The Eulogy of Meaning
It was a sunny afternoon in southern California. I, and thousands of people like me, had journeyed to a popular tourist attraction. As my eyes gazed across the masses of people crowded around me I was struck with a sobering thought: How many of these teenagers give thought to the ultimate meaning of life? How many of these adults seriously contemplate eternal things? I lamented the answer. While all of us contemplate spiritual things at some point or another, most people only give the topic a fleeting thought or two from time to time. Rather than pondering the hereafter, Western civilization is consumed with the here and now. We are too caught up with our daily, mundane existence to give serious thought to the supernatural. Entertainment and busy-ness have replaced thoughtful contemplation of these matters.
And yet we yearn for existential fulfillment. We seek to know the meaning of life, and find meaning in life. We want to know the reason for our existence-our purpose in this world. Why are we here; what are we supposed to do with our lives, and what will bring us ultimate fulfillment? But have you ever stopped to consider why man is compelled to seek purpose in life? Why aren't we satisfied with bare existence? What makes us ask why? in the face of calamity? Why do we want to believe there is a grand purpose to everything? Why do we feel empty, as though something were missing in our lives? Why can't the accumulation of material things satisfy that emptiness? Why is it that what we think will bring us happiness and fulfillment in life-once obtained-fails to deliver as we had hoped, sending us looking for some other thing that will finally bring us fulfillment?
King Solomon was no stranger to these sorts , of questions. In the book of Ecclesiastes he recorded his own pursuit to find the meaning of life-the frustration he experienced with failed attempts, and the answer that finally seized him. Solomon sought meaning in work, pleasure, wealth, wisdom, and the like, but afterwards he still lamented, "'Absolutely futile! All of these things are futile!'" (Ecclesiastes 12:8, NET)
Like Solomon, some people look for meaning in their job. Others look for meaning in relationships. Still others, in power, influence, money, or intellect. In the Western world many are under the impression that they will find fulfillment in the accumulation of things (materialism), only to be disappointed time and time again. Truly, there is no ultimate meaning to be found in material possessions. As it has been said, you will never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul!
Some say the purpose of life is to seek the truth, to actualize your potential, to find happiness, to leave a legacy, improve the balance of pleasure over pain, or to love and be loved.
Others say there is no purpose to life. This is the conclusion of the atheistic worldview, and its corresponding creation myth: Darwinian evolution. As Douglas Futuyma has written, "Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere mechanical mechanisms--but this seems to be the message of evolution."1
Famed atheist, Bertrand Russell, encapsulates how atheism eliminates meaning in life. He wrote what could only be described as the eulogy for meaning:
That man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving. That his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves, his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms. That no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual life beyond the grave. That all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspirations, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievements must be inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins. All these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation, henceforth, be safely built.2
Some atheists are uncomfortable with, or even repulsed by such talk. They want to excise the world of a personal Creator, but still hold that there is objective meaning in the world. They fail to realize that ultimate purpose and meaning in life requires at least two things: (1) life beyond the grave; i.e. immortality; (2) the existence of God.3
God is necessary because without Him there is no transcendent source from which to receive purpose and draw meaning, and immortality is necessary because without a continued existence beyond the grave our moral choices are ultimately irrelevant. Let me expand on each of these necessary conditions for objective meaning.
A woman with terminal cancer was asked, "What is it like for you to wake up every morning knowing you are so close to death?" She responded, "What is it like for you to wake up every morning pretending you aren't?" The fact of the matter is that all of us will die in a relatively short time. What, then, becomes of our lives? Without immortality our lives will be stomped out into non-existence, reduced to a fleeting moment in the sea of infinity. Like a candle in the wind our flame will be snuffed out in darkness, never to flicker again. Where is the meaning in this?
If there is no life beyond the grave there can be no ultimate accountability for the way we live our lives. In the end it makes little difference whether one lives like Hitler or Mother Theresa. "If there is no God, then your life ultimately means nothing. Since there is no enduring purpose to life, there's no right or wrong way to live it."4 Or as Dostoyevsky put it, "If there is no immortality then all things are permitted." Jeffrey Dahmer understood this well. In an interview with Diane Sawyer he explained why he did the horrible things he did:
The people watching me all have desires. Some of them may be a desire to exercise and work out; others to go to a movie; others they like ice-cream or fast food, but people have desires. People are going to satisfy their desires unless they've got sufficient reason not to. So if a person likes fast food, or likes to exercise or go to movies, they're going to do that unless there's an overriding reason that says they shouldn't do it for some other reason. When I was in high school I found myself with the desire to torture animals. I did not believe in God so I did not believe there was any judgment after death. I did not believe we were here for a purpose. It seemed to me that we evolved from slime, and eventually when we die our particles are gong to return to slime. I have four-score and ten-75 years or so on this earth if I'm lucky. Given that I wasn't here for a purpose, and that I'm going to die and that's the end of me, and there's no reason I was here, I could not find any sufficient reason to deny the satisfaction of my desires, and so I tortured animals. It became a point where that no longer satisfied me, and I decided that what I needed to do was torture human beings. And frankly I couldn't think of a reason why I shouldn't given my view of reality.
