XFiles Weekend: Thinking on purpose

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 2: “What difference does it make if God exists?”)

Imagine I give you a dire warning: five hundred years from now, a man is going to come up to your current residence and threaten to kill you unless you pay him one million dollars, cash, on the spot. How would you respond? If your first reaction would be an astonished, “Eh? So what? I’ll have been dead for centuries by then!” then you’re probably a sane, reasonable, and not unduly paranoid person. On the other hand, if your immediate reaction is “Oh my God, I have to start saving a million dollars!”—well, William Lane Craig would like to talk with you about purpose.

And what of the universe? If its destiny is a cold grave in the recesses of outer space, the answer must be, yes—it is pointless. There is no goal, no purpose for the universe. The litter of a dead universe will just go on expanding and expanding—forever.

And what of man? Is there no purpose at all for the human race? Or will it simply peter out someday, lost in the oblivion of an indifferent universe? … [In The Time Machine, H. G.] Wells’ time traveler journeys far into the future to discover the destiny of man. All he finds is a dead earth, except for a few lichens and moss, orbiting a gigantic red sun…And Wells’ time traveler returned.

But to what?—to merely an earlier point on the same purposeless rush toward oblivion.

Vanitas vanitatum indeed, eh?

As has been his habit thus far, Dr. Craig is once again failing to recognize the subjective nature of purpose, and the fact that it exists relative to some particular person whose goals and intentions are summarized by that purpose. Yes, it’s true that cosmology, as best we currently understand it, seems to suggest a bleak, Wellsian demise for the universe in general and mankind in particular. But that is completely irrelevant to any discussion about purpose. Events gazillions of years from now, after all men are dead, are unrelated to the events of any person’s lifetime. Purpose is something that exists here and now, because of the living people who have goals and intentions here and now. It’s not some kind of independent substance that requires the universe to proceed methodically towards some pre-appointed goal.

Notice, too, that Dr. Craig paints the universe as “purposeless” because it will eventually die. He wants to argue that there’s an alternative, that if God exists, then the universe can have a purpose. If you know anything about Bible prophecy, however, then you know that the predicted fate of the universe is equally bleak. Everything that now exists, including the entire cosmos and all that it contains, is doomed by prophecy to be utterly burned and consumed by fire, so that not even ashes or smoke would remain. God is supposed to replace it with something better, but that will be a different universe. This one is due to be utterly annihilated.

What is there about this universe that is beautiful, or good, or awe-inspiring in its power and magnificence? I can think of lots of things, can’t you? Why isn’t Dr. Craig worried about the pointlessness of creating such a complex and amazing universe if it’s only going to be utterly eradicated on Judgment Day? If the purpose of the universe is to simply vanish in one bright flash of fiery disintegration, why is that any better than a universe that continues to exist, obeying its own laws, forever? Given the general tenor of Dr. Craig’s arguments thus far, the Biblical fate of the cosmos should deserve to be called even more pointless than the scientific forecast. And all the more so since the Biblical destruction is allegedly going to interrupt things a lot sooner, while man is still alive and kicking on planet Earth.

Likewise, the Bible also predicts that most people will finish up by suffering for all eternity in hell, starting the day the physical universe is destroyed. What’s the point of their lives? Maybe you could argue that it somehow fulfills God’s purposes for most people to go to hell, but what kind of comfort would that be to someone who was already being tormented in the lake of fire?

This brings up another aspect of Dr. Craig’s arguments about purpose. It’s clear that life is full of purpose(s), and that we all have them. To say life has no purpose is sheer nonsense. But talking with Christians like Dr. Craig, you get the sense that this isn’t what they mean. They want something more, some deeper purpose that is different from the ordinary, mundane purposes we all have. Something, in other words, like a Divine Purpose for our lives.

I think when Christians speak of purpose, what they really want deep down is some kind of implicit promise that there’s an all-powerful force in the universe Who is doing everything He can to guarantee that they, the Christians, ultimately end up happy forever. This is what they aren’t getting from a scientific/realistic look at life, and what Christianity allegedly offers them in the form of a God Who loves them enough to die for them to make sure they always get what’s best.

