What is the Meaning of Life?

Nov 28, 2018

What is the meaning of life? Is it possible to live a meaningful life if you think God doesn’t exist? Drs. Vince and Jo Vitale discuss this important topic this week on Ask Away.

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Vince Vitale - @VinceRVitale
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Michael Davis: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. As science and technology continues to improve, many believe that humans, in a sense, no longer need God. They say that God filled a purpose for ancient peoples who couldn't make sense of the world, but now that we are learning more about how the universe really works, the dependency on God is not only unnecessary, it is actually harmful.

The belief that meaning is found in existence seems to be the order of the day, but there is something in all of us that bucks at this. What is the meaning of life? Is it possible to find a purpose to life external to a theistic worldview? But before we get started, Vince, could you tell our listeners a little bit more about RZIM and why they should prayerfully consider partnering with us on our mission?

Vince Vitale: Sure thing, Michael, and it's always a joy to answer that question because I have such a privilege of traveling around the world and seeing the way that God is working through RZIM. I just got back from Lima, Peru. We were down there with a team from RZIM sharing about the Christian faith with students on different campuses there. The image I have, as you asked the question, is of one young woman who couldn't make the talk at lunchtime because of a class.

As soon as her class was over, she ran down to the talk. She bursted in the back door huffing and puffing, and she put her hand up immediately during the Q&A time. She said, "I'm so sorry I couldn't make the talk. I so wanted to make the talk, but I have a question. It's relevant to the topic. Can I please ask my question?" And she asked this question, which implied that she understood God to be a sexist God, and also that she understood God to have racial biases as well.

She said, "I've been exploring the idea of faith. I want to believe in God, but I can't believe in a God like that. Do you have anything that can help me?" We were able to speak to that question from the front. As soon as the event was over, a couple of our team went and interacted with that student, spoke with her, heard her story, answered her questions. By the end of the day, had led her into a relationship with Jesus Christ, so, that, we believe, is going to be lasting, and it's going to be incredibly fruitful in her life. We see that over and over again, day after day, all around the world.

We have a presence in about 20 different countries. There are over 80 speakers on the team now, internationally, and it's growing in size, but more importantly is growing in fruitfulness and discipleship and in the lasting impact. So go to RZIM.org. I hope you can find out more about we're doing and why we're doing it and we hope it's something that you'll get excited about supporting us. And if you could support us prayerfully, if you wanted to support us financially, that's what allows this work to take shape and to be possible and to bring the transformation that it does. We thank you, and hope you'll check that out at RZIM.org.

Michael Davis: Excellent. Let's jump into these questions. This first question is from Chico and it's a kind of a light question. What is the meaning of life?

Vince Vitale: Yeah, Chico. Thanks for the question.

Jo Vitale: Easy.

Vince Vitale: We'll wrap this out for you. Box that out. Christmas is coming up. We'll just put a bow on top of this. No problem. But I'm glad you asked the question because I actually think it is such a huge question and it sounds so vague when you say it, that people just don't ask it. Whereas, in actuality, what could be a more important question to ask than that? And an analogy I've been thinking about a lot, lately, is the idea of being thrown into a game, say a sports game, and when you're thrown into the game, you don't know when it started, when it will finish, you don't know what the objective of the game is and you don't know any of the rules.

When I give you that picture, it's immediately obvious to you that there's no way you could engage in that game in a meaningful way. Well, isn't it odd, then, that we think we can just go about life in a meaningful way without having answers to the very same four questions? Where did we come from? Where are we headed? What's the purpose of life? And how should we live in light of that? If there's no way that we could play a game without those questions, how could we think, in an even more important sense, we could live life without having answers to those questions?

And the reality is we spend as a society, as a race, we spend far too little time asking those types of questions. We spend far more time being distracted by unimportant questions. I also think we spend far too much time criticizing each other's views and positions rather than asking those type of deep questions of our own views. It's almost like the adult version of bullying. We're afraid to ask the big questions. We're afraid to allow other people to ask the big questions of us, because what if we don't know the answers? Will we then be exposed as mere pretenders? Will we be exposed as just faking life?

