By Jon Topping | November 23rd, 2021
The question of, “what is the meaning of life?” has been asked so many times that it’s literally a joke in some contexts. I recently came across this question once again, about whether life does have meaning. Interestingly, I had just finished teaching a lecture on this very topic! The person asking the question seemed to be going through what is called an “existential crisis”. This is when the person starts asking the deep questions of life, seeking to find their reason for being on this planet, and begins to actually form their own sense of identity. When asking questions about purpose, there are many in our society who feel a type of existential dread, where they sink into depression, because life seems to have no meaning. Historically, this sort of idea came about in philosophy due to the rise of secularism, and resulted in existential philosophy.
The goal in the development of a lot of existential philosophy was to try and figure out how life can have meaning “if” God doesn’t exist.
Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov on this concept,
“’But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?’”
While this sounds freeing at first, it’s a hopeless type of freedom. It’s sounds great that people can do what they like, because all things are permitted! However… that means that all things are permitted… Morality gets tossed out the window, and with it, any ideas that humans are innately valuable, or that there’s a purpose to human existence. Morality just is the way that humans ought to live, in order to fulfill their purpose in life. If all things are permitted, then there isn’t really any goal or point to the lives we live. Is this a reasonable place to end up? Is life pointless?
A great deal of existentialism is centered around the person staring the black hole of life in the face, seeing how absurd it is, and spiting it by creating purpose for themselves. The basic idea behind this philosophy is that life is in fact pointless, because there is no meaning, no value, no morality, etc. However, we all “feel” like there is meaning/purpose/value/morality, so life seems absurd. Why do we have desires and motivations that have no real connection to reality? Because of this absurdity, many will become depressed and suicidal. A major question in existentialism is to ask yourself, “why not just commit suicide?” Whatever way the person answers this question will be their purpose to life. If you don’t want to commit suicide because you would leave your kids without a parent, then parenting is your purpose in life. If you want to leave some legacy behind where you have contributed to society, then that is your meaning. Whatever gives a person reason to continue waking up in the morning is their own personal purpose in life. The problem here is that, there is no “real” purpose to life in this philosophy. If we’re honest, the person is lying to themselves, inventing a purpose out of nothing, with the goal of helping them get through life. Many people will say their life has meaning, but it only has meaning “to them”. They are not actually valuable, and there is no actual purpose. Realistically,
these people are deliberately telling themselves pleasant lies, as a way to help them deal with the harshness of the empty and absurd void they find themselves in.
This type of existential philosophy is merely a lie to comfort fools, and people believe it, because it’s better than standing face to face with the empty and absurd void of meaninglessness they feel the universe is.
The Major Flaw
There’s one massive flaw in all this though; it’s built upon the foundation that God doesn’t exist.
Atheism wasn’t really argued, it was merely assumed, and then they went from there.
Even now, the arguments for true atheism are quite bad, and many of those involved in this debate are taking steps away from atheism, and towards agnosticism, deism, and even theism (I have seen this on a personal level as well). Additionally, the arguments for God are actually quite good (cosmological, teleological, and for the topic of existentialism especially moral arguments are good to look up). If we feel like we have value and meaning, maybe it’s because… we actually do!
If God has created us, then when something is created for a purpose, that is objectively that thing’s purpose. Nothing can take that away from the thing, because it was created with a task and goal in mind. God tells us He created humanity “in His image”, meaning we do have value. God created us for relationship with Him, and we will naturally find that deeply satisfying (notice I said “relationship with God”, not just practicing religious ceremonies). If something comes about randomly, without any intentionality to its origin, then yes, that thing has no real objective purpose. However, if something is created with intentionality in mind, where the creator has created for a reason, then the purpose that creator made the thing for is the purpose of that thing, whether it likes it or not. This is why human beings really do have a real and objective reason for living.
There is meaning to life, humans are valuable, and there is a purpose for why you are on this planet. All of this is true because God made you in His image, with a purpose in mind. We will never be really, truly satisfied, unless we find our purpose in God. A famous quote from Augustine speaks to this concept, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” We can search all we want, and develop all kinds of new philosophies on how to understand the world, but unless we fulfill our true purpose of life by having a relationship with God, we will never be truly satisfied.
The Root Problem
The root of our problem here, and why so many think there is no purpose, is that our relationship with God has been broken by our rebellion. Even within this conversation, the atheist and/or existentialist is rebelling against the true meaning and purpose for their lives, and inventing their own, in spite of God, which is an act of rebellion.
The really sad part of all of this is that the people who are depressed at the existential questions of life are falling into their depression based on bad assumptions. The truth of their reality would actually be a relief, and even a joy to them, but they refuse to believe it. Why do so many reject the real purpose for their lives, in favor of a contrived purpose? Because of the attractive part of the original quote I gave from The Brothers Karamazov. If there is no God, then humans can do what they like. They’re giving up their true purpose, the real reason for why they were created, all so that they can have what they think is “freedom”. However, this apparent freedom comes at far too great a cost, and ignores the truth behind the reality of our existence.
For many, it’s far easier to believe this comfortable lie, than it is to admit they might have been mistaken all along, and in fact might actually require some help. Humility is difficult, and it’s even harder when you have to turn your back on how you’ve lived your entire life, admitting that you’ve been wrong the entire time, and that you’ve totally missed the point of life up to this moment. However, I would argue it’s entirely worth it. Imagine realizing the truth of the meaning of life, but rejecting it, and continuing to believe pleasant lies, because… why? You’re too full of pride?
I can think of few things more foolish than deliberately believing something you know to be false, merely because it would be embarrassing to start believing the truth.
So then what is this truth about the purpose of life? Again, it’s relationship with God. However, as I mentioned, we have broken that relationship through our rebellion. Thankfully, God wants to restore us to Himself, and wants to fix that brokenness between us.
This is the entire point of Christianity. The message of Jesus was that God loves us, and He doesn’t want us to be condemned in our rebellion. Instead, God wants us to experience the real purpose for which we were created, which is eternal life with Him. (John 3:16-18) He went out of His way to provide a method of salvation for us, through Jesus taking our evil upon Himself. Jesus became human, to become guilty with us, so that our rebellious state can be fixed by Jesus paying the price of our sin for us.
People love the darkness, and love the apparent sense of freedom found in having no restrictions placed upon them, but they are missing out on the real meaning for why they were created.
Only by the restoration Jesus provides can we once again have a relationship with God, and fulfill what we were originally intended for.
This is the meaning of life.
Jon Topping is a speaker with Engage International and is based out of Canada.