How the world considers the meaning of life, contrasted with the Bible’s answer, and why it matters from a Christian perspective.
What is the meaning of life? For the righteous, the meaning (or purpose) of life is to bring glory to God our creator and enjoy him forever through Jesus Christ. For the wicked, unbelievers will bring glory to God through judgment by being objects of his wrath for eternity.
What is the meaning of life? In 1988, Hugh Moorhead, former chair of the Department of Philosophy from Northwestern University, asked hundreds of leading Western thinkers, commentators, and even comedians about the meaning of life. Moorhead published these one-liners and phrases from about 250 thinkers.
According to the Chicago Tribune, answers about the meaning of life were quite varied. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote, “Really, I don’t know what the meaning or purpose of life is, but it looks exactly as if something were meant by it.” Novelist Joseph Heller said he had no answers to the meaning of life “and no longer want to search for any.”
From the lofty aspirations of religious leaders to the nonsensical pronouncements of potheads, everyone has a take on the meaning of life. But it’s not that confusing from a Biblical perspective. We are not left to meander through life without a purpose.
In this post, I aim to review explore the significance of “meaning”, review some false but popular musings on the meaning of life, and finally cover how the Bible answers the perennial question on what is the meaning of life.
The Meaning of Meaning – Why ‘Telos’ Is Vital
Before digging too deep, it’s good to define an important term in this question: what is “meaning”? Dictionary.com defines the ‘meaning’ we’re concerned with as: “the end, purpose, or significance of something” In other words, the reason something exists.
Philosophers sometimes refer to the concept of ‘meaning’ as ‘telos’ (τέλος) from the Greek word signifying “end, purpose, or goal.” For instance, the ‘telos’ of a car is to bring you from one place to another place in a reasonable amount of time. It’s the reason a car was built and the “meaning” of the car, if you will.
In general, it’s often easy to determine meaning or ‘telos’ of objects that people create: cars, iPhones, wrenches, and pencils. People made these things because other people found them useful. They have a purpose (or purposes) and it’s not difficult to determine the telos of human-made objects.
But what about humans? If you don’t understand the nature of people – where we came from, where we’re going, or who made us – it’s impossible to understand the telos of life. To illustrate the confusion, checkout how the world attempts to answer the question.
Many Answers, Much Confusion: ‘Meaning of Life’ In The World System
Google the question “what is the meaning of life”, and you will get as many answers as there are philosophies. To save you the time, here’s a brief selection of how the world answers the important question on what the meaning of life is…
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” Joseph Campbell, 20th century Comparative Religion Scholar
“For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, Former Governor of California, Actor
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” Albert Camus, 20th century philosopher
Opinions on the meaning of life vary greatly in the World System. In this small collection of answers from worldly-wise people, they can’t even agree with each other. The reason they don’t get it is because they don’t understand telos of people.
If you look to the world for the meaning of life, you won’t find a satisfactory answer. Because the world always seeks the answers to life’s basic questions apart from the purpose (or telos) of all life and meaning: the one true God.
The Bible Declares the Purpose of Humans: God
Thankfully, the meaning of life is not a mystery for the Christian. The Bible, God’s word, answers the question about the meaning of life and it works out like this…
1. God is the creator of everything.
God created the entire world, including us. There’s nothing that exists (apart from himself) that he did not create. The stars, angels, microbes, and sub-atomic particles are all a part of the universe he spoke into existence in Genesis 1. He not only created everything seen and unseen, he also created human beings. He is our designer and the source of purpose in the universe.
“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16,17)
2. God declares the purpose for creation.
Nothing is an accident with God. Nothing was created without a purpose. That includes us. Whether we are reconciled to him and headed to heaven (the righteous) or we are under his wrath and headed to hell (the wicked); God has given each of us a purpose for our lives.
In both ways, God has created us for his glory: to magnify his mercy (for the righteous) or to magnify his justice (for the wicked). For the righteous, God’s purpose is reconciliation with himself and a destiny in his kingdom. For the wicked, God gives futility and a destiny of destruction. In both cases, God’s declares the purpose or meaning of your life.
“The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” (Proverbs 16:4)
3. Meaning and destiny are found in Jesus Christ.
Jesus encapsulates the meaning of life in John 8:12. In this verse, Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” In darkness, people don’t understand their own meaning. But Jesus promises to give the light of life (in other words “the meaning of life”) to those who follow him. Christ’s followers will understand the meaning of life.
How so? Jesus gives a destiny to those who believe in him. He resurrects his believers on the last day. Even if believers die on this earth, they will live with him forever. So there’s a destiny in the world to come.
But it’s not just about heaven. Jesus also provides life and purpose to people here and now through the kingdom of God. The gospel saves us from eternal and just condemnation, but it also saves us unto for a greater purpose right now. The Apostle Paul said “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” (Ephesians 2:10). Until we find our purpose in Christ, we will forever be knocking around in the darkness in the world.
“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25,26)
Conclusion: Finding Meaning Only in Our Creator and Savior
In summary, The Westminster Confession of Faith, answered the question about the meaning of life in 17th century language. When posing the question “What is the chief end of man?,” it answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” The Confession addresses the heart of what our purpose is in life: God.
The World attempts to answer the question of the meaning of life, but the answers are confusing and self-contradictory. The reason is simple: in their darkness, they cannot see the telos of life, God himself.
Only through God, as revealed in the Bible, do we understand the meaning of life. Because he is our creator, he declares the purpose for each of us, and we discover this meaning through Jesus. He is the light of this life. And through him we can understand the meaning of life and our ultimate destiny.
- OpenBible.info: Verses on the Meaning of Life
- GotAnswers.org: What Is The Meaning of Life?
- Matt Slick: What Is The Meaning & Purpose of Life?
- Rick Warren: Trash The Self-Help Books – Your Life Is Not About You