It is becoming increasingly clear that immortality must be coupled with the existence of God to provide meaning in life, and make sense of moral responsibility. Modern atheistic ethicist, Richard Taylor wrote, "To say that something is wrong because it is forbidden by God, is perfectly understandable to anyone who believes in a law-giving God. But to say that something is wrong even though no God exists to forbid it, is not understandable . The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone."5
If there is no God we are left only with the bare facts of cold existence. Molecules and atoms know neither right nor wrong; they just are. Richard Dawkins echoed this in his eloquent obituary for meaning, saying: "In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky; and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music."6
If there is no life beyond the grave there cannot be any ultimate consequences for our actions. Man's evil deeds will go unpunished, and his good deeds will go unrewarded. The wrongs will never be righted, and justice will never be served. If we experience immortality, however, our moral choices on this side of the grave become extremely significant.
While immortality is necessary for objective meaning, it is not sufficient. Mere duration of existence beyond the grave is not enough. Objective meaning requires the existence of God. Without God we would still be asking What is my purpose? and Why am I here?, but for time immemorial rather than a mere lifetime.7
Created with purpose
God is the only sufficient ground for meaning and purpose in life. Without God we are just a cosmic accident who lives to contemplate how meaningless our existence really is. To have purpose one must be created to do something; to function in a particular way. The purpose of a car is to transport people and things. The purpose of a church is to facilitate the assembling of believers. The purpose of the police force is to restrain and punish evildoers. Each of these things was created for a purpose, and thus has purpose and meaning. If the world was not created with purposeful intent, it is devoid of purpose.
Atheism cannot provide meaning
This is why atheism is inept to provide meaning and purpose in life. The message of atheism is that man came into existence uncaused for no purpose, and he will pass out of existence without purpose. The same purposeless cosmic process that brought us into existence will also eradicate our existence.
Peter Singer, an atheistic philosopher at Princeton University understood well the implications of the atheistic worldview. He wrote, "When we reject belief in a god we must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning. Life began [in] a chance combination of molecules; it then evolved through chance mutations and natural selection. All this just happened; it did not happen for any overall purpose."8 In a similar manner G.G. Simpson wrote, "Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned. He is a state of matter, a form of life, a sort of animal, and a species of the Order Primates, akin nearly or remotely to all of life and indeed to all that is material."9
In a purely materialist view of reality life is nothing more than a struggle for survival-a struggle that we ultimately lose in the end. Why do we continue with the struggle? Why do we want to survive? What is it that we live for? Why is it that even those in extreme suffering prefer life to death? Why is it that those who are in agony because they find no meaning in life continue to search for meaning rather than end their own existence? Atheism is incapable of answering these questions to our existential satisfaction. William Lane Craig wrote to this end:
"Who am I?" man asks. "Why am I here? Where am I going?" Since the Enlightenment, when he threw off the shackles of religion, man has tried to answer these questions without reference to God. But the answers that came back were not exhilarating, but dark and terrible. "You are the accidental by-product of nature, a result of matter plus time plus chance. There is no reason for your existence. All you face is death." Modern man thought that when he had gotten rid of God, he had freed himself from all that repressed and stifled him. Instead, he discovered that in killing God, he had also killed himself. For if there is no God, then man's life becomes absurd. It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.10
On a naturalistic view of the world the end of man is the same as mosquitoes, and thus he is ultimately no more significant than mosquitoes. John Darnton, New York Times journalist and author of The Darwin Conspiracy, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: "For ultimately, if animals and plants are the result of impersonal, immutable forces, she [Darwin's biographer, Janet Browne] observes, then 'the natural world has no moral validity or purpose.' We are all of us, dogs and barnacles, pigeons and crabgrass, the same in the eyes of nature, equally remarkable and equally dispensable."11
Proximate vs. Ultimate Meaning
The horror of modern man is that "because he ends in nothing, he is nothing."12 Cornell's icon of evolution, William Provine, recognizes as much:
How can we have meaning in life? When we die we are really dead; nothing of us survives. Natural selection is a process leading every species almost certainly to extinction and "cares" as much for the HIV virus as for humans. Nothing could be more uncaring than the entire process of organic evolution. Life has been on earth for about 3.6 billion years. In less than one billion more years our sun will turn into a red giant. All life on earth will be burnt to a crisp. Other cosmic processes absolutely guarantee the extinction of all life anywhere in the universe. When all life is extinguished, no memory whatsoever will be left that life ever existed.
