Can Life Have Meaning Without God?

by James Anderson

One of my favorite Far Side cartoons depicts a hapless-looking man leaning over a couch and holding a bizarre contraption he has just pulled out from under one of the cushions. The caption reads: “Edgar finds his purpose.”

Humans naturally seek purpose and meaning in life. From a Christian perspective, the oddity lies not in Edgar searching for his purpose, but rather in discovering it inside a couch. From an atheistic perspective, however, should Edgar have been searching for his purpose in the first place? Can our lives have any meaning if there is no God?

The Meaning of ‘Meaning’

Before we explore that question, we should specify what we’re talking about when we refer to “the meaning of life.” What kind of meaning do we mean? I suggest that when we consider “the meaning of life,” we have in view at least three concepts: purpose, significance, and value.

First, we want to know whether our lives have purpose: whether they’re directed toward some goal or end. A refrigerator has a fundamental purpose: it’s for keeping things cold. Do I have a fundamental purpose too? Am I for something?

Second, we want to know whether our lives have significance: whether they count for anything as part of greater whole. In Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper, the disciple Thomas is portrayed with a single raised finger. We’re interested in the significance of that element of the painting. We’d like to know, among other things, what it contributes to the painting as a whole. A similar question arises about our lives. What does my life contribute to the universe as a whole? What does it count for in the grand scheme of things?

Third, we want to know whether our lives have value. Is my life worth anything overall? Is it better lived than not? Is the world a better place for having my life as part of it?

No doubt there’s more to the idea of “the meaning of life,” but this analysis will serve us well enough. So let’s return to our main question. Can our lives have meaning—can they have purpose, significance, and value—if there is no God?

Meaning from Outside

There are basically two ways a human life could possess meaning. It could have a meaning bestowed from outside—what we might call objective as opposed to subjective meaning. Alternatively, it could have a meaning that comes from within, a meaning that is self-ascribed and self-determined. Let’s consider each option in turn…

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Can Life Have Meaning Without God? – The Gospel Coalition