Theology of Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard's theology has been a major influence in the development of 20th century theology. Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was a 19th-century Danish philosopher who has been generally considered the "Father of Existentialism". During his later years (1848–1855), most of his writings shifted from being philosophical in nature to being religious.

Kierkegaard's theology focuses on the single individual in relation to an unprovable, yet known God. Many of his writings were a directed assault against all of Christendom, Christianity as a political and social entity. His target was the Danish State Church, which represented Christendom in Denmark. Christendom, in Kierkegaard's view, made individuals lazy in their religion. Many of the citizens were officially "Christians", without having any idea of what it meant to be a Christian. Kierkegaard attempted to awaken Christians to the need for unconditional religious commitment. However he was also against party spirit in religion as well as other areas of study and system building.

Religious background


Søren Kierkegaard was born to a Lutheran Protestant family. His father, Michael Pederson Kierkegaard, was a Lutheran Pietist, but questioned how God could let him suffer so much. One day, he climbed a mountain and cursed God. For this sin, Michael believed that a family curse was placed upon him, that none of his children would live a full life. And indeed, Kierkegaard's family suffered with early deaths of Søren's siblings, ranging from childbirth to the age of 25. Only Søren and his brother Peter survived past 25. His father died in 1838 but before his death, he asked Søren to become a pastor. Søren was deeply influenced by his father's religious experience and life, and felt obligated to fulfill his wish. In 1840, Søren was awarded his theology degree and although Søren was eligible to become a pastor, he decided to pursue a degree in philosophy instead.

He decided not to become a pastor or a professor either because if he had he would have had to write under the authority of the State or the Church. He craved freedom and for that reason he wrote "without authority". He also believed in Christ as the ultimate authority in matters of personal faith. He was against beginning a "new religion", unlike Hegel, the religion of reason, and Schelling, the religion of nature. He always wrote to students of religion as a student of religion. J. Loewenberg of Harvard University described Hegel's God in the following terms in 1913:

as Hegel puts his fundamental idea, “the truth is the whole.” Neither things nor categories, neither histories nor religion, neither sciences nor arts, express or exhaust by themselves the whole essence of the universe. The essence of the universe is the life of the totality of all things, not their sum. As the life of man is not the sum of his bodily and mental functions, the whole man being present in each and all of these, so must the universe be conceived as omnipresent in each of its parts and expressions. This is the significance of Hegel’s conception of the universe as an organism. The World-Spirit-Hegel’s God-constitutes, thinks, lives, wills, and is all in unity. The evolution of the universe is thus the evolution of God himself. The task of philosophy, then, as Hegel conceives it, is to portray in systematic form the evolution of the World-Spirit in all its necessary ramifications.The Life of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, p. 13-14[1]

Søren Kierkegaard questioned this evolution of God because if God is evolving in a systematic way then the awe and wonder of religion is replaced with speculations about where God is in relation to the system about God.

What does the task look like in everyday life, for I continually have my favorite theme in mind: whether everything is indeed all right with the craving of our theocentric nineteenth century to go beyond Christianity, the craving to speculate, the craving for continued development, the craving for a new religion or for the abolition of Christianity. As for my own insignificant person, the reader will please recall that I am the one who finds the issue and the task so very difficult, which seems to suggest that I have not carried it out, I, who do not even pretend to be a Christian by going beyond it. But it is always something to point out that it is difficult, even if it is done, as it is here, only in an upbuilding divertissement, which is carried out essentially with the aid of a spy whom I have go out among people on weekdays, and with the support of a few dilettantes who against their will come to join in the game." Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) p. 466, Hong

This "going beyond faith" for Kierkegaard means the same as going beyond oneself. Philosophers, theologians, historians, and anthropologists tend to go beyond themselves and apply what they learn to the course of world history or national history. In this view we come to a Christian nation or a Christian world but Søren Kierkegaard felt that God comes into the single individual and that's where the place of God is. It's not "out there" somewhere. This point was brought home by Kierkegaard in his 1845 book, Thoughts on Crucial Situations in Human Life and in 1960 by Ronald Gregor Smith in his book, J G Hamann 1730-1788 A Study In Christian Existence,

A poet has indeed said that a sigh without words ascending Godward, is the best prayer, and so one might also believe that the rarest of visits to the sacred place, when one comes from afar, is the best worship, because both help to create an illusion. A sigh without words is the best prayer when the thought of God only sheds a faint glow over existence, like the blue mountains far distant on the horizon; when the lack of clarity in the soul is satisfied by the greatest possible ambiguity in the thought. But if God is present in the soul, then the sigh will find the thought and the thought will find the word-but also the difficulty, which is not dreamed of when God is at a distance. In our day we hear it proclaimed, to the verge of nonsense, that the highest task is not in living in the stillness, where there is no danger-, because the danger exists there quite as much as in the confusion of life, and the great thing, in short, is neither to live in solitude nor amidst the confusion, but the great thing is to overcome the danger. And the most mediocre things is to work oneself weary in considering which is the most difficult; such labor is useless trouble and has no relevance, like the laborer himself who is neither in the solitude nor the confusion, but in the busy absent-mindedness of reflection.
  • Soren Kierkegaard, Thoughts on Crucial Situations in Human Life, Swenson translation p. 10-11 (also called Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions)
It would, I believe, be possible to detect in the writings of Hamann, in embryonic or sibylline form at least, almost all the major concerns of Kierkegaard. The connections between the two will be apparent to any student of Kierkegaard. A typical appraisal of the relative positions of the two men is that of Karlfried Grunder, in the first volume of the splendidly planned commentaries on Hamann’s main works. He writes: "That God in incomprehensible reconciling grace lowers himself (has entered into human life, Dasein, as Kierkegaard says) is central alike for Kierkegaard and for Hamann. For Hamann it is also, and precisely, the world which God enters, but for Kierkegaard the place of this event is solely the individual, who in the decision of his faith, effected by grace, rises above the world, with which the “humorist” [in this case Hamann] continues to identify the “idea of God.” Kierkegaard, in other words, reaches a point beyond the world, the point of religious passion, in which the individual faces God, God alone, in the decision of inwardness, of pure subjectivity."[2]

