The Teenage Nihilist
Just under a decade ago, I made the frightening transition from primary to secondary school in Glasgow. In my first few lessons in secondary school science I learned that everything in the universe is made of atoms and molecules and that all living things are made of cells, which disintegrate when living things die.
Since my first few weeks in secondary school, I like to think that my scientific knowledge and understanding has developed a little. Over the next decade, I was taught that subatomic particles may be made from vibrating strings, most of the human body is not made out of cells, and science is far more fallible and changeable than most people like to think.
However, for years after those lessons about atoms, molecules and cells, one thing continued to bug me- scientific reductionism seemed to destroy the possibility of meaning to life. Ultimately, if everything in this universe is made of tiny particles, it means that every decision and action anyone anywhere takes is nothing more than a slight moving of particles in the vast expanse of the universe. And if human beings are all destined to die and disintegrate into our constituent parts, it means that everything that we live for, whether happiness, charity, money, humanitarianism, friendships, reputation, “making a difference” or anything else, becomes totally meaningless when we inexorably die. Even that idea of making a difference for generations to come is meaningless if the human race is destined to eventually go extinct when the Sun cools down enough or something cataclysmic happens in the meantime. If scientific reductionism is true, it seems to lead to nihilism- a worldview in which life has no meaning. As the Nobel winning physicist Steven Weinberg famously remarked: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless”.
Of course, this conclusion is far from new. Key nihilistic philosophers from down history such as Nietzsche and Sartre came to exactly the same conclusion to the meaning of life: it is all meaningless.
A Way Out of the Meaninglessness?
As you can probably see coming, this is not where my existential quandary concludes. In my late teens, my worldview totally changed, and with it came a brand new view of the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life.
As I was finishing secondary school, I started looking into the evidence for and against the existence of God. As I write in my book Evidence for the Existence of God, my investigations led me to the conclusion that the evidence pointed in favour of Christianity being true. And as a result, I exchanged my atheist naturalistic worldview for a faith in Christianity. However, becoming a Christian also led to an unexpected consequence; I found I suddenly had an answer to the meaningless of my life.
The Meaning of Meaning
The Oxford English Dictionary gives two relevant definitions of the word “meaning”:
- Implied or explicit significance (e.g. he gave me a look full of meaning)
- Important of worthwhile quality; purpose (e.g. this can lead to new meaning in the lives of older people)
When people talk about the “meaning of life”, I think we generally think of something that has both of the above qualities of “significance” and “purpose”. As an atheist, I found that my worldview gave my life neither of these qualities. Atheism meant I was no more significant to any other bundle of atoms, and my life had no more purpose than to make the inexorable and unalterable journey to my ultimate death and disintegration.
Finding an Answer to the Meaninglessness of Life
However, as a Christian, I found a new place to look for meaning to my life. In the gospel of John chapter 10 (for analysis of the historical reliability of the bible, see “Can We Trust the Gospels?”) Jesus preaches a sermon to the religious teachers of the day, the Pharisees. In John 10:1-15, Jesus says:
“1 Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
In this extended and quite complicate metaphor, Jesus describes Himself as the “Good Shepherd”, and Christians as His “sheep”. From my reading, I think this passage can be split into three little sections that form a potential answer to the meaning of life. The sections are:
- Our Purpose (v1-10)
- Our Significance (v11-13)
- Our Ultimate Meaning (v14-15)
Our Purpose (v1-10)
When I was an atheist, I found that the only way to deal with the meaningless of my life was to synthesise my own purposes and life endeavours- what is sometimes called existentialism. However, in introducing the image of a shepherd and his sheep, Jesus describes a new source of life purpose. Rather than trying to work out or make up our life purposes, Jesus describes Himself as someone whom we can listen to (v3), we can follow (v4), and knows far more about life and reality than those who follow Him. The image of a flock following its shepherd depicts a group of individuals who do not know where they are going or what they are meant to be doing, but trusting in and following an individual who does.
There are two clarifying points that need to be made at this point. Firstly, the message of John 10 is of following and obedience. However, this obedience is not like a subservient slave obeying a tyrannical master; rather it is of an otherwise helpless sheep willingly and unashamedly following the lead of his shepherd. Secondly, Jesus does not imply that we are to naïvely follow Him in the blind hope that we are going somewhere good. Rather, in verses 7-10, Jesus lays out exactly where He is leading His flock. He teaches that He is saving (v9) us from evil and death (v8), and, if we follow Him, we will gain “life to the full” (v10). From elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching we know that this “life to the full” is both a present fulfilled life on Earth (e.g. John 17:3) and a certain hope of eternal life after death in paradise (e.g. John 3:16).When I became convinced by the evidence that Jesus were was God in human form, it suddenly made sense that my purpose in life could be fulfilled by following the one who created me and has a plan for where I ought to go.
Our Significance (v11-13)
The next couple of verses go on to unpack the other OED definition of “meaning” (“implied or explicit significance”). In verses 11-13, Jesus proclaims that He cares for his “flock” (v13) to the point that He willingly will die for us (v11)- arguably the greatest possible demonstration of love. Christianity teaches that our value and worth as human beings do not come from our achievements, abilities, potential, contributions to society, biological capability of any other variable. Rather, it teaches that our worth and value are unchanging and intrinsic to our humanity, and stem from the fatherly love God has for us, His children. As Romans 5:8 says: “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”.1 In the words of paediatrician and ethicist Prof. John Wyatt from whom I have learned a great deal, “In biblical thought, as each human life has a unique dignity because of the divine image, therefore each life has an incalculable and incommensurable value. In other words, it is not possible to calculate the value of a human life in material terms, and it is not possible to compare the ultimate value of one human life with another. Each human being is a unique masterpiece of God’s creation.”2 With a Christian worldview came a vastly different view of my own humanity- that I have an intrinsic and invariable worth as a human being because of my relationship with my Creator.
Our Ultimate Meaning (v14-15)
Jesus then summarises His sermon thus far by saying in verse 14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me”. In a sense, this is the ultimate source of meaning in my life- to have a relationship with my Creator God. When I became a Christian, a living, present relationship with a God who loves and sustains me gave my life purpose, through my trust in His will for my life, and significance in His Fatherly love demonstrated by the cross.
Clearly, this article has nothing to say about whether there is any evidence that Christianity is true or not. I have lots of articles in this site about that. However, if you have never looked into Christianity before, perhaps it is worth a look? After all, it is where I found an answer to the meaninglessness of life.
God bless and Merry Christmas.
- Romans 5:8 (NIV)
- John Wyatt, Matters of Life and Death (2012 ed.), 60