Can life have meaning without God?

A recent poll for an Internet search company ranked ‘what is the meaning of life?’ as the toughest question of all, coming above other such existential stumpers as ‘What is love?’, ‘Why is abbreviation such a long word?’ and ‘Why do you never see baby pigeons?’ We live in a culture that constantly tells us that we can find life’s meaning by pursuing excitement, adventure, through your career, through your family, through the size of your bank balance, but I think that most people end up discovering that those things— great as they are, fail miserably if you try to make them the ultimate thing.

‘Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for’. [Viktor E. Frankl, The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978) 21].

The question ‘what is life for?’ is one of the oldest questions of all and one that the Bible addresses in a number of places. Earlier we heard these words from the beginning of John’s gospel (John 1.1-3, 14):

In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory…the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The New Testament was originally written in Greek, and the phrase translated into English the Word is the Greek word ‘logos’, which in the first-century world meant ‘the meaning of life’. Questions about the life’s meaning are not new. The classical philosophers had been debating this for centuries and by the time of Jesus, the debate had split into two camps: the Stoics who thought that there was a meaning of life, but we can’t know it (so just get on with life and its miseries), and the Epicureans, who thought life had no meaning, so just eat, drink and be merry! Into this debate, the Bible says something radical. Yes, there is a ‘logos’, a meaning of life, but the meaning of life is not an idea. Not a concept. Not a philosophy. Not a self-help book from that freaky New Age section at the back of Waterstones. No, the meaning of life is not a thing. Not a what, but a who. The meaning of life is a person: Jesus Christ.

Now that’s the point at which many people react with skepticism: “Yeah, yeah, here comes the whole Christianity thing. Thanks but no thanks.” A couple of years ago I was on an aeroplane flight and got talking to a fellow passenger. We chatted for a while about his work and family. Then he asked what I did. “I’m a Christian speaker and writer,” I replied. Instantly his whole tone changed. “I hate Christians…” he snapped. “…Religion is poisonous.” Maybe you agree with him this morning: religion causes violence, superstition, irrationality, division, hatred, injustice—it poisons everything. Christianity has something to say about the meaning of life? Christianity! What good can come from that? Well, that is not a new question. Let me read you a little more from chapter 1 of John’s gospel, where John reports an encounter between Jesus and some of the disciples of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a popular teacher in Jesus’ day, drawing huge crowds. He also had students, and the Bible records an encounter between Jesus and some of them (John 1:43-51):

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law [the Old Testament], and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth!” exclaimed Nathanael. “Can anything good come from there?” “Come and see,” said Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi [Teacher], you are the Son of God [the Messiah]; you are the king of Israel!” Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you shall see Heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

That’s a complex and fascinating passage, but did you notice something? Nathanael is a snob. He hears where Jesus is from (Nazareth) and immediately concludes Jesus can’t have anything to say worth hearing. People do the same thing to Christianity today. “Oh, Christianity? Oh yes, I know all about that.” “You’re a Christian? You poor, weak-minded ignorant fool.” But the problem with dismissing something without considering it, is that it kills all creativity, leading you to only listen to people who agree with you, which risks you missing answers in unexpected places. If you’re going to reject ideas before even exploring them then you’re never going to be capable of addressing the deepest questions of life.There’s a fascinating book called Meanings of Life written by Roy Baumeister, a highly regarded psychologist. In his book, Baumeister argues that to tackle the question of life’s meaning, there are at least three basic questions that first need to be addressed: the question of identity (who am I?); the question of value (do I matter?); and the question of purpose (why am I here?); Every religion or worldview tries to answer these kinds of questions—even atheism tries to answer them: although I think its answers fail spectacularly. Let me illustrate why. Consider the question of identity: on atheism, who are we? Well, many skeptical thinkers are very honest about this. Physicist Lawrence Krauss, a very well known atheist, has said this of human beings:

‘We are a 1 percent bit of pollution within the universe. We are completely insignificant’.
[Cited in Amanda Lohrey, ‘The Big Nothing: Lawrence Krauss and Arse- Kicking Physics’, The Monthly, October 2012 ]

