Is life absurdly meaningless?
Years ago, I bought copies of John’s Gospel by the case, leaving stacks of them in public places—restaurants, coffeehouses, popular meeting spots. I’d give them to people I met and visitors to my church. I kept a supply in the trunk of my car so I’d never be without one.
Living in a college town not far from a city with three major universities, students were my target demographic. I had them in mind when I crafted the brief message I inscribed within each book. My note said:
I can’t make sense of my life or the world around me apart from the existence of a Sovereign Creator who providentially rules the universe according to a wise and benevolent plan. If this God does exist, the most crucial pursuit of our lives is learning everything we can about him and his will for us. This book [John’s Gospel] is an excellent place to start.
My message was only a teaser, so I also included my phone number, inviting future readers to call me and discuss the matter further. When I picked up the phone for the few who did, I expounded upon my inscription using not John’s Gospel but the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. Only later would I say, “Having heard this, I now encourage you to read John for the rest of the story.”
John’s Gospel is an obvious choice for any evangelistic endeavor. The author himself writes:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30, 31)
My rationale behind Ecclesiastes may be slightly more obscure. Allow me to explain.
Ecclesiastes opens with the well-known cynical refrain, “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc 1:2). The so-called Preacher, the primary voice throughout the book, seems to think the glass is half-empty at best. He drags his readers into dark corners of despair and makes an unapologetic case for life’s utter lack of meaning. He says that we may accumulate untold wealth, write our names into the history books, and accomplish extraordinary feats, but it’s all for nothing. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? (Ecc 2:22). Vanity is the short answer (Ecc 2:23).
Life is unfair. Injustice prevails everywhere we look. Our pleasures are fleeting. Good people suffer. As we strive for something better, we’re like hamsters running on a wheel. The years pass with dreadful monotony and predictable results. We should know better if we’re waiting for a happy storybook ending. The final chapter is the most inevitable part. It is the same for all (Ecc 9:2). The living know they will die (Ecc 9:5).
Death robs life of meaning because it ultimately takes from us everything for which we once lived. Whatever gets us out of bed in the morning and propels us forward is vanity, a vapor that soon dissipates. Reach out to take hold of it with the firmest grip, and it will still slip through your fingers.
Paradoxically, this universal dilemma should be humanity’s most pressing concern, but we treat it as taboo. A terminal patient confesses to his family, “I’m dying,” to which the family replies, “Don’t talk like that.” We’re bizarrely unwilling to confront life’s only certainty. A shrewd businessman may avoid paying taxes but cannot escape death. What man can live and never see death? (Ps 89:48). We all know the answer. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return (Ecc 3:20).
Though philosophy is no longer a popular pastime, human beings have a long history of meditating on the problem of our mortality and discussing potential solutions. Perhaps Albert Camus (1913-1960) proposed the best possible answer secularism has to offer. In his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” he argues that life is altogether absurd because death eventually destroys anything that could give it meaning. Consequently, he proposes that life “will be lived all the better if it has no meaning. … Revolt [against life’s absurdity] gives life its value.” In other words, ignore the problem, go about your business, and pretend your life has a purpose even though the secularist adamantly denies it.
On the surface, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes seems to agree with Camus regarding life’s absurdity. He confesses that abundant wealth, power, entertainment, sensual pleasure, and human wisdom can never be enough to give significance to our days under the sun because those days are necessarily limited. We may live our best life now, but what difference does it make? Kings and paupers alike share the same fate. They die. Everything they were or were not will soon be gone forever.
Then again, the Preacher is not an atheistic philosopher. Despite his pessimism about the natural world and its inherent vanity, he believes in the unseen. He trusts in “the existence of a Sovereign Creator who providentially rules the universe according to a wise and benevolent plan.” While much of the plan remains a mystery to him, he pleads with his readers to “remember your Creator” (Ecc 12:1). Contrary to popular opinion these days, life is not a sequence of haphazard events resulting from a cosmic accident. For everything, there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven because God makes it so (Ecc 3:1). He has made everything beautiful in its time (Ecc 3:11).
Modern atheists reason we no longer need our silly, superstitious belief in God. They say we’ve outgrown him, but I suggest we glance at the fine print before reaching a conclusion. Somewhere beneath the headline, God Is Dead, is a troubling byline that reads, Also, your life is void of all meaning. You’re a freak bag of chemicals wandering through an impersonal universe until you cease to exist. Albert Camus might add, “Enjoy your freedom.”
If, however, the Preacher is right about God, each person has incalculable value by virtue of creation. God intentionally made each of us with a specific purpose in mind. We are all pieces of his intricately designed plan, which he carefully executes from the beginning of human history to the end. You are not an accident, and your life has profound meaning—more than you currently know. As finite creatures, we cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end, but we don’t need to as long as we’re willing to trust our Creator’s infinite wisdom (Ecc 3:11).
Furthermore, the Preacher recognizes that our existence will not always be bound by the confines of time and physical space. To put a finer point on it, death is not the end. Yes, it is appointed for man to die, but after that comes—something else (Heb 9:27). Though the Preacher doesn’t go into great detail about the next chapter of our story, he hardly thinks it’s necessary. He argues that we already know there’s more to come because God has put eternity into man’s heart (Ecc 3:11). Perhaps this explains why nearly everyone at a funeral believes in heaven. When confronted with mortality, we’re quick to confess the truth we knew all along.
As the editor of Ecclesiastes reflects on the Preacher’s speech, he attempts to summarize it, providing a practical takeaway. He writes, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecc 12:13, 14).
While we don’t fully know why we’re here or why events happen as they do, God does. We can’t begin to “make sense of [our lives] or the world around [us] apart from” him. Unless one prefers the tragically false scenario where life is absurdly meaningless, we have no choice but to trust, fear, and revere our Divine Maker. Then, of course, “the most crucial pursuit of our lives is learning everything we can about him and his will for us,” that is, his commandments (Ecc 12:13).
If life still appears to be a random and disorganized mess, we should remember that God’s plan isn’t complete. Our existence now is only a sliver of eternity. We must wait to see how God will bring it all together at his final judgment (Ecc 12:14).
As it happens, Ecclesiastes is evangelistic at the most fundamental level, but the Preacher and his editor leave several vital questions unanswered. Who is this Sovereign Creator? If he is orchestrating a “wise and benevolent plan,” why does life seem absurd? What is “his will for us”? What precisely occurs once the vapor slips through our fingers and our time on this earth is over?
God willing, we long for the clarity only John’s Gospel and the rest of Scripture provide. Better yet, I pray we are seeking the answers we need.