Denmark and Europe

Kierkegaard accused Christian religious institutions of not being genuinely religious. Intellectual scholarship in Christianity was becoming more and more like Hegelianism, which he called Christian "evolution",[3] rather than Christianity. This made the scholars of religion and philosophy examine the Gospels from a supposedly higher objective standpoint in order to demonstrate how correct reasoning can reveal an objective truth. This was outrageous to Kierkegaard because this presupposed that an infinite God and his infinite wisdom could be grasped by finite human understanding. Kierkegaard believed that Christianity was not a doctrine to be taught, but rather a life to be lived. He considered that many Christians who were relying totally on external proofs of God were missing out a true Christian experience, which is precisely the relationship one individual can have with God.

…it should immediately be borne in mind that the issue is not about the truth of Christianity but about the individual’s relation to Christianity, consequently not about the indifferent individual’s systematic eagerness to arrange the truths of Christianity in paragraphs but rather about the concern of the infinitely interested individual with regard to his own relation to such a doctrine. To state it as simply as possible (using myself in an imaginatively constructing way): “I, Johannes Climacus, born and bred in this city and now thirty years old, an ordinary human being like most folk, assume that a highest good, called an eternal happiness, awaits me just as it awaits a housemaid and a professor. I have heard that Christianity is one’s prerequisite for this good. I now ask how I may enter into relation to this doctrine. “What matchless audacity,” I hear a thinker say, “what horrendous vanity, to presume to attach such importance to one’s own little self in this world-historically concerned, this theocentric, this speculatively insignificant nineteenth century.” I shudder; if I had not hardened myself against various terrors, I would probably stick my tail between my legs. But in that respect I find myself free of all guilt, because it is not I who of my own accord have become so audacious; it is Christianity itself that compels me. It attaches an entirely different sort of importance to my own little self and to every-so-little self, since it wants to make him eternally happy and that precisely within this single individual it presupposes this infinite interest in his own happiness as condition sin qua non [the indispensable condition], an interest with which he hates father and mother and thus probably also makes light of systems and world-historical surveys. Søren Kierkegaard
Concluding Unscientific Postscript Vol I Hong 1992(1846) p. 15-17

Kierkegaard's audience

Kierkegaard's primary religious audience was Christian readers, especially those who did not fully grasp what Christianity was all about. It was not his intention to convert non-Christians to Christianity, although much of Kierkegaard's religious writings do appeal to some non-Christian readers. For example, Martin Buber was a Jewish existentialist theologian who critiqued many of Kierkegaard's ideas.

Kierkegaard delivered religious discourses because he didn't become a theologian or a philosopher of religion. His audience was any single individual who is laboring to become what God wants him to become.

The invitation to a religious address is quite simply this: Come here, all you who labor and are burdened[4]-and the address presupposes that all are sufferers-indeed that they all should be. .... The speaker is not to go down among the listeners and single one out, if there is such a one, and say, “No you are much too happy to need my discourse," because if this is heard from the lips of a religious speaker, it must sound like the most scathing irony. The distinction between fortunate and unfortunate is only jest, and therefore the speaker ought to say, “We are all sufferers, but joyful in our suffering-this is what we strive for.” Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong P. 437-438

Striving can be done for the individual goal of becoming famous or just striving to make a living and the hope to have a future. Kierkegaard writes about the "divinely appointed teachers" of what it means to be a human being. And Christ is the prototype for what it means to be a human being from Kierkegaard's point of view. He put it this way in his Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits (1847):

Why does the bird not have worry about making a living? Because it lives only in the moment, because there is nothing eternal in the bird. But is this indeed a perfection! On the other hand, how does the possibility of worry about making a living arise-because the eternal and the temporal touch each other in a consciousness or, more correctly, because the human being has a consciousness. In his consciousness he is eternally far, far beyond the moment; no bird flew so far away, and yet for this very reason he becomes aware of the danger the bird does not suspect-when eternity comes into existence for him, so also did tomorrow. This is why the human being has a dangerous enemy that the bird does not know-time, an enemy, yes, an enemy or a friend whose pursuits and whose association he cannot avoid because he has the eternal in his consciousness and therefore has to measure it. The temporal and the eternal can in many ways touch each other painfully in the human consciousness, but one of the especially painful contacts is worry about making a living.

This worry seems infinitely remote from the eternal. God lifted the human being high above the bird by means of the eternal in his consciousness; then in turn he pressed him down, so to speak, below the bird by his acquaintance with care, the lowly, earthly care of which the bird is ignorant. Oh how noble it seems for the bird not to have worry about making a living-and yet how much more glorious it is to be able to have it! Therefore the human being can certainly learn from the bird, can in fact call the bird his teacher, yet not in the highest sense. …. When it is said that the birds have nests and the foxes have holes,[5] but the Son of man has no place to lay his head, this is about a state that is more helpless than the bird’s and is also conscious of this. But then, with the consciousness of being without a nest, without a place of resort, in that situation to be free from care-indeed, this is the divine prototype of the lofty creation, of the human being.

