Are you trying to sort out what Christianity says about the meaning of life? Here, as part of a wider project, Peter Orr and Rory Shiner explain how the Bible’s vision of meaning and the end of the world’s story makes sense of everything.
It was successful for a few years. Gripping even. Then it started to wane. Plotlines become more and more fantastic. New characters are randomly introduced. Others simply disappear. The idea that it’s all heading toward a satisfying conclusion begins to fade. Welcome to Season 5 of your once favourite television series.
Or to life. For many people in the modern western world, life is beginning to feel like Season 5. The production values are high. The sets are extravagant. The cast look good. But it feels like the writers have run out of ideas. It’s no longer clear where, if anywhere, it’s all heading. We are, as the Australian historian Manning Clark once put it, “bored survivors in the kingdom of nothingness, surfing and boozing on Bondi, waiting for the Barbarians to come.” Is that all there is?
For many people in the modern western world, life is beginning to feel like Season 5. The writers have run out of ideas. It’s no longer clear where, if anywhere, it’s all heading.
The modern West has a surplus of freedom and a deficit of meaning. The freedom tank is full to overflowing. We’ve never had so much freedom, so many choices, such rich options. But the meaning tank is nearly empty. We’ve never been less clear on what the purpose of it all is. The possibility that, perhaps, there is no purpose to anything at all has moved from being the radical suggestion of fringe philosophers to the default assumption of a generation.
We are like the fish at the end of Finding Nemo. Having escaped the restrictions of the dental surgery’s aquarium, we are afloat on Sydney Harbour. “Now what?” Who knows?
Surplus freedom, and a deficit of meaning.
The Meaning of History
How do we make sense of our lives? What meaning do our actions have? The nihilism of the modern West is one possibility. Don’t ask the question. There is no meaning in history, except the meaning you choose to assign.
There haven’t been many nihilistic cultures. Most ancient religions (as well as the great traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism) have seen history moving in cycles: we weren’t, then we were, we shall not be; there is winter, spring, summer, and autumn; life, death, life, and repeat. These traditions helped you to make peace with your existence by understanding it as part of a wider cycle, a great wheel of existence ever returning to its starting point.
The Bible is completely different. It says that history is going somewhere— progressing. Not circular, but linear. Less like the seasons, and more like a story with a beginning, a middle and an end that will make sense of the whole.
This is what Christians affirm in their creeds when they say that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” This is the secret, we believe, to life’s meaning.
The Apostle Paul once explained this to the first-century philosophers of Athens. Standing where Socrates had once taught, he told them of a…
… God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. (Acts 17:24-26)
Look at what he says:
First, the world has a beginning.
Second, God made humanity, and each of us, with a purpose. We are God’s offspring (Acts 17:28). We were made to inhabit the earth in multicultural glory as God’s image-bearers.
Third, things aren’t as they ought to be. We have thought of God as caged in temples—as a being that can be represented by gold, silver, or stone. We were wrong.
Finally, history is not a cycle, but a story.
- It has a beginning (creation);
- It has protagonists (the humans) who have a mission (inhabit the earth);
- It has a crisis (idolatry).
This is a story! Everyone in the ancient world had stories. But the idea that the history of the world itself was a story—that was new.
Who knows how all this was received by his audience. Athenians liked new ideas, and this certainly qualified as a new idea. But the “drops mic, walks off stage” moment came at the end:
For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:31)
Justice at the End
A story needs an ending—a climax. And according to Paul, this is it. Things will be put right. The cry of the widow will be heard; the orphan will be comforted; the oppressed vindicated, the poor lifted up. Other parts of the Bible talk about a “new heavens and a new earth” and the end of death, sickness and sadness.
And there will also be justice. A judge has been appointed. Jesus: the one who touched lepers, healed the sick, raised the dead, loved the unlovely; the fierce and tender prophet, who knew our sorrows, and suffering.
A judge has been appointed. Jesus: the one who touched lepers, healed the sick, raised the dead, loved the unlovely; the fierce and tender prophet, who knew our sorrows, and suffering.
Jesus will bring a final judgement. Nothing evil will ever be able to enter the new city of God. Cruel oppressors will be punished. Satan will be punished. Death will be destroyed.
On the freeway near my house, there are exit ramps with large red signs saying, “Wrong Way, Back Out”. They’ve always struck me as a very direct piece of communication. I guess when you are travelling at 100kms per hour, a sign which said “We regret to inform you that the present path on which you are travelling is unsuitable due to the fact that buses regularly travel on the same road at 100kms in the opposite direction to which you are now travelling” would be a case of too much, too late.
The sign has always struck me as forthright and abrupt. But never unloving.
In the same spirit, Paul gives the Athenians an actionable. Given God is coming to judge the world, he tells them, “repent”! That is, turn around. Go the other direction. Turn to Jesus. To humans steering their lives by idols, he says “Wrong way, back out.”
In an age of climate crisis, these calls should be familiar. We have a future to be warned of. We have a guilty party (ourselves). And we hear a regular and increasingly urgent call to change our ways—that is, a call to repent before it’s too late.
We feel duty bound to do the same here. If you are not prepared to meet God, turn around. Turn and trust in Jesus. Jesus himself preached this. He preached, as someone once described it, like a man walking up the side of a volcano. Forthright and abrupt. But never unloving.
There’s no getting around it. The Christian claim that God will one day judge the world is bracing. The fact that he will judge each and every one of us is personally confronting.
The coming judgement of God is an inconvenient truth. But it is, we believe, also the secret to life’s meaning. Consider the alternative: lives in which no final account is offered or required. A world in which the cries of the oppressed and the crimes of the oppressor are both ignored. A history arc that bends toward oblivion and impunity, not justice. Such a view of the world will leave the meaning tank permanently empty. We will be the escaped fish of Nemo, floating on a vast sea of freedom, asking, “What now?”.