Contemporary Man’s Thirst for God

by Dr. Phil Fernandes

A chapter from his doctoral dissertation
© 1997, Institute of Biblical Defense, All Rights Reserved


Christian philosophers Norman Geisler and Winfried Corduan argue that all “people sense a basic need for God.” 1 The fact that Sigmund Freud attempted to explain this phenomena away shows that even he recognized this need for God in himself and others. (Of course, Freud denied that God exists.) Freud admitted that man feels powerless and insignificant in the face of the vast universe in which he finds himself. 2 According to Freud, man invents God through his imagination to calm his fears.

Friedrich Schleiermacher taught that all people have a feeling of absolute dependence, even though they do not all explain it in the same way. Both believers and nonbelievers alike recognize their absolute dependence on something that transcends their earthly experience. 3

Martin Heidigger viewed man as a “being-unto-death.” 4 Man finds himself thrown into the world. He has no say about his being here. He knows not why he is here, but there is one thing he does know. He knows he is destined for nothingness. Man had no control over his birth, and he can have no control over his death. He must die. Man finds himself thrust into this world enroute to extinction. He is without a ground for his being. Man desperately needs a ground for his being. 5

Paul Tillich recognized that man is limited and dependent. Man needs a ground for his being, something to anchor him in existence. Tillich spoke of this need as man’s “ultimate concern.” 6

Jean-Paul Sartre, a French atheist, admitted his need for God. Sartre taught that man needs God to give his existence definition and meaning. But, since Sartre rejected God’s existence, he felt that the entire project was absurd. 7 Man has a need for God, but there is no God who can meet this need.

Walter Kaufmann referred to man as the “God-intoxicated ape.” 8 Friedrich Nietzsche considered his own atheistic views to be so unbearable that he wished he could be convinced he was wrong. He felt a strong thirst for God, but rejected the possibility of God’s real existence. 9

Geisler and Corduan, after surveying the above list of non-Christian thinkers, arrived at the following conclusion:

That people generally, if not universally, manifest a need for the Transcendent seems incontestable. The sense of contingency, the feeling of cosmic dependence, the need to believe in some sort of Transcendent is apparently present in all men. The residual but most essential question is this: Is there any basis in reality for this God-need which both believers and nonbelievers have confessed to having? 10

The evidence indicates that all men sense a need for the God of the Bible. Even atheists and other non-Christians have expressed this need. Still, as Geisler and Corduan have noted, it must be shown that this need points to the actual existence of God.


Though both atheists and Christians alike recognize the universal thirst for God, atheists deny that God actually does exist. Instead, they speculate as to why so many people believe that He does exist. An example of this kind of speculation is found in the thought of Sigmund Freud.

Freud was convinced that God did not exist. But if atheism is true, then why do so many people believe in God? Freud tried to answer this question. Freud suggested that primitive man felt extremely threatened by nature (due to storms, floods, earthquakes, diseases, and ultimately death). 11 Man had no control over nature. He was totally helpless in this regard. Primitive man was completely at the mercy of nature. There was nowhere man could turn for help. Freud theorized that primitive men therefore decided to personalize nature. In this way, man could attempt to plead with or appease nature. 12 Imagining nature to be a personal being enabled man to offer sacrifices to nature in hope that nature would be kind to him in return.

Freud’s speculation did not stop there. He also promoted another theory of early human society. He assumed that originally mankind banded together in small groups. These clans consisted of a male, his several wives, and their offspring. Freud believed that, early in life, male children desired to have sex with their mothers. They therefore became extremely jealous of their father. Though they loved their father since he was their protector, they began to hate him due to their jealousy. Eventually, they banded together and murdered their father. After the murder, they ate the flesh of their father in a ritual meal. Soon, the male children were overcome with feelings of guilt. As a result, they deified the father image and began offering sacrifices to him as a god. 13

Freud taught that God is nothing but a product of man’s imagination. God did not create man. Instead, man created God. Man personalized nature due to his fear of nature. The guilt he felt for murdering his father also caused him to project the father image onto this personalized nature. In this way, reasoned Freud, the belief in the Father-God was originated by man’s wishful thinking.

This highly speculative theory does not do justice to mankind’s universal thirst for God. This theory appears to be “wishful thinking” on the part of Freud. Whatever the case, Freud’s proposed explanation deserves a response.