We are just cosmic debris. Bleak, but in a godless atheistic universe, true nonetheless. What about the value question? How might atheism answer the question of the value of a human life? Well, I guess a chemist could count the different chemicals and compounds that make up your body (how much carbon, how much sodium, how much fat) and assess what he could sell them for. An economist might say your value is based on what you earn. But those are terrible ways to attempt to a value a life. What about the question of purpose? On atheism, you simply are: you are merely a collection of atoms, that’s it, thrown up by the random tides of time and chaos. Asking if your life has a purpose is as nonsensical as asking ‘what’s the purpose of a pile of leaves’? The answer is none: it just is. But of course, purpose is vital. It is purpose that enables you to decide if something is good or bad. How do you tell if your watch is a good one? You need to know its purpose. If you try to hammer in nails with your watch and it breaks, is it a bad watch? No, that’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to tell you the time. And the same is true of human life: unless we know the purpose, how can you say that anybody is good or bad? You can’t. (I owe the watch illustration to Timothy Keller, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life's Biggest Questions).

Atheism falls entirely flat here too. Atheism fails to answer these three basic questions you need to address if life is to have meaning: you have no identity; no value; and no purpose—so why bother? So much for atheism. What does Christianity have to say to these four questions? Concerning identity, the Bible teaches that you are not cosmic debris, but that you were made and fashioned by the creator God. A God who knows you by name, and loves you. To be a human is, as the Bible puts it, to be made in the image of God. What about value? Well, think about economics for a moment. Economic theory tells us that something’s value is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it: for instance, I paid hundreds of dollars for my iPad. But take my iPad to a desert island with no power, no cellphone signal, no WiFi, what’s it worth? What would somebody pay for it? Nothing. Value is determined by what somebody is prepared to pay. So look what God was prepared to pay for you: the price of his beloved son, Jesus. As the Bible puts it (Romans 5.8):

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Concerning purpose. Christianity says there is a purpose to life, something (someone) for whom we were made. And that the purpose of life, the meaning of life baked into reality by the designer, is to know God and enjoy him forever. These are just a few of the many good reasons to come to Jesus. To come and see as Philip said to Nathanael. But one last thing. When Nathanael and Jesus meet in John 1, do you remember what Jesus said to Nathanael at the end of their conversation? You will see heaven opened. What is Jesus talking about? Jesus is referring to a story in the Old Testament, in Genesis 28, where Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder between Heaven and Earth, with angels ascending and descending on it. In the Bible, angels are a sign of the presence of God. Because of our self-centredness, because we’ve turned from God and tried to pursue meaning, purpose and significance without him, there’s a barrier between heaven and earth: a blockage between who we were created to be and who we are. Which is why we have all these issues. But Jacob has a vision, a dream that one day there will be a connection between Heaven and Earth, a way we can get back into the presence of God once again.

And in John 1, Jesus makes the incredible claim to Nathanael that he is that way. That ladder. Jesus is the ‘logos’, the purpose of life, the bridge between heaven and earth, the way to know both life’s purpose and its purposer.

I’ve been a Christian for over 20 years. And the more I’ve followed Jesus, the deeper I’ve found it goes—Jesus changes everything, starting with you, and working outwards from there. Conversely, the more I’ve studied atheism, teaching philosophy and writing books on the subject, the shallower I’ve found it gets. All of us have to trust something, to move from the facts to our willingness to put our weight on them, and my question for my skeptical friends is thus: What are you trusting and does it bear your weight? If you are not a Christian here this morning, then I simply want to say to you what Philip said to Nathanael, too, in John chapter 1, Come and see. Put aside your prejudices, your suspicions, your narrow-mindedness. Come and see. Bring your questions, sure, your doubts and your objections. Those are welcome. But don’t let them hold you back, Jesus welcomes you, questions and all. Come and see. Come and see. And whatever you’re expecting, or fearing, or wondering—I believe that Jesus blows all of our expectations. You will find greater things (the greatest thing) in Jesus from Nazareth.

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