And so I think instead, our inclination is to spend more time criticizing others' views, distracting people from looking at us and what we believe by spending our time criticizing others. That's exactly what a bully does in school, and I wonder if, sometimes, when we deal with worldviews, as adults, we wind up in the very same pattern because we're afraid to ask these types of big questions like what is the meaning of life?

That's just to frame the question initially and thank you for the question, but those are four of the key questions within that that I would ask. If you can figure out origin, this is the framework that Ravi gives: Origin, where do we come from? Meaning, what is the purpose of life? Morality, how should we live? And destiny, where are we headed? If you can figure out those four things, then you're in position to live a life that will truly be coherent and purposeful.

Jo Vitale: I think one of the struggles that we're increasingly seeing in our culture today as well is how much people feel like we're living by the code of fake it till you make it, but we all assume that at some point meaning will sort of kick in and suddenly we'll have it all sorted out, but I just wonder if we ever actually make it or if we're doomed to continue faking it the whole way through. And what you find is, increasingly, people have tried everything and they're still left feeling empty and that's happening younger and younger and younger, which I think is partly why we're seeing suicide rates increasing so much.

It's the fastest growing group is teenage girls right now. I think that's because people are discovering earlier and earlier, as we have more at our fingertips, and we experience more, that, actually, you can't fake your meaning, but people are assuming there is no god in the picture, so there's no one to ask the question of. There is no question of meaning and people are kind of crumbling under the weight of having to justify your meaning, which is why, as Christian, I'm so grateful that actually I don't think I have to fake my own meaning.

I think I was made for meaning, and what a relief it is to be able to say, as a Christian, actually the meaning of life is not about you. It's not ultimately about your own story. I love the Westminster Catechism here where the question is ... They ask the question, "What is the chief end of man?" And, ladies, I think we're included in that as well, but the response that they give in that is to say it's to glorify God and enjoy him forever. And I love the way that's put because sometimes people just say, "Oh, it's to glorify God." People assume, "Well, that sounds terribly boring." We're making all kinds of assumptions about the duty and the misery behind that.

Whereas, actually, glorifying God really means just having the absolute sheer joy and privilege of getting to know this epic and awesome God and who is jaw-droppingly amazing, and, the more we know him, the more we enjoy him. That's something that is pure privilege. I've quoted this before, I'll quote it again, but I love John 17:3. "This is eternal life: that they know you, the only God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." And it's interesting to me that even people who seem to know God really well in the New Testament, like Paul, the prayer of his heart in Philippians 3 is still, "I want to know Christ."

It's like the more people know Christ, the more they want to know Christ, and, even that language, in the Bible, when we talk about knowing God, throughout the Old Testament, knowing is the word used to describe when it says, "Adam knew his wife," for example. It's intimate. That's the word you use for sexuality because it implies just a deep, deep intimacy that is more than a sort of intellectual knowing, and I think that's what we're called to with God. This deep knowing that only gets richer and fuller and that's a sustaining power for life that doesn't get boring, that doesn't burden you, that doesn't crumble on top of you, but only becomes more meaningful.

In part because it's not a self-centered kind of knowing. It's not like when you meet those couples who are so caught up in each other that they don't see anyone else, and it's kind of sickening and frustrating, but actually to really know God is to enjoy the things that he enjoys and that means enjoying being part of the plan that he has for the world and getting to take part in this amazing, active restoration, and this huge rescue operation. There's this giant meta-narrative you get to be a part of in this lifetime that isn't about fulfilling your own needs. It's about helping other people who are desperately hurting and wounded, and helping them discover that there's a bigger story for them, too.

I can still remember the first time I had the privilege of leading a friend to Christ when we were teenagers, one of my best friends, I'd been praying for her for years, and we'd been talking about faith for years. And, finally, we had this day of praying together, and I can just remember this feeling of ... I've never really had experience before of just sensing like, "Oh, this is what I'm made for. This is it." There is no better feeling in the world than seeing someone else's eyes light up as they encounter Jesus for the first time and realize it's not up to them to sustain the whole thing, but they were made for more. That's what we're invited into. That is the meaning of life. To know God and help other people get to know Him, and that is a crazy joy and privilege.