  • Soren Kierkegaard, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, 1847, Hong, p. 195-197

He wrote for individuals who struggle with sin and forgiveness and he began this in Either/Or (1843) and continued through 1851 with a repetition of his theme from his three discourse of 1843 Love Will Hide a Multitude of Sins. He sees the spiritual connection between God and the single individual much akin to Luther's idea of the priesthood of all believers.

In the brief moments prescribed, let us than speak about these words: Love (Christ’s love) hides a multitude of sins. Is it not true that you have felt the need of this and on this very day you feel the need of a love that can cover sins, your sins-and this is why you are going to the Lord’s table today? While it is only all too true, as Luther says, that every human being has a preacher within him-he eats with him, drinks with him, awakens with him, sleeps with him, in short, is always around him, always with him, wherever he is and whatever he does, a preacher who is called flesh and blood, lusts and passions, habits and inclination-so it is also certain that deep within every human being there is a secret-sharer who is present just as scrupulously everywhere-the conscience. A person can perhaps succeed in hiding his sins from the world, he can perhaps be foolishly happy that he succeeds, or yet, a little more honest, admit that it is a deplorable weakness and cowardliness that he does not have the courage to become open-but a person cannot hide his sins from himself. This is impossible, because the sin that was absolutely unconditionally hidden from himself would, of course, not be sin, any more than if it were hidden from God, which is not the case of either, since a person, as soon as he is aware of himself and in everything in which he is aware of himself, is also aware of God and God is aware of him.
  • Soren Kierkegaard, Two Discourses at Friday Communion, (Love Will Hide a Multitude of Sins 1 Peter 4:7:12 The Bible) from Without Authority, Hong translation 1997 p. 182

Themes in his theology


Faith is a hallmark of Kierkegaardian philosophical and religious thought. Two of his key ideas are based on faith: the leap to faith and the knight of faith. Some regard Kierkegaard as a Christian Universalist,[6] writing in his journals, "If others go to Hell, I will go too. But I do not believe that; on the contrary, I believe that all will be saved, myself with them—something which arouses my deepest amazement." However, this view is not always supported by Kierkegaard's own writings. He presupposes the individual who has decided to become a Christian has an interest in becoming that, is interested enough to attempt to develop a relationship with Christ, and has enough faith to believe that the possibility extends to all individuals equally. Faith is what makes each individual equal before God. He put it this way in his Four Upbuilding Discourses 1844 (Against Cowardliness).

Now it is certainly true that the good, the truly great and noble, is different for different people, but resolution, which is the true acknowledgment, is still the same. This is a very upbuilding thought. Someone who wants to erect a tower sits down and roughly estimates how high he can erect the tower. Alas, how different it appears at the time of the rough estimate, but how similar in the moment of resolution, and if there is no resolution there will be no tower, however imaginary or however really splendid the estimate was! The good resolution is to will to do everything in one’s power, so serve it to the utmost of one’s capability. To do everything one is capable of doing-what blessed equality, since every human being is indeed capable of that. Only in the moment of the rough estimate is there difference.

Or consider someone who wants to do an act of mercy-can he do more than give all that he possesses-and did not the widow give infinitely more than the rich man gave out of his abundance! At times the circumstances can determine that a penny signifies little more than it usually signifies, but if someone wants to do something marvelous, he can make the one penny signify just as much as all the world’s gold put together if he gives it out of compassion and the penny is the only one he has. Indeed, someone who has an ear for judging how large the gift is detects the difference just by hearing the jingle of the coins, but compassion and the temple box understand it differently.

When someone who enjoys health and strength and who possesses the best gifts of the spirit enters the service of the good with all that he has, with the range of years that seem to stretch out before him, with expectancy’s every demand upon life, every claim expected and demanded only for the sake of the good-and when, on the other hand, someone who sadly sees his earthly frailty and the day of disintegration so close that he is tempted to speak of the time granted him as the pastor speaks of it, when in the hour of resolution a person like that promises with the pastor’s words “to dedicate these moments” to the service to the good-whose tower then becomes higher? Do they not both reach heaven? Or when one person, a stranger to internal enemies, aggressively directs his mind and thoughts toward humankind in the service of the good and wins thousands, and when another, retreating in internal battles, in the moment of resolution saves himself, whose tower then becomes higher? [7]

He wrote the following in his 1846 book, Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

Although an outsider, I have at least understood this much, that the only unforgivable high treason against Christianity is the single individual’s taking his relation to it for granted. I must therefore most respectfully refuse all theocentric helpers and the assistance of helper’s helpers to help me into Christianity in that way. So I prefer to remain where I am, with my infinite interest, with the issue, with the possibility. In other words, it is not impossible that the individual who is infinitely interested in his own eternal happiness can some day become eternally happy; on the other hand, it is certainly impossible that the person who has lost a sense for it (and such a sense can scarcely be anything but an infinite concern) can become eternally happy. Indeed, once lost, it is perhaps impossible to regain it. Page 16

And reinforced the same idea in his 1850 book, Practice in Christianity:

When in sickness I go to a physician, he may find it necessary to prescribe a very painful treatment-there is no self-contradiction in my submitting to it. No, but if on the other hand I suddenly find myself in trouble, an object of persecution, because, because I have gone to that physician: well, then there is a self-contradiction. The physician has perhaps announced that he can help me with regard to the illness from which I suffer, and perhaps he can really do that-but there is an "aber" [but] that I had not thought of at all. The fact that I get involved with this physician, attach myself to him-that is what makes me an object of persecution; here is the possibility of offense. So also with Christianity. Now the issue is: will you be offended or will you believe. If you will believe, then you push through the possibility of offense and accept Christianity on any terms. So it goes; then forget the understanding; then you say: Whether it is a help or a torment, I want only one thing, I want to belong to Christ, I want to be a Christian. Hong p. 115

Faith, for Kierkegaard, was more than intellectual understanding. He began his great book Either/Or with a quotation from Edward Young, "Is reason then alone baptized, are the passions pagans?"[8] and later explained what he meant in his Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, which Rollo May called "the declaration of independence for existentialism".[9] Intellect is important but not all inclusive in the realm of religion. "A" in Either/Or wanted to use the arts to teach Christianity. "B" wanted to use the science of ethics to teach Christianity. Both can lead to an intellectual understanding devoid of passionate involvement in the act of becoming a Christian.

