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Solipsism or Empathy?: Beating the Devil with His Own Tricks

by Pierce Hibbs • September 1, 2015 •

Perhaps one of the most pervasive spiritual problems in human history is solipsism: extreme preoccupation with one’s self. In philosophy, it is the theory that only the self exists. In both cases, the practical implication is that we seem bent on thinking that everything is about us, and if it’s not, we have to find a way to argue why it should be, or even has to be.

Of course, we know from blatant biblical teaching that everything is not about us. Solipsism is a lie the devil has danced on for centuries, and it began with the very first sin, when the serpent encouraged Adam and Eve to look to themselves, rather than to God’s Word, to live well in the Garden of Eden. Our “garden” today is no doubt different in countless ways, but the principle still holds. We are to look to God’s Word, not ourselves, in engaging with the world.

But in some sense we can justifiably ask, “How can we really do this, since we cannot get away from ourselves?” It’s true that each of us has no choice but to see the world through our own physical senses, perceiving it with our own limited minds. We are, in other words, distinct and limited individuals, but that is not necessarily the dead-end the devil would have us think it is. Just because we have a distinct body and mind does not mean we are forced to live a self-centered life. We do retain the ability to empathize with others, and to empathize is to see oneself in another. This has roots, like everything else, in the Trinity, and it shines forth in one of Paul’s epistles. In the latter, there seems to be hidden the secret to using one of the devil’s greatest lies against him.

First, let’s deal with the Trinity. Cornelius Van Til quipped decades ago that “All of man’s acts must be representational of the acts of God. Even the persons of the Trinity are mutually representational. They are exhaustively representational of one another.”[1] This has one implication for the creature, another for the Creator. For creatures, it means that all we do that can be labeled by the adjective “good”—anything selfless, sacrificial, coherent, graceful, beautiful, loving, kind, wise, etc.—is representative on a finite scale of what is properly rooted in (practiced by) the Trinity, either ontological or economic.[2] Everything we are—our living, thinking, speaking—is, or should be, representational on a finite scale of how God lives, thinks, speaks, etc. For the Creator, it means something quite unique. Rather than being representative of another being, God, as the ultimate being, is representative only of Himself. We find that representation perfectly displayed in the persons of the Godhead.

In each person of the Godhead, the other two persons are perfectly represented. When we look at the Father, we see the Son and Spirit represented felicitously and in full. When we look at the Son, we see the Father and the Spirit represented felicitously and in full. Likewise when we look at the Spirit. This has many implications, but one of them is that the Father knows the Son perfectly, as the Son does the Father, the Spirit does the Son, etc. Because God exhaustively knows Himself, there is no sense in which what one of the persons of the Godhead does or experiences is hidden from the others. We might say that because the persons of the Godhead are exhaustively representational, they are exhaustively empathetic toward one another. That is to say, the divine persons exhaustively undertake “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”[3] If we nuance our understanding of “empathy”—for we must always guard against taking something creaturely and applying it as is to the Creator—we see that this safeguards both the unity and distinctions in God. The Father did not die on the cross; neither did the Son descend at Pentecost. The persons of the Godhead are distinct, and have distinct roles in creation and redemption. But that cannot eclipse the truth that each of the persons is aware of, sensitive to, and deeply understands the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of the other persons.

Now, let me ask you this: if the Father can be exhaustively empathetic toward the Son, and the Son toward the Father, and the Spirit toward both, is there a sense in which we have some corresponding creaturely capacity? I think so. In fact, I think this is what accounts for our ability to empathize with others. But let me be very careful in the explanation.

I cannot perfectly or exhaustively empathize with anyone, and the kind of “person” I am is not the kind of person we have in the Father, the Son, or the Spirit. God is a qualitatively different being. The persons of the Trinity are not simply human persons on a larger scale.[4] This would invoke social Trinitarianism, which brings with it a dearth of problems. We cannot focus on God’s threeness at the expense of his oneness, nor vice versa, so let’s make sure that much is clear.

I am simply saying that because the persons of the Trinity can exhaustively represent and empathize with one another and because we are made in God’s image, we seem to have a creaturely ability to partially empathize with others. This empathy is very limited and of a completely different nature, of course, but we cannot overlook the correspondence. While each of us is a distinct creature, with a distinct body and mind, we can nevertheless empathize with other creatures of the same order. In terms that a solipsist would understand, we could say that we have the ability to see ourselves in others, not exhaustively, but to a degree that sufficiently creates the opportunity for communion, for a deeper relationship. This is what the devil seems to hide from us. He wants us to think that we are trapped in ourselves and thus must be autonomous and ultimately self-seeking. But God has created human persons, human “selves,” with the capacity to partially empathize with others. We may not be able to, strictly speaking, get “outside of ourselves,” but that does not mean we trapped in an egotistical cage. In fact, the human person, the self, is created by and reflective of God in such a way that we can empathize with others and deepen our relationships. This is especially helpful in confronting the problem of human judgment, which we will explore momentarily.

