Can life have meaning if Christianity is not true?

By Noel Weichbrodt

Is life, as the oft-used Hamlet quote states, full of sound and fury that signifies nothing? The topic for today is whether life can have meaning if Christianity were not true. Traditionally, Christians have uttered an emphatic “no” to this proposition. I will affirm that life can have meaning, albeit an abbreviated meaning, if Christianity were not true. For this answer, I will define my revised idea of what it means for life to have meaning that Christianity presents to this question, present two definitions of “meaning” that show my affirmation true, and then delve into some implications these definitions have for us as Christians.

What does it mean for life to have meaning when Christianity is true? For life to have meaning, that life must be a part of something bigger than a person. When a person looks up from life inside and gazes out the window with contemplation, one must be able to say that “I am secure and happy that my existence has value to somebody other than myself.” This idea of meaning, however, is more of a emotional, relativistic idea.
I propose an even better idea for what it means for life to have meaning with Christianity (with acknowledgments to F. Schaeffer)“There is an infinite-personal God who has spoken to us, told us that He loves us, and set in motion a divine plan for each of our lives that we participate in.” This idea of meaning, I think, is what Christians answer from when they ask if their life does have meaning. Obviously, this answer is irrelevant given the question that begins this essay, but I think it important to clarify my own idea of the meaning of life from a Christian stance.

Now we turn to the question of whether life has meaning if Christianity was not true. It should be easy to see, upon reflection of whether life can have meaning if Christianity was not true, that the answer depends upon your definition(s) of meaning. Paul Edward, of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy finds two definitions of meaning: cosmic meaning and terrestrial meaning. Cosmic meaning asks whether there is a God who created life and whether life is part of a Divine Plan. Terrestrial meaning asks whether your life has a purpose, with the term “purpose” meaning that you both have goals in life and a passion for those goals.1

Cosmic and terrestrial meaning are not attached—you may have one without the other. They stand on their own: life can have cosmic meaning without terrestrial meaning, life can have terrestrial meaning without cosmic meaning, and life can have both. Christianity here would claim that life has both meanings.2 Hopefully now it is apparent that the answer to the question that begins this essay depends upon which usage of meaning is intended.

Life can have terrestrial meaning even if Christianity was not true, and arguably cosmic meaning. Terrestrial meaning depends on nothing supernatural, on a divine plan, or the existance of a god. All it requires is goals, large or small, in the life of a person. Cosmic meaning, although perfectly fulfilled in the existence of Yahweh, can also as defined be fulfilled with Allah, Buddah, or any other god. These two meanings do not find their exclusive answers in Christianity as defined.

An objection to this concept of terrestrial meaning is that nothing has meaning if it is not eternal or lasting in some way. Meaning can only come from something that does not change and does not leave. This is could be called a Platonic view of meaning. This view can say that all is meaningless because all is not permanent: it is temporal either in its fleeting in and out of our existence while we are alive, or in its leaving upon death.3 This objection lacks sense, however. Most people would say that some of their day-to-day activities, such as loving their spouses or going to college, have meaning, even if that love or situation does not last beyond their lifetime. Future lack of meaning does not negate present meaning. The concepts of future and present meaning will be expounded upon shortly.

Another clarification: these goals that you have a passion for need not be morally good goals. These two definitions of meaning, cosmic and terrestrial, make no value judgments about good or bad. Thus, that you have goals as such is enough for your life to have terrestrial meaning.

Terrestrial meaning can be divided into two—present meaning and future meaning. Present meaning is meaning derived from the accomplishment of certain personal goals. Future meaning is meaning for your life that remains over time. When you die, future meaning is still there. It is the opposite of when we say that a great man lived, but his life now seems to have no meaning, for all of his accomplishments are now irrelevant.

I am able to affirm that life would have meaning if Christianity weren’t true because moment-to-moment, life does have meaning. This is not denying that the lack of future meaning is troubling, but lack of future meaning does not negate a present meaning that we can experience.

Indeed, this can be seen in the world today. My friends who have rejected Christ are living in a world that does have meaning for them, for their present lifestyle provides enough love for them to subsists on, at least for the present, in their relationships and activities. It is my belief that the rejection will catch up to them—that the lack of future meaning is something no human can cogently ignore for all their life, but in the present at least their life does have meaning.

I think it important to note that there are degrees of meaning. Your life can be full of meaning, devoid of meaning, or somewhere in-between. There is a continuum traveled between a full meaning that incorporates both cosmic and terrestrial meanings, to a mere cosmic meaning, down to the lowliest terrestrial meaning. A persons life can be full of terrestrial goals that he passionatly strives to accomplish, like that of Benjamin Franklin. Or life may consists of, in the case of a Kosovar, a single goal of day-to-day survival from ethnic cleansing and NATO missles. Both of these lives have meaning, but to different degrees.

Christians travel these degrees of meaning, often in a single day (or hour, or minute). For they, as said before, have meaning in both senses of the word. Their consciousness of their meaning, however, varies. At one time they realize their full meaning, their cosmic significance and their terrestrial significance that flows from Gods ordination and Christ's work on the cross, and say “how can I ever be so unaware of this?” But in a seeming instant, they forget their full meaning and are settled contentedly upon their terrestrial lives full of little (but not no) meaning, lives full of school, relationships, jobs, and amusements.

To conclude, I will restate my main points and definitions. (0) Life can have meaning without Christianity. (1) A good summary of what we mean when we say life can have meaning only with Christianity is “There is an infinite-personal God who has spoken to us, told us that He loves us, and set in motion a divine plan for each of our lives that we participate in.” (2) There are two usages of “meaning”: terrestrial and cosmic. (3) Life can have meaning in the terrestrial sense without Christianity being true. (4) There are degrees of meaning in a person’s life. As Christians, we can travel the span of these degrees in the course of life.

1 I am deeply indebted to Paul Edward’s essay in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “Life, Meaning and Value of” Paul Edward, ed. (New York: Collier Macmillian, 1967ed.). Many of my definitions, such as this one from p. 471-472, as well as clarifications and my answer to the question that begins this essay, are based upon him, although my analysis and bits about Christianity are not.

2 Ibid. p. 473

3 Ibid. p. 474.