What is Life's Meaning and Purpose?
Does life have meaning without God in the picture? Is there a purpose for the earth and those who dwell on it? If so, what is the purpose?
When Stephen Hawking wrote his book A Brief History of Time, after explaining his view of the nature of the universe, he concluded: "If we find the answer to that [the question of why we and the universe exist], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God" (Hawking, p. 175).
The answer to that question will not come from human intelligence or reason but only from the One who transcends our material universe. If we remove God from the equation, we lose all sense of purpose for man and the universe.
The meaning of life has been a question mark from the beginning of mankind. It is in our nature to ask such questions as "Why am I here?" and "What is the purpose of life?"
God has a purpose for man, but few grasp what it is. Knowing that transcendent purpose, and really believing it, can infuse meaning into our lives. But we can understand our purpose only if we seek answers from the One who created life.
Purpose without God
Let us first consider the meaning of life if evolution were true and if there were no Creator God who has had any involvement with mankind.
If there were no God, there would be no possibility of life beyond the grave and certainly no possibility of immortality. Life would end in the finality of the grave. There would be no transcendent purpose to give meaning to our lives. Our lives would have no more significance than any animal or insect straining for survival until the moment of death. All the achievements, the sacrifices, the good and wonderful things men and women do would ultimately be futile efforts in a universe awaiting its own ruin.
The late astronomer and author Carl Sagan didn't believe in God. After the death of his wife of 20 years, he believed he would never see her again. As his own death approached, he expressed a common human longing mixed with the futility inherent in atheism. "I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But, much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking" ("In the Valley of the Shadow," Parade, March 10, 1996).
When you remove the prospect and hope of an afterlife, your life is without value and without purpose. What difference would it ultimately make whether we lived like a Mother Teresa or an Adolf Hitler? Everyone's fate would be the same. The good contributions of people would make no difference to their fate or the fate of the universe.
This is the bleak outlook of those who base their beliefs on atheism, evolution and the assumption that this life is all there is.
But, if God exists, our lives have an eternal significance because our hope is not death but eternal life (see "Why Were You Born?"). If God exists, we have a standard of absolute right and wrong residing in the nature of God Himself. This makes our moral choices profoundly significant.
Broadly speaking, man has developed three views that attempt to explain the meaning of life without God and deny any possibility of life beyond its earthly existence. These have had an enormous impact on the world and the way people live.
The nihilistic view
The first conclusion that springs from an atheistic approach to life is that human existence, laws and institutions are meaningless. This view is nihilism—a conviction that, since God does not exist, the universe and anything in it has no goal or purpose. We are merely the product of matter, time and chance. There is no life beyond our temporary existence. We are the sole masters of our earthly life, and what we make of ourselves in its short duration is within our own power.
This view denies that values exist. It denies the existence of any objective basis for the establishment of ethics, morals or truth. It claims you are free to adopt any set of likes or dislikes rather than adhere to a system of moral absolutes.
Your standards and choices are determined by what seems best for you, by what gives you personal satisfaction or pleasure. It provides no rational justification for living a moral life. It may be to your advantage to conform to the moral values of society if that it is in your best interests, but you have no obligation to be a moral person if doing so would go against your personal interests. In this sense an atheist may have morals and be a moral person, but we should understand that an atheist or existentialist appeals to no authority for those morals.
This nihilistic view led to the pronouncement in the 1960s that "God is dead." That slogan implied that God and His laws are irrelevant and should not be used to influence man to a higher moral standard. It implied you can do whatever you please.
That philosophy led to a generation that did whatever it pleased. It ushered in a time of rebellion against long-held values. Drug use, violence and promiscuity skyrocketed upward. Moral standards and the number of stable marriages and families plummeted.
Although we rarely see such open displays of rebellion and anarchy in our streets and universities as we saw then, the damage has been done. Whole societies were—and remain—permanently corrupted by this rejection of Bible-based standards and values. It has exacted a terrible toll. Ideas have consequences. People who promulgated this philosophy didn't realize the extent of those consequences.
The humanistic approach
The next view is similar. Humanism also holds that the universe exists for no purpose. We are the result of a blind process that does not necessitate any kind of meaning.
Humanism differs from nihilism, however, in that life can have a meaning if we assign a meaning to life. Life can have as much meaning as we put into it. Life is worth living because we ourselves make it worthwhile and enjoyable. As with nihilism, however, no objective values are acknowledged. This view holds that a person may be moral because it gives him personal satisfaction to create values and live according to those values.
