Viktor Frankl endured three years of anguish in the Auschwitz concentration camp. After his rescue, he became a professor of Psychiatry and Neurology in the University of Vienna. Frankl recounted his horrific experiences and some lessons to be learned in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
Among his observations, he noted that inmates at the concentration camp were most likely to survive if they “knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill.” Frankl suggested that, “striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.” Writing in the late 1950’s, he suggested that, “The mass neurosis of the present time is the existential vacuum” (i.e. a loss of meaning in life).
What Frankl observed almost five decades ago became a widespread philosophy of despair. Some called it nihilism. This label was popularized by the German Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. “Nihilism literally has only one truth to declare, namely, that ultimately nothingness prevails and the world is meaningless” ( Helmut Thielicke, Nihilism: Its Origin and Nature, with a Christian Answer).
“From the nihilist’s perspective, one can conclude that life is completely amoral, a conclusion, Thielicke believes, that motivates such monstrosities as the Nazi reign of terror. Gloomy predictions of nihilism’s impact are also charted in Eugene Rose’s Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age (1994). If nihilism proves victorious–and it’s well on its way, he argues–our world will become ‘a cold, inhuman world’ where ‘nothingness, incoherence, and absurdity’ will triumph.” (Ibid.).
More recently, apologist Ravi Zacharius observed that,
“One by one the generation that refused to be bound by the Pope, and refused to be bound by the Church, decided in an ecstasy of freedom that they would not be bound by anything–not by the Bible, not by conscience, not by God himself. From believing too much that never did have to be believed, they took to believing so little that for countless thousands human existence and the world itself no longer seemed to make any sense. Poets began talking about the ‘wasteland’ with ‘ghostly lives’ as Stephen Spender put it, ‘moving from fragmentary ruins which have lost their significance.’ Nothingness became a subject of conversation, nihilism a motive, frustration and despair a theme for novelists and dramatists…yet all is not lost” (Can Man Live without God)
The full biblical doctrine of humanity
In 1992, John R. W. Stott wrote about the pervasive effects of nihilism that Frankl warned against decades earlier. Stott noted that,
“Millions of people do not know who they are, nor that they have any significance or worth. Hence the urgent challenge to us to tell them who they are, to enlighten them about their identity, that is, to teach without compromise the full biblical doctrine of our human being – its depravity, yes, but also its dignity” (The Contemporary Christian).
The basis for Stott’s urgent challenge is that, “Christians believe in the intrinsic worth of human beings, because of our doctrines of creation and redemption. God made man male and female in his own image and gave them a responsible stewardship of the earth and its creatures. He has endowed us with rational, moral, social, creative and spiritual faculties which make us like him and unlike the animals. Human beings are Godlike beings. As a result of the fall our Godlikeness has indeed been distorted, but it has not been destroyed. Further, ‘God so loved the world’ that he gave his only Son for our redemption. The cross is the chief public evidence of the value which God places on us.”
I picked up a copy of Stott’s book in 1993. When I read his balanced treatment of human dignity and depravity it helped me tremendously (He also addressed these themes in the early chapters of Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today).
In my background and training in theology, most of the emphasis was placed on human depravity. Although thankful for that training, this was clearly an area lacking in balance. It narrowly focused on certain theological emphases without placing them in a larger biblical framework. No doubt this emphasis was itself forged in reaction to erroneous contemporary thinking.
During my years of training, a surge of contemporary thinkers both secular and religious began promoting views of humanity that downplayed depravity by offering more utopian notions of humanity. Perhaps they were trying to correct the philosophy of despair with a more positive perspective. But, on the popular level, it produced a kind of self-esteem movement with an emphasis on self-love as the greatest human need.
As this “new” emphasis became mainstream, it filtered into seminaries and Churches, ignoring large and important portions of biblical truth about the sinfulness of humanity. “Self-esteem or pride in being human” one minister wrote, “is the single greatest need facing the human race today” (Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, p.19). “Once a person believes he is ‘an unworthy sinner’ it is doubtful if he can honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Christ.” (Robert Schuller, Ibid., p. 98).
Lack of success on every level of life (at work, in school, in relationships) as well as almost every form of evil and destructive behavior would soon be traced to low self-esteem. So the agenda in education, counseling and parenting became focused on the goal of encouraging self-esteem and self-love.
This no doubt prompted reactions in the opposite direction from those committed to a biblical worldview. Biblical perspectives on depravity and the sinfulness of humanity were put on the defensive as they were often dismissed as archaic and even dangerous(see Karl Menninger’s Whatever Became of sin?).
Forming beliefs in reaction is never a good idea and I came under the influence of such reaction in some of my earliest ministry education. Gratefully, God used the teaching of the late John R. W. Stott to help me be more faithful to the entire witness of Scripture on these matters (see: Holistic Ministry and Fundamentalism).
Stott suggested that, “Christian teaching on the dignity and worth of human beings is of utmost importance today… for the welfare of society.”
”When human beings are devalued, everything in society turns sour. Women are humiliated and children despised. The sick are regarded as a nuisance and the elderly as a burden. Ethnic minorities as discriminated against. The poor are oppressed and denied social justice. Capitalism displays its ugliest face. Labor is exploited in the mines and factories. Criminals are brutalized in the prisons.”
“But when human beings are valued as persons because of their intrinsic worth, everything changes. Men, women and Children are all honored. The sick are cared for, and the elderly enabled to live and die with dignity. Dissidents are listened to, prisoners rehabilitated, minorities protected, and the oppressed set free. Workers are given fair wages, decent working conditions, and a measure of participation in both the management and the profit of the enterprise. And the gospel is taken to the ends of the earth. Why? Because people matter. Because every man, woman and child has worth and significance as a human being made in God’s image and likeness.” (The Contemporary Christian).
The balance in Stott’s teaching is often missing in local Church ministry. We too easily become one-dimensional. We focus on the spiritual needs and overlook the physical and social. Or, as in the case of many mainline protestant Churches, the spiritual needs of mankind are de-emphasized.
The priority should be placed on the gospel and the human need to be reconciled to God in the context of a holistic view of humanity. Stott widened this concern when he suggested that,
“There is a cluster of popular attitudes which are fundamentally incompatible with Christian faith: e.g. the concept of blind evolutionary development, the assertion of human autonomy in art, science and education, and the declarations that history is random, life is absurd and everything is meaningless. The Christian mind comes into direct collision with these notions precisely because they are “secular”—that is, because they leave no room for God. It insists that human beings can be defined only in relation to God, that without God they have ceased to be truly human. For we are creatures who depend on our Creator, sinners who are accountable to him and under his judgment, people who are lost apart from his redemption. This God-centredness is basic to the Christian mind” (Your Mind Matters: The Place of the Mind in the Christian Life).
In Auschwitz, Victor Frankl painfully experienced the darkest side of human depravity. Yet he also observed the deepest reserves of human dignity. We live in a world where both sides to humanity will be experienced. As we seek the peace and prosperity of the city of our exile, let us not reduce or minimize the sweep of the gospel as God’s power to address the whole reality of human need.
Without faithfulness to the gospel, one cannot claim to respect human dignity.
Millersville Bible Church
58 West Frederick Street
Millersville, PA 17551