Escape From God

A sermon by Paul Tillich on Psalm 139

“Where could I go from Thy spirit and where could I flee from Thy face?” These are the central words of the great 139th Psalm. They state in the form of a question the inescapable Presence of God. Let us consider this statement, and the powerful images in which the psalmist tries to express it. God is inescapable. He is God only because He is inescapable. And only that which is inescapable is God.

There is no place to which we could flee from God which is outside of God. “If I ascend to the heavens, Thou art there.” It seems very natural for God to be in heaven, and very unnatural for us to wish to ascend to heaven in order to escape Him. But that is just what the idealists of all ages have tried to do. They have tried to leap towards the heaven of perfection and truth, of justice and peace, where God is not wanted. That heaven is a heaven of man’s making, without the driving restlessness of the Divine Spirit and without the judging presence of the Divine Face. But such a place is a “no place”; it is a “utopia”, an idealistic illusion. “If I make hell my home, behold, Thou art there. Hell or Sheol, the habitation of the dead, would seem to be the right place to hide from God. And that is where all those who long for death, in order to escape the Divine Demands, attempt to flee. I am convinced that there is not one amongst us who has not at some time desired to be liberated from the burden of his existence by stepping out of it. And I know that there are some amongst us for whom this longing is a daily temptation. But everyone knows in the depth of his heart that death would not provide an escape from the inner demand made upon him. “If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell in the midst of the sea, Thy Hand would even fall on me there, and Thy right Hand would grasp me.’ To fly to the ends of the earth would not be to escape from God. Our technical civilization attempts just that, in order to be liberated from the knowledge that it lacks a center of life and meaning.

Paul Tillich

The modem way to flee from God is to rush ahead and ahead, as quickly as the beams before sunrise, to conquer more and more space in every direction, in every humanly possible way, to be always active, to be always planning, and to be always preparing.

But God’s Hand falls upon us; and it has fallen heavily and destructively upon our fleeing civilization; our flight proved to be vain. “When I think that the darkness shall cover me, that night shall hide me, I know at the same time that the darkness is not dark to Thee, and that night is as bright as day.” To flee into darkness in order to forget God is not to escape Him. For a time we may be able to hurl Him out of our consciousness, to reject Him, to refute Him, to argue convincingly for His non-existence, and to live very comfortably without Him. But ultimately we know that it is not He Whom we reject and forget, but that it is rather some distorted picture of Him. And we know that we can argue against Him, only because He impels us to attack Him. There is no escape from God through forgetfulness.

“Where could I go from Thy Spirit? 0, where could I flee from Thy Face?” The poet who wrote those words to describe the futile attempt of man to escape God certainly believed that man desires to escape God. He is not alone in his conviction. Men of all kinds, prophets and reformers, saints and atheists, believers and unbelievers, have the same experience. It is safe to say that a man who has never tried to flee God has never experienced the God Who is really God. When I speak of God, I do not refer to the many gods of our own making, the gods with whom we can live rather comfortably. For there is no reason to flee a god who is the perfect picture of everything that is good in man. Why try to escape from such a far-removed ideal? And there is no reason to flee from a god who is simply the universe, or the laws of nature, or the course of history. Why try to escape from a reality of which we are a part? There is no reason to flee from a god who is nothing more than a benevolent father, a father who guarantees our immortality and final happiness. Why try to escape from someone who serves us so well? No, those are not pictures of God, but rather of man, trying to make God in his own image and for his own comfort. They are the products of man’s imagination and wishful thinking, justly denied by every honest atheist. A god whom we can easily bear, a god from whom we do not have to hide, a god whom we do not hate in moments, a god whose destruction we never desire, is not God at all, and has no reality.

