Does Life Have Meaning Apart from God?
This post is by Andy McLean (M.A. Biola University; M.Div., Th.M. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). Mclean serves as the editor for The Gospel Project for Students. You can see the whole series on A God-Centered Worldview here.
Does life have meaning? Is there purpose to our existence? Questions like these are not unique to the modern thinker. Individuals have been asking the same question for centuries, and the answers that have been offered are the ones consistent with the competing worldviews and belief systems of the time.
Not only that, but they are questions asked not only inside a philosophy classroom, but can also be found within popular films and television series. From the nihilistic comedy of Seinfeld to most of Woody Allen’s films, talk about the meaning of life liters the contemporary landscape.
For instance, take Woody Allen’s comedy film Stardust Memories as an example. In the movie, the main character finds himself having a bit of an existential crisis when he begins to start questioning the meaning of it all. In talking to some friends, he says, “Hey, did anybody read on the front page of the Times that matter is decaying?….The universe is breaking down….Soon there’s not going to be anything left….There’s not going to be any Beethoven or Shakespeare.” For him, the implications of these physical processes is nearly too overwhelming to consider, leading him to despair as he contemplates the meaning of his life.
Yet to go beyond a Hollywood answer to this question, one needs to begin by first settling the larger question concerning God’s existence. This is because the question about whether life has meaning is directly tied to whether God exists. This idea was illustrated somewhat recently by the late atheist Christopher Hitchens, who was once asked in a debate, “If God does not exist, what then is the purpose and meaning to life?” Hitchens responds, in typical fashion, by turning what would otherwise be a serious question into an opportunity for lighthearted humor. He says, “Well, I can only answer for myself. Whatever cheers me up. I suppose mainly gloating over the misfortunes of other people.” On a more serious note, he goes on to list other things, such irony and sex, before saying that every one of us is making a “clear run to the grave.”
Why would Hitchens respond this way? Is this the standard answer of the self-professing atheist, or the inevitable outcome of a naturalistic worldview? It would seem that an answer along these lines would certainly follow from the atheistic worldview. This is because, as Hitchens well knew, if God does not exist, then the objective grounds for ultimate meaning and purpose do not exist either.
This is the logical outcome of the atheistic worldview – the necessary denial of ultimate meaning and purpose to human existence. If God does not exist, then all an individual really has is what has been called the “Do-It-Yourself Approach” when it comes to personal meaning and purpose. This is the approach that was essentially adopted by Nietzsche and other atheistic existentialists, whereas the individual creates meaning and purpose by ordering activities in his or her life around things he or she desires, values, and enjoys, etc. It is an approach that stands or falls on the power of the subject being able to continue to create meaning based upon the structuring activity in his or her life. It is also an approach that indicates that meaning in life is altogether subjective.
Of course, one of the biggest problems that Hitchens’ and Nietzsche’s approach has come across is the simple fact that any illusions of created meaning are shattered by Hitchens’ keen observation that everyone is making a clear run to the grave. In other words, whatever type of meaning this is, it isn’t the kind that transcends the grave. Not only that, but it would seem just as possible, and problematic, for one to orient his or her life around trivial and even immoral goals just as easily it is to do so around meaningful goals. Since there is no objective standard of what constitutes something as meaningful in a world void of God, it seems that our futile efforts are equivalent to us making rearrangements to the deck chairs on board the Titanic. We can participate and try to find meaning in whatever trivial activities there are, but the end result is that we will all die and nothing we have done will have mattered in the end.
However, by affirming God’s existence, one also affirms the grounds for objective meaning and purpose within the universe. In other words, true meaning can only come from a personal Creator who has endowed creation with meaning and significance. Meaning, in its objective sense, is wholly dependent upon God and is derived from His being. As the philosopher Tom Morris has said, “We can create islands of meaning in this sea of existence we’ve been given, but it is beyond the power of any of us to endow with meaning the entirety of life itself or the entirety of any of our own lives.”
There are vast implications to the worldviews around us. For the atheistic worldview, the answer to the meaning of life is pretty bleak, and often one that many people have a hard time coming to terms with on a personal level. On the other hand, the Christian worldview is able to provide the rationale for why life has real meaning and purpose – because it was created by a personal Creator who endowed it with meaning and purpose. Only by affirming God can one coherently support the notion that life is endowed with meaning and purpose. It is only in a being like God, as Tom Morris puts it, “a creator of all who could eventually, in the words of the New Testament, ‘work all things together for good’ – only this sort of being could guarantee a completeness and permanency of meaning for human lives.”