Christian theologian R. C. Sproul is quick to point out that Freud’s line of reasoning does not disprove God’s existence. Instead, it presupposes His nonexistence. In other words, Freud was not trying to answer the question, Does God exist? Rather, he was attempting to answer the question, “Since God does not exist, why do so many people believe that He does?” 14

Therefore, this speculation by Freud should not be viewed as a disproof of God’s existence. It is simply a desperate attempt to explain away strong evidence for God’s existence. It is an endeavor which focuses on answering the question, “If atheism is true, why are there so few atheists?” Freud answers the question by accusing all who disagree with him of being deluded.

Sproul points out that Freud’s speculation explains how men use their imaginations to invent idols (false gods), but not the God of the Bible. For the God of the Bible is far too demanding. No one would wish for the existence of a Being that requires the submission and obedience demanded by the Christian God. The gods of other religions are attractive candidates for projection. But the Holy God of the Scriptures is the type of Being from whom men run. No one would invent Him through wishful thinking. 15

Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland states that “atheism is a result of a desire to kill the father figure (in Freudian language) because one wishes to be autonomous.” 16 Man’s two greatest drives are his thirst for God and his desire to be autonomous. Man has a void that can only be filled by God. Still, man wants to be his own king. The Christian chooses God over autonomy. The atheist, on the other hand, chooses his own autonomy.

Moreland adds that even if Freud was right, his argument would still be guilty of what philosophers call the genetic fallacy. 17 The genetic fallacy claims that a belief can be shown to be false just by showing its origin is unreasonable. But this is not the case. Even if mankind, due to fear and guilt, originated the idea of God, this does not prove that God does not exist. God might still exist even if people arrived at this conclusion through faulty reasoning.

Christian philosophers Norman Geisler and Winfried Corduan argue that what people really need actually exists. 18 Humans need food and water. Food and water exist. Even if a person dies of thirst or hunger, the fact is that food and water do exist. It is just that the person did not find them. Geisler and Corduan argue that all men really need God. The thirst for God is universal. As shown above, even many atheists admit to this fact. God is not something people merely desire. He is something people need. And since whatever man needs exists, then God exists. 19 This would be true even if a person does not find God (as some people do not find food or water). This argument is not meant to be an air-tight proof, but it does seem to have a high degree of probability (everything else man needs does in fact exist).


If all men have a void that only God can fill, then one would expect the Bible to address this issue, and this, of course, is the case. Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Man is more than a physical being. He is also a spiritual being. Not only does man need physical nourishment, he also needs spiritual nourishment from the true God.

Jesus proclaimed, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Only Jesus can quench our thirst for God.

Unfortunately, most people attempt to quench this thirst with unworthy substitutes which can never meet man’s most ultimate needs. The Word of God declares, “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Rather than turn to Christ, most people look elsewhere to find fulfillment in life. For some, their “broken cistern” is a false religion. For others, it is material wealth. Many people try sexual immorality, drugs, or alcohol. But there is no worthy substitute for the true living water. Only Jesus can meet man’s deepest needs.

As mentioned earlier, the two strongest drives in man are his thirst for God and his desire for autonomy (he wants to be his own king). Jesus was aware of this. He addressed this issue during His conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus stated:

And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God (John 3:19-21).

Those who place their need for God above their desire to be in complete control of their lives will find Christ. On the other hand, those who continually refuse to surrender their autonomy to God will never come to Jesus. Because the thirst for God resides within the hearts of all men, we must offer them living water. Man will never find ultimate fulfillment in life without trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. Only then will his thirst for God be quenched. As Augustine has prayed, “. . . you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.20


1 Geisler and Corduan, 69.

2 Ibid., 69-70.

3 Ibid., 70.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 70-71.

6 Ibid., 71.

7 Ibid., 71-72.

8 Ibid., 72.

9 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 441.

10 Geisler and Corduan, 72-73.

11 Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. W. D. Robson-Scott (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 20.

12 R. C. Sproul, If There’s a God, Why are There Atheists? (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1978), 42-44.

13 Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), 40.

14 Sproul, 49.

15 Ibid., 12, 58, 101.

16 Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 229.

17 Ibid.

18 Geisler and Corduan, 74.

19 Ibid., 74-75.

20 Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin Books, 1961), 21.