projecting their projection

Christmas break is a good time to catch up on my reading, and I just skimmed an older book by Paul Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (1999).  Vitz’s book is a response to Feuerbach and Freud’s assertion that God is a projection of our human desires.  Vitz observes that 1) they gave no proof for this claim and 2) their argument can be turned back upon themselves.  Vitz notes that many renowned atheists, such as Nietzsche, Hume, Russell, Sartre, and Camus, grew up without fathers, and so they may well be projecting their fatherless experience upon God.

This quick read is a good reminder that we fathers have an irreplaceable responsibility to lead our children to Christ.  How our children perceive us and our love towards them goes a long way toward how they understand the love of their heavenly Father.  Ninety percent of being a good dad is just showing up, but the other ten percent matters, too.

I also appreciated Vitz’s anecdote on Mortimer Adler, one of the twentieth century’s premier philosophers.  In his autobiography, Philosopher at Large (1976), Adler explained that even though he recognized the strong evidence for the existence of God, he realized that to become seriously religious “would require a radical change in my way of life, a basic alteration in the direction of day-to-day choices as well as in the ultimate objectives to be sought or hoped for.”  And so he admitted that “the simple truth of the matter is that I did not wish to live up to being a genuinely religious person.”

Eight years later Adler finally did relent and was baptized into the Episcopal Church, but his reluctance illustrates his view that disbelief in God “lies in the state of one’s will, not in the state of one’s mind.”  His experience echoes Augustine’s comment that even when his intellectual questions were answered, he still would not follow Christ because his heart was bound by sexual lust (Confessions, 8.2-5).

This may be controversial to some, but I believe that everyone who rejects God does so for ethical rather than intellectual reasons.  They want to be God, and so they suppress whatever they may know about the true God (Romans 1:18-32).  Unbelief is primarily a product of the will, not the intellect.  As Jesus said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17).

Barth picked up on this and noted that intellectual questions are often smokescreens that sinners erect to avoid the truth that “our hour has struck, our time has run its course, and it is all up with us.”  Sinners know that they are in trouble with God, and so they raise “technical difficulties” about God to avoid his claims upon their life (Church Dogmatics, IV/1, p. 290-95).

I’m not saying that we should dismiss people’s intellectual questions, but only that we must not permit their questions to conceal the fact that we both know that the real issue is ethical rather than intellectual.  We all want to play God, and unless we lay down our weapons and submit to what we know is true, we cannot be saved.







30 responses to “projecting their projection”

  1. Great post, Mike, and a good reminder that I need to read more of Vitz’s work.

    His observation squares with my experience — both my own conversion, and conversations with unbelieving friends and family for years afterward. It was the heyday of the “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” approach, but the intellectual questions were never the real issue, so the answers fell flat every time.

    It always helps to be reminded that the real issue is one of submission of the will. But since only the Holy Spirit changes a person’s will, I question your choice of the word “permit” in the last paragraph. I know what you’re saying there, but I’d rather phrase it in terms of “gently challenge” — that way, I’m less tempted to think of myself as the one who’s responsible for that choice, strongarming the person into submitting their will.

  2. mikewittmer


    Good words. I’m not opposed to your edit if my statement leaves open the possibility that we can argue someone into the kingdom. That wasn’t my intent, but I can see how you might take it that way. You have a good ear, or eye, or nose for this sort of thing.

  3. Paul

    Thanks for your insights and faithful thoughts about the Lord and the gospel this year. Thanks, also, for bravely quoting from good sources, even when it is Barth.

  4. Jonathan Shelley

    “I’m not saying that we should dismiss people’s intellectual questions, but only that we must not permit their questions to conceal the fact that we both know that the real issue is ethical rather than intellectual.”

    Or perhaps the real issue is spiritual depravity, i.e., a lack of illumination from the Holy Spirit, that leaves the individual blinded by sin and clinging to false presuppositions. Sure, I have Van Til on the brain, but, after all, the world is filled with spiritualists who confess some form of theism and lead lives more virtuous than many Christians, but are these people any better off spiritually than an atheist? True, it is not enough to demonstrate that Christianity is intellectually respectable (but I still appreciate Al Plantinga), but it is also not enough to show that Christianity is the ethically superior paradigm.

    I think saying the problem is “ethical” is too soft and doesn’t do justice to the true impact of depravity and sin. Our very being – our ontology – is determined by our relationship with God, and that relationship is abrogated by sin and restored only by Jesus Christ. The problem, then, is ontological, not epistemological or ethical.