The problem with this kind of wishful thinking is that it displaces the individual’s purpose(s) with an overruling third-party Purpose that dominates their life. That might be a pleasant prospect if you believed that the third party really did want to ensure that you only got what was best, but in fact this isn’t what Christianity really offers. If you read the fine print, you find out that God’s alleged purpose includes sending most of His children to suffer in Hell forever. They don’t want to, and they protest against it, in numerous Biblical accounts, but His Purpose overrides theirs.

Nor do Christians always get what’s best even in this life. I heard a Christian talk show the other day where they were discussing a Christian parent’s reaction to having a baby with severe birth defects, and one of the participants said, “God’s will is what we would choose if we knew all the facts.” Inspiring, isn’t it? Especially to someone whose life experience flies in the face of the claim that God’s purpose is to make sure we always get what’s best. Christians struggle with that, because so much of live contradicts the Gospel claim. So what do they do? They take refuge in ignorance. They say, “We don’t know why God would do something like this to us, therefore we assume that a good reason must exist, and that if we knew it, we would say that this suffering really is the best.” Rather a pathetic rationalization, but what else could they say?

What Christians end up with, thus, is a Purpose that is not visibly consistent with their own purposes in many cases, and in most cases (according to accounts of the Final Judgment), this externally-imposed Purpose is openly hostile to our purposes, because most of us are supposed to end up sentenced to eternal torment. This is the apparently random and often flatly malicious Purpose that Dr. Craig accuses atheists of somehow missing out on by believing science. Lucky atheists, eh?

Interestingly, Dr. Craig quotes from Ecclesiastes 3:19-20.

As the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes put it, “The fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All come from the dust and all return to the dust.”

In this ancient work…the author shows the futility of pleasure, wealth, education, political fame, and honor in a life doomed to end in death. His verdict? “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” If life ends at the grave, then we have no ultimate purpose.

Interestingly, Dr. Craig seems to disagree with the Biblical conclusion, even though it’s explicitly stated in Scripture. The writer of Ecclesiastes does not say, “all is vanity IF…” He says “All is vanity,” period. The very conclusion Dr. Craig is trying to argue against is a teaching that is explicitly written in the Bible itself. Is the Bible wrong, then? Is Ecclesiastes preaching false doctrine? Christians have various rationalizations trying to work around this difficulty, but the simplest explanation is that Ecclesiastes was written in pre-captivity times, before the Babylonian/Persian Jews had been exposed to Zoroastrian ideas about resurrection and judgment, and therefore it reflects an earlier, more Mosaic concept of the ultimate destiny of man. Later writers simply changed the religion to incorporate the more exciting concepts brought back from Persia, thus introducing the conflict with Ecclesiastes. But I digress.

What’s rather interesting about Dr. Craig’s ideas is that most of his discussion is completely irrelevant to the root question of whether or not the Christian God is real. His thesis is that you have to believe in God, because if you don’t, then life has no meaning, value or purpose. His attempts to prove this, however, simply fail to show any connection between God existing, and life having purpose. And he almost addresses this problem himself.

But more than that, even if life did not end in death, without God life would still be without purpose. For man and the universe would then simply be accidents of chance, thrust into existence for no reason. Without God the universe is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance explosion. There is no reason for which it exists.

For all of his emo posturing about the pointlessness of life, Dr. Craig almost realizes that the question of death vs. immortality is completely irrelevant to the question of purpose. He stops short of understanding that the existence of God does not require human immortality, and he also fails to notice that it would be entirely possible for God to exist and for His purpose to be that your life would vanish in an intense, smokeless flame, just like the rest of His original creation.

The big picture that he’s failing to grasp here is that God‘s purpose for life is completely independent of (and possibly hostile to) the question of whether or not you have a purpose in life. Someone else having a purpose for you is not the same as you having a purpose yourself. If you are not really free to pursue your own purposes, if you’re just a tool that God created to achieve some particular end that’s not necessarily the goal that matters most to you, then the existence of His purpose is independent of the question of whether or not you have a purpose for your own life.

