Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life

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Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life

 

For the Christian Theist, life is meaningful in that it is the purposeful, good creation of God. The telos (or goal) of human existence is to know and worship God for eternity. In the Christian worldview then, life has an objective purpose, and this purpose is objectively valuable, in that God (being necessarily and objectively good) is the objective standard of value. The crucial point is this: If God exists, then we have a purpose, a reason why we exist, a goal and a meaning. If no God exists, then the universe has no creator, and no Final cause, and we have no creator, and no Final cause, no purpose. Even if God exists and human beings (and the universe) have a purpose, life might seem meaningless if we did not know that God exists and what God’s purpose is. This is the position that the author of the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes describes:

 

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’

says the teacher.

‘Utterly meaningless!

Everything is meaningless.’

(Ecclesiastes 1:2)

 

Ecclesiastes can be seen as an examination of a single argument. This argument is summarized at the beginning and end of the book (Ecclesiastes 1v1-14 & 12v8.) Here is the argument:

 

Ist Premise) ‘Everything’ (1v2) is ‘under the sun’ (1v3).

2nd Premise) ‘Everything’ (1v2) that is ‘under the sun’ (1v3) is ‘meaningless’ (1v1),

without a purpose.

Conclusion) Therefore, ‘Everything is ‘meaningless’ (12v1), without a purpose,

a ‘chasing after wind’ (1v14).

 

‘Everything’ refers to all cosmic and human existence. ‘Under the sun’ refers to cosmic and human existence without either 1) the existence of God or 2) the existence of a God whose purposes are known. For something to be ‘meaningless’ is 1) for it to lack any objective purpose, or 2) for it to seem meaningless because you don’t know about that purpose. For everything to be a ‘chasing after the wind’ is for it to lack a goal or purpose. This argument is valid: if the premises are both true, then the conclusion must also be true. If everything is under the sun, and if everything under the sun is meaningless, then everything is meaningless. If no one had a purpose in creating human beings, then human beings don’t have an objective purpose. Isn’t this exactly the experience of society: that God is either nonexistent or unknown, and life is without purpose and meaning? Ecclesiastes leads us to question the first premise of the above argument, the premise that God either does not exist, or that if He does exist His purposes are unknowable.

Solomon gives five reasons or examples in support of his major (second) premise, five features of life ‘under the sun’ that drain it of meaning: ‘Any one of these five cancers would be enough to kill meaning; life is infected with all five of them.’[1] They are: 1) The indifference of the universe, 2) Death as the ultimate end of life, 3) The aimlessness of time, 4) The problem of ‘evil’, and 5) The remoteness of God. Let’s consider these five cancers of meaninglessness in turn:

 

  • The indifference of the universe.

 

‘I have seen something else under the sun:

The race is not to the swift

Or the battle to the strong,

Nor does food come to the wise

Or wealth to the brilliant

Or favour to the learned;

But time and chance happen to them all.’

(Ecclesiastes 9:11)

 

The Godless universe has no preferences, no intentions or purposes. Everything it does is done without a reason and without any attention being paid to anyone; instead, unthinking brute force assails a helpless humanity without hope: ‘No man has power over the wind to contain it; no one has power over the day of his death.’ (Ecclesiastes 8:8) Human survival itself is a matter of luck. As Bertrand Russell wrote: ‘we are part of nature, we are subordinated to nature, the outcome of natural laws, and their victims in the long run.’[2] If we get in the way of the impersonal laws of nature we will be crushed; ‘do not pass Go, do not collect £200’. Certainly, do not collect any sort of afterlife.

‘Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, “what are you doing?”’ (Ecclesiastes 8:4) In other words, if God is non-existent or uninterested in human affairs, might makes right; no-one can question those in power without reference to a law that transcends both ruler and ruled. Since the universe is not in a position to issue moral laws, there is no law higher than the subjective and relative law of humans.

On the other hand, if the Christian God exists then, although the universe has no preferences, intentions or reasons, the one who made it does, and so the universe has a purpose and things in it (such as ourselves) have the purpose of contributing to that purpose. God is goodness personified and His nature provides an objective standard of values that transcends those of the individual or the state. God can exercise providence in His creation and guarantee the fulfillment of His purpose and the triumph of good over evil. If God exists, the heart of reality is not mindless and indifferent, but mindful and full of love.

 

  • Death as the ultimate end of life.

 

“Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so the other dies. All have the same breath; man has no advantages over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from the dust, and to the dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21.)

As we will see in a little while, materialism implies the denial of everything about humans that sets them apart from animals and machines. If humans are not made in God’s spiritual image, then “man has no advantages over the animal.” Thus we have some animal right’s campaigners arguing that since humans are ‘nothing but’ another species of animal (the simplistic reductionism of ‘nothing buttery’) we should treat animals and humans as equals. Why this argument leads to the suggestion that animals have a right not to be mistreated or eaten by humans rather than to the conclusion that humans have no right not to be mistreated or eaten by other humans is a mystery.

