Does Existence Precede Essence?

As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.

  • Ecclesiastes 11:5

This is what the Lord says— he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you: Do not be afraid, Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen.

  • Isaiah 44:2

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

  • Jeremiah 1:5

“Since ancient times, the question of what it is to be human and what makes us so distinct from all other types of being has been one of the main preoccupations of philosophers. Their approach to the question assumes that there is such a thing as human nature, or an essence of what it is to be human. It also tends to assume that this human nature is fixed across time and space. In other words, it assumes that there is a universal essence of what it is to be human, and that this essence can be found in every single human that has ever existed, or will ever exist. According to this view, all human beings, regardless of their circumstances, possess the same fundamental qualities and are guided by the same basic values. For Sartre, however, thinking about human nature in this way risks missing what is most important about human beings, and that is our freedom.
“To clarify what he means by this, Sartre gives the following illustration. He asks us to imagine a paper—knife, the kind of knife that might be used to open an envelope. This knife has been made by a craftsman who has had the idea of creating such a tool, and who had a clear understanding of what is required of a paper—knife. It needs to be sharp enough to cut through paper, but not so sharp as to be dangerous. It needs to be easy to wield, made of an appropriate substance-metal, bamboo, or wood, perhaps, but not butter, wax, or feathers—and fashioned to function efficiently. Sartre says that it is inconceivable for a paper-knife to exist without its maker knowing what it is going to be used for. Therefore the essence of a paper—knife—or all of the things that make it a paper—knife and not a steak knife or a paper airplane-comes before the existence of any particular paper—knife.
“Humans, of course, are not paper—knives. For Sartre, there is no preordained plan that makes us the kind of beings that we are. We are not made for any particular purpose. We exist, but not because of our purpose or essence like a paper-knife does; our existence precedes our essence.”

  • Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) proves the work, or the lack of effective work, of the Holy Spirit, in that his most famous argument is fallacious and illogical.  We can never have a paper-knife without a creator.  We cannot have anything without a creator of each thing.  But humans are an exception because Sartre refused to believe in God.

He has been called the most influential atheist of the 20th Century. Over 5,000 people attended his funeral.  But for being such an often-quoted philosopher, his logic is suspect.  Anyone who ignores the elephant in the room, when they back themselves in the corner so that there is no way out except to acknowledge the elephant, is demonstrating the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  Matthew 12:31 states “And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”  As humans, we have to continue to witness to and pray for those who are lost.  It is only God who can save.  Only God can reveal Himself to people who keep the blinders on, regardless of how good an apologist we might be.  The saying goes “as long as there is breath, there is hope.”

But, let us be honest.  I have met people who refused to listen to that voice that I knew was there.  Some of these people were pleasant.  Some people would have been disappointed if I had not told them about Jesus.  They knew what I believed.  I believed that those who did not believe in Jesus would end up in Hell.  And some of the atheists who were pleasant when they refused to listen, felt a warm place in their otherwise black heart, because I had acknowledged that they were loved here on earth and that I would miss them in Heaven.

Other people get angry and in your face.  It might even come to blows but think about it.  If God does not exist, then me talking about God should never elicit any angry response at all.  If God does not exist, God, in your mind, is powerless.

But God does exist.  God establishes the essence of those He has elected before they enter their mother’s womb.  That was the elephant that Sartre could not see.  His logic, without his exception for humans, is good logic.  God created the heavens and the earth and all living things on the earth.  God established the science that we have only discovered.  And then smart people through the centuries have built homes, discovered crude oil and its uses, and split the atom.  But of all the things that humans invent, they merely use what God created and then repurpose them.

And if we have an essence at birth, what is it?  The first Shorter Catechism question answers that.  Man’s chief end (or purpose or essence) is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.  But there is a flaw within mankind, there since the fall of Man.  We have a sin nature that can only be cured by a belief and trust in Jesus Christ.  These two essences are not equal, but if we choose to ignore our chief end, then the sin nature can and will totally consume us.

God can overcome this sin nature, if we surrender our will to His.

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.


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  1. “But of all the things that humans invent, they merely use what God created and then repurpose them.” So true. Well done post, Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

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