Who am I?
Meaning and personal identity
"No Ultimate Meaning Without Immortality and God"
William Lane Craig
- William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He is well known for his work as an apologist, speaker and debater. He is the author of Reasonable Faith. View all resources by William Lane Craig
If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this only shows a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance. His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference.
Look at it from another perspective: Scientists say that the universe originated in an explosion called the 'Big Bang' about 15 billion years ago. Suppose the Big Bang had never occurred. Suppose the universe had never existed. What ultimate difference would it make? The universe is doomed to die anyway. In the end it makes no difference whether the universe ever existed or not. Therefore, it is without ultimate significance.
The same is true of the human race. Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.
And the same is true of each individual person. The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good men everywhere to better the lot of the human raceóall these come to nothing. In the end they donít make one bit of difference, not one bit. Each personís life is therefore without ultimate significance. And because our lives are ultimately meaningless, the activities we fill our lives with are also meaningless. The long hours spent in study at the university, our jobs, our interests, our friendshipsóall these are, in the final analysis, utterly meaningless. This is the horror of modern man: because he ends in nothing, he is nothing.
But it is important to see that it is not just immortality that man needs if life is to be meaningful. Mere duration of existence does not make that existence meaningful. If man and the universe could exist forever, but if there were no God, their existence would still have no ultimate significance. To illustrate: I once read a science-fiction story in which an astronaut was marooned on a barren chunk of rock lost in outer space. He had with him two vials: one containing poison and the other a potion that would make him live forever. Realizing his predicament, he gulped down the poison. But then to his horror, he discovered he had swallowed the wrong vialóhe had drunk the potion for immortality. And that meant that he was cursed to exist foreveróa meaningless, unending life. Now if God does not exist, our lives are just like that. They could go on and on and still be utterly without meaning. We could still ask of life, 'So what?' So it is not just immortality man needs if life is to be ultimately significant; he needs God and immortality. And if God does not exist, then he has neither.
Twentieth-century man came to understand this. Read Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. During this entire play two men carry on trivial conversation while waiting for a third man to arrive, who never does. Our lives are like that, Beckett is saying; we just kill time waitingófor what, we donít know. In a tragic portrayal of man, Beckett wrote another play in which the curtain opens revealing a stage littered with junk. For thirty long seconds, the audience sits and stares in silence at that junk. Then the curtain closes. Thatís all.
One of the most devastating novels Iíve ever read was Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse. At the novelís end, Harry Haller stands looking at himself in a mirror. During the course of his life he had experienced all the world offers. And now he stands looking at himself, and he mutters, 'Ah, the bitter taste of life!' He spits at himself in the looking-glass, and then he kicks it to pieces. His life has been futile and meaningless.
French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus understood this, too. Sartre portrayed life in his play No Exit as hellóthe final line of the play are the words of resignation, 'Well, letís get on with it.' Hence, Sartre writes elsewhere of the 'nausea' of existence. Camus, too, saw life as absurd. At the end of his brief novel The Stranger, Camusís hero discovers in a flash of insight that the universe has no meaning and there is no God to give it one. The French biochemist Jacques Monod seemed to echo those sentiments when he wrote in his work Chance and Necessity, 'Man finally knows he is alone in the indifferent immensity of the universe.'
Thus, if there is no God, then life itself becomes meaningless. Man and the universe are without ultimate significance.
Read the whole chapter here: The Absurdity of Life Without God - Chapter Two of Reasonable Faith.
- © This is a sample from the book 'Reasonable Faith' by William Lane Craig, copyright 1994, page 51-75.