Costly Consolation: Freud’s Illusion and Bonhoefferian Grace

Sigmund Freud once wrote that the idea of religion is “born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable.”1 The famed psychologist’s statement is analogous to a popular contemporary view of religious belief: religion is a consoling crutch, developed by primordial man only to give satisfactory explanations for natural phenomena, and is now used as an easy way to counter difficult and uncomfortable questions in life.

Such a view is admittedly justified in individual cases. In contemporary religious devotion, many people cling to their faith as a one-size-fits-all explanation for tragedies or an assurance that they will see their dearly departed once more in the afterlife. This kind of faith costs its followers little if anything in terms of sacrifice. However, with Bonhoeffer’s costly grace in mind, it becomes clear that regardless of whether Christianity’s claims about reality are objectively true, authentic Christianity demands too much of its followers to serve as a mere emotional crutch.

In a nutshell, the above analysis views religion as nothing more than a construct stemming from man’s desire to be comforted in the face of uncertainty. In early history, this desire manifested itself in gods who controlled weather, natural disasters, and the like. In more recent years, humans comfort themselves with religious and theological explanations of suffering, the meaning of life, and what happens after death. In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud describes his own version of this stance: “The gods retain their threefold task: they must exorcise the terrors of nature, they must reconcile one to the cruelty of fate, particularly as shown in death, and they must make amends for the sufferings and privations that the communal life of culture has imposed on man.”2 The gods symbolize religion throughout the ages as human’s efforts to explain their own anxieties.

Freud suggests that another purpose for religion is to create a reason for hope. Believers feel secure because they think “Over each one of us watches a benevolent… Providence, which will not suffer us to become the plaything of the stark and pitiless forces of nature.” Believers childishly take solace in that idea that somehow “in the end all good is rewarded, all evil punished,” either in this life or in a supposed afterlife. In other words, as Freud contends, “we shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence.”3 Believers desire the protection and security their parents provided when they were children, and through this wish, they willingly embrace a delusion—God.4 Freud’s view of religion as a juvenile reaction to anxiety suggests that religion is an easy cure-all for those who do not wish to confront their fears of the unknown. Atheist activist Dr. Richard Dawkins contributes to this argument in his book, The God Delusion. He asserts that consolation is one of the driving forces behind religious belief. Dawkins writes that “people caught up in a terrible disaster… frequently report that they derive consolation from the reflection that it is all part of God’s inscrutable plan: no doubt good shall come it in the fullness of time.”5 For Dawkins, such consolation is ungrounded and serves only as a false comfort.

Many people of great influence and intellect view religious belief as an infantile emotional defense mechanism, nothing more than a way of seeking order in disorder and meaning in chaos. The accuracy of this assertion for those of Christian confession depends on what Christianity really teaches.

Christianity at its core is a religion that places a great deal of emphasis on the salvific grace of God. This grace is a pure gift from God, utterly unmerited and given solely out of love. Such a free gift from a benevolent God would seem to be exactly the type of anesthetizing solace Dawkins and Freud describe. But the nature of Christian grace is costly; as such Christianity cannot simply be a crutch for the believer.

Twentieth-century Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer identifies two primary ways to understand grace. The first, identified as “cheap grace,” exists as “the deadly enemy of our church.”6 Defined, it is “grace without price; grace without cost” and “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.”7 One accepts the gift of God’s forgiveness, but does not acknowledge the cost of that gift, Christ’s suffering on the cross, or the responsibilities that come with such a gift. Bonhoeffer further explains: “Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.”8 In this way, cheap grace practiced allows the believer to reap the benefits of salvation without any other form of repentance. Under cheap grace, “everything can be had for nothing.”9

If cheap grace is the grace of Christianity, then one can easily reduce this religion to the comforting illusion of Freud or the false consolation of Dawkins. If everything can be had for nothing, then believers are not asked to make any visible sacrifice in their lives for illusory solaces; they rush for comfort because it is free for the taking. Yet true Christianity is not solely about comfort; it is also about radical self-sacrifice.