  5. mikewittmer


    “Spiritual depravity” is an ethical category, and is precisely what I meant by “the real issue is ethical.” Saying our problem is ontological is too strong. While their our ontological consequences of our ethical depravity (e.g., death), sin and salvation are primarily ethical categories (with ontological consequences).

  6. Jonathan Shelley


    Yeah, we’ve had this discussion before, and you assured me then that I was tottering on heresy based on the necessary implications of an ontological shift in the essence of humanity on the doctrine of Christ’s dual nature, i.e., how can Christ share in our humanity if the essence of humanity is sinful yet Christ is without sin? I’ve nuanced my argument a bit more since then, based on further discussions with Dr. Cooper on anthropology, but I’m sure you’ll still reject my idea (as you just did). Still, making original sin an ethical issue could possibly lead to Pelagianism, leaving the door open for the freedom of the will and the possibility that we are not necessarily both corrupted by and guilty of Adam’s sin. Sin, as an ethical category, is strictly our individual actions and not a defacement of the image of God in man, which is the very essence of humanity.

    Regardless, the point is well made that those who reject God do so willingly and self-servingly. It seems to me, then, that no one is condemned to hell against their will. To paraphrase Lewis, when each of us stands before God’s judgment seat, either we will say to God, “Your will be done,” or God will say to us, “Your will be done.”

  7. Layman Speaks

    I have read the statement of C.S. Lewis that Jonathan qoutes and I agree as far as it goes. It seems though that it falls short in regard to retributive justice. Lewis makes it sound as if the unrpentent send themselves to hell but it seems more accurate to say that because of the lack of repentence God Himself consigns their souls to hell. Is this not God’s response to incorrect ethical categories in the heart of the unrepentent?



  8. Jonathan Shelley


    I can’t speak for Lewis, but in my mind the reason that the unrepentant condemn themselves to hell is because they reject God, and, in so doing, reject the free offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. Your point, though, is a very important point. It is not so much that people “choose” to go to hell (that sounds too much like the emergent idea of “everyone is in until they opt out”) but rather that we are all condemned unless we are redeemed in Jesus Christ. Those who are condemned are so because they embrace their sinfulness and reject Christ, choosing to honor themselves rather than God. Those who are redeemed are redeemed only through Christ and not any work that s/he performs.

    I would say that God’s condemnation of sinners and man’s willful rejection of God and Christ is more than “incorrect ethical categories in the heart.” It is not just that our actions and desires are bad, but that we ourselves are corrupted and unworthy to stand before holy God. Sinfulness permeates to the very essence of mankind. In sin, we are undoing God’s Creation – bringing chaos and death where God had established life and order. To me, this is more than an ethical issue, but a shift in the very being of man. Perhaps I am making too strong of a statement, but it seems to me that something that can rip the soul from the body is more than ethical. That is, death – the consequence of sin – seems to be something more than ethical, something that affects our very existence.

  9. Adam F.

    Jonathan, interesting thoughts – esp. “it seems to me that something that can rip the soul from teh body is more than ethical.”

    Dr. Wittmer, seeing your prior comment that sin is primarily ethical (not ontological), I was reminded of Al Wolters’ Reformed schema of looking at structure and direction.

    Am I right to say that you believe man is a structure, and a redeemed man is no different in structure from an unredeemed man? I can follow this logic, but I’m not yet convinced it squares with biblical teaching on renewal, etc.

  10. Joel


    I posted something on this on my own site ( The analogy I use is admittedly weak and problematic (as the discussion on the post shows), thus a new analogy is needed. However, the basic concept that our essence isn’t sinful still remains intact.

    As for the original post here, I agree with it. When I’ve met honest atheists with honest intellectual objections to God, once we hashed out the evidence, they slowly began to move in the direction of Christ. I have one now who moved from atheist, to agnostic, to theist, to Deist, and is now looking over the evidence of the resurrection. At this point, he’s admitting it’s an ethical issue for him, that he doesn’t want to change the way he lives.

    So I do believe that if someone has a legitimate intellectual objection, but no ethical objection, once the intellectual block is out of the way, they will genuinely seek Christ. If there is an ethical objection, then the road is much, much more difficult.

  11. Joel

    As an addition, keep in mind that if the very essence of humanity is sinful, then Christ was sinful. Further, Paul says that in Christ we are new creations, not new creatures. This means our essence remains the same. However, one of the fundamental rules of metaphysics is that a being cannot change its essence and remain what it is; it must die in order to have its essence changed.

