This is an article I was approached to write for Scope Magazine under the theme Rising Up, and within a limit of 850 words. Scope Magazine is a Christian based title that focuses on reaching students at university campuses across South Africa. Visit their website to learn more about their projects.
It is safe to say that human beings are meaning seeking creatures. Art, literature, philosophy, and religion are replete with people seeking after meaning. Strikingly, in my experience, even those who deny meaning in life live out their lives in ways that appear meaningful. Thus, no matter what we believe, we can’t escape the incessant desire for a meaningful existence.
In his essay philosopher William Lane Craig argues that there are two conditions sufficient for establishing a meaningful life: God and immortality. Both conditions are central to religion, especially religions that hold to a personal God and creator. However, by doing away with religion we can no longer hold to these conditions. Firstly, we would have to do away with immortality, and without immortality we no more than pass from existence into nothingness at death. On such a view, argues Craig, there can be no moral accountability, reason, and purpose in life, and it thus does not matter how one chooses to live. We can, on one hand, express the self-sacrificial love of Mother Teresa or the brutality of Hitler or Stalin. But if there is no immortality, no afterlife, and no judgment post-death for our earthly deeds, then it follows that there is no moral accountability after we die. It just doesn’t matter what we choose to do in this life; as Craig explains, “The decision to become a Mother Teresa rather than an Adolph Hitler is rather like the decision to go to McDonald’s rather than Burger King.” Without immortality it is a decision of absolutely no significance whatsoever.
But what about God? If we do away with religion, especially Christianity, we’d have to do away with God too. This is, however, a decision that has significant implications. Philosopher and atheist Jean Paul Sartre observed that “If God does not exist… man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon, either within or outside himself.” Sartre saw that on such a view the universe exists for no ultimate purpose and reason, and followed to its logical conclusion there are no grounds for holding that human beings within it have any purpose either. Similarly, the nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche reasoned that God’s death meant that the universe could no longer be seen to have been created with us in mind. God’s death also presented a challenge to our moral assumptions. By removing God humanity also removed the transcendent moral standard that was believed to be grounded in God’s nature and that imposed itself on all human beings. But how then are we to hold to a system of values beyond our subjective preferences in the absence of a divine order? Nietzsche, nonetheless, foresaw that even after declaring God’s death, human beings would continue seeking meaning in his existence, “God is dead,” Nietzsche remarked, “but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.”
Though I wouldn’t agree with Nietzsche concerning God’s death, I would agree that human beings are by their very nature meaning seeking creatures, and we seek after God’s shadow in those caves precisely because of that fact. However, Christians can take comfort as their worldview grounds these two necessary conditions for meaning. While the atheist has to bravely face the absurdity of existence, the Christian finds himself inhabiting a universe, a broken one nonetheless, permeated with meaning.
Why? On the Christian worldview, not only does God exist but human life does not face obliteration at the grave. Rather, Christ’s resurrection from death is the ultimate evidence that we will not only live on beyond our earthly deaths but that we too will have eternal fellowship with God. Human beings, however, will also be held morally accountable for their earthly deeds. It really does therefore matter whether we choose to be a Hitler or a Mother Teresa. Every human being also has intrinsic value on such a worldview. Biblical theology affirms that every person is uniquely made in God’s image, and therefore is of ultimate value in God’s eyes. In fact, so much so that God sent Jesus to die on a cross to redeem us from sin and separation from himself.
Thus, it can be argued that religion is an essential ingredient for a meaningful existence, and doing away with it will force us into a hopeless reality of “unyielding despair,” to quote Bertrand Russell. However, we ought to observe a caveat in that we’ve only observed that religion provides the necessary conditions for meaning. However, this in itself is not evidence that a religion is true, or that life is itself meaningful. Now, as an evidentialist, I wouldn’t be a Christian if I didn’t believe there was sufficient evidence for the truth of Christianity. But, admittedly, that would have to be argued on other grounds. However, we should agree that when it comes to meaning, Christianity succeeds where many other philosophies, especially godless ones, breakdown.