Vince Vitale: Sounds good. Sign me up.

Jo Vitale: Sorry, I got really excited there, I'll stop talking now.

Vince Vitale: Sign me up.

Michael Davis: Vince, I'm pretty sure you've already signed up. Thank you, guys. You're here to keep me on track. You know, Jo, you've spoken about the meaning of life, being caught up in the goodness of God and pursuing relationship with that goodness, I think the flip side of the coin is also what does meaning look like in the context of a broken world. We're called to the goodness of God, but our reality is that we're living in brokenness where we get things wrong all the time and the people around us get things wrong all the time. And that causes hurt and it causes a brokenness, and I think another aspect of finding meaning, specifically in the world we're living in, in a broken world, has to center around being forgiven, because, if you're living in a world where you're constantly breaking things and people around you are constantly breaking things and there's no model for what forgiveness looks like, then every time there's that brokenness, it's just like more and more weight being piled on your back, and you don't have the freedom, then, to live and to pursue goodness and God in the way that Joe's spoken about.

Vince Vitale: I've been talking a bit about this with Nathan Rittenhouse, and if you haven't checked out his podcast, Thinking Aloud with Cameron McAllister, both colleagues of ours at RZIM, please do so. It's fantastic.

But we're living in a society, I think, with no model for forgiveness. We're getting things wrong all the time. The people around us are getting things wrong all the time. But there's no model, privately or publicly, in our society for how you could actually ask for forgiveness, put your hand up, say, "I've gotten something wrong, and it's caused hurt and consequences," and actually receive forgiveness, be freed of that burden, and move on.

We don't have any model for that. So then what do you do? You're inevitably going to continue to get things wrong. Your only options, then, are either to lie about it and not admit you've done things wrong or to just completely escape the situation, isolate yourself, or maybe even stop living, maybe even think about dying.

When you think about our society, actually, the drastic increases we're seeing are, one, in lying and fake news, and, two, in suicide, and we're seeing the statistics on suicide go up and up and up. I think that's the result of living in a society where you don't have a model for forgiveness, and so you can't be freed of the weight of that brokenness, to pursue God and goodness in the way that Joe has spoken about.

The meaning of life, maybe if we just had to summarize it, to be fully known and fully loved - That would be another good try at trying to just, in a concise way, say what life is about. You can only do that in the context where forgiveness is a real possibility, so you can be fully known, even as the broken person that you are, and yet freed from that brokenness and fully loved.

That's why I think the Christian faith, which puts forgiveness right at the center of priority and reality, is a worldview that can truly bring meaning to life.

Michael Davis: So, Vince, in light of the cross, how would you say that points to the meaning of life?

Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's a great connection point, 'cause I've spoken about forgiveness, and, obviously, forgiveness is made possible by the cross. I think this is part of what's going on in society, though, that we struggle to forgive because we're frustrated at the brokenness and the wrongdoing, and we feel this urge for justice.

It seems like if we forgive someone, we've undermined and given up on justice. Instead, we pursue justice, and we pursue justice at the expense of forgiveness. No one can be forgiven, because we have to hold onto what's just. Therefore, we need to undermine and attack and even destroy the people who have sinned, who have caused brokenness, who are against us.

The cross is where these things come together. We don't have to choose either forgiveness or justice, but, at the cross, God brings the two together, God's justice is enacted, justice is fulfilled on the cross, and yet, it's precisely through that justice, rather than in lieu of that justice, that forgiveness is offered. So forgiveness is made possible through the justice of God, and that's what allows us to be freed from that brokenness of this world that weighs us down and that hinders us from pursuing the goodness of God, as Joe spoke about in the first place.

Jo Vitale: I think it speaks to both the significance of that meaning and how committed God is for us to live meaningful lives, that he would go to such an extent. I mean, the cross cost God everything in order to have a restored relationship with us. So, clearly, it's a goal he's committed to, to giving us that meaning.

