A Deeper Look at What the Bible Says About Meaning and Purpose
By Barry Cooper
We all live and then we all die. Is there any purpose in life?
As he reached his mid-fifties, the poet Philip Larkin described a typical twenty-four-hour period in his life:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.1
For Larkin, life’s meaning and purpose was effectively annihilated by death. For scientist and author Richard Dawkins, death proves there is no purpose in the universe except genetic replication:
During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. . . . In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.2
How can life ever have meaning, when the full stop always comes too early? One of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes puts it like this:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
If in the end life signifies nothing, why bother doing anything?
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Thom Yorke, frontman of the band Radiohead, gives a blunt but resounding answer: “It’s filling the hole . . . that’s all anyone does.” Asked by his interviewer what then happens to the hole, Yorke replied, “It’s still there.”4
It’s a sobering thought. Everything we do—all the holidays, the conversations, the achievements, falling in love, choosing where to live and who to marry and what to wear and what to eat and how to bring up the children—is an unloved magazine in a doctor’s waiting room. It’s nothing more than a vacuous distraction until the moment our name is called and we receive the news we’ve been dreading all along.
Prince or pavement-sleeper, it doesn’t matter. We all spend our days trying to fill up the ravenous hole inside us, and then—in a cosmic irony we’d probably enjoy if we weren’t so inconveniently dead—we ourselves end up as landfill.
The Bible surveys this pageant and agrees. If death is the ultimate fact of the universe, this must be our conclusion: “Meaningless! Meaningless. . . . Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. . . . What do people gain from all their labors? . . . No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.”5
Death certainly cures us of the delusion that we are the centre of the universe or have ultimate control over our lives.
But it’s still a legitimate question to ask: What should we do with the short time we have? If a spade is for digging and scissors are for cutting, what are human beings for?