Bonhoeffer terms this insight “costly grace,” the “treasure hidden in the field.”10 He says, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow.… because it costs a man his life.… because it condemns sin.”11 Real salvation, true joy, and authentic hope all have their roots in the initial handing over of oneself to the will of God; believers acknowledge that they must conform themselves to the crucified Christ and follow Him unreservedly. The truth of this statement can be seen in the witness of any number of Christians. Francis of Assisi forsook wealth and social status for the sake of the Gospel. Mother Teresa of Calcutta left the security of her convent to serve the poor in the slums of India. Even Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred by the Nazi government for his actions opposing their evils. These believers, often put forward as some of the best historical examples of authentic Christian faith in action, show that Christ not only calls followers to joy and salvation but also to difficult and palpable self-sacrifice.

Father Robert Barron, a Catholic priest, blogger and author, also supports costly grace in his documentary series Catholicism, speaking about a toned-down, domesticated version of Jesus:

[What a lot of people say today about Jesus] is “Well, I don’t think he’s God, but he’s a very interesting, inspiring religious teacher….” Actually, he’s not. Actually, he’s sort of a dangerous, strange figure. So as he himself said, “Either you’re with me or you’re against me…” He compels a choice the way no other religious founder does….And the minute [Jesus becomes domesticated], then the whole thing falls apart. Jesus was, in his own lifetime and then after the resurrection, a deeply disconcerting figure, a subversive figure. 12

Looking to scripture for answers suggests a similar view. Any honest reading of the Gospels shows that whatever interpretative spin is put on his words, Jesus sets up his followers for discomfort and personal conversion. The following passage illustrates this truth well:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”13

The passage rules out cheap grace, or grace without the cross, because Christ’s followers are told to take up their cross daily. One is left with Bonhoeffer’s costly grace as the grace of authentic Christian faith, implicating that believers are not simply reaching for easy consolation. The critique of Freud and Dawkins does not hold. Even if mistaken, Christianity is not an easy, childish retreat from the world’s anxieties.

Consolation does indeed come, but only after suffering and the cross. Believers must understand that they will face many trials for following Christ before they receive heavenly rewards. Even with the hope of eternal bliss in heaven, this faith is not some sign of psychological immaturity, as Freud argues. Rather, the believer’s acceptance of costly grace requires the maturity to accept a profoundly uncomfortable and demanding life. One does not run to Christianity to escape reality. Instead, the believer embraces a way of life that ultimately leads to honest self-assessment, self-sacrifice, and a realistic analysis of whether one’s faith and reason are enough to sustain such a risk. While costly grace is not an assurance of the factuality of Christianity’s beliefs, it invalidates the depiction of Christianity as a simple emotional defense mechanism.

Christianity is a source of consolation and hope in the face of tragedy. Bonhoeffer writes “It is grace because it gives a man the only true life…. It is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”14 This true life gives the believer authentic joy. According to the old maxim attributed to St. Augustine and repeated in recent years by Pope John Paul II, “We are the Easter people, and Hallelujah is our song!”15 At the same time, the Christian acknowledges the need for a complete reordering of their life to Christ. Christianity cannot be a simple escape or crutch to which critics reduce it. Therefore, in no way is believers’ emotional solace a shallow or an immature delusion—indeed, it “costs them their lives.”


I would like to express my profound thanks to Dr. Edmund N. Santurri and the Very Rev. Mark R. Pierce, without whom this essay would not have been possible.


1 Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1949), 31.

2 Ibid., 30.

3 Ibid., 32-33.

4 Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., The Question of God (New York: The Free Press, 2002), 43.

5 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: First Mariner Books, 2006), 398.

6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 43, 45.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 43.

10 Ibid., 43, 45.

11 Ibid., 45.

12 Catholicism, Matt Leonard (2011, Chicago, IL: Word on Fire Films, 2012), DVD.

13 Luke 9:23-24, NRSV.

14 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 45.

15 John Paul II Quotes, GoodReads, accessed May 22, 2013, <http://www.goodreads.comquotes/245044-do-not-abandon-yourselves-to-despair-we-are-the-easter>.


Paul Escher ’16 is a religion major from La Crosse, WI. He enjoys running on the St. Olaf cross country and track teams.

Photo credit: jppi from

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,