I think the cross also speaks to our own meaning. I mean, Jesus is very realistic about the fact that, in this lifetime, what it means to follow Him is to take up your cross and walk after Him. So we're not saying, as Christians, that the meaning of life means easy ... an easy life, or necessarily even the pursuit of happiness in this lifetime.

Ultimately, it's about following the path God is walking, a path into forgiveness, a path into restoration and healing and reconciliation, knowing that our ultimate joy is set before us. There is a joy set before us, but it's not necessarily coming in this lifetime. There's the joy of knowing God, which is profound and amazing, but that sometimes comes in suffering. When Paul talks about, "I want to know Christ," he's talking about in the context of suffering, "that I might also know His resurrection."

So not saying it's easy, but, wow, is it worth it. If this is a God who would give up everything for us, then there is nothing of ours that He doesn't deserve.

Vince Vitale: It is so challenging, like you said, Joe, for the joy set before Him, Jesus saying, "Not My will, but Your will be done" to the Father, and how convicting that is, how often we say, "Not Your will, God, but my will." Jesus decided not to just go with what was going to be pleasurable for Him, but what was the most meaningful thing He could do out of love for us.

So often, we make the opposite choice. It's really, really challenging.

Michael Davis: So let's get to the next question, because I think this is really a good way ... a segue, and this actually came from a Georgia Tech student from our mission week last week.

So I think it's pretty easy to say that the Christian worldview has a pretty good idea of what the meaning of life is. So this is the question from the Georgia Tech student: Is it possible to live a meaningful life if you think God doesn't exist and the universe comes out of nothing?

Vince Vitale: I'm really glad you asked this question, because when we talk about the meaning of life, we can't just talk about the meaning that is present if we have God in the picture, but you also need to put different worldviews alongside each other so that you can consider them fairly.

I often say criticism without alternative is empty, and I give the analogy that if someone tells me that I have a terrible phone, my response should be to ask them, "Well, what type of phone do you suggest I get instead?"

Now, if someone says to me, "Oh, I've never seen a better phone than yours. I've never had an example of a better phone," well, then the criticism loses meaning. Right? If there's no better alternative than what I already have, then to criticize it is without weight, without significance.

I was thinking of Joshua 24, when it says, "But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve." Right? So it's not enough to just say, "I'm going to choose this" or "I'm not going to choose that," but if you're not going to choose one thing, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the god your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites.

So, what are the different alternatives? This question says, "Let's ask the question not only about God, but also in the context of atheism. Can there be meaning?"

I've been asking the question, "What does it mean for something to have meaning?" There's two examples that have been helping me to clarify this. The first one was of my niece Camille's first words. So she said, "Dada," and my brother was so proud. Then I walked into the room, and she again said, "Da, da, da, da." Then the cat walked into the room, and she again said, "Da, da, da, da."

You see where this is going, right? My brother initially thought that there was meaning to her words, because he thought it was the intention of an intelligent being, his daughter, to say, "Dada" in reference to him. It turns out, it was just random sounds coming out of his mouth. Therefore, there wasn't meaning in the sound.

The second example is consider these letters strung together: S-E-S-T-I-N-A. Is there meaning in those letters? Again, it depends on whether an intelligent being intentionally put those letters in that order in order to communicate something or if it's just a random collection of letters. If it's just a random collection of letters, it doesn't have meaning. But it turns out that that word, sestina, is a real word. It means a highly lyrical, rhythmic poem. So it is meaningful, but it's meaningful because it was the intention of an intelligent being.

So when we ask this question of whether there's meaning in the context of atheism, I think that's the question we need to ask: Is our universe intended? Was our universe just a collection of random particles, or was it intentionally put together in order to communicate something? That's going to tell us whether or not there can be meaning or not in the universe.

