Years ago when I taught philosophy at a public college, a student of mine ended her term paper on the topic of “existentialism and the meaning of life” with the following forlorn assessment:
“The world and life are meaningless. Surely God does not exist. Therefore, I don’t know how anyone could reasonably conclude that life is anything other than absurd.”
In talking with this very bright and reflective student over the course of the semester, I knew that her comments were not flowing from a state of clinical depression. Rather she had been dutifully reading the writings of such influential atheist philosophers as Albert Camus (1913-1960) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). My student’s angst was philosophical in nature rather than stemming from psychological factors (though I am convinced that a person’s worldview inevitably affects their mental and emotional outlook). Upon reflection, she had concluded that since God did not exist then the world and life itself were meaningless. She had embraced a philosophy of nihilism (the view that the universe is meaningless and without purpose).
Later she asked me what I thought of her philosophical conclusions concerning life and its alleged lack of meaning. As a professor, I always liked it better when the student would personally invite me to offer my views about philosophical and religious issues. Working at a public college, I tried to be very professional and, therefore, unobtrusive when it came to expressing my deeply held Christian convictions. I offered the following thoughts for her philosophical consideration.
I told her that her statement that the world is meaningless was actually a very meaningful recognition on her part. Yet I suggested that this was a clear indication that something wasn’t quite right about nihilism. This philosophical outlook seems to be self-defeating in nature.
For if the world is meaningless then human life is equally meaningless. But this concept creates a great dissonance in thought. How could people living in a meaningless world come to the amazing meaningful recognition that the world has no meaning? As Christian thinker C. S. Lewis pointed out, meaningless creatures would never discover the truth of their own meaninglessness (see Mere Christianity, 45-46).
I then asked my student if a human being’s unique ability to reflect about the meaning of life was not a strong hint that there is indeed something deeper to life. I also explained to her that I viewed God as being the best explanation for life and the world (abductive reasoning: “inference to the best explanation”).
We also talked about many other difficult philosophical issues such as the problem of evil and suffering. She told me that she would like to read more about Christian philosophy.
It was for students like this that I later wrote my book Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions. The unique gospel of gracious redemption in Christ offers genuine meaning, purpose, and significance to sinners estranged from God, from each other, and from themselves. One of Christianity’s powerful appeals over other religious and philosophical systems is its ability to provide hope to those who despair of finding the meaning of life.