Richard McKeon (1900-1985) thought the imitators of Plato had misapplied his ideas and left the passions out of philosophy in favor of intellectualism. He wrote the following in his 1953 book Thought, Action, and Passion:

The fact that Plato applied the term “Ideas” to the realities which are imitated by things and by thoughts, has led many of his interpreters and admirers to conceive his philosophy in purely, or in fundamentally, intellectual terms. This is the more surprising, since few philosophers, and even Augustine and Ambrose, or Rousseau and Kierkegaard, whose arguments reflect Plato’s dialectic and whose inquiries echo Socrates’ ironic questions, have devoted more thought than Plato to nonrational springs of human action and to nonintellectual insights into transcendent values-to love, poetry, intoxication, and the mystical perceptions of intuition and religion. The theme of love, rather than the Idea of the Good, or the One, or the Beautiful, is suited to the focus in human action on motivation and inspiration instead of on the rational analysis of means and ends; and the techniques of poetry, religion, rhetoric, and drinking, which find their perfection in dialectic and philosophy, are appropriate to focus attention on the persuasion of men to action instead of on analysis of truths by which love operates and by which it finds its ultimate justification.
  • Richard Mckeon, Thought, Action, and Passion 1953 P. 15[10]

The Young Man in Repetition was mediated by his psychologist, Constantin Constantius, as he tried to solve his problem. They represent the intellectual side of the human being and Abraham in Fear and Trembling represented the passion of inwardness because he was alone with God. Abraham believed in the actuality of God and could say nothing either artistically or ethically about it. Yet neither the Young Man nor Abraham is the prototype for the Christian, because the Christian is to follow Christ as the example.

Even greater than these is the knight of faith who dares to say to the noble one who wants to weep for him: “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourself.” Luke 23:28 Sweet sentimental longing leads us to the goal of our desire, to see Christ walking about in the promised land. We forget the anxiety the distress, the paradox. Was it such a simple thing not to make a mistake? Was it not terrifying that this man walking around among the others was God? Was it not terrifying to sit down to eat with him? Was it such an easy matter to become an apostle? But the result, the eighteen centuries-that helps, that contributes to this mean deception whereby we deceive ourselves and others. I do not wish to be brave enough to be contemporary with events like that, but I do not for that reason severely condemn those who made a mistake, nor do I depreciate those who saw what was right. But I come back to Abraham. During the time before the result, either Abraham was a murderer every minute or we stand before a paradox that is higher than all mediation. The story of Abraham contains, then, a teleological suspension of the ethical. As the single individual he became higher than the universal. This is the paradox, which cannot be mediated. How he entered into it is just as inexplicable as how he remains in it. Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it; for that which unites all human life is passion, and faith is a passion. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling 1843, Hong p. 66-67
The object of faith is the actuality of another person; its relation is an infinite interestedness. The object of faith is not a doctrine, for then the relation is intellectual, and the point is not to bungle it but to reach the maximum of the intellectual relation. The object of faith is not a teacher who has a doctrine, for when the teacher has a doctrine, then the doctrine is eo ipso more important than the teacher, and the relation is intellectual, in which the point is not to bungle it but to reach the maximum of the intellectual relation. But the object of faith is the actuality of the teacher, that the teacher actually exists. Therefore faith’s answer is absolutely either yes or no. Faith’s answer is not in relation to a doctrine, whether it is true or not, not in relation to a teacher, whether his doctrine is true or not, but is the answer to the question about a fact: Do you accept as fact that he actually existed? Please note that the answer is with infinite passion. In other words, in connection with a human being it is thoughtless to lay so infinitely much weight upon whether he has existed or not. Therefore, if the object of faith is a human being, the whole thing is a prank by a foolish person who has not even grasped the esthetic and the intellectual. The object of faith is therefore the god’s actuality in the sense of existence. But to exist signifies first and foremost to be a particular individual, and this is why thinking must disregard existence, because the particular cannot be thought, but only the universal. The object of faith, then, is the actuality of the god in existence, that is, as a particular individual, that is that the god has existed as an individual human being. Christianity is not a doctrine about the unity of the divine and the human, about subject-object, not to mention the rest of the logical paraphrases of Christianity. In other words, if Christianity were a doctrine, then the relation to it would not be one of faith, since there is only an intellectual relation to a doctrine. Christianity, therefore, is not a doctrine but the fact that the god has existed. Faith, then, is not a lesson for slow learners in the sphere of intellectuality, an asylum for dullards. But faith is a sphere of its own, and the immediate identifying mark of every misunderstanding of Christianity is that it changes it into a doctrine and draws it into the range of intellectuality. What holds as the maximum in the sphere of intellectuality, to remain completely indifferent to the actuality of the teacher, holds in just the opposite way in the sphere of faith-its maximum is the quam maxime [in the greatest degree possible] infinite interestedness of the actuality of the teacher. The individual’s own ethical actuality is the only actuality. That this seems strange to many does not surprise me. To me it seems odd that one has finished with the system and systems without asking about the ethical. Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Vol 1, p. 326-327 Hong


Briefly stated, a paradox is an apparently true statement or group of statements that seems to lead to a contradiction or to a situation that defies intuition. It is said to be resolved when we show that the contradiction is only apparent. Kierkegaard's story of Abraham in Fear and Trembling exhibits such a paradox. Abraham could not prove he had heard the voice of God, yet he believes, and risked his only son based on this belief. The paradox of Abraham is that the believer acts and risks much on less than complete knowledge (incomplete knowledge is not sufficient for faith for Kierkegaard; one must believe by virtue of the absurd, that is to say because something is a contradiction). The god in time is a paradox just as much as the statement that "God is love" is a parody for an individual existing in time. Was it so easy for Abraham, Job, and the Apostle Paul to continue to believe that God is love? Kierkegaard continually stresses the tension between the inner and outer self before God.