There isn't much difference between the humanistic view and nihilism. The humanistic view acknowledges that values exist, but values are neither objective, universal nor permanent—and no one is obligated to be moral; no absolute values exist.
Humanism fails to provide moral objections to immoral behavior. In other words, if no moral absolutes exist, you can't demonstrate that anything is wrong or evil. Thus no one is in a position to judge or condemn the choices or actions of others.
A third view is that objective values do exist, but they exist independently of God; they do not need Him to exist. This view is different from the first two because it recognizes the existence of objective values.
However, according to this view man has sufficient moral intuition to become aware of the moral values that exist. Here again man is the discoverer of morals and has within himself the ability to live by morals if he chooses. He does not need God to tell him of absolutes or what the moral absolutes are. Therefore there is no need for God. The meaningfulness of life does not depend on the existence of God or something outside human life.
All three of these perspectives have something in common: They remove God from consideration and offer no hope of life beyond death. All three views proclaim, in essence, that man came from nothing, we have evolved to find ourselves the highest order of life, and we are in a position to order our own values and define ourselves and our destiny.
These views also hold that there is no life after death, that this life is all there is. Life may or may not have meaning, depending on one's view. The result is that we achieve nothing more than passing on our genes and philosophies to our progeny in hopes that they will further develop into superior beings. All this, of course, says that evolution is not finished and we are in an ongoing process of ever-higher development.
The major issues of life
Can we have a real purpose and absolute values without God? People can fathom some meaning in life with these philosophies—if you define meaning as a sense of temporary happiness and enjoying life at the moment. It is sad that far too many have come to define meaning this way. But these views fail to answer the real questions concerning meaning. Only when you put God in the picture can you find a complete answer that not only gives meaning to this life now but satisfies our longing for purpose beyond this life.
Of all the creatures we see around us, man is the only part of the creation that can even address the subject of meaning, worship God and can express a belief in life after death. Unlike animals, humans can conceive of eternity and immortality.
Why are we different? Could it be that our faculty of imagining the future, hoping for life beyond our temporal hour, was thoughtfully placed within us by a Creator who Himself has assigned an eternal purpose for humans?
Some 3,000 years ago wise King Solomon wrote that God "has put eternity in [men's] hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). God gave us the longing to ask the questions, but not the ability to know the answers unless we come to sincerely seek and rely on Him.
If we choose not to believe that God created the universe, then we must believe that all hope in the future and desire for meaning beyond our physical life are futile. Ironically, if the principles by which evolution is assumed to operate were true, man wouldn't need to develop this aspect of his intellect.
But the fact is that we do think about it.
Humans are God's creation. He had His reasons for putting us here. Our worth is not in ourselves but that God created us in His image. It is God who gives value to human life.
The problem is that, since we have removed God from consideration, we have been desperately searching elsewhere to try to find self-worth. We have developed psychologies that emphasize our self-importance. A virtual priesthood of psychologists tells us we can rise above the problems we have created for ourselves by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
Most of our system of psychology was designed to accommodate a godless view of creation. It rejects the concept that our worth comes from a Creator who assigned a purpose to man before He created any of us.
The moral principles of God are embodied in the laws He gave man. Contrary to the predominantly secular views of psychology, how we should live should not be determined by how our actions make us feel. God's laws were meant to work for man's own good. When we follow them, they lead not only to happiness and fulfillment in this life, but they give us a picture of what God Himself is all about. God's law is, in a sense, what He is. His laws reflect His character and nature.
Priceless privilege or cheap substitute?
Of all the creation, God gave us alone the ability to choose whether we will live by His laws or by whatever values we assign to ourselves for our own satisfaction. God's laws are not mere duties, but He designed us so we will become most happy, satisfied and fulfilled by doing what He says. Since God made us, He knows what is best for us. He gives us instructions that will benefit us.
Man is not a mere puppet in God's hands. We have the choice of whether to do what He says or not (Deuteronomy 30:19). We can either recognize Him as the Creator and Lawgiver of the cosmos, or we can deny that He exists. We can choose to live a meaningless life or a life with purpose.
If we exalt ourselves by imagining that we are the highest form of life in the evolutionary process, we in reality are robbing ourselves of the priceless value God places on us. Our existence and future are devalued from being sons of God to being only one of many species of animals. It is tragic that man has substituted the cheap feeling of self-importance for the priceless privilege of becoming God's own children, of sharing the awesome universe with Him in glory and immortality.
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