For many theologians, their biggest complaint against atheism is that it would mean there is no grand purpose to our existence. I can understand why they would find that depressing, though of course, that doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not such a purpose really exists. The truth just might be sad. Nevertheless, let’s explore that line of reasoning for just a moment. Should we consider that God exists because the alternative is too depressing?
I recently watched a debate that took place at the University of Kentucky on October 12 of last year. The subject was “Science and Religion: Are they Compatible?” Biology professor Jerry Coyne took the “no” position, and theologian John Haught took the “yes” position. Haught’s main argument for thinking that God exists was based on purpose. Around the six and a half minute mark, he noted that our lives can have purpose and meaning if they contribute to something of lasting value: peace, justice, love, truth, etc. But is there anything comparable in the Universe? Is there a larger point to our collective existence?
This question stuck with me for a while. I think his overall point is that while our lives might have some immediate meaning to ourselves and those around us, if there’s no big purpose for life and humanity as a whole, then it’s all just pointless. But if that’s so, then how is God any different? I know that might sound confusing at first, but bear with me. If the value we create for ourselves is ultimately pointless without a higher purpose, doesn’t that same rationale apply to the concept of God? Theologians maintain that if we were the ultimate intellect in the Universe, then life would be meaningless. Therefore, if God is the ultimate intellect in the Universe, then his life would also be meaningless. His only purpose would be the one he creates for himself, because there’s no higher purpose for him to fulfill. If needing a higher purpose is the only thing that gives us true value, then God has no value either, because no purpose is higher than him.
Of course, in the end, I don’t view things that way. I think the fact that we can give our lives meaning is reason enough to appreciate life. 400 years from now, it’s likely that no one will know or care that I was here. But why should I be overly concerned with people 400 years away? It should be enough to me that my friends and family care that I’m here. I can make a difference in their lives, and I think that’s good enough. Would it be nice to live forever in a place of utter bliss? Sure — who wouldn’t want that? But I don’t have to pretend that such a place exists just to find enjoyment in life. In fact, not worrying so much about what might come after death allows me to focus more on making this life meaningful.
60 thoughts on “Purpose”
Hey Nate, interesting post. 🙂 Let’s see if I make some semblance of an answer…
Theologians maintain that if we were the ultimate intellect in the Universe, then life would be meaningless. Therefore, if God is the ultimate intellect in the Universe, then his life would also be meaningless. His only purpose would be the one he creates for himself, because there’s no higher purpose for him to fulfill.
The difference is that God is God and we are not. God is fulfilled in Himself – He is the I Am. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism sums up, God is “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” He is complete and entire in Himself. He needs no higher purpose other than His own glory.
I like your final comment, “But I don’t have to pretend that such a place exists just to find enjoyment in life. In fact, not worrying so much about what might come after death allows me to focus more on making this life meaningful.” I just wish more without, AND within, the christian community would adopt such a life philosophy. If you view the redeeming grace of our Savior simply as a “get out of hell free” card . . . you’re doing it wrong.
Nate, some very profound thinking there. But my questions are for Ink Slinger. Many theologians have stated that man’s purpose is to glorify god. Now, that would seem pretty sad to me, as the guy has such a weak ego he needs these very fallible, very insignificant creatures (I’m thinking in terms of the entire cosmos; surely we are not the only intelligent life forms out there?) to pay him homage. Are we seeing the picture of the tiny aliens in the locker worshippping K as the “keeper of the light”? Funny in a movie, but pathetic if that is really the case.
So, if god is “complete and entire in himself” and “needs no higher purpose other than his own “glory” (very strong ego now!), then why would he have created such a fallible, insignificant creature as man? That would be like me raising a whole bunch of dogs; kind of nice to have them around to pet once in a while, but I personally don’t need them to give me doggy devotion in order to fulfill my ego. Like god in this case, my ego is sufficient unto myself that I don’t need to be worshipped.
So, which is it, Ink Slinger? Is god a sad creature who needs little earthlings to worship him in order to be fulfilled, or is he some self-sufficient space alien who wanted a petting zoo? What was the purpose of god creating man?
@Don Maker I’ll quote John Piper on this one, since he puts it so much better than I can:
“Now when God says that he created us for his glory, it cannot mean that he created us so that he would become more glorious, that his beauty and perfection would be somehow increased by us. It is unthinkable that God should become more perfectly God by making something that is not God. It is a staggering but necessary thought that God has always existed, that he never came into being, and that everything which exists which is not God is from his fullness and can never add anything to him which did not come from him….
When God says he made us for his glory, he does not mean he made us so that he could become more glorious in himself. Instead what Isaiah 43:7 means is that he created us to display his glory, that is, that his glory might be known and praised.”
Thanks for the comments! I’d have to say that your reply to Don doesn’t seem to answer his point too well. Even if John Piper is right, doesn’t it seem a little sad that he created a race of beings just to glorify and honor him?
The other point I would make is that God is only the I am if he’s real. And to me, that’s the whole question. If he’s not there, then we could just as easily say that mankind is complete and entire in itself… At least, that’s how it seems to me.
Thanks for chiming in!
Don, as always, I appreciate your comments!
Thanks for stopping by! I spent some time perusing your blog today, and I very much enjoyed it. Thank you so much for the kind comment! As it so happens, I agree with your sentiment. I think if people focused more on living well in this life, whatever happens in the next (if there is one) will work itself out. One of my favorite quotes is from Marcus Aurelius:
Thanks for stopping by my humble little ramblings. I’ve only been following your posts for a little while but I thoroughly enjoy your thought provoking style. As a believer myself, I love the opportunities that make me truly think about my own beliefs and not to rely simply on regurgitated doctrine and religious dogma. I actually ENJOY thinking for myself 🙂 Thank you (and Don as well) for making me think!