What a human being knows by himself about love is very superficial; he must come to know the deeper love from God-that is, in self-denial he must become what every human being can become (since self-denial is related to the universally human and thus is distinguished from the particular call and election), an instrument for God. Thus every human being can come to know everything about love, just as every human being can come to know that he, like every human being, is loved by God. Some find this thought adequate for the longest life (which doesn’t seem surprising to me); so even at the age of seventy they do not think that they have marveled over it enough, whereas others find this thought so insignificant (which seems to me very strange and deplorable), since to be loved by God is no more than every human being is-as if it were therefore less significant.

The work of praising love must be done outwardly in self-sacrificing unselfishness. Through self-denial a human being gains the ability to be an instrument by inwardly making himself into nothing before God. Through self-sacrificing unselfishness he outwardly makes himself into nothing, an unworthy servant. Inwardly he does not become self-important, since he is nothing, and outwardly he does not become self-important either, since he is nothing before God – and he does not forget that right where he is he is before God.

Alas, it can happen that a person makes a mistake at the last moment, in that he, though truly humble before God, becomes proud of what he is able to do as he turns toward people. It is then a temptation of comparison that becomes his downfall. He understood that he could not compare himself to God; before him he became conscious of himself as a nothing; but in comparison with people he still thought himself to be something. That is, he forgot the self-denial; he is trapped in an illusion, as if he were before God only during specific hours, just as one has an audience with His Royal Majesty at a specific hour.

Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love 1847, Hong 1995 p. 364-365

Isaac was "the whole world" to Abraham and God had just introduced Abraham to the notion of "the soul". Was Abraham willing to give up the whole world in order to save his soul? Kierkegaard dealt with this question in Either/Or in this way: "The Bible says: For what would it profit a person if he gained the whole world but damaged his own soul; what would he have in return? Scripture does not state the antithesis to this, but it is implicit in the sentence. The antitheses would read something like this: What damage would there be to a person if he lost the whole world and yet did not damage his soul; what would he need in return?" This question brings Abraham to despair.[11] Abraham was used as a prototype in Fear and Trembling and The Young Man was his counterpoint in Repetition. Abraham followed the inner voice without mediation from his wife, Sarah, his servant, or Isaac. He just heard and obeyed. The Young Man made a promise and wanted to change his mind. He consulted with a psychologist who was engaged in trying to prove the theory of eternal return. Then he appealed to Job and complained not only to the world but also to God himself. Abraham's love of God never changed but The Young Man's love for his fiance was ever changing. Change was the theme of Kierkegaard's Three Upbuilding Discourses of 1843. These three books were published on the same day and should be considered together.

In order to stress the element of self-determination in thinking, philosophy declares: The absolute is because I think it. But since philosophy itself perceives that free thinking is thereby designated, not the necessary thinking it usually celebrates, it substitutes another expression: namely, that my thinking of the absolute is the absolute’s thinking-itself in me. This expression is by no means identical with the one preceding; it is, however, very suggestive. That is to say, my thinking is an element of the absolute, and therein lies the necessity of my thinking, therein lies the necessity with which I think it. It is otherwise with the good. The good is because I will it, and otherwise it is not at all. This is the expression of freedom, and the same is also the case with evil-it is only inasmuch as I will it. This in no way reduces or lowers the categories of good and evil to merely subjective categories. On the contrary, the absolute validity of these categories is declared. The good is the being-in-and-for-itself, posited by the being-in-and-for-itself, and this is freedom. It might seem dubious for me to use the expression “to choose oneself absolutely,” because this might seem to imply that I chose both the good and the evil just as absolutely and that both the good and evil belonged to me just as essentially. It was to prevent this misunderstanding that I used the expression “I repent myself out of the whole existence.” Repentance specifically expresses that evil essentially belongs to me and at the same time expresses that it does not essentially belong to me. If the evil in me did not essentially belong to me, I could not choose it; but if there were something in me that I could not choose absolutely, then I would not be choosing myself absolutely at all, then I myself would not be the absolute but only a product. Either/Or Part II, Hong p. 224
Most people probably have an idea, sometimes a vivid idea, at specific times a fervent feeling, that God is love; and yet there perhaps are many people who live in such a way that it vaguely seems to them that if this or that horrible thing, which they especially dread, were to befall them they would have to give up their faith, let go of God, lose him. But is anything more indefensible than to go on living this way: to vitiate the highest passion in a semidrowsiness between doubt and trust, so that the individual never faces the insidious enemy that sucks the blood of his innermost being, so that, thinking he is not in despair, he never comes to shutter at this condition-because he has dozed off in despair! Alas, God is not the one who loses anything by this, but the sleeper, he who truly is sinning by sleeping, he loses everything, loses that without which life is really nothing. Just as Scripture speaks of suffering the shipwreck of faith, so also it must be said of the person who gave up his faith in God’s love that he is suffering the shipwreck of eternity’s joy of living.
  • Soren Kierkegaard, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, Hong p 269

The paradox and the absurd are ultimately related to the Christian relationship with Christ, the God-Man. That God became a single individual and wants to be in a relationship with single individuals, not to the masses, was Kierkegaard's main conflict with the nineteenth century church. The single individual can make and keep a resolution. Those who aren't interested in becoming a Christian claim they can't understand Christianity and quite often they will point to historical events to justify their position. Kierkegaard is against basing Christian belief solely on external events because it leads to doubt since externals are in constant flux. Doubt leads to speculation and this detracts from the single individual making a decision to imitate Christ. He wanted to be known as the philosopher of the internal and was against scientific proofs of Christianity through history, anthropology, and philosophy and the creation of systematic theology. Becoming a Christian is a decision to be made in time, just like becoming good is a decision/resolution made in time, and not just for consideration because the individual offers the "self" to God.