Jo Vitale: I think it's so appealing in our culture today, the idea of make your own meaning, live your own truth, write your own story. I think people are kind of caught up in this vision, as if there's something very heroic or grand about that. Yes, there's no meaning from outside, but perhaps we can muster up our own in the context of the lives we're living and the people we know. It's something we create.

I think that's a very persuasive idea for a lot of people today, but I also think you need to recognize a lot of things before you can even begin to exist within that framework. I actually really like the way the atheist Bertrand Russell put this. He was a sort of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinker, and in his text Free Man's Worship, this is what he says. Sorry it's a bit of a long quote, but I think it's really important, because he sums it up better than I actually could.

He writes that, basically, in order to make a meaningful life, "Firstly, you have to recognize that man is the product of causes which had no pre-vision of the end that they were achieving, that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms, that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual beyond the grave, that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins."

"All these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built."

So, basically, he's saying the whole thing ... You have to accept everything is built on nothingness and kind of level things down to the point where you're standing on unyielding despair before you can begin to build anything back up again. The question is, what kind of life can be built on the rubble of nothingness? If there is no life after death, if, ultimately, we're dying mammals in a dying universe and everything is ultimately getting colder and darker, where do we stand?

Yes, we might have short-term meaning that we create in the context of the relationships in our own lives, but where does that go? Because even all those emotions that you feel towards someone, the care you have for them, are all, ultimately, going to be destroyed by death. There's a psychologist, Jonathan Hait, who put it this way. He said, "If true love is defined as eternal passion, it's biologically impossible."

So what are we living for? There's nothing transcendent. There's nothing permanent. You're going to be forgotten, even the bigger goal of saying, "we'll leave the world a better place," if the world is ultimately going to die as well. So you have to live within this framework of saying there is absolutely nothing beyond, but then you say, "Okay, maybe I can make my own stuff. Maybe I can still find meaningful things within the short, brief, flash in the pan that is my life."

But, even so, I would question whether the things, as human beings, that we actually care about, the things that actually make our lives meaningful, whether they're actually existentially coherent if you take God out of the picture. So think of the things that we actually care about in life: beauty, truth, morality, love, freedom. Are any of those actually possible if they're not grounded in God? We talk about truth, but if our brains are wired in such a way that they're geared towards survival rather than truth, then why trust anything that you think at all? We talk about morality, but then it all comes down to preference. There's nothing objective about it. You'll wind up having to agree with Dawkins, who, when asked in an interview, whether the belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we have five rather than six fingers, he had to answer yes, because that's where evolution takes you.

You know we talk about freedom and that's kind of the grounding of existentialism, the idea "oh, how noble that we have the freedom to create our own lives, there's not god telling us what to do." But if we're DNA replicating machines that are kind of hardwired, just to move towards survival and reproduction, then do we even have any freedom or are we being controlled by our biology? It's kind of a depressing thought if we're, ultimately, just doing what we're wired to do and, that, as we've said before, has huge implications for love as well. Because it means ultimately you can't love somebody for who they are, they're not an end in themselves, but rather for what they can do for you. We're basically just using each other for the sake of survival. That is the purpose, there's no real love, freedom, beauty, truth, meaning. So what kind of meaningful life are we living if these thing are basically illusion rather than reality without God?

Vince Vitale: I think a simple series of questions that helps to highlight what you were saying, Jo, is this. What is most important to you in life? You could ask that question of someone and they would give certain answers. And then you might ask them, is that something you're going to lose? And if everything that's most important to you in life is something you're going to lose, then are you setting yourself up for misery? That would be a question that I would want to ask, and I think as we identify some of those things, or we think of how people would ask those qeustions, love, certain relationships, the things that they have created in the context of good work in their life, all of these things on an atheistic worldview, ultimately are going to be things that we are going to lose.

So in that atheistic framework, what are your options? Either you stop desiring anything so that you don't have desires which are fulfilled that then are going to be lost, causing this misery. I don't think that's very livable or very practical. Or you live a life of distractions. Like we often do, we just don't ask these big questions of life, these big questions of meaning. We just busy ourselves with video games and our phones and all the sorts of things that are around us.

