Category Archives: Meaning of Life

Football, Atheism, and the Meaning of Life

As I enjoy a break from my writing projects to watch the World Cup I’ve taken to spending my evenings after my son goes to bed lying on the sofa watching 22 grown men running around after a piece of inflated leather. My wife thinks it’s really rather pointless, lacking any important goal. What does it matter? Who really cares who wins? Will it make any difference to the world whether Brazil or Argentina or Holland wins?

Good questions, and worth tackling. What is the meaning of football? What’s the point of it? People get paid millions play, but isn’t it all so pointless? “Yay my team won!” So? “They got a trophy!” So? “They’re now the most successful team in the world!” So? Does it really amount to anything? Records are broken. Even legends will be eventually forgotten – witness the growing number of young people who haven’t got a clue who The Beatles are, who have substituted the Fab Four for One Direction.

And of course there seems to be something innate in us which makes us ask this very question of our own existence and take a shot at an answer. We’re born. We engage in years of intensive education. We try to get the best job we can, earning as much money as we can, and get a bit of enjoyment along the way. All the time we age, our bodies weaken, and before we know it it’s nearly all over and all that’s left is a young person inside an old body wondering what the hell happened. Before we know it our lives have taken a dive and we’re in a box. And is that it? Are we just worm food after that? What if atheism is true and there is no greater purpose to life? If atheism is true isn’t life just as meaningless and purposeless as watching 22 grown men chasing a ball?

What if atheism is true……..

We know that eventually our sun will burn up our planet. We know also that the universe itself will “die” as, in all probability, it expands and becomes more dilute, cold, desolate and pitch black. All the genius of humanity will be forgotten. Every witty invention will have gone to the wall. Everyone cured of illness by the finely honed skills of a doctor will have succumbed to death, and their doctors along with them. Every piece of art destroyed. Every building turned to dust and scattered. Every river dried up. Every mountain flattened. Every star burned out. The Milky Way galaxy will have spiralled out of existence. The sombrero galaxy will be ripped apart and broken. The Big Dipper will have dipped. Taurus hunted down and destroyed. The Gemini twins torn asunder never to be reunited. The universe will end in blind pitiless indifference to everything humanity ever was or did or saw. And there is no one to save us.

Of course, this rather foul picture is true on atheism only. This will almost certainly be the end of all things if there is no God to intervene. I’m no fan of atheist and therefore I don’t believe this will be how it all ends. But what if atheism is true? Is life therefore meaningless, purposeless and valueless? Can we do nothing but despair? So much of existentialist literature can be summarized as the despondent cry “God does not exist! What on earth are we to do now?!”

Some theists even attempt to make arguments from the meaning of life to the existence of God, which typically take the form:

1. If God does not exist then life does not have any meaning.
2. Life does have meaning.
3. Therefore God exists.

As a theist whose belief in the existence of God is amongst the strongest beliefs I hold I have to confess I don’t find arguments concerning the meaning of life to be of much value. The first half of this argument doesn’t appeal to me. True enough if God does not exist then there is no “transcendent” meaning, no eternal purpose to life. If, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” then in the absence of God our lives no longer have this purpose. But what is supposed to follow from this? Does it follow that nothing has any meaning or purpose or value? William Lane Craig reckons that because – on atheism – man ends in nothing then he is nothing. But is that correct?

It strikes this theist as flat out false to say that if atheism is true then nothing has any meaning, purpose or value. I can imagine someday waking up after an argument with the World’s Most Intelligent Atheist” who has managed to help me see the error of my theistic ways. I pay the penalty of the encounter and I’m forced to admit that there is no God after all. Now, would it follow that in this new universe I inhabit that nothing has any meaning or value or purpose? I really don’t see how. On my first day on team atheist I wake up and go to see my son in his bedroom. He’s no longer fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, but he’s still my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. I read him the next thrilling chapter in Harry Potter and the enjoyment we both get from that time together remains just as strong. I don’t see why such moments require an external source to give them meaning or value or purpose.

It seems to me that much of what we experience in the world is experienced by us as intrinsically good; meaning good for its own sake and not for some end. I might go for a stroll along a sunny seaside. I walk on particles of sand scattered randomly by a universe that didn’t have the pleasures of my feet in mind when it threw the beach into existence. The sun warming my skin isn’t there for my benefit. The wind blowing through my hair doesn’t care if I find it annoying or pleasant. And yet as I stroll along the experience may well be an incredibly pleasurable one. Moreover, this isn’t an experience for some end. It’s not that there’s some transcendent meaning behind it. It’s simply pleasurable. It’s enjoyable. I like it.