    For instance, a cat has the essence of “catness.” If, however, we turn that cat into a rug, then it loses the essence of “catness” and is replaced with the essence of “rugness.” The cat ceases to live and ceases to be.

    Thus, if Adam and Eve were created with a pure, untainted essence, then once they sinned they should have ceased to exist. This did not happen. Likewise, if our essence is sinful this would preclude God from redeeming us without first destroying us. This would mean that none of us are truly saved, for we will all be destroyed. New creatures might exist post-redemption, but you as yourself would no longer exist, meaning you aren’t truly saved.

    The ultimate nail in the coffin, however, is the incarnation. Christ had a human essence, thus if are sinful in our essence, then Christ was either sinful or wasn’t human; either way, we’re diving headfirst into blatant heresy.

    It would be better to say that sin affected our wills, which prohibits us from obtaining the fullness of our essence. For instance, “rational” is part of our essence as humans. A person who willfully shoots himself, but somehow lives, albeit significantly brain damaged, has will be limited in his capacity to fulfill his essence. Another example is an infant, who is a human being with a human essence, but lacks the ability to actualize the rational element of her essence. She has the essence, but lacks the necessary capabilities to actualize the essence.

    It could be said that our sin is in our fallen wills and that none of us completely actualize our essence (in fact, we have to say this; we further have to say Christ is the only human to have ever actualized the fullness of His human essence). But to say that sin is in our essence is to unintentionally dance on the line of heresy. To say that sin is in our essence leaves you with three choices:

    1) Christ is a sinner
    2) Christ wasn’t human
    3) Complete inconsistency and contradictions between your harmatology, anthropology, and Christology…which leaves open the door for gross errors and heresy

    None of the above are good options. 🙂

  12. Tim Smith

    I seem to remember debating in philosophy class long ago about what discipline should ‘come first.’ The debate typically is argued between epistemology and ontology. A strong case can be made for axiology given the observations above and ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’

  13. Tim Smith

    I found Vitz’ book to be very interesting and powerful. If not rock-solid ‘proof’ (understanding that ‘proof’ is relative to the beliefs of the target audience), it does a great job of ‘turning the tables’ on the critics of Christianity. It also made me think more deeply about the reference in Malachi 4 to ‘turning the hearts of the fathers to the children….’

    Paul Johnson’s book “Intellectuals” does similar work in showing the hollowness of some of the greatest public opponents to Christian belief.

    E. Michael Jones’ book “Degenerate Moderns” seeks to do the same in relation to “modernism” and “enlightenment” simply being intellectual diversions excusing sexual lust. (although Jones thinks a little too ‘one track’ in that matter)

  14. Jonathan Shelley


    First, let me say that I am going to limit my response to your comments on this blog and not engage your personal blog post on Mike’s blog (he gets upset with me when I do that). Second, I would also point out that I have already acknowledged the Christological implications of an ontological position in my post on Jan 3, so while I appreciate your thoughts, this is not an avenue that I have not yet explored. Third, it seems to me that your metaphysics is both unclear and incohesive. You do not seem to distinguish between necessary and accidental characteristics. Our essence can be sinful accidentally, in that our essence has now become sinful but it is not necessary to be sinful to have a human essence, with the accidental quality of sinfulness being passed through the generations via the soul (assuming a traducian view of the origin of the soul). In that sense, Christ can have all the necessary attributes of human essence without the accidental property of sinfulness. Furthermore, you do not seem to distinguish between essence, nature, and potentiality. Perhaps that is intentional, in which case I’m not even sure what it means for an essence to not reach its full potentiality. An essence (quiddity) is either what it is or it is a different essence. In other words, I don’t see how an essence can be anything other than an actuality. As to your position that Adam and Eve would have ceased to exist had they sinned, well, all I can say is welcome to the last two millennia of Christian discussion. It is only through the grace of God that any sinner continues to exist and can be redeemed (God has forestalled his wrath), insofar as sin is the rejection of God and God is the source of all existence. And, according to Paul, God does destroy us to redeem us – we have died with Christ, casting off the old man, to be raised with him (and perhaps even in him, depending on your position on theosis). As I mention in my response to Larry, death – which is certainly a change in our existence and something that is unnatural for man (the separation of the soul from the body), is the result of sin, which seems to be an ontological category. Fourth, your discussion on the corruption of the will sounds like watered-down Thomism, which I appreciate, being a fan of the angelic doctor, but is therefore susceptible to the same critiques raised by the Reformers and continued by Protestants against Roman Catholicism.