Now, let’s deal with Paul. In Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, we find him practicing the creaturely art of empathy in a striking way.

In 1 Tim 1:15, Paul writes, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” The foremost? Is Paul the worst sinner ever to walk the earth? How could he know this? These questions make it obvious that Paul was not stating a propositional fact. He was doing something more unique. After all, Paul is the one who repeatedly sacrificed his body for the gospel and roamed the Mediterranean world planting and strengthening the church, tamping the soil around the brittle roots of young converts. Could this man be the worst of sinners? What about the Roman soldiers who mocked his lord, or the consul who sent his king to a cross? What about the disciple who betrayed his master for thirty pieces of silver? Was Paul worse than them? Apparently, he was.

Paul seems to be relying on the truth that we have just explored. In his understanding of sin, Paul does not focus only on others; he seems to account for himself in others—which is a strange twist on solipsism. When Paul looks at those around him, in his past and present, he does not isolate himself from them, as solipsism would have him do. Rather, when Paul examines the nature of sin, he sees it as, in some sense, a mirror. Gazing into it, he does not balk at the brutes whose whips were saturated with Christ’s blood; or stand in judgment over the prefect who would rather preserve a capricious peace than set an innocent man free. Instead, he sees himself. And because he sees himself, because he is the “chief of sinners,” he can approach every other person around him with a profound sense of humility, rather than judgment.

I have found this to be the most profound picture of empathy, and it reflects a very important biblical truth. In stating that he was the chief of sinners, Paul was voicing the deep humility that results from a shattering encounter with a Holy God. Salvation, for Paul, did not come in gradations. Everyone was the worst. Everyone was at death’s door. Everyone had spit in God’s face and was awaiting execution. Everyone.  

Paul had a profound ability to empathize with others. He could not only put himself in another’s shoes; he could even see himself as guilty, in one way or another, of the same kind of sin he saw others committing. What a model of empathy for us! Just think of how this would affect our habit of judging others. Try it out, if you like. The next time you see something repulsive or disturbing, rather than asking how could he do that? ask instead how could ‘I’ do that? In asking this, you are not claiming to have committed the same sin. Rather, you are admitting to the Pauline truth that, by your God-given ability to empathize, you can see yourself in the sins of others. And every Christian can empathize with another person’s critical need for grace and redemption. To view yourself even as “second-worst” is to claim that you are in less need of grace and salvation than another. And that is as foreign to New Testament teaching as solipsism is to God.

We can—in fact, we must—use this approach whenever we feel inclined to judge others. This is not meant to undercut our repulsion of sin, but rather to reflect, at least in part, that repulsion at ourselves. Doing so has the almost immediate effect of reducing our pride and mitigating a sinful sense of self-worth. Empathy, for self-aware sinners, should be the great leveler: placing us all at the feet of Christ in humble awareness of our critical need for salvation. Perhaps we would learn a thing or two from calling ourselves the chief of sinners. At least if we did so, that would put us at ground zero—the universal pick-up location for God’s grace.

We can now return to where we started and be confident that solipsism, while containing elements of truth, is ultimately parasitic on biblical revelation. You see, the devil can dance on his lie as long as he wants. The fact is that even his lies can only stand because the truth of God is beneath them. That we are “curved in on ourselves” is testament to a greater truth: we have been made in order to empathize and commune with others, and ultimately to commune with the Trinitarian God who exhaustively empathizes with himself. This immovable truth is what we can stand on when we empathize with other sinners and thus beat the devil with one of his favorite tricks.

[1] Cornelius Van Til, In Defense of the Faith, Vol. 2, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), 78.

[2] We would not want to make the mistake of saying that something such as “sacrifice” is rooted in the ontological Trinity, for that would mean that God, in His very essence, is a “suffering” God. See Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1993), 241; The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1993), 21ff.; Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 298–305.

[3] Meriam web

[4] “The original form of personality is not in man but in God; His is archetypal, while man’s is ectypal. The latter is not identical with the former, but does contain faint traces of similiarity with it.” Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, new ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 84.For a discussion of Trinitarian persons, see John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 481–89.

Pierce T. Hibbs (MAR) serves as the Assistant Director of the Center for Theological Writing at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is currently enrolled in the Th.M. program and studying the language theory of Kenneth L. Pike. Pierce, his wife, Christina, and their son, Isaac, and daughter, Nora, reside in Quakertown, PA.


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