The meaning of life

Following the Second World War several existentialist authors wrote at length about the meaning of life. One of these was Albert Camus, whose “Myth of Sisyphus” opens with these words: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest . . . are games.”

Viktor Frankl, a therapist who survived both Auschwitz and Dachau, discovered in the death camps that a belief that life has meaning can sustain your humanity and even your life in the presence of profound evil and suffering. Frankl defined his program of logotherapy as “therapy through meaning.” In “The Unheard Cry for Meaning” he criticized therapies in which “the patient had not been taken as a human being, that is to say, a being in steady search of meaning; and this search for meaning, which is so distinctive of [human beings], had not been taken seriously at face value, but was seen as a mere rationalization of underlying unconscious psychodynamics.” He said that “a logotherapist cannot tell a patient what the meaning [of life] is, but he at least can show that there is a meaning in life, that it is available to everyone and, even more, that life retains its meaning under any conditions.”

People perceive the meaning of life as a part of their larger world view. Throughout most of human history most people have inherited their world view from the religious communities to which they belonged. However, with the birth of modern science in the 17th century, numerous people gained access for the first time to a world view that is not religious. Even though modern science was initially informed by Christian concepts (it is no accident that modern science was born in Christendom rather than in a more ancient society such as India or China), and even though early modern scientists such as Isaac Newton were serious Christians, modern science offers a nonreligious understanding of reality that can jeopardize human meaning. If we assume, as many of our contemporaries do, that science provides an exhaustive account of reality, then we will perceive no transcendent meaning for the existence of the universe. As the distinguished physicist Steven Weinberg famously wrote, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

Given that world view, there can be no transcendent meaning to our lives. Life is, in Macbeth’s sobering words, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Fortunately, it is perfectly reasonable–and we are perfectly free–to welcome everything that science tells us about how the world works and then also to welcome everything that our faith tells us about why the world exists and what it all means. We are also free to explore how these two sets of information are related to each other.

What does the Christian faith tell us is the meaning of our lives? In Matthew 22 we read that one of Jesus’ opponents asked him, “What is the greatest commandment in the law?” Devout Jews believed that God had given the Law to Israel so that Israel would know how life is supposed to be lived. They believed that those who know the Law are blessed by God because they have been taught the truth about human life. When this man asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” he was effectively asking, “What is the meaning of life?”

Jesus answered him by quoting a command from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” To that he added one from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He then said, “This is all the law and the prophets.”

According to Jesus, the meaning of life is to love God and other people.

Fisher Humphreys

Author's Website
About the Author
Fisher Humphreys is Professor of Divinity, Emeritus, of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.

Read more posts by