Freud, Wish Fulfillment, and the Gospel

On The Future of an Illusion and the Shame of the Cross

David Clay / 1.8.20

Thankful for this one from David Clay.

The chief end of man, according to my two-year-old daughter Ellie, is to eat as many cookies as possible. Her destination of choice is “the bakery,” which is not a specific location but rather a term encompassing any number of local coffee houses, restaurants, and at least one dedicated cookie shop.

We were recently eating at our favorite Thai restaurant in St. Louis when Ellie announced her desire for a cookie. Like any good parents would do, we immediately started bartering with her: “Well, maybe, but first you have to eat these vegetables.” She glanced down at said vegetables with disdain, and then reiterated her demand. Negotiations grew tense. At some point, Ellie noticed our waiter walking past us on his way to the kitchen. In the most matter-of-fact tone imaginable, she declared, “He is getting me a cookie.” 

My daughter’s firm (and mistaken) belief in the imminent arrival of cookies was grounded not in careful consideration of the facts, but from sheer desire that it be so. We adults have only partially outgrown this method of forming beliefs: I believe that the rattling sound in my car is nothing to worry about, largely because I can’t afford major repairs right now. 

Needless to say, wanting or even needing a thing to be true does not make it true. That applies to beliefs about the arrival of cookies or the necessity of car repairs but also, disconcertingly, to those beliefs that fundamentally shape who we are and how we understand the world.

In his 1927 work The Future of an Illusion, Freud argues that religion is a product not of reason nor of divine revelation, but rather of unconscious and desperate need. Raised in a fairly devout Jewish household, Freud eventually came to reject Judaism’s theological content (even while he acknowledged its unique contribution to humanity). For Freud, belief in anything like the God of the Bible is groundless, as evidenced by those religious authorities who forbid any questioning of their doctrines. “After all,” he notes, “a prohibition like this can only be for one reason—that society is very well aware of the insecurity of the claim it makes on behalf of its religious doctrines.”

Nonetheless religion persists, even among relatively well-educated and intelligent people. Freud contends that people believe in God for approximately the same reason my daughter believed in the advent of cookies, but (possibly) with even more urgency: religious beliefs are “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes.” 

Freud elaborates that children gradually become aware of their helplessness in the world and look to their fathers to protect them. As they mature into adulthood, however, they come to realize that dad can no longer shield them from the ongoing cruelty and randomness of the world. In desperation, people unconsciously fashion an omnipotent and merciful Heavenly Father, a kind of divine coping mechanism: Freud claims that this reaction to feelings of helplessness is “precisely the formation of religion.” God is made in man’s image, not the other way around.


Whatever the merits of Freud’s explanation of the origins of religion, his work forces a religious reader to examine why, exactly, he or she is religious. For me, this has less to do with a desire for an almighty protector (although that longing is hardly absent) and more to do with forgiveness and acceptance. Due to a litany of personal failures, a sizable number of glaring character flaws and a penchant for self-loathing—i.e., because I understand and feel myself to be a sinner—I really need the message about God’s free grace poured out through Jesus Christ to be true. I’m therefore still exposed to Freud’s charge of “wish-fulfillment,” although for a different reason than what he supposed.

Can a Christian believer beat this charge? One possible route is apologetics, giving an intellectually credible defense of the faith. While I still think this is a worthy enterprise, and one in which I’ve poured hundreds of hours, I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that the vast majority of the arguments presented are compelling only to those already inclined to believe. Moreover, the universal phenomenon of confirmation bias sees to it that I’m inclined to grab hold of bits of evidence that support my Christian faith, while discounting or ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit as well.

I think a more likely defense is that Christianity does not fulfill a very basic and widespread human wish. It provides an almighty (albeit often mysterious) father figure, and it offers mercy and forgiveness—but all at the price of utterly negating an equally strong and powerful human urge, that we justify ourselves or at least contribute to that justification.

All manner of religious and quasi-religious systems—from Pelagianism to Peloton, veganism to voodoo—claim that you can experience divine favor, or positive self-regard, or the feeling of being accepted and cherished on the condition that you put forth some effort. And most of these systems account for human imperfection: failure can be atoned for, redemption is available, if you dust yourself off and keep at it. 

Conversely, the Christian message is that if you’d care to know how God feels about our finest and most disciplined efforts to justify our existence, you need look no further than the Cross of Jesus Christ. The Cross is God’s word not only to our most humiliating failures, but also to our proudest achievements. All of it drowns together in the waters of baptism. The very best we can muster brought the Son of God to a shameful, agonizing death, and our only hope is to throw all of it away and throw ourselves on the mercy of the One who was pierced for our transgressions. 

And who wants to hear that? Especially when you can have the God stuff at a much cheaper price, if you’d like. You can easily find any number of gods (including ones that claim the name Christian) who will work with you—forgiving you, encouraging you, maybe even reprimanding you from time to time, but overall respecting and valuing what you have to offer in the great project of achieving wholeness.

You can experience profound acceptance and a (no doubt modest and reasonable) sense of self-justification at the same time! But that feels…well, like wish-fulfillment, like a way of trying to simultaneously have your religious cake (or spiritual cookie, if you prefer), and eat it, too. The real Good News, on the other hand, tells us that we can pick one or the other. But for that very reason, it feels less like a sales pitch, or something that our anxious brains fabricated, and more like a real gift from outside of ourselves.