Kierkegaard said Socrates was his teacher and that Christ was his Teacher. (See Philosophical Fragments)

When Socrates believed that God is, he held fast the objective uncertainty with the entire passion of inwardness, and faith is precisely in this contradiction, in this risk. Now it is otherwise. Instead of the objective uncertainty, there is here the certainty that, viewed objectively, it is the absurd, and this absurdity, held fast in the passion of inwardness, is faith. … What, then, is the absurd? The absurd is that the eternal truth has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up, has come into existence exactly as an individual human being, indistinguishable from any other human being. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 210

This Christian belief in the absurd notion that God became man separates one from the world in such a way that the Christian is estranged from the world. The world believes that reason guides all our actions, or should, and can't accept Christianity and is therefore offended and the Christian can't accept the reason of the world and is therefore offended by the world. Kierkegaard put it this way in his Attack Upon Christendom:

A Christian in the New Testament sense is literally a stranger and a pilgrim, he feels himself a stranger, and everyone involuntarily feels that this man is a stranger to him.[12]

Despair and sin

According to Kierkegaard, the self is freedom. Not simply the freedom to choose, but the freedom to create choices for oneself. Therefore, human beings are fundamentally neither their thoughts nor their feelings but rather they are themselves. The self relates directly to itself and is subject to no one and everyone at the same time. Yet this self is in relation to body and mind and spirit in Kierkegaard's view. The spirit constitutes the relationship of the self to God. In effect, when a person does not come to a full consciousness of himself or herself, then he or she is said to be in despair. Just like a physician might say that no one is completely healthy, it follows that human beings must despair at certain moments in their lives. To be in despair is to reflect upon the self. If someone does not engage in the art of despair, then he or she shall become stuck in a state of inertia with no effective progression or regression and that is the worst state of all.

Kierkegaard calls sickness, the sickness of the spirit. He wrote the following in Concluding Unscientific Postscript in 1846.

We left the religious person in the crisis of sickness; but this sickness is not unto death.[13] We shall now let him be strengthened by the very same conception that destroyed him, by the conception of God. First and foremost, in each generation there certainly are not many who suffer through even the beginning of the absolute religious relationship; and next, that a beginning in the existence-medium is anything but something that is decided once and for all, because it is only on paper that one is finished with the first phase, and then has nothing more to do with it. The absolute decision in the existence-medium still is and remains only an approximation because the eternal aims from above at the existing person, who by existing is in motion and thus at the moment the eternal touches is already a little moment away from there. The beginning of the absolute decision in the existence-medium is least of all once and for all, something accomplished, because the existing person is not and abstract X who accomplishes something and then goes further, goes through life, if I may put it this way, undigested; but the existing person becomes concrete in what has been experienced, and as he proceeds he has it with him and can lose it at any moment. He has it with him, not the way one has something in a pocket, but through this, this specific thing, he is what he is more specifically defined and loses his own more specific definition by losing it.

Through the decision in existence, an existing person, more specifically defined, has become what he is. If he sets it aside, it is not he who has lost something, so that he does not have himself and has lost something, but then he has lost himself and must start from the beginning. The religious person has recovered from his sickness (tomorrow there may be a relapse due to a little unjudiciousness). He perhaps fortifies himself with the upbuilding reflection that God, who created man, certainly knows best all the numerous things that to a human being appear to be incapable of being joined together with the thought of God-all the earthly desires, all the confusion in which he can be trapped, and the necessity of diversion, of rest, as well as a night’s sleep. It is obvious that the discussion here is not about the indulgence that is preached in the world, where one human being consoles himself through another, consoles himself reciprocally and leaves God out. Every human being is gloriously structured, but what destroys so many is this confounded talkativeness between man and man about what must be suffered but also be matured in silence, the confession before human beings instead of before God, this candid communication to this one and that one of what ought to be a secret and be before God in secret, this impatient hankering for makeshift consolation. No, in the pain of annihilation, the religious person has learned that human indulgence is of no benefit; therefore he listens to nothing from that corner, but he is before God and suffers through what it means to be a human being and then to be before God. Therefore he cannot be comforted by what the human crowd mutually knows, people who have a market-town idea of what it means to be a human being, and a fluent, talkative idea at seventeenth hand of what it means to be before God. From God he must draw his comfort, lest his entire religiousness become a rumor. P. 488-490

Kierkegaard asked sharp questions that can only be answered by the "single individual" him or her self. This is an example from his 1847 book, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits where he speaks of the third person and the crowd.:

