What is the meaning of life? This question has been asked for as long as humans have been around…
I’m told that in this post-modern age the question of the meaning of life is no longer an issue, since nothing is regarded to be objectively “true”, and evolutionism has sucked any spiritual meaning out of life.
I think the meaning of life is probably a non-issue for those people who are determined not to notice God at all, and for those who claim to be atheists, but I’m sure it’s still being asked a billion times over, all around the world, every day. Perhaps the question is only asked inside minds, because it’s true that looking for meaning has become unfashionable. I offer here three views of the meaning of life.
In Douglas Adams’ wonderful, witty, imaginative “Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” trilogy*, which no spoof writer has yet equaled, an alien race of philosophers build themselves a super-computer designed solely to find the answer to the meaning of life, and name it “Deep Thought”. After performing the necessary calculations for seven and a half million years, it finally announces that the answer to the meaning of life is “forty two”. The philosophers are shocked and bewildered that they’ve waited so long only to find that the answer to the meaning of life seems so meaningless. Deep Thought then offers to design a computer which can calculate what the question is.
You don’t have to wait seven and half million years for the answer to the meaning of life. The Bible gives us an explanation, and gives it in a very succinct, clear to understand way. We don’t need to go through life without an answer, we don’t need to go to some guru in the Himalayas, and we don’t need to ask Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins (they don’t know it anyway).
HAMLET AND PAUL
In giving the answer, I want to share with you a striking contrast I’ve noticed between the apostle Paul’s view of life and that of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. You may well ask what Hamlet has to do with this. Of course, he is a fictional character, but in his famous and eloquent soliloquy we find one view of life and death which is very prevalent in these days, and which we may have found ourselves sharing at some time. You can skip the following quote and go to my summary if you wish, but in order to catch the drift of Hamlet’s philosophy, let’s look at a part of his speech, found in Act 3, Scene 1:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”
To summarize Hamlet’s thoughts in my own very amateur way, Hamlet is extremely disillusioned with his world, and with life in general. He’s been wronged significantly, and hurt by those closest to him. He finds nothing of merit within human nature. He sees life as a weary battle to fend off the evil which comes from all directions. He can’t make up his mind which is worse: to live through the troubles of life, or to die by suicide and face whatever may be on “the other side”, in the after-life. There he may wish he’d stayed in the land of the living.
Who can empathize with Hamlet? I know I can. There have been times in my life when I have had very similar thoughts, and if you have not, you are very fortunate. Perhaps Hamlet speaks eloquently for many of us. It’s no wonder that Shakespeare is considered by many to be almost comparable to the Bible in his literary power, and his insights into the mind of man and human character.
However, it’s clear to all of us that this is extremely negative thinking. It’s perhaps an expression of paranoia. It’s a dark view in which there is no hope or salvation, but suffering and fear only.
Consider now the words of the apostle Paul. When he wrote the following, Paul was chained up in a Roman jail. He lived in the knowledge that his life could be taken from him at any moment, such was the opposition he faced daily for many years, including the threat of execution. For full effect I should quote this in “King James English”, but I want it to be clear to everyone, so it’s in late 20th C NIV English instead. Notice the similarity of subject matter, but the contrast in Paul’s view of life and death:
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians1: 10-24).
In summary, Paul, chained and one step away from execution, sees his priorities as being the exaltation of Christ, and the shepherding of those he has led to faith in Christ. Though he is always near to death, he has no fear of it. In fact, he expresses a desire to leave his earthly body so that he can be with his Lord. Paul’s wish is that he will glorify Christ: whether it is by his life, or his death, he does not mind.
Here we see the incredible faith of a man who had once been a persecutor of Christians, but who now lived for Christ and his followers.
The contrasts between Hamlet’s outlook, and that of Paul are almost breath-taking. Hamlet lives in defeat and fear: fear of life and of death. His primary, and only concern is himself and his own feelings and pride, whereas Paul can say triumphantly, “to live is Christ and to die is gain”.
To Hamlet life is just a struggle with evil and human nature, only to arrive at a fearful ending where the afterlife may even be worse. To Paul, life is about glorifying Christ and taking care of others’ spiritual and physical well-being, until ultimately, the believer has inexpressible joy of union with Christ. There is no loss, only gain.
In another place Paul said of Christ, “All things were created by him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). That’s the key: we were created for Him, and not for ourselves. This is the meaning of life.
We tend to think that we’re here to get what we can out of life in the form of pleasure and stuff. We think that those who have lots of stuff must be far happier than we are. The truth is that people can be happy with very little, when they are aware of what brings true happiness. I can clearly remember my ninety-two year old grandmother, totally blind, spending most of each day alone in a room with very few possessions and nothing in the bank. She would sit and sing praise to God, with a contented smile on her face. She was waiting to be ushered into His kingdom. She was full of peace and joy, and she was a loving, kind woman without an ounce (or gram) of bitterness or fear in her. She had achieved what many or most millionaires do not.
How do you wish to feel about your life, and about death? It’s not dependent on your income, or your vocation, or who you’re dating, or what kind of experiences you’ve had. It’s dependant on your willingness to live primarily for your Creator, and also for the benefit of others, and not for yourself.
*Don’t bother reading any more than the first three books-the rest are no good…