals and society suffer as they abandon the time-tested mores of history.

Religion is the Cure to Our Communal Disease

Freud was correct in identifying the existence of these three natural fears and that many religions are vain attempts to deal with them. But Freud failed to recognize that our neurosis, created by these primal fears, is the geneses of many societal ills, and that religion provides the cure to this communal disease.

Freud, missed three innate psychological fears identified by David Viscott: the fear of loss of love, loss of esteem, and loss of control.

Paradoxically, Sears, that was the largest retailer in the world at the time of the advent of internet commerce because it was built on the legacy of catalog sales, missed the impact of on-line shopping. Today Sears is bankrupt. Similarly, Freud, missed three innate psychological fears identified by David Viscott: the fear of loss of love, loss of esteem, and loss of control. These three psychological fears of dealing with rejection, abandonment, loss of personal value, and the of lack of control over one’s world and destiny probably play a greater role in our human dynamic than Freud’s three temporal fears. Regardless, all of these fears combine to create a societal neurosis that leads to destructive behavior of greed and selfishness. Religion is the cure to this negative behavior because it offers an eternal perspective that eliminates fear based on the uncertainty created by the limitations of a temporal world, while it simultaneously connects individuals with the love of God to shrink or eliminate the psychological fears created by a loss of love while being raised in this imperfect world. Much of the stability and desirability of Western culture stems from its Christian heritage. It is worth our time, energy and resources to understand the historical Judeo-Christian moorings of civil modern society.

family at church

go to previous:

The Origin of Religion

go to next:

The Human Factor


Sigmund Freud historic print. [PD-US]

The Scream. Edvard Munch, 1893. National Gallery of Norway. [PD-US]

Expulsion of Adam and Eve. oil on canvas, John Faed, c. 1880 [PD-US]

Les ames du Purgatoire. Eglise Sanit-Nicolas de Veroce.

Confessionnal de l’eglise de Sant Denis d’anjou.

The Puritans. Francis Davis Millet, 1909. Cleveland Trust Company Building, Cleveland, Ohio, United States. [PD].

George Whitefield preaching in Philadelphia. Illustration from Life of George Whitefield by A. S. Billingsley, Internet Archive. [PD].

Lasset die Kindlein zu mir kommen, 1839, Marie Ellenrieder. [PD].

Portriat of Friedrich Nietzsche. Edvard Munch, 1906, Thiel Gallery, Stockholm, Sweden. [PD US].

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholemew I. 2018, website, President of the Ukraine. (no changes) [CC BY 4.0].

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