In the same way if atheism is true and there is no greater purpose to our life, nothing that stretches into eternity, no divinely given mission or goal, there still remains this phenomenon which we might call the joy of mere being. This is the enjoyment we derive simply from being alive, from living in and enjoying our little corner of the universe. From watching a sun-set, or hiking up a hill. It’s the sheer intrinsic pleasure of sitting with my son in a tent in the back garden and listening to the rain outside while we eat chocolates and sweets in abundance. We have an entire universe at which to marvel, and no prohibition on the extent to which we may explore it.

Moreover most of us are blessed with family and friendships. I’d hazard a guess that for the vast majority of human beings on the planet the greatest moments in life are shared with other people. And again, these experiences needn’t have any transcendent meaning. We simply enjoy them for their own sake. I don’t see why such experiences would be meaningless or somehow devoid of meaning or value in an atheistic universe. Most of these experiences are completely self-contained – they don’t require anything external to them to make meaningful or valuable.

And whilst it’s true on atheism that some day it will all end and be forgotten, it is still very real to each of us. As Marcus Aurelius reminds us we live only in the present; the past has gone, the future is not yet with us. All we ever really possess is the present moment and thus it doesn’t matter whether we live for eternity or merely 70 years. Even if one day I will be extinct and forgotten by a universe that doesn’t care, my life now is worthwhile – to me and to many others. Life is worth living for its own sake.

Which brings me back to the World Cup. It might be nothing more than a bit of rather pointless play. But like life itself it’s enjoyable, it’s engaging, and even inspiring. So even if it might all really be for nothing in the end it was worth it at the time, and if you’re reading this you can be glad that the final whistle has not yet sounded.

Stephen J. Graham

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For a meaningless task try to spot the football references/terms in the article 🙂

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Eternal Life: Meaningless & Boring?

The full text of a reflection (for a popular Christian audience) on the common charge that eternal life would be boring and meaningless. Text awaiting publication.

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A friend of mine once quipped that eternal life would never get boring, since his wife would always find something for him to do.

But not everyone is so optimistic. In his essay, “The Problems of the Self,”[1] philosopher Bernard Williams argues that eternal life is not desirable and death is something we should welcome and appreciate. If we never died life would become one big bore-fest, and would, reckons Williams, ultimately be meaningless. Williams cites a story by Karel Copec (1890-1938), in which the character Elina Makropulos drinks an elixir of life. The story joins her at 42 years old, the “age” she has now been for 300 years. Her life is presented as having become meaningless and boring.

Such a complaint is often found on the lips of unbelievers, and I must confess that often we Christians have spoken of eternal life in ways which make it a less than thrilling proposition. One preacher speaks of “singing one glorious hymn after another for all time.” Does that excite you? For many folks this sounds as thrilling as flossing for all eternity. Presenting eternal life as one never-ending church service has done the notion of eternal life incredible damage in the eyes of an unbelieving world, most of whom struggle with an hour on a Sunday a few times a year. How then should we speak of eternal life?

I should point out straight away that reflection on eternal life – even for us Christians – will always be somewhat speculative, and we can really offer little more than some imaginative suggestions (hopefully more imaginative than singing one glorious hymn after another). We do after all only see through a glass darkly and cannot possibly fathom what God has prepared for those who love him. But I think reflecting on this is still worthwhile, if only to help change the popular perception that life eternal would be a meaningless bore-fest.

It might be useful to start with what we do know: our own earthly existence. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Elina Makropulos. Would life really become boring and meaningless, even after a mere few centuries?

I want to deal with the charge of boredom first. I find it almost unthinkable that eternal life would become boring. Firstly, this world, as the creation of God, is an amazingly fascinating place. If I lived 300 lifetimes I couldn’t imagine anything other than barely scratching the surface of the riches God has made and given us access to.