Perhaps the Christian belief in a God who made humanity in His image and charged them to act as stewards over nature provides a more reasonable foundation for opposing the mistreatment of animals. Maybe animals don’t have equal rights with humans, but humans might have a duty towards God to respect His creation. Thus Christians can exercise a duty of care for nature without disrespecting either God or themselves by obscuring their own uniqueness.

Most materialists agree that, on a naturalistic worldview, there is little if any hope of life after death. Every one of us will die, and the universe itself will die. As Philosopher Stephen T. Davies writes, “If God exists, then it is possible for me confidently to affirm that my existence does not end with my death.”[3] There are philosophical arguments for this conclusion[4], but Christians also have a historically verifiable example that is the ultimate ground of our hope of life beyond death – the resurrection of Jesus. [5] Without death, we would never get heaven!

 

  • The aimlessness of time.

 

Possibly the most famous passage from Ecclesiastes is this passage, which was made into a popular song some years ago:

 

There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under heaven:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

What does a worker gain from his toil?

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-9)

 

This passage is often quoted as something warm and fluffy: ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a cold, harsh passage about the meaninglessness of human choice in a universe devoid of objective values. The phrase ‘under heaven’ operates in the same way as ‘under the sun’. Solomon is pointing out that all these choices and life-situations face humans every day – birth and death, the decision to love or hate, build or destroy, and so on – but that without God these choices become arbitrary. Why heal unless it is really better to heal than to kill?

Without God, time is going nowhere, it’s just passing; there is no long-term goal towards which history is progressing. The idea of progress is the idea of movement towards a goal; but a Godless universe is a universe without a goal, and hence a universe without progress. As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.’[6] Peter Kreeft writes that: ‘Time is vanity because “time is just another word for death”. Time is a river that takes from us everything it gives us. Nothing remains; time ravages even the very stars.”[7] Shelly’s poem Ozymandias depicts ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone [and] a shattered visage’ lying alone in the desert:

 

And on the pedestal these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing besides remains, round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

The sands of time will erase every human achievement; nothing we do has anything but a temporary effect. On the other hand, if the Christian God exists, then history is truly His-Story with a plot that is progressing towards the creation of the ‘new heavens and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1), and the things we do can have an eternal significance.

 

  • The problem of ‘evil’.

 

‘I saw the tears of the oppressed –

and they have no comforter;

power was on the side of their oppressors –

and they have no comforter.

And I declared that the dead,

Who had already died,

Are happier than the living,

Who are still alive.

But better than both

is he who has not yet been,

who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.’

(Ecclesiastes 4:1-3)

 

What a strange declaration Solomon makes when he says ‘that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.’ But if you think that you are your physical body, the difference between life and death is not really all that great! Death is the difference between a working machine and a broken machine; but working or not, a machine can’t compete in terms of value with a true person with self-consciousness, free will, rationality and beliefs about life, the universe and everything. I suggest that atheists face the following problem: in ruling out anything ‘supernatural’ they are left trying to explain humanity in terms of the merely natural, but this project faces severe problems. How can matter have subjective experience of itself? How can matter do anything but obey the laws of nature, and how can humans have free will or the ability to follow the laws of rational thought if the human mind just is the material human brain? How can matter have beliefs about things?[8] Thus the consistent materialist ends up denying their own true humanity, reducing themselves to the level of machines. But how can machines suffer pain and injustice?

If the universe is indifferent to moral values, if there is no life after death and no progress or goal to history, then why be what we call ‘good’ rather than what we call ‘evil’? An indifferent universe is an a-moral universe; ‘good’ and ‘evil’ loose their meaning. Morality becomes an arbitrary personal choice, (subjective) values are ‘made’ and not discovered. In a Godless universe there is no answer to the problem of evil, no hope of outside assistance, no salvation, “Good is hostage to evil”.[9]

Who has the bigger ‘problem of evil’ to deal with, the Christian or the atheist? The Christian has to reconcile evil with the existence of God, but God provides an objective standard of goodness and thus of evil; God guarantees the eventual defeat of evil; God provides ‘comfort’, support and motivation in the struggle against evil here and now. If God exists, then ultimate power is ultimately on the side of the oppressed. How do atheists define good and evil? What hope can atheism offer in the fight against evil? Christians and atheists have done some terrible things in human history, but at least the Christians were being inconsistent with their beliefs when they committed acts of evil – can the atheist really say the same, or were the gas-ovens of the holocaust the logical adjunct to a philosophy that denies the existence of objective meaning, value and purpose?