    Finally, your statement that “if someone has a legitimate intellectual objection, but no ethical objection, once the intellectual block is out of the way, they will genuinely seek Christ. If there is an ethical objection, then the road is much, much more difficult,” makes evangelism and conversion a strictly intellectual exercise, asking a person to either assent to a set of propositions on the truthfulness of Christianity or assenting to a particular lifestyle that somehow merits redemption. Neither of these positions involves the Holy Spirit as the convicter of sinfulness, the need for repentance, or renewal of the person in Jesus Christ. In fact, the only way to get from your position to biblical redemption is for the sinful nature of the person to be stripped away. If your position is correct, it is possible for some actions to be redemptive, if not righteous, insofar as they are ethical, apart from Jesus Christ. If, however, sin is more than our actions and ethical choices, but a part of our nature, it is truly impossible for any person to achieve salvation on his or her own; a rebirth is necessary. This fits very well, I believe, with the orthodox doctrine of original sin as both guilt and corruption vis-à-vis a tainted soul.

  15. Adam F.

    Dr. Wittmer et al:
    I’m most interested in your final paragraph, and I’ll italicize the part I’m wondering about:

    “…we must not permit their [intellectual] questions to conceal the fact that we both know that the real issue is ethical rather than intellectual. We all want to play God…” This reminded me of Romans 1:18-19, which I’ll quote: “men … suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.”

    I do not disagree with Paul’s teaching, but I think I disagree with your point, Dr. Wittmer, that all non-Christians are literally aware that their issue is ethical. (Or do I misunderstand you, Dr. Wittmer?)

    I have non-Christian friends who, I believe, are suppressing some knowledge — but they don’t seem to be aware that they’re suppressing anything. So is it possible that knowledge suppression contains something like a feedback loop? Perhaps suppression makes further suppression easier, so that non-Christian becomes less and less sensitive towards what God made plain to them.

    (Sigh) I am trying to understand how to effectively witness to non-Christian friends who don’t seem to know they’re suppressing knowledge — they don’t seem to know their real issue is ethical. How do help someone who won’t admit to you or themselves that they’re suppressing anything?


  16. Jonathan Shelley


    Mike and I were just discussing this very issue last night! My thought is that Paul is saying that no one can claim ignorance about God, not that people are necessarily aware of what it is that they are suppressing. People know that something is wrong/missing, but they can’t actually articulate what it is. Maybe. That’s what I’m thinking today.

    I think John Frame has a really great section on witnessing to unbelievers who are in denial in his book Apologetics to the Glory of God. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend it.

  17. Jonathan Shelley


    Thanks for the tip on the Book of Concord. The distinctions made between man’s essence and original sin as well as between substance and accidents, were very helpful.

  18. Adam F.

    Jonathan, thanks for the recommendation, I’ll check it out.

  19. mikewittmer


    Jonathan and I were just talking about this two nights ago (I have to get Internet at home, or stop blogging until I’m back in my office).

    Greg Bahnsen wrote his dissertation on self-deception, which is worth a read (maybe you can interlibrary loan it). Or as Neal Plantinga describes it, when we engage in self-deception we make a move on ourselves, and then cover up our tracks. This seems to be what Paul is describing in Romans 1, as you suggest.

    I think that in witnessing it’s best to start with sin. I usually confess to my own depravity and ask if they can identify. If not, there is little point in saying more (they can’t accept the gospel unless they admit they’re sinners), but as Van Til said, we can buy them a second cup of coffee and quietly pray as we keep talking.

  20. Adam F.

    Dr. Wittmer, I appreciate your thoughts. Your recommendation of Bahnsen’s dissertation reminds me of an Eerdmans book I’m reading by Gregg Ten Elshof – “I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life.” So far it’s good.

  21. Jonothan:

    You early comments on this post raise one primary question in my mind.

    You write: “Our very being – our ontology – is determined by our relationship with God, and that relationship is abrogated by sin and restored only by Jesus Christ. The problem, then, is ontological, not epistemological or ethical.”

    You later re-frame this point in Aristotelian categories of necessary and accidental attributes.

    The problem I perceive is the origin of the accidental quality of sinfulness. If I am thinking clearly, the abrogration of our relationship with God by sin was a volitional act. That is, ethical, not ontological. What being do we have aside from that being given us by our Creator? If we are ontologically deficient, it is due to the Source of our being.

