The Absurdity of Life without God
By William Lane Craig
CBN.com Excerpted with permission from On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision
If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality, man’s life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever.
Therefore, everyone must come face-to-face with what theologian Paul Tillich has called “the threat of nonbeing.” For though I know now that I exist, that I am alive, I also know that someday I will no longer exist, that I will no longer be, that I will die. This thought is staggering and threatening: to think that the person I call “myself” will cease to exist, that I will be no more!
I remember vividly the first time my father told me that someday I would die. Somehow as a child the thought had just never occurred to me. When he told me, I was filled with fear and unbearable sadness. And though he tried repeatedly to reassure me that this was a long way off, that didn’t seem to matter. Whether sooner or later, the undeniable fact was that I was going to die, and the thought overwhelmed me.
Eventually, like all of us, I grew to simply accept the fact. We all learn to live with the inevitable. But the child’s insight remains true. As Sartre observed, several hours or several years make no difference once you have lost eternity.
And the universe, too, faces a death of its own. Scientists tell us that the universe is expanding, and the galaxies are growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, it grows colder and colder as its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light; there will be no heat; there will be no life; only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space—a universe in ruins.
This is not science fiction: This is really going to happen, unless God intervenes. Not only is the life of each individual person doomed; the entire human race and the whole edifice and accomplishment of human civilization is doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no escape. There is no hope.
And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself becomes absurd. It means that the life we do have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose. Let’s look at each of these.
No Ultimate Meaning
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 in the end whether he ever existed at all? Sure, his life may be important relative to certain other events, but what’s the ultimate significance of any of those events? If everything is doomed to destruction, then what does it matter that you influenced anything? Ultimately it makes no difference.
Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitoes 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. 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 people everywhere to better the lot of the human race—all these come to nothing. This is the horror of modern man: Because he ends in nothing, he is nothing.
But it’s important to see that man needs more than just immortality for life to be meaningful. Mere duration of existence doesn’t 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. 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 vial—he had drunk the potion for immortality! And that meant he was cursed to exist forever—a 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’s 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.
Thus, if there is no God, then life itself becomes meaningless. Man and the universe are without ultimate significance.
No Ultimate Value
If life ends at the grave, then it makes no ultimate difference whether you live as a Stalin or as a Mother
Teresa. Since your destiny is ultimately unrelated to your behavior, you may as well just live as you please. As the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky put it: “If there is no immortality … then all things are
The state torturers in Soviet prisons understood this all too well. Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor who was tortured for his faith, reports,
The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe when man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil. There is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The Communist torturers often said, “There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.” I have heard one torturer even say, “I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.” He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture infl[i]cted on prisoners.
Given the finality of death, it really does not matter how you live. So what do you say to someone who concludes that we may as well just live as we please, out of pure self-interest?
Somebody might say that it’s in our best self-interest to adopt a moral lifestyle. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours! But clearly, that’s not always true: We all know situations in which self-interest runs smack in the face of morality. Moreover, if you’re sufficiently powerful, like a Ferdinand Marcos or a Papa Doc Duvalier or even a Donald Trump, then you can pretty much ignore the dictates of conscience and safely live in self-indulgence.
Historian Stewart C. Easton sums it up well when he writes, “There is no objective reason why man should be moral, unless morality ‘pays off’ in his social life or makes him ‘feel good.’ There is no objective reason why man should do anything save for the pleasure it affords him.”
But the problem becomes even worse. For, regardless of immortality, if there is no God, then there is no objective standard of right and wrong. All we’re confronted with is, in Sartre’s words, “the bare, valueless fact of existence.” Moral values are either just expressions of personal taste or the byproducts of biological evolution and social conditioning.
After all, on the atheistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental by-products of nature that have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. Richard Dawkins’ assessment of human worth may be depressing, but why, given atheism, is he mistaken when he says, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.… We are machines for propagating DNA.… It is every living object’s sole reason for being”?
In a world without God, who’s to say whose values are right and whose are wrong? There can be no objective right and wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments. Think of what that means! It means it’s impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can you praise generosity, self-sacrifice, and love as good. To kill someone or to love someone is morally equivalent. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist—there is only the bare, valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say you are right and I am wrong.
No Ultimate Purpose
If death stands with open arms at the end of life’s trail, then what is the goal of life? Is it all for nothing? Is there no reason for life? And what of the universe? Is it utterly pointless? If its destiny is a cold grave in the recesses of outer space, the answer must be, yes—it is pointless. There is no goal, no purpose for the universe. The litter of a dead universe will just go on expanding and expanding—forever.
And what of man? Is there no purpose at all for the human race? Or will it simply peter out someday, lost in the oblivion of an indifferent universe? The English writer H. G. Wells foresaw such a prospect. In his novel The Time Machine, Wells’ time traveler journeys far into the future to discover the destiny of man. All he finds is a dead earth, except for a few lichens and moss, orbiting a gigantic red sun. The only sounds are the rush of the wind and the gentle ripple of the sea. “Beyond these lifeless sounds,” writes Wells, “the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over.” And so Wells’ time traveler returned.
But to what?—to merely an earlier point on the same purposeless rush toward oblivion. When as a non-Christian I first read Wells’ book, I thought, No, no! It can’t end that way! But if there is no God, it will end that way, like it or not. This is reality in a universe without God: There is no hope; there is no purpose.
What is true of mankind as a whole is true of each of us individually: We are here to no purpose. If there is no God, then your life is not qualitatively different from that of an animal. As the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes put it: “The fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust” (Eccl. 3:19–20 NASB).
In this ancient work—which reads more like a piece of modern existentialist literature than a book of the Bible—the author shows the futility of pleasure, wealth, education, political fame, and honor in a life doomed to end in death. His verdict? “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2 NASB). If life ends at the grave, then we have no ultimate purpose for living.
But more than that, even if life did not end in death, without God life would still be without purpose. For man and the universe would then be simply accidents of chance, thrust into existence for no reason. Without God the universe is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance explosion. There is no reason for which it exists. As for man, he’s a freak of nature—a blind product of matter plus time plus chance. If God does not exist, then you are just a miscarriage of nature, thrust into a purposeless universe to live a purposeless life.
So if God does not exist, that means that man and the universe exist to no purpose—since the end of everything is death—and that they came to be for no purpose, since they are only blind products of chance. In short, life is utterly without reason.
I hope you begin to understand the gravity of the alternatives before us. For if God exists, then there is hope for man. But if God does not exist, then all we are left with is despair. As one writer has aptly put it, “If God is dead, then man is dead too.”
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