What kind of meaning do we mean? I suggest that when we consider “the meaning of life,” we have in view at least three concepts: purpose, significance, and value.
Is our life directed toward some goal or end? A light bulb has a purpose, to illuminate a space.
Does it contribute to or count for anything as part of greater whole? Does it make a difference to the world around us? Is my life worth anything overall? Is it better lived than not? Is the world a better place for having my life as part of it?
Perhaps it depends on your religious outlook (or lack of it).
Those who have faith believe that life has meaning. It is wrapped up in a supernatural explanation. But the rest of the world refuses to swallow religious dogma, because there’s no evidence. Nobody can prove that there is life after death, that people are tortured or rewarded after life or that there are invisible spirits existing around us. Some people place meaning on possessions, or position, their jobs, their education, the awards they win the cars they drive the homes they live in or the string of relationships they have acquired. But then what if you lost that stuff? Does your life then lose its meaning?
What about those who use violence to get what others have earned? Is the meaning of their lives only valuable to them?
The question comes down to two sides: Either:
1. Life has no meaning (except what you place upon it).
2. Life has a million meanings.
First, there’s a certainty that death and annihilation awaits not only everyone living today, but the Earth in general will eventually end. Even people without faith believe it’s an astronomical certainty that our sun will supernova and leave the earth a burnt crisp, not to mention all the other extinction level events occurring regularly.
Second, the million things that give us meaning are the pleasurable experiences we can conjure up during the short period we are here on the earth, in the form of the relationships we have with our families and pass on to our kids and other people, and the ‘housekeeping’ types of purposes. What I mean by that are the worthy events people work towards like the curing of disease, ending hunger, improving literacy, reducing crime, preventing war, helping others less fortunate than themselves to become productive members of society and activities like that.
So the bottom line is, we either go on living for the temporary meanings of life…..(Since life itself is temporary we can only add a temporary meaning to life), to reduce pain and increase pleasure, before everything is lost to oblivion or we make the choice to believe there is something greater or outside ourselves that gives life meaning.
To be or not to be? “To be” is temporary and “not to be” is inevitable but there may be something greater out there that we can become a part of that gives us an objective meaning to life (one bestowed on it from an outside source) rather than a subjective meaning (one found only by the determination of the person living it).
There was once a wise and very rich king.
He was extremely wealthy and decided to explore every pleasure money can buy. He wanted to grow whatever good thing he enjoyed on his table so he bought orchards and olive groves and land and cattle and developed vineyards and made wine. Yet no matter how much he had and used he always wanted more the next day and could only consume a small amount each day. Nothing he consumed satisfied his desire.
He decided to collect as much wealth as he could. He taxed his people, the merchants and then took his armies to conquer enemy nations and gather their wealth into his store houses. But he found out that money is cold and does not in itself satisfy desires but leaves you always wanting more.
Then he wanted to collect horses and bought some of the best animals known in the world. But he could only ride one at a time and some days he couldn’t ride at all because of the affairs of state necessary to run his kingdom. His horses did not satisfy his desire.
Then he looked towards relationships with women. If a woman was of the highest class of society and he desired her he would ask her to marry him. If she was not of the “right class” yet he wanted to sleep with her he made her one of his concubines. Before long he had 300 wives and 700 concubines (that’s 1,000 mother in-laws guys!). He discovered that he was never able to satisfy all the women every year and often was too tired to satisfy himself with just one.
Then he thought he could work during the day and party at night. He had a series of bands, musicians, dancers, tumblers and every other form of entertainment available. He was surrounded every night with people yet felt alone and dissatisfied. After a time he sent them all away but was not even satisfied with quiet either.
2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
Wisdom Is Meaningless
12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. 16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. 18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
The meaning of life.
Can life have an objective meaning? Is there some greater purpose for our live we need to discover before we die?
When relationships are failing, careers start feeling empty, or tragedy strikes, questions like these begin to bubble up in our minds. Sometimes we work towards a goal for years only to find that the end result – the money, power or recognition we’ve achieved – doesn’t give us that sense of purpose and peace we were seeking to begin with. Those who have not yet reached their goals may look up to heroes who have made it to the top. But when asked what he wished he had known starting out, one successful athlete said, “I wish that someone would have told me that when you reach the top, there’s nothing there.”