    However, if we are ontologically good, our natural sinfulness is an ethical condition.


  22. Adam F.

    Regarding the possibility of ontological change, I keep thinking of parables – “New wine cannot be put into old wineskins,” “You must be born again.”

    Some of these can be seen as speaking of an ethical framework for resurrection, but the new wine thing seems harder to synthesize.

    Full disclosure: I’m no expert in this. I’m curious about how you guys interpret these parables that may imply to ontological change.

  23. Jonathan Shelley


    I have two thoughts back to you. (1) Why couldn’t a volitional act (ethical act) have an ontological consequence? (2) Accidental attributes are quite often those of relationship, such as I have the attribute of “sonness,” one that is not necessary for the essence of humanity, but an attribute that certainly defines me my entire life. I have also added the attributes of “husbandness,” and, Lord willing, “fatherness.” These are new aspects of who I am that have resulted from volitional acts. I chose to get married and I chose to procreate, and the consequences of those choices include a fundamental shift in who I am. The same is true of sinfulness. By choosing to disobey God, Adam and Eve ruptured the relationship between humanity and God. This did not change the quiddity of humanness, but it did add a new and unnatural attribute of separation from God. Adam and Eve sinned (action) and that made them sinners (identity).

    In my mind, this change is analogous to the Incarnation of Christ. The quiddity of the Second Person of the Trinity did not change in the Incarnation – nothing was added to are subtracted from the necessary attributes of his divinity – but by his free and volitional act of becoming human, which added a new attribute to him (a mode of being). Granted, this analogy breaks down quickly, but I hope that it helps illuminate my thoughts.


    [Sorry, I’m a theologian so I don’t bother trying to understand Scripture or fit it into my theories.]

  24. Adam F.


  25. Jonathan Shelley

    Actually, I should have put theologian in quotes (“theologian”) since I’m not sure I’ve earned the title yet, especially given the way this thread has played out.

    I’ve never really thought about the parables in the way you have suggested; mostly, I build my ontological argument on Paul’s writings, particularly the middle part of Romans and his insistance that we have been crucified with Christ. I also wonder about the apparent changes in Christ’s physical properties after the resurrection – did he really walk to walls or otherwise “magically” appear in the locked room with the disciples? did he really just disappear after teaching on the road to Emmaus? Also, what do we make of the apocalyptic imagery in Peter of the creation being consumed in fire, and the New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation? Or the phrase that was so popular among English mystics, “Behold, I have made all things new”?

    Please understand that I am not denying that sin has ethical and epistemological implications. Rather, I am asserting that those implications stem from our ontology. Or, to reference back to Tim Smith’s statement on the old question of pre-eminence in metaphysical categories, I believe that ontology logically (if not necessarily) comes first, and that axiology and epistemology are derived from it.

    I’m going to cut myself off there since I feel I have already hi-jacked Mike’s post too much. I don’t want to be put in the penalty box again. If any of you would like to discuss this further, please let me know and we can arrange to meet for coffee (except you Joel – I’m not driving to Texas!).

  26. Jack H


    I should warn you about getting into lengthy dialogues with Jonathan. The last time he and I did this someone suggested we ought to just email each other. He was probably right.

    (just some casual advice from your father)

  27. Jonathan Shelley


    Actually, you should start your own blog. I’ve been curious about your take on many of the socio-political issues of the last year, but I have no way of “hearing” them.

  28. Jack H


    You flatterer! Actually, doing such a blog is the last thing a recovering politician should entertain. I am trying my best to stay focused like a laser beam on getting to the mission field in Kenya. Once there we will have ample opportunity, in the course of discipleship and worldview education within the context of local church ministry, to attempt to encourage Kenyan believers to become engaged in ministries of transformation in their own communities. Part of that will inevitably include laying a worldview foundation that leads to political involvement. But, until we are actually on the ground in Kenya, any political engagement on this side of the pond merely serves as a distraction from our primary objective. Therefore, please do not contribute to a relapse in my recovery program.

  29. Jonathan Shelley


    It’s precisely because you are a recovering politician that I want to hear your thoughts. But I understand that it might be too soon in the recovery process and that you don’t want to divide your attention. *Sigh* I guess I’ll just trust the mainstream media to provide comprehensive and unbiased commentary on the important issues of the day.

  30. Thanks for posting this very helpful information; I happened to come to your blog just searching around the web. Please keep up the good work!

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