If the Christian God exists then life has objective meaning. God possesses ultimate meaning, therefore humans (made in His image) would be expected to derive purposeful meaning. But what if God doesn’t exist? Can meaning be created or discovered in a godless universe?
Some atheist philosophers propose that while there is no meaning to life there may be meaning in life by the choices people make. A test of this claim comes by examining the human need for meaning and what the secular worldview of naturalism (the metaphysical view that nature is the sole reality) offers to meet this need.
Human Beings and Meaning
Human beings yearn for authentic meaning, purpose, and significance in their lives. In fact, without a sound and enduring reason to live, people often succumb to a sense of despair. At a fundamental level, humans need purpose and hope as much as they need food, shelter, and clothing—maybe even more. And that significance must include genuine meaning to life itself.
Naturalism and Meaning
How could a universe without God have value, meaning, and purpose, especially for sentient beings? If the universe and humanity are merely products of blind, accidental, and purely natural processes, then it is difficult to identify and justify a true enduring value for life. Accidental creatures with no ultimate purpose or end are hard-pressed to impart any permanent significance to their lives.
But why couldn’t a person simply create meaning for themselves by their personal choices? Philosopher Thomas V. Morris offers a response:
Something has meaning if and only if it is endowed with meaning or significance by a purposive personal agent or group of such agents…. Meaning is never intrinsic; it is always derivative…. We can endow with meaning only those things over which we have the requisite control.1
If Morris is right, then the limitations of the human condition cause some real inner existential consternation for naturalists. Much of reality lies beyond human control—the timing, place, and circumstances of one’s birth; the family into which one is born; the ideas, education, philosophy, religion, and worldview to which an individual is exposed; social and environmental factors; and much of a person’s own suffering. Even the everyday choices people make, over which they have some control, are influenced by factors beyond their consent. Recognizing that much of what is critically important to life lies beyond a person’s direct authority should motivate that individual to critically analyze his adopted worldview.
In a naturalist universe, everyone is subject to profound forces beyond their control. Again, if Morris is right, the challenge in creating meaning in life is that humans lack requisite control.
However, God possesses intrinsic meaning, and humans, being made in God’s image, derive that meaning. The Gospel message of historic Christianity offers people all the derived hope and meaning that a person could ever want and need.
- Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense Of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 56–59.