God, I think, offers that new option of not giving up on desire, but desiring what is eternal, and recognizing that the things that are most important to you, relationships, love, the creativity that produces work and life, your care for the natural world and God's creation, all of these things, these longings that we find in ourselves, they are actually intended to be eternal and they don't need to be lost.

Michael Davis: What would you say to someone who say meaning is not important?

Jo Vitale: I think what I would say in response to that question is that's a view people espouse with their lips, but I don't think anybody actually lives that way.

Vince Vitale: Exactly, yeah.

Jo Vitale: Because at the end of the day, you say meaning's not important, but there are still things in your life that you find meaningful like relationships, like why do you get out of bed in the morning? I think if we don't have something for which we're motivated enough to live for, we struggle to see the point in living at all. That's, again, why suicide rates, I would say, are increasing. We can try and distract ourselves in pleasure or do one thing and then slide to the next thing, but we're always going to try and find meaning in something. I don't think as the creatures we are, we can sustain life without that.

I think it was Francis Schaeffer who talked about the idea that it's almost as if life is a two story house, and on the bottom floor is the sort of naturalistic worldview. Then on the second floor are things like beauty and truth and love and freedom and morality, all of the of the things that we actually care about in life. Naturalism can only actually keep you on the first floor, but no one can live life that way. We all keep jumping up to the second floor and living out those things even though, by our own thinking, if we ascribe to a naturalistic point of view, it can't sustain that second story. But no life works without it. We all have to have something that keeps us going. Now, that might be a short term thing. It might be different things that you plug there in at different points in your life, but we all have to have something that drives us otherwise we reach a point where we just don't see any reason to keep going.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, and I think this idea of meaning not being important, it's a very priviledged problem to have. It's the sort of thing you can say when everything's provided for you and everything around you is good. But I don't think that's the question or the statement people make when they have to deal with suffering. Every one of us is going to come to some point in life where we really have to deal with the reality of the brokeness and the suffering in this world.

Then I think it's inevitable that we do ask questions about can I really say that thing that's happening to me or to my loved one is evil? Is it meaningless? Or is it the case that someone's suffering through this with me? Is it the case that there's hope within this? Or is there nothing other than despair? Is it the case that this eventually will be overcome in a meaningful way? Christianity can answer in the affirmative to all of those questions. I think all of those questions arrise as soon as you get out of that priviledged place where you can say, "Oh, I'm just not concerned with meaning." And you're in the depths of despair where meaning is all you have to hold on to.

Michael Davis: Well guys, we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.

Vince Vitale: Well, we've contrasted two different ways of thinking about the meaning of life. Is the meaning of life relational? Or is relationality just a blip in a random history of the universe? Is the center of reality impersonal or is it personal? Is it headed somewhere or is it headed nowhere? Two people that come to mind for me, one is Albert Camus. He likened life to the myth of Sisyphus, condemned to roll a stone up a large hill over and over. Every time he rolled the stone up the hill, it would just fall back down and he'd have to roll it up again. He just did this over and over, no matter how hard he worked, he never got anywhere. He never could make progress in terms of finding meaning in life.

The Christian faith, I believe, offers such a better hope. These are words of our former colleague, Nabeel Qureshi I just felt these words contrasted with that analogy from Camus, Camus just talking about the never ending defeat of rolling that stone up and up the hill and never getting anywhere, contrasted with these words from Nabeel, "If the resurrection is true, then what that means for you is that if it comes to a point in your life where it seems like there is no hope, if it comes to a point in your life where it seems like even death is inevitable, and there's no way to escape it, well death is not the end. There's more. There's hope no matter what." I think that's the distinction that we're drawing here between pursuing meaning in the context of an atheistic universe that ultimately is headed for injustice and death, or pursuing meaning in the context of a relationship with Jesus Christ where you can know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that life is headed for so much more.

That's our hope and prayer for you. Thanks so much for listening and journeying with us.

Michael Davis: Vince and Jo, thank you guys so much for joining me. Thank you all for listening. We'll catch you next time.

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