Friedrich Nietzeche, the famous atheist and ardent enemy of religion and Christianity, knew more about the power of the idea of God than many faithful Christians. In a symbolic story, when Zarathustra, the prophet of a higher humanity, says to the Ugliest Man, the murderer of God, “You could not bear him to see you, always to see you through and through… . You took revenge on the witness. . . . You are the murderer of God.” The Ugliest Man agrees with Zarathustra and replies, “He had to die.” For God, according to the Ugliest Man, looks with eyes that see everything; He peers into man’s ground and depth, into his hidden shame and ugliness. The God Who sees everything, and man also, is the God Who has to die. Man cannot stand that such a Witness live.

Are we able to stand such a Witness? The psalmist says, “0 Lord, Thou hast searched me and known me.” Who can stand to be known so thoroughly even in the darkest corners of his soul? Who does not want to escape such a Witness? And who does not want to become one who can deny God in theory and practice, an atheist? “Thou knowest when I sit down, and when I stand up. .. Walking or resting, I am judged by Thee; and all my ways are open to Thee.” God knows what we are; and He knows what we do. Who does not hate a companion who is always present on every road and in every place of rest? Who does not want to break through the prison of such a perpetual companionship? “Thou discernest my thoughts from afar… Lord, there is not a word on my tongue which Thou knowest not.” The Divine Presence is spiritual. It penetrates the innermost parts of our own spirits. Our entire inner life, our thoughts and desires, our feelings and imaginations, are known to God. The final way of escape, the most intimate of all places, is held by God. That fact is the hardest of all to accept. The human resistance against such relentless observation can scarcely be broken. Every psychiatrist and confessor is familiar with the tremendous force of resistance in each personality against even trifling self-revelations. Nobody wants to be known, even when he realizes that his health and salvation depend upon such a knowledge. We do not even wish to be known by ourselves. We try to hide the depths of our souls from our own eyes. We refuse to be our own witness.

How then can we stand the mirror in which nothing can be hidden?

Is the Ugliest Man right? The Ugliest Man is a symbol of the ugliness in each one of us, and the symbol of our will to hide at least something from God and from ourselves. The Ugliest Man seems to be right, when we consider the support he receives from saints, theologians, and reformers. Martin Luther was as strongly grasped as the psalmist by the penetrating Presence of God. He stated that in every creature God is deeper, more internal, and more present than the creature is to himself, and that God embraces all things, is within all things. But this most intimate Presence of God created the same feeling in Luther that it did in Nietzsche. He desired that God not be God. “I did not love God. I hated the just God, and was indignant towards Him, if not in wicked revolt, at least in silent blasphemy.” Following St. Bernard, the great master of religious self- observation, he continued, “We cannot love God, and therefore we cannot will Him to exist. We cannot want Him to be most wise … and most powerful.” Luther was terribly shocked when he recognized this hatred for God within himself. He was not able to escape as shrewdly as his theological masters, who recommended that he not think constantly of the searching Presence of God, and thus avoid the blasphemy of hating God. Luther knew with the psalmist that no escape is possible. “Thou art behind and before me, and on every side of me, laying Thy Hand upon me.” God stands on each side of us, before and behind us. There is no way out.

The pious man of the Old Testament, the mystical saint of the Middle Ages, the reformer of the Christian Church, and the prophet of atheism are all united through that tremendous human experience: Man cannot stand the God Who is really God. Man tries to escape God, and hates Him, because he cannot escape Him.

The protest against God, the will that there be no God, and the flight to atheism are all genuine elements of profound religion. And only on the basis of these elements has religion meaning and power.

Christian theology and religious instruction speak of the Divine Omnipresence, which is the doctrine that God is everywhere, and of the Divine Omniscience, which is the doctrine that God knows everything. It is difficult to avoid such concepts in religious thought and education. But they are at least as dangerous as they are useful. They make us picture God as a thing with superhuman qualities, omnipresent like an electric power field, and omniscient like a superhuman brain. Such concepts as “Divine Omnipresence” and “Divine Omniscience” transform an overwhelming religious experience into an abstract, philosophical statement, which can be accepted and rejected, defined, redefined, and replaced. In making God an object besides other objects, the existence and nature of which are matters of argument, theology supports the escape to atheism. It encourages those who are interested in denying the threatening Witness of their existence. The first step to atheism is always a theology which drags God down to the level of doubtful things. The game of the atheist is then very easy. For he is perfectly justified in destroying such a phantom and all its ghostly qualities. And because the theoretical atheist is just in his destruction, the practical atheists (all of us) are willing to use his argument to support our own attempt to flee God.

