How Does God Grant Life Meaning?

An atheist on Facebook objected to one of my posts where I claimed I was depressed when I didn’t believe in God because I knew without a deity, life had no purpose.  He claimed that if God existed, He would be a  purposeless being who could not grant purpose to others.  Is he right?

Philosopher James Anderson crafted a wonderful post over at The Gospel Coalition entitled Can Life Have Meaning Without God?.  He argued we naturally ask whether our lives have purpose, that is whether they are directed toward some goal or end.  He asserts we also ask if our lives have significance, that is :whether they count for anything as part of greater whole. Third, we want to know whether our lives have value. 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?”

Anderson goes on to write:

The immediate problem is that 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.

This is a conclusion that many modern atheists have drawn. Bertrand Russell wrote that the universe as he understood it is “purposeless” and “void of meaning”; the entire sum of human endeavors is “destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system” (“A Free Man’s Worship,” 1903).

Richard Dawkins has expressed much the same view: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (River Out of Eden, Basic Books, 1995, p. 133).

William Provine puts the matter plainly: “Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear—and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. . . . There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either” (“Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?” Origins Research 16:1 (Fall/Winter 1994)).

Alex Rosenberg is even more to the point: “What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, W.W. Norton & Company, 2011, pp. 2-3). Rosenberg argues that a scientifically informed atheist should be a nihilist when it comes to purpose, significance, and value.

But atheists object (and did to my post) that a person can ascribe meaning to his or her life even if it is finite and the product of undirected natural selection.  Anderson responds:

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.

Once we recognize that the meaning-from-within view requires us to treat Osama bin Laden’s self-ascribed purpose on an equal footing with our own, that position seems considerably less appealing. The only way we could non-arbitrarily discriminate between all these subjectively meaningful lives—to deem one better or more worthy than another—is by smuggling some objective values through the back door. Sooner or later the meaning-from-within camp has to pilfer from the meaning-from-outside camp.

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?

Cornelius Van Til brilliantly captured the incoherence and absurdity of such a view by likening it to a man made of water in an infinite, bottomless ocean of water, trying to climb out of the water by building a ladder of water (see Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, P&R, 1972, p. 102). Could anything be more futile?

Now, with all that said, I’ll return to the objection by the skeptic that God is a “purposeless being.”  I would venture a guess that this gentleman does not understand the nature of God.  The Christian faith holds that God is “three and one” that is He is Father, Son and Spirit.  The Trinity preceded the creation of time itself and “glorified each other” before they created the universe.  In other words, they loved and honored each other.  It is not hard to see how perfect, eternal persons who love each other have purpose, significance and worth.

Moreover, it is important to remember that God did not need to create the world.  God chose to do so out of love and is gently directing the universe toward an ultimate goal of a new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21:1).  In this new heavens and new earth, all creation will enjoy the perfect love the Trinity enjoyed before time began.  During this eternal tomorrow all things the disciples of Jesus have done to honor God will continue to exist.  The new heavens and new earth will be a perfect physical reality where art, friendship, sports, etc. will all exist.  Thus, God is true purpose, true significance and true worth and only He can grant it to others.

BTW, James Anderson is the author of the fine new book What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (Crossway 2014).  I highly recommend it, especially for new Christians or those interested in the faith.