I don’t understand this constant search for ‘purpose’ that religious people seem to find so necessary. If one ignores the enormous size of the universe and how insignificant a part of it our planet is (as an insect ignores the size of our planet), we can get enjoyment and fulfillment from the way our lives positively affect those we care about, from raising children to charity work, why does there have to be anything else? If you demand that your good deeds be rewarded or approved by a god or spirit, you’re not doing it for anyone other than yourself.
@the Ink Slinger
you almost seem to be validating Nate’s point. If a thing doesn’t need a “higher” purpose to have meaning, then we as people wouldn’t either. We can have meaning in whatever we find meaningful. Our purpose would be in achieving whatever end we desire.
I guess if someone wants to have eternal life, their purpose would be in trying to achieve that end. Likewise, if someone wanted to make the biggest impact on the lives of those around them, then that would be their purpose – and so on.
Just my thoughts.
Thanks for your comments, Rowan and William!
@William I noted in my original comment that God can be fulfilled in Himself because He is God. I don’t think any human being (other than a wacko) would claim to be infinite, eternal, unchangeable, etc. – God, however, is.
Of course, atheists do not concede that God even exists. That being the case, I’m not sure we can really go anywhere with this… 🙂
@the Ink Slinger
I don’t really think that changes my original point though. In some ways, humans actually seem to be in a better position. At least we can interact with others who are like us. God only has Jesus and the HS, which are also himself… beyond that, he only has what he has created. It’s kind of like a lonely child that only has his imaginary friends to play with. If there’s no higher purpose other than his own entertainment, then his existence seems to have even less purpose than ours. He can’t learn anything, he can’t improve on anything, he can’t really experience anything new, because he needs nothing. Humans, on the other hand, can do all of those things.
@Nate But Nate – assuming for a moment that the God I believe in exists – then He is perfection. He doesn’t depend on or need anything or anyone. He is the Beginning and the End. Is that such a bad thing? 🙂
I guess you’re right. This entire discussion is conjecture – “if god exists…”
Whether I can reason that he does or doesn’t does not necessarily mean that my determination is correct. Likewise, whether or not the bible believers can fathom real purpose or real meaning without a god does not mean that atheists do have either.
With the imaginary anything can be invented. Any perfect superhero can be made to have an infinite surplus of defenses. The excuses are as limitless as the imagination.
Wow; this post is absolutely fantastic! I love your whole demeanour when you write, Nate! It actually warmed my heart reading such a nice response to this oft-asked question. Nice work 🙂
this is more related to testimony, but I have a question to anybody who has a faith in Christ
Have you ever had a direct experience of God?
Can you please explain what happended?
Are there particular experiences of God communicating with you that stick in your mind?
Biblically speaking, is our relationship with Christ meant to be a personal relationship?
How does this look like?
what is this relationship?
How can I have a relationship with someone I can’t see, that I have never heard, and from memory who has not directly responded to me like a friend or family member or a stranger might respond to me?
If draw a relationship from answered prayers,even then this is very different from the way I interact with everyone else in my life.
What a strange relationship, is this a relationship?
Here’s a analogy:
I’m talking to my friend Frank in the living room. Although I can’t see Frank, and Frank has never responded to me the way other people I can see have responded to me.
Everything I know about Frank I have heard from other people, but not from Frank verbally. If I was given a book about Frank, although through this book I might feel like I know Frank, or can relate to him, isin’t this very different from being able to actually converse with Frank.
If someone asked me how I knew Frank was in the room what would be my response? was Frank a very, very patient listener. Or was Frank not there? which is more likely?
what relationship is there to indicate that Frank exists?
has anyone had a direct experience of God?
But how do we explain music? beauty? the created order? dreams? self awareness? the ability to even contemplate?
Could it be that Im just not listening carefully enough for God? or I’m afraid of what I might be told? or Im too distracted?
I want a personal relationship with God, but Im unsettled at the same time with the idea if God directly communicated with me.
If you read in the Bible, with great revelation came great responsability. God used those people he directly communicated with.
Is this the difference between believing and knowing?
Im caught between wanting to have personal relationship, a dn being scared of what that might mean.
If I have never seen or heard directly from God what basis is there for a relationship? Jesus I think said that he would be with the apostles even until the end of the age, What does that mean. Is He with me? What does that look like if I’ve never heard from Him, or seen Him?
Is this testing God?
Thanks Larry! That means a lot!
Hi Ryan (portal001),
Thanks for the comments. Those are some really big questions that you’ve asked, and I’m afraid I don’t have time to attempt an answer on them all right now. However, I do want to say that when you have those questions, you’re not testing God. You’re testing what people have told you about God, which is a very different thing.
another question that i used to ask my self, in light of all the contradictions and errors that I perceived is, is this a test from God? Giving his word, but letting it appear to be messed up (at least to some)? and what would be the point in such a test? to see whether we believe absurdities in one book, but then use absurdities within other books to discount them? To see if we rely on our intellect in ever part of life except when it comes to religion? What could such a test possibly mean or be good for, and how would we ever know if we’re taking it correctly?
How can I have a personal relationship with someone who I’ve never physically met, seen, heard from directly or had a direct conversation with? Has anyone apart from Biblical characters had such relationships with God? If God went to such great sacrifice to have a relationship with us through the death of His Son, why isint there a conversation, why is prayer one sided (in my experience). why must we point to answered prayer as being evidence of God. Why can’t God just whisper, “I love you” just once. would a loving parent spend their whole time listening to their child, and then say nothing? any Christians or asnyone of any faith, is this a question, or do you have direct experiences from God? Is it just me? am I spiritually blind? or too sinful, or too distracted? or am not seeking God enough? What sort of realtionship is this where the Creator or All has not been heard, has not been seen, yet the justice of the world is attributed to Him?