Let us therefore forget these concepts, as concepts, and try to find their genuine meaning within our own experience. We all know that we cannot separate ourselves at any time from the world to which we belong. There is no ultimate privacy or final isolation. We are always held and comprehended by something that is greater than we are, that has a claim upon us, and that demands response from us. The most intimate motions within the depths of our souls are not completely our own. For they belong also to our friends, to mankind, to the universe, and to the Ground of all being, the aim of our life. Nothing can be hidden ultimately. It is always reflected in the mirror in which nothing can be concealed. Does anybody really believe that his most secret thoughts and desires are not manifest in the whole of being, or that the events within the darkness of his subconscious or in the isolation of his consciousness do not produce eternal repercussions? Does anybody really believe that he can escape from the responsibility for what he has done and thought in secret?

Omniscience means that our mystery is manifest. Omnipresence means that our privacy is public. The center of our whole being is involved in the center of all being; and the center of all being rests in the center of our being. I do not believe that any serious man can deny that experience, no matter how he may express it.

And if he has had the experience, he has also met something within him that makes him desire to escape the consequences of it. For man is not equal to his own experience; he attempts to forget it; and he knows that he cannot forget it.

Is there a release from that tension? Is it possible to overcome the hatred for God and the will that there be no God, that there be no man? Is there a way to triumph over our shame before the perpetual Witness and over the despair which is the burden of our inescapable responsibility? Nietzsche offers a solution which shows the utter impossibility of atheism. The Ugliest Man, the murderer of God, subjects himself to Zarathustra, because Zarathustra has recognized him, and looked into his depth with divine understanding. The murderer of God finds God in man. He has not succeeded in killing God at all. God has returned in Zarathustra, and in the new period of history which Zarathustra announces. God is always revived in something or somebody; He cannot be murdered. The story of every atheism is the same.

The psalmist offers another solution. “I praise Thee for the awful wonder of my birth;. Thy work is wonderful. For Thou didst form my being, and weave me together in my mother’s womb. None of my bones were hidden from Thee, when I was made in secret and molded in the lowest parts of the earth.” Using the old mythological idea that men are formed in the abyss below the earth, he points to the mystery of creation, not to the creation in general, but to the creation of his own being. The God Whom he cannot flee is the Ground of his being. And this being, his nature, soul, and body, is a work of infinite wisdom, awful and wonderful. The admiration of the Divine Wisdom overcomes the horror of the Divine Presence in this passage. It points to the friendly presence of an infinitely creative wisdom. It is this mood which runs generally throughout the Old Testament. A great scholar, with whom I conversed once on the will to death in every life, exhibited the same mood, when he said, “Let us not forget that life is also friendly.” There is a grace in life. Otherwise we could not live. The eyes of the Witness we cannot stand are also the eyes of One of infinite wisdom and supporting benevolence.

The center of being, in which our own center is involved, is the source of the gracious beauty which we encounter again and again in the stars and mountains, in flowers and animals, in children and mature personalities.

