The Attempt to Find Purpose Without God

This  past year we had a family member suffer a stroke. As this 83 year old elderly person lost their ability to fully walk and do the things they once did, it caused me to ponder the issue of purpose. I even asked the family member what they think their purpose is in life. I even asked them what their purpose was before the stroke. Like most people, they said their purpose was to be a good wife or good mother. Their family was the main purpose in life. Now they also admitted they are just existing now. Thus, because they can’t go out and drive and go to places and do what they once did, they are not really ‘living’ anymore. What I notice in this situation and in  many situations is that people need a function. Thus, people seem to really struggle without a specific ‘function’ or ‘purpose’ in life. It should be noted that the ‘functional’ and ‘essentialist’ view of humans is what is at the center of the abortion debate as well.  Anyway,  I asked the family member the following: perhaps you have been missing your overall purpose in life which is to know God (John 17: 4)?

In a world without God is there is ultimate meaning to life? Certainly, people can create their own meaning and purpose, as French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre advises us to do. Again, if people can find meaning and purpose in relationships, careers, volunteer programs, or other things, what happens when these things are threatened or lost by factors that are beyond control? Thus, circumstances can shake people who are calloused towards God and cause people to recognize their ‘existential need’ for God. Now if God has created us with  existential needs, it would make sense that God is the only one who can completely fulfill these needs.Philosopher Clifford Williams argues that while humans may have desires and beliefs they fulfill through reason, they also look for emotional fulfillment, especially when it comes to believing in God.[1] Thus, humans want both their reason and emotional needs satisfied. Williams lists several existential [2] needs that all humans desire: there is the need for cosmic security and meaning in life. Further, there is the wonder and awe of the cosmos itself. Humans also need the opportunity to love, to feel loved, and to be with the ones we love.

Also,  many people invest in activities that promote the kind of world they want. They find a purpose in such activities. Many will admit they want to spend time making the world a better place. But who gets to define what “better” is? Most likely, people want a world of justice, equality, and for humans to be viewed with dignity and respect. But how do we know what the world should look like unless we have some standard as to what is just and unjust? People who fight for justice know how things ought to be, and they assume a standard of justice and goodness in order to bring to fruition their preconceived notions of a just, fair, and equitable society.

What is interesting when people lose a specific function they once had, they have to re-evaluate their lives. Do they still have value without the purpose they once had?  Sadly, to many people, the answer is no. For the theist, the answer is yes. The ultimate purpose for every human is know God and love him forever. Of course, if humans are made in the likeness and image of God,  they are therefore intrinsically valuable. They are not valuable because they have to fulfill some function such as a specific job or task. My challenge to my family member was that perhaps since they spend a lot of time sitting now they should open the Scriptures and get to know God. So perhaps it is time for them to start to fulfill the main purpose for which they were created for.

Disclaimer: Someone may wonder how they find purpose in a God they don’t think is real. There are more than enough posts on here that deal with that topic. Also, see the following clip from Reasonable Faith.

1.Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011).  

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