Is Guilt Actual or Merely a Figment of the Mind?
Question: The pain and suffering caused by crime is bad enough. Christianity, however, has added to that pain and suffering by convincing mankind that it has rebelled against God and broken His laws. Consequently, the threat of eternal punishment haunts everyone who has come under Christianity’s influence. Wouldn’t the world be better off without these delusions to trouble it?
Response: It is not true that Christianity has created the feeling of moral guilt and coming judgment that haunts mankind. Man is an incurably religious creature, and the religious practices that are found in every race and culture around the world all involve a sense of guilt and the attempt to erase guilt through some kind of sacrifice. Such is the case worldwide. It can be traced back in every culture through thousands of years and thus cannot be blamed upon Christianity at all.
The same is true even of those brought up in a so-called “Christian country” such as the United States. Although their sense of guilt may have been reinforced through contact with Christianity, that contact is certainly not the sole source. The universal guilt that haunts even primitive man would also haunt Americans even if Christianity were unknown here. Jacques Ellul calls the idea that Christianity is to be blamed for guilt a “trite notion” and points out:
Sacrifice, found in all religions, is propitiatory or else is a sacrifice for redemption or forgiveness. In any case, the sacrifice is substitutionary and proceeds from a deep sense of guilt. . . .
As far as situations that create guilt are concerned, you can find nothing better than the tangles of prohibitions among so-called primitive peoples. . . .
In fact, it is Christianity alone that can deliver man from the guilt that otherwise haunts him. Turning over a new leaf and vowing to live a morally upright life in the future cannot deliver one from the guilt of past sins. True deliverance from guilt can only come through faith in Christ as the One who paid the full penalty for one’s sins and has effected a full pardon on a righteous basis. It is only then that we realize the magnitude of our guilt and can thus thank God all the more for our salvation. Ellul put it well:
We must also remember constantly that . . . biblically, and in truly Christian thought, sin is known and recognized for what it is only after the recognition, proclamation, and experience of forgiveness. Because I have been pardoned, I realize how much of a sinner I was. Sin is shown to be sin through grace, and not otherwise, just as the abruptly freed slave realizes, as he sees his chains, how great his misery was.