And yet Provine continues, "Yet our lives are filled with meaning. Proximate meaning is more important than ultimate. Even if we die, we can have deeply meaningful lives."13
Provine is correct to note that even the atheist can experience relative meaning and significance of sorts; nevertheless, ultimate meaning and significance escapes him because all will come to naught in the end. The activities of our lives, and even our very existence is utterly without enduring meaning. People may choose to pretend their life has meaning, but it is just that: pretending. The universe does not acquire value simply because we ascribe value to it. Peter Atkins spoke on this wise: "Humanity should accept that science has eliminated the justification for believing in cosmic purpose, and that any survival of purpose is inspired solely by sentiment."14
Borrowing from Theism
Unfortunately many atheists have not yet to come to terms with the nihilism inherent to their worldview like Atkins and Russell have. Friedrich Nietzsche, the father of modern nihilism, was aware of this cognitive gap. He illustrates it beautifully in the story of the madman:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!"---As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried. "I will tell you. We have killed him---you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us---for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars---and yet they have done it themselves.
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"15
What was Nietzsche's point? It was that those who deny the existence of God often fail to recognize the logical implications of that denial. The madman understood, but those in the marketplace did not. He came too early. While he recognized that the death of God meant the death of man as well, this had not yet reached the ears of his contemporaries. They were atheists by confession, but the full implications of their atheism had not yet sunken in. They were still drawing from the well of theism, all the while denying its intellectual foundation. As Ravi Zacharias has said, they had not yet grasped that the metaphysician's blade responsible for removing God from the universe also removed all meaning and purpose in life. Nietzsche predicted a day in which the cognitive gap between the death of God and the death of meaning would be bridged. Eventually man would realize what he had done, and the age of nihilism would be ushered in.
But man cannot live happily in such a state. The only way for him to achieve happiness in such a world is to act in a manner that is inconsistent with his worldview, supposing that the world has meaning, but without the proper foundation on which to build it. The atheist must borrow from the theistic worldview to avoid despair, deceiving himself into believing we have value and purpose when in fact we have none. This blind leap into the recesses of personal fiction to find meaning for life will disappoint over time once it is realized that there is no solid ground on which to land. Meaning can only be found in the real. If there is no God, our proximate meaning is a fleeting fiction.
The Meaning of Life
So I return to my original question: Why do we seek meaning? What is the meaning of life?
Why do we seek meaning?
Why do we seek meaning? Maybe it is because there actually is purpose and meaning in the world. Maybe we seek purpose because we were created with a purpose (to serve our Creator), but turned our back to it because we wanted to pursue our own interests rather than the interests of God. We have been trying to recover our purpose ever since, but since our desires are not consistent with that purpose, we remain frustrated. We want to experience the sense of satisfaction and comfort that comes with fulfilling our purpose, but without actually doing so. So we experience existential angst and disillusionment.
What is that purpose? What is the meaning of life?
Imagine being absolutely alone in the universe. There is no one to engage in conversation; no one to share life's experiences with; no one to relate to. Such an existence would be utterly miserable. Few are aware of the agony isolation from other relational beings has on the human psyche. But ask the inmate who has been put in solitary confinement. Ask the individual who was stranded on a deserted island. They will tell you that isolation from other relational beings is psychologically unbearable.
Our need for relational interaction should give us a clue to life's meaning. If we find the most satisfaction and meaning out of loving relationships with others-indeed, we need loving relationships with others-maybe we were made to be relational creatures. I would argue that the meaning of life can only be found in fulfilled relationships. To find meaning in life we must be in communion with our Creator, as well as those He created. Ironically this is the message of the Bible. Jesus said we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). This is the greatest commandment, and for good reason. Only by being in a loving relationship with God and neighbor will we find meaning in life. Our end is to know God, both now and forever. The problem of man is that he is in rebellion against God. He runs from God, rather than to God. While he wants fulfillment in life, he resists the One who brings it, refusing to acknowledge that his soul will not rest until he returns to fellowship with his Creator.
All of us have rebelled against God; all of us have rejected His will in favor of asserting our own. We have broken His just laws, and are deserving of punishment. But the God who is perfect justice is also perfect love. While His perfect justice demands punishment for sin, His infinite love desires mercy. What is God to do? How can He abstain from punishing us, and yet remain just? His solution was Christ. God's justice and mercy meet at the cross. Christ, whose sinless life made Him undeserving of punishment, accepted God's holy wrath in our stead. He volunteered to be our substitute. As God manifest in human existence, Christ's death was of infinite value, able to atone for the sins of the whole world. All He asks of us is that we accept what He did on our behalf; that we acknowledge our sin, and our lack of ability to fix the problem.