Take just a few simple examples. My son loves the museum, and when we visit I find myself overwhelmed with interest in so many different things. I’d love to know more about things like the dating of fossils or to be involved in finding and studying them. How fascinating are Egyptian hieroglyphics! How wonderful it would be to study archaeology and head off to exotic locations on a “dig” (complete with Indiana Jones hat, of course). If you visit a museum and don’t come away with a sense of how fascinating and wonderful our world is then you haven’t opened your eyes!

Or consider all those places you see from the air as you pass over in a plane en route to your destination, places you just don’t have time to visit. The earth is full of fascinating places, most of which we’ll never see in one – or even 100 – lifetimes. Think of the wonders of the world both natural and manmade: Niagara Falls, the Taj Mahal, Mt Everest, the Grand Canyon, the Sinai desert, the Great Wall of China, and the Amazon rainforest. The earth is full of such glorious riches! And we’re not even off the planet yet! Consider the immensity of the cosmos, the stars and the galaxies. Physics is constantly bringing us face to face with new wonders, and showing us all the time how incredibly awesome – and often wonderfully weird – the cosmos is.

Imagine having lived from the time of Christ until today – 2000 years. There are so many fascinating and amazing events you could have witnessed or been a part of. This life, our planet, the biological world, the cosmos, is far too wonderful and immense to grow bored with if we view it with open minds and open eyes. And that’s before we consider all the great books we could read, plays we could watch, campaigns to fight, and people to meet. Or I think of one of my own loves: philosophy. One of my great frustrations is having to skip over ideas and personalities simply because I just don’t have time for indulging such curiosities and heading down every intellectual rabbit hole that takes my fancy.

Lastly, I should also mention what I call the “joy of mere being.” This has nothing to do with doing anything or going anywhere or striving for any goal. It’s the joy we derive simply from being alive. I’ve experienced this profound sense of joy on several occasions: gazing at a mountain range on a bright morning, or lounging on a beach and watching the sea, or holding my son for the first time. These are moments we wish could last “forever.” Ironically, we don’t have so many of these experiences due to being so busy getting things done before our time runs out.

I think if we can say all this about an eternal earthly life, we can certainly say it about eternal life in a new heaven and new earth. We can’t say precisely what such an existence would be like, but we do know that it will far outstrip what we do know. Moreover, we know that we will experience the presence of God himself in a wonderful way that currently eludes us. And this brings me to the charge that eternal life would be meaningless.

It is true that eternal life by itself may well be meaningless. One story tells of an astronaut hopelessly lost in space. He has two vials: one containing a poison and the other containing an elixir that will give him immortality. Seeing how hopeless his situation is he decides to drink the poison, but mixes the vials and ends up drinking the potion that makes him immortal. Thus he is doomed to spend eternity floating aimlessly through the cosmos; a life without meaning.

However, we mustn’t think that death or dying is what gives meaning to our existence. The ultimate source of meaning for our life is God. Consider briefly the very bad news that follows if atheism is true. William Lane Craig writes, “On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental by-products of nature who have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called planet Earth – lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe – and are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time.”[2] Or Richard Dawkins, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”[3] This doesn’t sound like a very meaningful existence to me. Nor does it sound like much fun.

Over and against this Christian theism holds that God is the one in whom we “live and move and have our being.”[4] Christ came “that you may have life and have it to the full.”[5] And if we remember nothing else of our catechism, we do know this: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[6] We mustn’t make the mistake then of conceiving of immortality as simply never-ending existence. That in itself may not be very meaningful or joyful. But rather we must always keep in mind that our eternal life will be of a certain quality too, a quality based on the very being of God Himself. Theologians refer to the beatific vision – the enjoyment by the saints of the full revelation of God himself, in all his glory and perfection, directly to them.

Such is difficult for us to grasp in this life. After all, as Paul puts it, we merely “see through a glass darkly.”[7] But we can know for sure that eternal life for the saints in heaven will be the fulfilment of existence and more joyful than we can possibly imagine.

I suspect, therefore, that there will be far more to do and enjoy than singing one glorious hymn after another; and eternal life will certainly be more joyful and meaningful than the never-ending list of chores my friend envisions.

Stephen J. Graham

NOTES

[1] Cambridge University Press, 1973

[2] William Lane Craig, “Navigating Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org 2012

[3] Richard Dawkins River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic, 1996)

[4] Acts 17:28

[5] John 10:10

[6] Westminster Shorter Catechism

[7] 1 Corinthians 13:12

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