But there is something more to the psalmist’s solution. He does not simply consider the creative Ground of his being. He also looks to the creative destiny of his life. “Thine eyes saw the sum total of my days, and in Thy book they were all written. They were counted before they ever came into existence.” The psalmist uses another old mythical symbol, which is the record of earthly events in an heavenly book. He expresses poetically what we today call the belief in an ultimate meaning of our life. Our days are written and counted; they are not merely accidental. He Who sees us most intimately looks at the vision of our whole life. We belong to this whole; we have a place of the utmost importance within it. As individuals and as a group, we have an ultimate destiny. And whenever we sense this ultimate destiny, whether or not it appears as great or insignificant, we are aware of God, the Ground and center of all meaning. We can join in the psalmist’s cry of admiration: “How mysterious Thy Thoughts are to me, 0 God! How great the sum of them is! If I were to count them, they would outnumber the sands; and if I were to come to the end of them, the span of my life would be like Thine!” The psalmist thus conquers the horror of the all-reflecting mirror and of the never-sleeping Witness by his recognition of the infinite mystery of life, its Ground and its meaning.

But suddenly, at the climax of his meditation, the psalmist turns away from God. He remembers that there is a dark element in the picture of his life — enmity against God, wickedness, and bloody deeds. And since this element disturbs his picture, he asks God to eradicate it. In sudden rage, he shouts, “If Thou wouldst but slay the wicked, 0 God, and make the men of blood depart from me, who oppose Thee in their thoughts, and utter Thy name in their crimes! Should I not hate them that hate Thee, 0 Lord? Should I not despise them? I hate them with the deadliest hatred. They are also my enemies!” These words should disturb anyone who thinks that the problem of life can be solved by meditation and religious elevation. Their mood is quite different from that of the previous words. Praise turns into curse. And the trembling of the heart before the all-observing God is replaced by wrath towards men. This wrath makes the psalmist feel that he is equal with God, the God from Whom he wished to flee into darkness and death. God must hate those whom he hates; and God’s enemies must be his enemies. He has just spoken of the infinite distance between his thoughts and God’s Thoughts; but he has forgotten. Religious fanaticism appears, that fanaticism which has inflamed the arrogance of Churches, the cruelty of the moralists, and the inflexibility of the orthodox.

The sin of religion appears in one of the greatest Psalms.

It is that sin which has distorted the history of the Church and the vision of Christianity, and which was not fully avoided even by Paul and John. Of course, we whose religious experience is poor and whose feeling of God is weak should not judge too harshly those whose lives burned with the fire of the Divine Presence and spread this fire ardently all over the world. Nevertheless, the sin of religion is real; and it contradicts the Spirit of Him, Who forbade His disciples again and again to hate His enemies as the enemies of God.

Yet, a change of thought and feeling brings the psalmist suddenly back to the beginning of his poem. He feels quite obviously that something may have been wrong in what he has uttered. He does not know what is wrong; but he is certain that God knows. And so he concludes with one of the greatest prayers of all time:

“Search me, 0 God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts. And see if there be any false way in me; and lead me the perfect way.” At this moment he asks God to do what, according to the first words of the Psalm, he does relentlessly anyway. The psalmist has overcome his wavering between the will to flee God and the will to be equal with God. He has found that the final solution lies in the fact that the Presence of the Witness, the Presence of the centre of all life within the centre of his life, implies both a radical attack on his existence, and the ultimate meaning of his existence. We are known in a depth of darkness through which we ourselves do not even dare to look. And at the same time, we are seen in a height of a fullness which surpasses our highest vision. That infinite tension is the atmosphere in which religion lives. In that tension Luther conquered his hatred for God, when he discovered in Christ the Crucified the perfect symbol for our human situation. It is the tension in which modern man lives, even though he may have lost the way to traditional religion. A human being can be ultimately judged by whether or not he has reached and can stand that tension. To endure it is more horrible and more difficult than anything else in the world. And yet, to endure it is the only way by which we can attain to the ultimate meaning, joy, and freedom in our lives. Each of us is called to endure. May each of us have the strength and the courage to bear that vocation! For it is to that vocation that we are called as men.


Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the twentieth century’s outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include “Systematic Theology;” “The Courage to Be;” “Dynamics of Faith;” “Love, Power and Justice;” “Morality and Beyond;” and “Theology of Culture.” “Escape From God” appears in a collection of Tillich’s sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations” was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, in 1955 and is now in the public domain.