"Custom and use change, and any comparison limps or is only half truth; but eternity’s custom, which never becomes obsolete, is that you are a single individual, that even in the intimate relationship of marriage you should have been aware of this. …. Eternity does not ask whether you brought up your children the way you saw others doing it but asks you as an individual how you brought up your children. …. In eternity you are a single individual, and conscience, when it speaks with you, is no third person, no more than you are a third person when you are speaking with the conscience, because you and the conscience are one; it knows everything you know, and it knows that you know it. .... If you do not live in an out-of-the-way spot in the world, if you live in a heavily populated city and you then turn your attention outward, sympathetically give heed to people and events, do you bear in mind, every time you relate yourself in this way to the outside world, that in this relation you are relating yourself to yourself as a single individual with eternal responsibility? Or do you filter yourself into the crowd, where the one blames another, where one moment there are, as they say, a great many, and where at the next moment, every time responsibility is mentioned, there is no one? Do you judge as the crowd judges, in the capacity of the crowd? You are not obligated to have an opinion about something that you do not understand. No, on the contrary, you are eternally exempted, but as an individual you are eternally obligated to make an accounting of your opinion, of your judgment. And in eternity you will not be pryingly and busily asked, as by a journalist, whether there were a great many who had the same – wrong opinion, but only whether you had it; whether you have pamperingly accustomed your soul to judge light-mindedly and unthinkingly along with the others because the crowd judged unthinkingly; whether you perhaps have corrupted the better part in you by boasting along with the crowd that you were many and that you were justified because you were many, that is, you were many who were wrong. In eternity you will be asked whether you perhaps have harmed a good cause because you also judged along with those who did not understand how to judge but who had the crowd’s considerable power in a temporal sense, negligible power in eternity’s sense."
  • Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, March 13, 1847 by Soren Kierkegaard, copyright 1993 by Howard Hong, Princeton University Press P. 131-132

Sin is separation from God but despair over sin is separation again. Kierkegaard said, "The consciousness of sin definitely belongs to the consciousness of the forgiveness of sin."[14] Why would someone sit and reflect on sin to such an extent that an eternal happiness is exchanged for an eternal unhappiness or even a temporal unhappiness? This reflection is done in time but the consequence of the reflection leads one to lose hope in the possibility of any good coming from oneself. Kierkegaard says Christianity invites the single individual to become a partaker not only of the consciousness of sin but also of the consciousness of forgiveness but we seem to concentrate on the former to a remarkable degree. He said the following in Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions (1845) and Practice in Christianity (1850):

People see God in great things, in the raging of the elements and in the course of world history; they entirely forget what the child understood, that when it shut its eyes it sees God. When the child shuts its eyes and smiles, it becomes an angel; alas, when the adult comes to be alone before the Holy One and is silent-he becomes a sinner! First of all, be alone; then you will indeed learn the proper worship of God, to think highly of God and lowly of yourself-not more lowly than your neighbor, as if you were the distinguished one- (but remember that you are before God)-not more lowly than your enemy, as if you were the better one (for remember that you are before God); but lowly of yourself. Anyone who thinks of sin in this way and wishes in this stillness to learn an art-something you, my listener, do not disdain, the art of sorrowing over your sins-will certainly discover that the confession of sin is not merely a counting of all the particular sins but is a comprehension before God that sin has a coherence in itself. Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions p. 31-32
Accept the invitation so that the inviter may save you from what is so hard and dangerous to be saved from, so that, saved, you may be with him who is the Savior of all, of innocence also. For even if it were possible that utterly pure innocence was to be found somewhere, why should it not also need a Savior who could keep it safe from evil! –The invitation stands at the crossroad, there where the way of sin turns more deeply into sin. Come here, all you who are lost and gone astray, whatever your error and sin, be it to human eyes more excusable and yet perhaps more terrible, or be it to human eyes more terrible and yet perhaps more excusable, be it disclosed here on earth or be it hidden and yet known in heaven-and even if you found forgiveness on earth but no peace within, or found no forgiveness because you did not seek it, or because you sought it in vain: oh, turn around and come here, here is rest! The invitation stands at the crossroad, there where the way of sin turns off for the last time and disappears from view in-perdition. Oh, turn around, turn around, come here; do not shrink from the difficulty of retreat, no matter how hard it is; do not be afraid of the laborious pace of conversion, however toilsomely it leads to salvation, whereas sin leads onward with winged speed, with mounting haste-or leads downward so easily, so indescribably easily, indeed, as easily as when the horse, completely relieved of pulling, cannot, not even with all its strength, stop the wagon, which runs it into the abyss. Do not despair over every relapse, which the God of patience has the patience to forgive and under which a sinner certainly should have the patience to humble himself. No, fear nothing and do not despair; he who says “Come here” is with you on the way; from him there is help and forgiveness on the way of conversion that leads to him, and with him is rest. Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity p. 18-19

Christian doctrine

Kierkegaard believed that Christ was the originator of Christian doctrine and he had discussed some of the doctrinal points in his Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses. In these he discussed love, patience, equality, hope, and faith. It's easy to think you have faith but tougher to think your "neighbor" has faith. Kierkegaard made that point in his first Two Upbuilding Discourses, 1843.

Therefore, faith is qualitatively different. It is not only the highest good, but it is a good in which all are able to share, and the person who rejoices in the possession of it also rejoices in the countless human race, “because what I possess.” He says, “every human being has or could possess.” The person who wishes it for another person wishes it for himself; the person who wishes it for himself wishes it for every other human being, because that by which another person has faith is not that by which he is different from him but is that by which he is like him; that by which he possesses it is not that by which he is different from others but that by which he is altogether like all. It was that kind of wish the perplexed man was seeking, one he could wish for another person with all his heart, with all his might, and with his whole soul, a wish he would dare to go on wishing, ever more fervently, even as his love became ever more fervent. –That was the wish that he would wish.
  • Soren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, Hong p. 10

Christianity has two parts, law and gospel, and Kierkegaard emphasized that Christ put an end to law with his law of love. "Just make the attempt, whether you find the sum that way no matter how long you go on counting, and you will see that it is useless labor, because the concept of the Law is to be inexhaustible, limitless, endless in its provisions; every provision begets of itself an even more precise provision, and in turn a still more precise provision by reference and in relation to the new provision, and so on infinitely. The relation of love to the Law is here like the relation of faith to understanding. The understanding counts and counts, calculates and calculates, but it never arrives at the certainty that faith possesses; in the same way the Law defines and defines but never arrives at the sum, which is love."[15]

Loving the neighbor has a "double danger." The same with faith and hope. We not only wish that we could have love and peace but that our neighbor can have the same because its a free gift from God. He nicely summed up the idea he had in his 1847 book Works of Love.

