Oct 16, 2021


3 Min Read

What went through Abraham’s mind when God called him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac? In this brief clip, R.C. Sproul considers how the existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard saw in this crisis an illustration of the Christian’s life of faith.

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In his book Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard tries to pierce the soul of Abraham and imagine the existential anguish that Abraham went through as he was contemplating this enormous, dreadful task that God had set before him. One of the key refrains that Kierkegaard works with in Fear and Trembling is related to the biblical description of that event, when we are told that after God gives this command to Abraham, the narrative says, “And Abraham rose up early in the morning.” Kierkegaard begins to contemplate on that phrase, and he asks the question, “Why did Abraham get up early in the morning? Was it because he was such a virtuous, sanctified man that he rose up early to be bright and alert, and about the business of obeying the command of God?” Well, Kierkegaard doesn’t think so. Kierkegaard thought that the reason why Abraham got up out of his bed in the morning is because Abraham couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned on his bed. He was caught in the throes of existential anxiety, of fear, and of trembling, because God had commanded him to do something that was absolutely unthinkable: to destroy his own son, who indeed was the child of promise. To do this, God was commanding Abraham to do something that the moral law, later as it is expressed in Moses, and already as expressed in the natural law written within us, completely forbade: the taking of a human life in such a manner. Child sacrifice was an abomination to Israel. And so, part of Abraham’s anguish was the anguish of asking himself, “Can this really be the voice of God?” This involved what Kierkegaard called the temporary suspension of the ethical. I don’t know what that phrase may mean to you, but the only thing I can relate it to in our day, in terms of simple illustration, is the experience you may have when you are driving through a city. Maybe the traffic lights are not adequately performing, or there is a traffic jam, and instead of going through the lights as they occur, there is a policeman on the corner. And if you have ever driven your car to an intersection where a policeman is directing traffic, and the light turned red, but the policeman motioned you to go ahead, you have the temporary suspension of the ethical. The law requires that you stop when the light is red, unless the personal embodiment of the law—the traffic officer—is present there to override it. Even then, you see people hesitating to go through a red light, even when the policeman in his uniform is motioning you to come through. Well, this is just a tiny taste of the thing that Abraham struggled with when God told him to go against the law. And so, how does Abraham respond to this existential crisis? He does it by taking a leap of faith and embracing the paradox of the moment. And now, what Kierkegaard does at this point is that he uses this illustration in the life of Abraham to illustrate the whole substance of a passionate Christian life, because the Christian faith is a pilgrimage that requires the existential leap. The time comes where you have nothing in front of you but darkness, and yet you have the command of God to move ahead, and you must leap by trusting that God will be out there in the darkness, and you must act, and you cannot simply be a spectator or sit around analyzing what is right and what is wrong if you know that God is calling you to something, even if you can’t see what’s on the other side of the street. Just like Abraham, you have to take the existential leap of faith.