April 22, 2024

A Little Existentialist Dread for the Soul

Clifford Goldstein

Describing the change that overwhelmed Adam and Eve immediately after the Fall, Ellen White wrote that their peace and harmony was replaced by “a sense of sin, a dread of the future, a nakedness of soul.”1 A sense of sin? A dread of the future? A nakedness of soul? These sentiments, from Adam and Eve in Eden, sound like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, atheists in the twentieth century.

Though he wouldn’t use the word “sin” in our sense, Sartre did struggle with moral questions, and the guilt that follows one’s actions, such as expressed in his play Dirty Hands. This moral dilemma was made worse by his hard-nosed atheism and existentialism. “The existentialist . . . ,” he admitted, “thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.”2

In his novel Nausea, which expressed what people felt trying to live within a world that, he argued, gave us no reason to live—his main character, Roquentin, griped: “I was just thinking . . . that here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing.”3

Why endure an existence without purpose in a world whose only certainty, only absolute, is the contingency and randomness of events, even life-changing events, that have as much purpose as the shape of clouds? What hope can one have, Roquentin complains, when “anything can happen, anything.”4 Talk about dread of the future.

In the novel The Stranger Albert Camus’ Meursault, about as naked a soul as one could concoct, awaits his execution for murder. “The presiding judge told me in bizarre language that I was to have my head chopped off in a public square in the name of the French people.”5 Roused in his jail cell by early-morning sirens, Meursault said that “they were announcing departures for a world that now and forever meant nothing to me.”6

Bunk. If this world meant so little to Camus, why did he expend so much ink trying to make sense of it? However logical Camus wanted to be—after all, why should this absurd and godless world mean anything to us?—everyone knows very well that it does mean something to us, even if Camus and Sartre, in their atheism, didn’t know what. (There is, though, convincing evidence that, just before his accidental death, Camus had wanted to be baptized.) 

The serpent seduced Eve with the words “You will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Sartre, 6,000 years later, wrote that “man is a being whose project is to be God.”7 I’m not sure what he meant, except that, perhaps, not only did his atheism not work—he knew it, too.

1 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890, 1908), p. 57.

2 Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York: The Wisdom Library, 1957), p. 22.

3 Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (New Directions Publishing), Kindle Edition, p. 120.

4 Ibid., p. 165.

5 Albert Camus, The Stranger (New York: Vintage International, 1988), p. 107.

6 Ibid., p. 122.

7 Sartre, Existentialism, p. 63.