 

  • The remoteness of God.

 

“No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning.” (Ecclesiastes 8:17) Without a God who is there and who is not silent in our experience, we are left alone in an indifferent universe gripped by a hopeless process of death and decay that inevitably increases as time passes on its way to nowhere in particular except a death that might at best be seen as a welcome release from a life of pointless suffering and injustice. There is no hope, no significance, no real goodness or beauty, no warmth that is not a cruel illusion, no purpose, no meaning. Peter Kreeft says this better than I can: ‘Is it possible to believe in God and still despair, still not know why you are living? Certainly. Solomon does. For his God is like the moon: there, but not here, controlling the tides of his life but not entering into any personal relationship with him. . . Solomon’s God has no face; he is only Being, only AM, not I AM. For Solomon’s epistemology is purely naturalistic, and nature is only God’s back. But scripture is God’s mouth, and Jesus is God’s face. Ecclesiastes is a perfect silhouette of Jesus, the stark outline of the darkness that the face of Jesus fills.’[10]

 

We have now seen how Solomon gave five examples in support of the premise that everything ‘under the sun’ is meaningless, and how belief in God provides a rational basis for reclaiming the meaningfulness of existence.

Solomon also examines five commonly proposed alternative cures for the cancer of meaninglessness ‘under the sun’. They are: 1) worldly wisdom, 2) worldly pleasure, 3) worldly wealth and power, 4) worldly duty, and 5) worldly religion. In other words, in the face of meaninglessness you might try to live a life of philosophy to fill the mind, hedonism to fill your body, materialism to fill your pocket, ethics to fill your conscience, or religion to fill your spirit. Some of these ‘drugs’ can be combined. The first three correspond to what Christian philosopher Soren Kierkeggard called ‘the aesthetic stage’ of life: self-satisfaction. The fourth is ‘the ethical stage’: living by principles. The fifth and final suggestion is religiousness in general rather than Christianity.

I call these proposed cures ‘ironic’, because they actually contribute to the hopelessness they are meant to eradicate. They contribute to hopelessness because when they are tried they are found to be ineffective: “Solomon has tried each of these five and found them wanting both in meaningfulness and happiness, both in objective and subjective fullness.” [11] These worldly ‘drugs’ are not powerful enough to cure our lack of meaning without God. Let’s examine them in turn:

 

  • Worldly wisdom.

 

“I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has placed on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14)

Worldly philosophy that doesn’t know God, or worse, that thinks there is no God, concludes that life is meaningless because all life is ‘under the sun’. This worldly wisdom may fill your mind, but it will bring heartache to your spirit: ‘For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:18) On the other hand, a philosophy that is not ‘worldly’ can fill your mind without bringing heartache to your spirit, because it will rejoice in God and his plans.

 

  • Worldly pleasure.

 

“I thought in my heart, “come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. . . I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. . . I amassed silver and gold for myself. . . I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well – the delights of the heart of man. .

 

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;

I refused my heart no pleasure.

My heart took delight in all my work,

And this was the reward for all my labour.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done

And what I had toiled to achieve,

Everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;

Nothing was gained under the sun.”

(Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)

 

As Kreeft says, “Every serious hedonist knows the result of this experiment: pleasure inevitably becomes boring. . . the pursuit of pleasure often turns into an addiction: stronger and stronger doses must be found to fend of the familiarity and boredom.”[12] On the other hand, when pleasure is placed into the context of knowing God and following his guidelines we can take an ordinate delight in the good things that God has made without misusing them.

 

  • Worldly wealth and power.

 

Solomon’s experiment with power is part of his experiment with pleasure, for “If we have power, we can push the pleasure buttons at will.”[13] On the other hand, if we know God, we will store up for ourselves true ‘treasure in heaven’ and use all our power to serve God’s kingdom.

 

  • Worldly duty.

 

“I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?” (Ecclesiastes 2:18) Solomon moves on from the boring aesthetic stage of self-seeking pleasure and fixes his sights on posterity, living a life of social service and altruism. However: ‘It is all very well to prefer altruism to egoism, to work for the good of others, but what is the good of others?’[14] The good of others can’t simply be ‘to work for the good of others’, because nothing I do can give others that good; it’s something they have to do themselves. Then again, what is meant by ‘good’ here? Remember the problem of finding a home for objective goodness in a Godless universe. What good does it do to work for posterity if posterity might be a fool who squanders your work? And remember, a Godless universe is one that will end in death. On the other hand, loving God means loving our neighbour as God loves us and we have a future in Heaven worth working for.

 

  • Worldly religion.

 

“In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. Don’t be over-righteous, neither be over-wise – why destroy yourself? Do not be over-wicked, and do not be a fool – why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.” (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18.)

