Years ago when I was teaching philosophy at a public college, a student of mine ended her term paper on the topic of “existentialism and the meaning of life” with the following forlorn assessment:
“The world and life are meaningless. Surely God does not exist. Therefore, I don’t know how anyone could reasonably conclude that life is anything other than absurd.”
In talking with this bright student over the course of the semester, I knew that her comments did not flow from a state of clinical depression. Rather, she had been dutifully reading the class assigned writings of such influential atheist philosophers as Albert Camus (1913–1960) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). Her angst was philosophical in nature rather than stemming from psychological factors (though I am convinced that a person’s worldview inevitably affects their mental and emotional outlook).
She had embraced a type of philosophical nihilism—“the rejection of any transcendent values or ultimate meaning.”1 While not all atheists think alike about the logical implications of their system of unbelief, some advocates of naturalism have affirmed that without God’s existence the universe and life itself have no ultimate meaning, purpose, or significance.
Later my student asked what I thought of her philosophical conclusions concerning life and its alleged lack of meaning. I first told her that if God does not in fact exist and the worldview of naturalism is indeed true then I would concur that the universe and life itself have no ultimate meaning, purpose, or significance (a form of nihilism). However, I also told her that I believe a careful examination of the world in which we live actually shows that nihilism is false and that life and the world do possess objective meaning, reason, and value.
Three Problems with Nihilism
1. The Meaningful Recognition of Meaninglessness I told my student that her statement that the world is meaningless was actually a profoundly meaningful recognition on her part. I suggested this was a clear indication that something wasn’t quite right about nihilism. This meaningful recognition of meaninglessness served to reveal something of the self-defeating nature of nihilism.
For if the world is actually meaningless then human life is equally meaningless. But this concept creates a great dissonance in thought. How could people living in a meaningless world come to the amazingly meaningful recognition that the world has no meaning? It would seem that meaningless creatures would never discover the truth of their own meaninglessness. Former atheist C.S. Lewis explains: “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”2
I asked my student if a human being’s unique ability to reflect about the meaning of life was not a strong hint that there is indeed something deeper to life.
2. The Congruence of Nature’s Purposiveness and the Human Mind
The scientific enterprise reveals a cosmos that is at its most basic level characterized by laws, order, patterns, and regularity. Also, human beings possess the astonishing sensory organs and rational faculties to detect nature’s physical constants. Thus humankind has been amazingly successful at postulating mathematical theories that uniquely correspond to nature’s intelligible and elegant systems. But one must ask: Is this incredible congruence between nature and the mind of man in any way consistent with the presumptions of nihilism? Not in the least! Rather nature’s profound intelligibility cries out for a rational and purposeful explanation.
3. The Human Intuition of Moral Oughtness
Moral values are a fundamental part of human life, every bit as real as the law of gravity––and people are generally intuitively cognizant of their moral obligations. In their heart, people experience the pull of moral duty. This sense of moral oughtness is prescriptive in nature, and it transcends mere subjective feelings. Individuals may deny, rationalize, or even violate their moral obligations, but they remain a necessary part of human life. Moral intuitions such as “It is always wrong to murder” or “It is right to be loving, truthful, courageous, and compassionate” testify to the reality of objective moral values. These values stand as distinct from, and independent of, the human mind. In other words, they appear to be discovered, not invented. Such a value-driven existence is totally at odds with the valueless dictates of moral nihilism.
God as the Best Explanation
I offered a final motivating thought for this reflective young student. I said that the God of Christian theism served as the best explanation for all the meaningful realities found in life and in the world (employing abductive logical reasoning: “inference to the best explanation”).3 The Triune God of the Bible who reveals himself as Creator, Savior, and Sanctifier best explains humankind’s profound sense of meaning, reason, and values. These realities find their source, ground, and anchor in the mind of God.4
One of Christianity’s powerful appeals over other religious and philosophical systems is its ability to provide meaning and hope to those who despair of finding the meaning of life.
- As defined by philosopher Ed. L. Miller, Questions that Matter (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992), 568.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 46.
- For a brief introduction to abductive reasoning, see Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 52–53.
- For an exploration of the historic Christian view of God and reality, see ibid., 73–86.