What Dr. Craig holds out as a bad and undesirable scenario is actually a quite appealing picture. Use slightly different words to say the same thing: “If God did not create us to fulfill some personal objective of His own, then there is no competing purpose to overrule and possibly frustrate our own purposes.” Christians expect God to make their own best interests His number one purpose in time and eternity (and seriously, could any other expectation possibly be more selfish?), and yet both practical experience and explicit Biblical teaching show that this is false at least most of the time. To be free from such an arbitrary, haphazard, and often destructive “purpose” is hardly a bad thing!

So while Dr. Craig wallows in his self-inflicted despair, unable to see the real purpose that springs from our material existence, and inadvertently transferring an entire book of the Bible to the atheist/materialist side of the debate, the rest of us are free to experience and pursue the abundant reality-based purposes that life has to offer. We can enjoy the childhood of our children, without despairing because they won’t be kids forever. We can plan a tasty and nutritious meal without slumping into dejected hopelessness over the fact that we will inevitably become hungry again later on. We can have a nice hot shower without going all emo over the fact that our bodies will become dirty again.

Purpose does not have to be eternal to be real, and in fact, eternity makes “purpose” kind of moot. Any goal that takes forever to achieve is a goal that will never be achieved, because forever lasts, well, forever. And what’s the point of having a purpose you can never achieve? Likewise, any purpose that can be achieved in a finite amount of time will be concluded long before the end of eternity, so again, what’s the point? To do the same thing over and  over, forever, is kind of pointless, but the more different things you do (over an eternal time scale), the less any of them contributes to your eternal experience, thus reducing them to effective meaninglessness.

No, I’ll stick with reality, thanks just the same. That’s where meaning, value, and purpose are most meaningful, valuable, and purposeful. I’m grateful to Dr. Craig for showing us how a Christian worldview makes you so blind that a search for real-world meaning, value and purpose lead only to existential angst and despair. But without those Christian blinders, and with a proper understanding of the subjective contexts that define meaning, value, and purpose, we have plenty of each, and the freedom to pursue what’s best.

3 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Thinking on purpose”

  1. Janney Says:

    Someone else having a purpose for you is not the same as you having a purpose yourself.

    This is all of a piece. Secular purpose is inadequate in the same way that secular morality is inadequate: if it just comes from people, it just doesn’t count.

    What continually astonishes me is that God appears to be effectively just another person, but a person whose purposes and moral notions do count (and who has omni-powers). Why the whole idea can’t be dismissed with “Nuremberg Defense!” is beyond my understanding.

  2. Brian M Says:

    Wow. Just wow.

    Your writing just makes me laugh out loud in enjoyment. I’m glad to see the renewed vigor…even liveliness…on the site. Kudos!

  3. Paul Says:

    And what of the universe? If its destiny is a cold grave in the recesses of outer space, the answer must be, yes—it is pointless. There is no goal, no purpose for the universe. The litter of a dead universe will just go on expanding and expanding—forever.

    And what of man? Is there no purpose at all for the human race? Or will it simply peter out someday, lost in the oblivion of an indifferent universe? … [In The Time Machine, H. G.] Wells’ time traveler journeys far into the future to discover the destiny of man. All he finds is a dead earth, except for a few lichens and moss, orbiting a gigantic red sun…And Wells’ time traveler returned.

    But to what?—to merely an earlier point on the same purposeless rush toward oblivion.

    My response to this is “So?” Or if I feel pessimistic it could be… “that sucks! Oh well…”

    To this
    As the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes put it, “The fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All come from the dust and all return to the dust.”

    In this ancient work…the author shows the futility of pleasure, wealth, education, political fame, and honor in a life doomed to end in death. His verdict? “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” If life ends at the grave, then we have no ultimate purpose.

    I say – futility?!? Perhaps! But between A (being born) and B (being death) I am going to enjoy life as best as I can.


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