Knowing that ‘some sort of God exists’ doesn’t get you very far. For example, it’s doubtful that without revelation from God anyone would have thought of the resurrection of the body and the recreation of the cosmos into ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21). But that is precisely God’s plan for us (and the universe); the point of life here and now is that it leads to the hereafter. Hence, without knowing much about the hereafter, we’d know little about the point of life here and now! If there is no life after death, then it doesn’t make much sense to be single-mindedly dedicated to doing good when this cuts against your own self-interest. Why go all out for a God who asks you to sacrifice yourself in a universe where such dedication meets with the same reward as evil – namely death?

When the apostle Paul visited Athens he found a city with a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses, and an altar dedicated ‘To an unknown god’. The Athenians were covering all the bases as it were – and in a way they were right to do so. But the attempt to worship an unknown god couldn’t have proved as satisfying as the reality of worshipping the God that Paul knew in person. As Peter Kreeft writes: “The Great Unknown, however great, cannot fill the hole in our heart or the hole in our head. He must become known.” [15] On the other hand, knowing God is the only thing that brings ultimate meaning and purpose to life. Once we know God, everything else falls into its proper context and is infused with meaning and purpose.

 

None of these five suggested cures for meaninglessness succeed. Why not? Because they all try to find meaning ‘under the sun’: in living for self, living for others, or living for a mysterious God who is little more than an unknown ‘X’ behind the cosmos. At every point of comparison, Christian Theism provides a rational foundation for a meaningful existence, and naturalism is found wanting.

 

Conclusion

 

Atheist Ivan Soll writes that: ‘The way we approach and view our mortality depends upon our views of what are the ultimate ends of our actions and desires, what offers us true satisfaction, and what is the source of the positive or negative value that anything may possess.’[16] For the Christian, our ultimate end and true satisfaction is eternal life with God, the source and summit of all value. For the naturalist, our ultimate end is extinction, true satisfaction is a temporary and fragile distraction from that end, and all thought of values is, as Michael Ruse says, ‘just an aid to survival and reproduction. . . and any other meaning is illusory.’ As Terry L. Miethe writes: ‘If God does not exist, we are very hard pressed to find any real order or personal meaning, let alone true happiness, in a world that would finally be naturalistic, mechanistic, and deterministic.’[17] Our choice is thus between theism, or the no meaning, no purpose, no future and no value worldview of nihilism. Nihilism is the inevitable terminus of naturalism, for meaning is impossible to find without God. Meaningfulness is the coincidence of purpose and value (after all, what’s the point of purpose if it isn’t valuable?). Thus, for life to be objectively meaningful is for life to have an objective purpose that is objectively valuable. Only God can provide this. If God exists, then we have a purpose, a reason why we exist, a goal and a meaning. On the other hand, if no God exists, then the universe has no creator, no meaning or purpose, and we have no creator, and so no meaning or purpose. Therefore, if existence is meaningful, God must exist. As G.K. Chesterton argued, ‘this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person.’[18]

To say that it is objectively good to accept Nihilism, or that it is rationally bad to accept Theism, would be self-contradictory, because Nihilism is the utter denial of such normative concepts. Therefore, our choice is between God on the one hand and self-contradiction on the other. To choose self-contradiction is absurd. While the Nihilists may shrug their shoulders and demand, ‘So what? That’s the point of Nihilism’, those of us who remain on the sunny side of the metaphysical street, where it is metaphysically reasonable to ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice [and] mourn with those who mourn’ (Romans 12:15), can find no rational, moral or existential motive for crossing over. For once, the grass isn’t greener on the other side. This is the lesson of Ecclesiastes.

[1] Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, (Ignatius), p45.

[2] Bertrand Russell, ‘What I Believe’, in Why I Am Not A Christian, p47.

[3] Stephen T. Davies, God, Reason & Theistic Proofs, p177.

[4] See Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli’s, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, (Monarch, 1995).

[5] See Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics, (Monarch, 1995).

[6] Bertrand Russell, ‘A Free Man’s Worship’.

[7] Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, p48.

[8] For more on these and similar problems see: Peter Kreeft, The Journey; C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (Fount); J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, (Baker, 1987); Alvin Plantinga, Warrant & Proper Function, (Oxford, 1993).

[9] Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, (Ignatius), p50.

[10] Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, p51.

[11] Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, p37.

[12] ibid, p41.

[13] ibid.

[14] ibid, p43.

[15] ibid, p45.

[16] Ivon Soll, Death and Philosophy, (Routledge), p. 23.

[17] Terry L. Miethe, Why Believe? God Exists!, (College Press, 1998), p. 28.

[18] G.K. Chesterton, p. 83.