Is Biblical Faith Escapist?
Escapism seems to be everywhere. If you have internet access, try typing “escape” or “escapism” into a search engine. You might not want to visit all the sites that come up in such a search, but what you will see – if you need proof – is that many people seek to escape. Or think about the commercials on TV. Almost every commercial for an airline will talk about escaping. Restaurants promise that we can “escape to the unexpected.” Day spas are big business, and they promise a few hours of escape. And of course there are illicit types of escape. With the rise of the internet, pornography is more widespread and mainstream than ever. Drug and alcohol abuse is still quite prevalent. All for escape.
Even Christians are accused of being escapist. Karl Marx, among other accusations, accused Christians of being escapist. He said that religion itself was the opium of the masses. And indeed, there may be some truth to this. Many people become involved in religious pursuits in order to have a few hours a week when they can forget about the rest of life – perhaps by getting caught up in some kind of experience, perhaps by simply listening to something soothing that makes them feel better. It is indeed the case that religion can be just one more exercise in casual escapism.
But if these are the terms in which you view biblical Christianity, then you may be surprised by the message of Ecclesiastes. It is the furthest thing from escapism. In fact, if anything, it has been accused of being painfully pessimistic in its view of life.
We are all prone to escapism of one form or another. And yet the writer of Ecclesiastes makes us face some painful realities. The book begins with, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” Or, as one modern Jewish writer has more accurately translated it, “Merest breath…merest breath. All is mere breath.”
Who wrote or said these words under the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit? Well, to be honest, no one is entirely certain. Most likely they were written by Solomon. The writer identifies himself as a king in Jerusalem, or at least a former king (he uses the words ‘have been’ in 1:12). He also calls himself the son of David. This doesn’t tell us as much as you might think, though. The title ‘son’ could be accurately used by someone in David’s line who wasn’t strictly speaking his son. Certainly, the writer was a man with vast financial resources and power. This would fit, of course, with his title as a king. And, finally, he was a man who had and sought great wisdom. We know that Solomon was the wisest man of his day – renowned world-wide for his wisdom. The Hebrew term the writer uses to designate himself is Qoholeth, which means something like preacher, teacher, or possibly (as some translations have it) philosopher. If I had to absolutely say who he was, I would say Solomon, but, in reality, the pseudonym Qoholeth (the preacher) is all the author tells us directly.
So what is the theme? What is the question he tries so hard to answer? Well, the preacher looks at the world and utters those words I quoted from chapter 1 verse 2: “Meaningless [merest breath]...” But if we just say this, it can sound like Ecclesiastes is a kind of nihilistic tract. As if the writer is simply some kind of depressed, suicidal philosopher – maybe a Frenchman! Jean Paul Sartre once said, “Now God is gone, what have I got to live for?” Is this what the writer of Ecclesiastes is saying – hypothetically at least.
Is this pessimism? Or is it true? Well, as this preacher looks out, he can’t come to any other conclusion. He sees that men work hard, and he mentions this hard work in verse 3. But he also knows the truth of verse 4, “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” People work hard, yet they quickly pass and the earth is basically unchanged. Now, before you get too nervous, I should say that the preacher does commend the value of hard work. But, as becomes clear in verses 5-7, he sees the pattern of human existence as being similar to the patterns of nature. The sun rises and sets, day after day. The wind blows one way or another – south to north then back again. Its course, far from predictable, is circular. If something is blown north this year, maybe next year it will be blown south again. The net effect is negligible.
Or look at the sea in verse 7. Rivers flow into the sea constantly. They rise and fall with the seasons. “Yet the sea is not full.” You see, the rivers themselves are filled again the next season. One side of the earth may have drought for a time – maybe even for generations.
What about our own desires? They, he tells us, are never filled up.
There are several ways of reconciling these statements with the rest of scripture. But one thing is clear, Ecclesiastes, along with many other books and passages, forces us to confront reality.
Does your faith imply that doubt and suffering somehow undermine your faith? Do you have easy answers for all the questions of life? You see, there are certainties in the Christian faith – there is a certain hope. But part of growing up in the Christian life is facing reality. Don’t settle for a version of your faith which is a kind of escapism. When you read your Bible, honestly apply it to the realities of life.
But also – and how glorious is this thought! – recognize that God is well-aware of how life may seem. He understands its complexity, pain, and seemingly endless cycles. In fact, He encourages us to embrace their reality in our pursuit of biblical wisdom. How much encouragement we can draw from the truth of Christ’s full and real humanity. The statement from Hebrews that “[Jesus] was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin” is such an encouragement here. We serve the one who is called the Man of Sorrows. And yet this is also the God the Old Testament, the one who outlines in thorough detail the often bleak details of life, and yet who shows that throughout it all, God is at work bringing about His plans.
The Bible doesn’t give us an escape from reality. It forces us to face life’s disappointments and limitations head on. We need to do no less. But all the while we recognize that God is in the midst of this reality – offering hope, joy and life through His commands.
 Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (New York: Norton, 2010) p 346.