God has offered us a solution to our sin problem, but on His terms, not ours. Christ paid the penalty for our sin, receiving the punishment that ought to have been our own. No one else has done this-not Buddha, not Mohammed, or any other man. Now we have a choice. If we accept Christ, God considers our debt of sin as paid in full. If we reject Christ, however, we reject the only solution to our guilt, and elect to pay for our own crimes against God. If we choose to stand before God based on our own works we will surely face condemnation. If we choose to stand before God based on Christ's work on our behalf, however, we can expect mercy and grace.
After having failed to find meaning in all sorts of earthly pursuits, Solomon concluded that pursuing life without God is ultimately futile. He wrote, "Having heard everything, I have reached this conclusion: Fear God and keep his commandments, because this is the whole duty of man. For God will evaluate every deed, including every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Without God life is absurd, pointless, and without significance, but with God life is significant, purposeful, and imbued with meaning.
One strength of the Christian message is found in its ability to provide what is necessary for genuine meaning and purpose in life. As William Lane Craig observed, "According to the Christian worldview God does exist, and man's life does not end at the grave. In the resurrection body man may enjoy eternal life and fellowship with God. Biblical Christianity therefore provides the two conditions necessary for a meaningful, valuable, and purposeful life for man: God and immortality. Because of this, we can live consistently and happily. Thus, biblical Christianity succeeds precisely where atheism breaks down."16
The ability of Christianity to provide genuine meaning and purpose in life is not the only, nor the best reason to become a Christian, but it is a good one. Given the choice between atheistic materialism and theistic Christianity, the existential attractiveness of Christianity far outshines its competitor. Thankfully its intellectual viability far outshines its rivals as well, making Christianity not only existentially fulfilling, but rationally satisfying as well.
This is not an appeal to believe in God on the basis that believing in God is emotionally satisfying. As emotionally satisfying as belief in God may be, the only reason to believe in God is because He exists in reality. This is an appeal for you to reflect on why it is that you seek meaning and significance in life. Why do you feel the need to have a purpose, and be part of a purpose larger than yourself? Maybe it's because you were created with purpose and meaning. Maybe it's because there truly is meaning and value in life, but you have been searching for it in the wrong places.
I'm making an appeal for you to make a decision about Christ. He is the answer to your existential angst. He is the answer to your disillusionment with life. You were created to be in fellowship with Him. And even though you rejected that purpose, He loved you enough to pursue you, and to offer you forgiveness so you could be reconciled to Him once again, and fulfill the purpose of your life. The choice is yours. What will you do?
1. Douglas Futuyma, Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution (1995), 228.
2. Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (London: Allen & Unwin, 1963), 41.
3. William Lane Craig, "The Absurdity of Life Without God"; available from http://www.bethinking.org/resource.php?ID=129; Internet; accessed 02 September 2005. This is an online excerpt from Craig's 1994 book, Reasonable Faith, pages 51-75.
4. Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 20.
5. Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1985), pp. 90, 84.
6. Richard Dawkins, Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 133.
7. William Lane Craig, "The Absurdity of Life Without God"; available from http://www.bethinking.org/resource.php?ID=129; Internet; accessed 02 September 2005. This is an online excerpt from Craig's 1994 book, Reasonable Faith, pages 51-75.
8. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2d ed . (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 331.
9. G.G. Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution: A Study of the History of Life and of its Significance for Man  (Yale University Press: New Haven CT, 1960 reprint), 344.
10. William Lane Craig, "The Absurdity of Life Without God"; available from http://www.bethinking.org/resource.php?ID=129; Internet; accessed 02 September 2005. This is an online excerpt from Craig's 1994 book, Reasonable Faith, pages 51-75.
11. John Darnton, "Darwin paid for the fury he unleashed: How a believer became an iconoclast", San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 2005; available from http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/09/25/INGAUERQK01.DTL&hw=darwin&sn=001&sc=1000; Internet, accessed 26 September 2005.
12. William Lane Craig, "The Absurdity of Life Without God"; available from http://www.bethinking.org/resource.php?ID=129; Internet; accessed 02 September 2005. This is an online excerpt from Craig's 1994 book, Reasonable Faith, pages 51-75.
13. William Provine, abstract of "Evolution: Free Will and Punishment and Meaning in Life"; available from http://fp.bio.utk.edu/darwin/1998/provine_abstract.html; Internet; accessed 12 October 2005.
14. Peter Atkins, "Will science ever fail?", New Scientist, 8 August, 1992, pp. 32-35.
15. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.
16. William Lane Craig, "The Absurdity of Life Without God"; available from http://www.bethinking.org/resource.php?ID=129; Internet; accessed 02 September 2005. This is an online excerpt from Craig's 1994 book, Reasonable Faith, pages 51-75.
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