The peoples and cultures of the world pursue many things, trying to discover the meaning of life. Some pursuits are humanistic – people look for meaning by doing good for others or trying to make the world a better place. Some are existential – people look for meaning in pleasure, fun or relaxation. Other people pursue business success, wealth, power or politics. Others search for meaning in family or romantic relationships. But ultimately, a deep emptiness remains.
From the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end [i.e., our highest purpose] is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Moreover, our lives would have significance as part of God’s wise and sovereign plan for his creation. And as creatures made in the image of God, designed to commune with God and with one another, our lives would have tremendous value.
Unfortunately to an atheistic worldview this statement is meaningless. Evolution (as atheists conceive it) is entirely mindless and undirected. It has no purpose, no end, no goal. It isn’t directed anywhere. Evolution has no plan at all, never mind a plan of which we could contribute a significant part. Evolution doesn’t make value judgments; it doesn’t select one course over another because it is more valuable or worthy. Evolution thus offers no basis for the meaningfulness of human lives. From an evolutionary perspective, the existence of Homo sapiens is no more or less meaningful than the existence of woodlice, crabgrass, or rubble in a crater on Mars.
Many atheists will concede that if there is no God then the universe and human life have no objective meaning. But they’ll quickly add that we shouldn’t conclude that our lives lack any kind of meaning. They’ll suggest that we are able to give our lives meaning, to bestow meaning on ourselves. Since there’s nothing outside us that could ascribe meaning to our lives, any meaning must come from within us, either as individuals or as a society. As Stanley Kubrick once put it, “The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning.”
We might find such an atheist saying something like this: “I’ve chosen to commit my life to discovering a cure for cancer. It’s my personal decision, rather than the decree of some deity, that gives my life meaning and purpose. My life does indeed have a goal: a goal that I myself have determined for it. My life is significant because I’ve made it significant; it’s valuable because I myself value it.”
On the face of it, this sounds quite plausible, even attractive. Why couldn’t we make our lives meaningful by choosing to live in certain ways, by choosing to embrace certain worthy goals? Unfortunately—for the atheist—this idea faces two serious objections.
In the first place, it suffers from a problem of arbitrariness. If the meaning of life is subjectively determined, then anything could become the meaning of life depending on one’s personal preferences and predilections. Sitting around all day eating donuts and playing video games could just as well be the meaning of life as finding cures for illnesses. A suicidal person would be entitled to make the meaning of life the destruction of his life. Worse still, a homicidal person would be entitled to make the meaning of life the destruction of other lives.
The second objection arises from what has been called the bootstrapping problem. This challenge is faced by any system expected to initiate and sustain itself without any external assistance. Just as it is impossible for you to lift yourself off the floor by your own bootstraps, so it seems impossible for you to confer meaning on your own life if your life lacks meaning at the outset (whether meaning-from-outside or meaning-from-within). If your life is meaningless to begin with, how could any of your choices be meaningful or meaning-creating? How could meaningful choices arise out of a meaningless life? Can you get things off the ground by simply choosing that your choices be meaningful?
Atheists certainly do have meaningful lives, yet that’s only because their atheistic beliefs are false. A person can deny the existence of God and still have a meaningful life. But this fact no more proves that life can have meaning without God than a person who denies the existence of oxygen and still enjoys good health would prove that you can be healthy without oxygen. It only proves that people can hold beliefs at odds with reality—as if we didn’t already know that.
My concern is not that you’re mistaken in thinking you have a meaningful life. No, my concern is that you don’t realize just how meaningful a life you have. So I pray that you would embrace the One who authored your life and who freely offers life in all its fullness (Acts 3:15; John 10:10; John 20:30-31).
The final portions of this article were provided by an article written by James Anderson and which can be found here:
James Anderson is associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. He is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and came to RTS from Edinburgh, Scotland. His doctoral thesis at the University of Edinburgh explored the paradoxical nature of certain Christian doctrines and the implications for the rationality of Christian faith.