Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “man is condemned to be free.”*
Really? Are people really condemned to be free? Perhaps so. Or perhaps it depends on the person that people follow.
Jesus once said, “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32, KJV). Although this quote from Jesus is often cited in legal contexts, such as an inscription on the walls of a courthouse, the freedom Jesus speaks of seems to be a blessing.
Of course, freedom, as commonly understood in America, is highly valued as a God-given individual right of liberty. As the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So from an American perspective, every person is free to do as they please, to speak freely without any restrictions as to religion, politics, the press, and even the right to assemble. The only caveat is when the exercise of freedom by one person causes harm to another but other than that, freedom in America means individual autonomy to do as one pleases.
Many Christians also seem to assume that there is a certain kind of liberty in Christ. To speak of “freedom in Christ” as the apostle Paul does in Galatians 5 often seems understood as freedom from traditions and legalistic practices of the Christian faith.
But I wonder if people really understand what freedom is or what it means to be free.
The Source of Freedom
When Sartre spoke of people being condemned to be free, he did so as an atheist and believed that existence proceeds essence. In other words, people are created as physical beings but who they are is yet to be determined and must be decided by them. “Man,” according to Sarte, “is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (Sartre, Man Is Condemned to be Free, 1948). Why so? Because there is not any God whose image people bear by virtue of their creation (divine nature) and with whom they are to have a relationship. So the essence of who people will become is entirely up to them. Such freedom is condemnation because even though people did not create themselves, they still possess the liberty to determine for themselves and bear the responsibility for this liberty (Sarte, 1948).
Well, I agree with Sartre insofar as if the way people conceive of freedom is their own liberty, as is the case of most Americans, then condemned they are. For Christians though, who take the Bible seriously, the story or narrative told within scripture compels us to think differently about freedom. That’s because the story that Christians are living, as it is told within scripture, begins with God and culminates in the kingdom of God.
Christians believe that all people are created equally in the image of God and so something of human nature or essence proceeds existence. Although it seems too much to make a claim of determinism and say that the entirety of human existence is decided by God before creation, bearing the divine image does make a claim about the purpose of life for people. When we turn to the story of creation in Genesis, we discover that bearing the divine image of God also comes with receiving dominion over the rest of creation. That is, God created people to serve as participants in his temple (the earth) by caring for the rest of creation in a benevolent manner, reflecting the image of God.
As the story is told, there are two trees placed among the garden where Adam and Eve dwell. One is the tree of life, of which the man and woman are free to eat, and the other is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from which the couple is forbidden to eat from. Both trees are obviously symbolic of what is only God’s to give, which is life and the ability to discern good and evil or right and wrong (Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, 124). Unfortunately, Adam and Eve choose to eat from the forbidden tree which turns out to be catastrophic as human existence just devolves into a cosmic death characterized by evil.
Instead of living under the sovereign rule of God and allowing him to determine what is right and wrong, Adam and Eve wanted to make such determinations themselves. They chose independence from God instead of dependence upon God. As with all of humanity, Adam and Eve sought the independence to determine for themselves what is good and evil, and in some sense, freedom is what they got but it came with a price too. The independence sought by eating the forbidden tree didn’t actually result in knowing the difference between good and evil. That is because knowing what is good and evil belongs to God alone and is something that can never be fully achieved independent of God. Apart from God, humans choose evil and history bears witness to what that looks like.
The Gospel and Freedom, or Tyranny
Fortunately, God has never given up and left humanity to the fate of cosmic death. Instead, God has a redemptive plan of reconciliation and restoration that will be accomplished in the sending of his Son, Jesus the Messiah. This is the good news or gospel.
For Jesus, the gospel is the declaration that the kingdom of God has appeared, and with that comes a call to repentance and faith (Mk 1:14-15). Jesus is summoning people to live under the reign or rule of God once again because that is what a kingdom is — a king ruling over his servants. So with this invitational summons is the call to follow Jesus, which literally means to come behind Jesus and learn from him how to live as subjects of God’s kingdom.
People living under the kingdom reign of God is what Jesus understands freedom to be. In coming back to the words of Jesus about the truth setting us free, the context makes this clear. Following a dispute Jesus has with the Pharisees about his identity, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32, NRSV). Freedom is, for Jesus, to know the truth and that is only possible by continuing in his word. Note then that there is nothing in what Jesus says about freedom as individual autonomy to do as one determines for oneself. Rather, freedom is to live once again the life which God created people to live.
True freedom then is living as participants in the kingdom of God as followers of King Jesus. Such participation is what it truly means to be free in Christ. This is is why in Galatians 5, where the apostle Paul speaks about freedom in Christ, he also speaks of living by the Spirit. What a contrast between the concept of freedom articulated in scripture and the concept of freedom held by most Americans.
Freedom, as it is understood in the western sense and as practiced in America, is individual autonomy. The American idea of freedom emerged from the Enlightenment, with its human-centric view that replaced God with reason as the source of knowledge. The goal of this western concept of freedom becomes the removal of any object that hinders the good(s) of human desire but in doing so it makes the idea of freedom itself the object of desire (Highfield, God, Freedom, & Human Dignity, 103-104). In other words, the idea of freedom that most Americans hold to be true is actually just another form of tyranny itself, as it enslaves humanity to a desire that can never be fully reached.
The struggle with freedom as tyranny is played out daily on social media and in the so-called culture wars. What is worse, is that many Christians are caught up in this struggle too (I too have found myself entangled in this struggle). Over the last year or so this struggle has become visible every time a Christian insists that their individual rights outweigh the well-being of others (Christians would do well to reread Philippians 2:1-13 in which Paul holds up the example of Jesus Christ giving up his rights and becoming an obedient slave even to the point of death). Hence the protest of wearing masks in public and other social-distancing measures aimed to mitigate the threat of Covid-19.
If individual autonomy is the freedom that people seek, then the words of Sartre about people being condemned to freedom are very prophetic. And sadly so, I might add.
True Freedom: Submission to King Jesus
So here is my parting thought as a pastor writing to my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Our identity as Christians was originally given as sort of an insult because of our association with Jesus Christ.
Not a problem, as we shall gladly wear the name Christ or be labeled a Christian. But let’s remember, and dare I suggest, recover what that means.
As Christians who take the Bible seriously, the cross or crucifixion of Jesus Christ is very central to our faith. It’s not the only aspect central to our faith, as the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus matter too but there isn’t any resurrection and exaltation without the crucifixion first. So the cross of Jesus absolutely matters but as N.T. Wright so eloquently says, the cross matters “…so that God’s power and wisdom may work in us, through us, and out into the world that still regards Jesus’s crucifixion as weakness and folly. …so that we, having been put right, could become part of God’s plan to put his whole world right” (Wright, The Day The Revolution Began, 22).
Believing that God is putting the world to right means abandoning the false notion of individual autonomy to do whatever one damn well pleases. Instead, to be made right by God is to live in submission to King Jesus as his followers and thereby participate in the kingdom of God. Found only in Christ, this righteousness is what true freedom entails and the world around us will never know of such freedom until they see a church that embodies such freedom.
May the church of Jesus Christ in America live by the Spirit in submission to her King as participants in the one and only kingdom of God!
* This article was originally written for and published in Wineskins 21 (September 2021) and is available here.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of the forthcoming book Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God that will be available through Wipf and Stock Publishers. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.