The times are past when only the powerful and the prominent were human beings – and the others were bond servants and slaves. This is due to Christianity but from this it does follow that prominence or power can no longer become a snare for a person so that he becomes enamored of this dissimilarity, damages his soul, and forgets what it is to love the neighbor. If this happens now, it certainly must happen in a more hidden and secret way, but basically it remains the same. Whether someone savoring his arrogance and his pride openly gives other people to understand that they do not exist for him and, for the nourishment of his arrogance, wants them to feel it as he demands expression of slavish submission from them, or whether he slyly and secretly expresses that they do not exist for him simply by avoiding any contact with them (perhaps also out of fear that openness would incite people and endanger him personally)-these are basically one and the same. The inhumanity and the un-Christianness of this consists not in the way in which it is done but in independently wanting to deny kinship with all people, with unconditionally every person. Ah, to keep oneself unstained by this world is the task and doctrine of Christianity-would to God that we all did it-but to cling to that in a worldly way as if it were the most glorious of dissimilarities-that is plain defilement. Distinguished corruption will teach the distinguished person that he exists only for the distinguished, that he is to live only in the alliance of their circles, that he must not exist for other people, just as they must not exist for him.

When you go with God, you need to see only one single miserable person and you will be unable to escape what Christianity wants you to understand – human similarity. When you go with God, hold only to him, and understand under God everything you understand, then you will discover … the neighbor; then God will constrain you to love him – shall I say to your own detriment – because to love the neighbor is a thankless task. It is one thing to let ideas compete with ideas, and it is one thing to argue and win in a dispute; it is something else to be victorious over one’s own mind when one battles in the actuality of life. However hard one contending idea presses upon another, however hard one contender presses upon another in a dispute, all this contending is still at a distance and is like shadowboxing. On the other hand, the measure of a person’s disposition is this: how far is he from what he understands to what he does, how great is the distance between his understanding and his actions. A child, the simplest person, and the wisest all understand the highest and all understand the very same thing, because it is, if I dare to say so, one lesson we are all assigned. But what makes the difference is whether we understand it at a distance-so that we do not act accordingly, or close at hand-so that we act accordingly and “cannot do otherwise,” cannot refrain from doing it, like Luther, who understood very close at hand what he had to do when he said, “I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.”

Let us now consider the dissimilarity of lowliness. The times are past when those called the more lowly had no conception of themselves or only the conception of being slaves, of not merely being lowly human beings but of not being human beings at all. The fierce rebellion, the horror that followed upon that horror, are perhaps also over, but I wonder if the corruption may not still dwell hidden in a person. In that case the corrupted lowliness will lead the lowly person to believe that he must see his enemy in the powerful and the prominent, in everyone who is favored by some advantage. But be cautious, as the saying goes, because these enemies still have so much power that it could be dangerous to break with them. Therefore the corruption will not teach the lowly one to rise in rebellion or to repress entirely every expression of deference or to allow the secret to be disclosed, but it will teach that something should be done and yet not done, should be done and yet in such a way that the powerful person will derive no pleasure from it, although he will be unable to say that something has been withheld from him. Thus even in homage there will be a crafty defiance that, hidden, can exasperate, a reluctance that, hidden, says no to what the mouth professes, a tonelessness, as it were. Of suppressed envy in the acclaim that honors the powerful. No force is to be used-that could become dangerous; it must not come to a break-that could become dangerous; but a secret of hidden exasperation, a remotely intimated painful dejection will transform the power and honor and eminence into an affliction for the powerful, the honored, and the eminent, who still would not be able to find anything specific to complain about-because here lie the art and the secret. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 1847 Hong 1995 p. 74-81 (See pages 198ff also)

Selected religious works


  1. THE GERMAN CLASSICS OF THE NINETEENTH AND TWENTIETH CENTURIES, Volume 7, published 1913, edited by Kuno Francke
  2. Ronald Gregor Smith, J G Hamann 1730-1788 A Study In Christian Existence (1960) p. 18-19
  3. Concluding Postscript, Hong p, 559
  4. Come unto me, all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest. Matthew 28:11
  5. Matthew 8:19-20, Luke 9:57-58 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” ESV
  6. Ludlow, Morwenna (2004), "Universalism in the History of Christianity", in Parry, Robin A.; Partridge, Christopher Hugh, Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate (Hardback) (1st ed.), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, p. 208, ISBN 0-8028-2764-0
  7. Soren Kierkegaard, Four Upbuilding Discourses 1844 Against Cowardliness from Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses 1843-1844 p 361-362 tower Luke 14.28-30
  8. Title page Either/Or, Hong
  9. Rollo May, The Discovery of Being, 1983 p. 54
  10. Thought, Action, and Passion, Mckeon
  11. See Either/Or Part II, 217-227
  12. Attack Upon Christendom, The Instant, No. 7, Søren Kierkegaard, 1854-1855, Walter Lowrie 1944, 1968
  13. See John Chapter 11 The Bible
  14. Concluding Unscientific Postscript Hong p. 524
  15. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love Published in 1847 Edited and Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong 1995 Princeton University Press p. 105


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