Why Life is Meaningless Without God
This then raises the question: what is the meaning of life? This question has been asked so many times that it’s become a cliché. But what does the question actually mean? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning is “what is meant by a word, text, concept or action.” On the meaning of words, linguists agree that meaning is determined by usage. When you ask what the meaning of a word is, you are asking about what it is meant for.
Questions of meaning are irreducibly questions about purpose – what exactly is the point? And so to ask “what is the meaning of life?” is to ask about the purpose of life. What is life meant for? What is its purpose? However, if you start with the premise that there is no God, then it follows that we were not created for any given purpose. And if life is not meant for anything, then life has no meaning by definition.
However, not many people are willing to concede that life is without meaning, and so in the presumed absence of God we often construct our own meaning/purpose for our lives. This is a very common move to make. If there is no objective meaning or point to life, and if we stop doing things when we discover that they are pointless, then we need to create some sort of meaning or reason to live.
The problem is that things are either created for a purpose or they’re not. If you create a software program or a robot, it can’t decide what its purpose is after it’s been created (by the definition of purpose). In order for atheists to maintain that life has meaning, they have to change the definition of meaning so that it is no longer meaning, but rather, something that they consider to be worthwhile.
And while there’s nothing wrong with living for something that one considers to be worthwhile (indeed, what else would you live for?), to pretend that this is something approximating the meaning of life, is to confuse objective reality with our subjective tastes. For atheists, any and all meaning in life has to be ‘made up’ by us. It’s not an objective meaning that life actually has, but a subjective personal goal that we simply choose to strive for. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagal makes this distinction as follows:
“Even if you produce a great work of literature which continues to be read thousands of years from now, eventually the solar system will cool or the universe will wind down and collapse, and all trace of your effort will vanish… The problem is that although there are justifications and explanations for most of the things, big and small, that we do within life, none of these explanations explain the point of your life as a whole – the whole of which all these activities, successes and failures, strivings and disappointments are parts. If you think about the whole thing, there seems to be no point to it at all. Looking at it from the outside, it wouldn’t matter if you had never existed. And after you have gone out of existence, it won’t matter that you did exist… “So what?” you might say. “It’s enough that it matters whether I get to the station before my train leaves, or whether I’ve remembered to feed the cat. I don’t need more than that to keep going.” This is a perfectly good reply. But it only works if you really can avoid setting your sights higher, and asking what the point of the whole thing is.” (Thomas Nagal, What Does it All Mean?, p95-97)
If there is no God/purpose for which we were made, then there’s no objective meaning to life. As Nagal puts it, creating your own meaning “only works if you really can avoid setting your sights higher, and asking what the point of the whole thing is.” You can live a happy life creating your own subjective goals, as long as you don’t think about the big picture. But for some, the question of life’s meaning keeps breaking in on us, especially as we get older. This was the case for the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who, at the height of his career, made the following confession:
“I could give no reasonable meaning to any single action or to my whole life. I was only surprised that I could have avoided understanding this from the very beginning – it has been so long known to all. Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (they had come already) to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort? ... How can man fail to see this? And how go on living? That is what is surprising! One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is: there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid… My question – that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide – was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?” Differently expressed, the question is: “Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus: “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” (Leo Tolstoy, A Confession, p17, 21)
Where Nagal argues that we should avoid setting our sights higher and asking what the point of the whole thing is, Tolstoy replies by saying, “how can we fail to do so? That’s what’s surprising. One can only live without meaning while one is intoxicated with life. As soon as one is sober it’s impossible not to see that it’s all a mere fraud.” Stated this starkly, Christian theism has an inherent strength that atheism simply lacks. Tim Keller puts the point like this:
“When secular people seek to lead a meaningful life, they must have discipline to not think so much about the big picture. They must disconnect what their reason tells them about the world from what they are experiencing emotionally. That is getting a feeling of meaningfulness through a lack of rationality, by the suppression of thinking and reflection… By contrast, life, meaning and purpose play out for a Christian believer in the very opposite direction. Christians do not say to themselves: “Stop thinking out the implications of what you believe about the universe. Just try to enjoy the day.” No, if a Christian is feeling downcast and meaningless, it is because, in a sense, she is not being rational enough. She is not thinking enough about the implications of what she believes about the universe. Christians believe that there is a God, who made us in love to know him.” (Tim Keller, Making Sense of God, p67-69)
Jordan Peterson’s argument that we need meaning in order to bear the suffering of life, is entirely correct. But if we weren’t created for a purpose, then there’s no objective meaning to life, only ‘made up’ subjective personal goals. If, however, there is a God who has made us for the purpose of loving relationships with him and with each other (Matthew 22:36-40), and guaranteed its realisation in the person and work of Christ (Romans 8:38-39), then there really is an objective meaning to life, and reflecting on it rationally will help you bear the suffering and tragedy of living in this world (Romans 8:18-21).