Ecclesiastes, Purpose, Meaning, and the Necessity of God by Suiwen Liang (Quotes Will Durant, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Stephen Jay Gould,Richard Dawkins, Jean-Paul Sartre,Bertrand Russell, Leo Tolstoy, Loren Eiseley,Aldous Huxley, G.K. Chesterton, Ravi Zacharias, and C.S. Lewis.)

Ecclesiastes 2-3

Published on Sep 19, 2012

Calvary Chapel Spring Valley | Sunday Evening | September 16, 2012 | Derek Neider

_____________________________

I have written on the Book of Ecclesiastes and the subject of the meaning of our lives on several occasions on this blog. In this series on Ecclesiastes I hope to show how secular humanist man can not hope to find a lasting meaning to his life in a closed system without bringing God back into the picture. This is the same exact case with Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Three thousand years ago, Solomon took a look at life “under the sun” in his book of Ecclesiastes. Christian scholar Ravi Zacharias has noted, “The key to understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes is the term ‘under the sun.’ What that literally means is you lock God out of a closed system, and you are left with only this world of time plus chance plus matter.”

Let me show you some inescapable conclusions if you choose to live without God in the picture. Solomon came to these same conclusions when he looked at life “under the sun.”

  1. Death is the great equalizer (Eccl 3:20, “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”)
  2. Chance and time have determined the past, and they will determine the future.  (Ecclesiastes 9:11-13)
  3. Power reigns in this life, and the scales are not balanced(Eccl 4:1)
  4. Nothing in life gives true satisfaction without God including knowledge (1:16-18), ladies and liquor (2:1-3, 8, 10, 11), and great building projects (2:4-6, 18-20).

You can only find a lasting meaning to your life by looking above the sun and bring God back into the picture.

Purpose, Meaning, and the Necessity of God

Suiwen Liang

“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher,
‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’”1

These lines open the book of Ecclesiastes. The “Preacher” is usually identified as Solomon, the richest and most powerful king in Israel’s history. Though he was famous throughout the Middle East for his wisdom and wealth, Solomon nevertheless found life empty and purposeless without God. The questions he asks in Ecclesiastes are similar to the doubts that the young nihilist Evgeny Bazarov also encounters in Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons: “The tiny space I occupy is so small compared to the rest of space… Yet in this atom, this mathematical point, blood circulates, a brain functions and desires something as well—How absurd! What nonsense!”2
Both Bazarov and the Preacher hunger for meaning and purpose, just as people throughout history have also struggled with the question, “What is life’s meaning, and where does it come from?” Traditional Christianity asserts that the meaning of life is provided by God, but secular materialism has rejected this explanation and attempts to provide another consistent explanation for what, if anything, the purpose of life really is. But without God, logic leads to only two possible conclusions: the secular humanist must either deny that life has any purpose or create an illusory meaning for himself. This logical impasse is why the American atheist philosopher Will Durant wrote, “The greatest question of our time is not communism vs. individualism, not Europe vs. America, not even the East vs. the West; it is whether men can bear to live without God.”3
Materialism, which “not only holds that there are no supernatural interventions in the course of nature, but that there are no divine beings of any kind,”4  is the philosophical underpinning of many forms of atheism. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of the American Atheists, affirmed that her organization accepted “the technical philosophy of materialism…that nothing exists but natural phenomena.”5  For the materialist, man is the product of millions of years of mindless interactions of matter and nothing more. Stephen Jay Gould, an eminent paleontologist, noted that “the world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time—and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.”6  If this really is the case, then Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker, is right to point out that the only difference between human beings and rocks is our degree of complexity.7  A materialistic worldview offers man no intrinsic worth or objective purpose. If matter is all there is, then the fact of our existence is incidental.
But even if we have no intrinsic meaning, Gould suggested that we could “construct these answers [to the meaning of life] ourselves—from our own wisdom and ethical sense.”8  The atheistic philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre believed that “one may create meaning for his life by freely choosing to follow a certain course of action.”9  However, while the notion that we can create our own subjective meaning may be appealing, it is undermined by the tenuousness of our existence. It is the nature of our universe that there must be an end not only of each human individually, but also of the world itself. Physics foretells the final collapse of the universe due to heat death, cementing our race’s extinction and insignificance. As Bertrand Russell, the great materialist philosopher, observed, “All the noonday brightness of human genius, [is] destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”10  All of our collective achievements, knowledge, and pleasures, even our sufferings will be obliterated by the passage of time. Not even the memory of them will remain. Clearly, immaterial meaning cannot be shaped from the material substance of a universe which is itself passing away.
Confronting this reality, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote, “‘What will come of what I am doing today or tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?’ It can also be expressed thus: Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”11  His dilemma is echoed in Tom Stoppard’s existential comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which the eponymous characters inadvertently wander into the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Eventually, the confused pair is charged with delivering Hamlet to England, but they are powerless to stop his escape and must suffer death as the consequence. Guildenstern laments, “We’ve travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.”12  As the title suggests, the characters are doomed, unable to alter their course. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent the human dilemma of drifting towards nonexistence. When God is excluded, man is left with no explanation for why this should be. Loren Eiseley noted that, “Man is the cosmic orphan. He’s the only creature in the universe who asks, ‘Why?’ Other animals have instincts to guide them, but man has learned to ask questions: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Where am I going?’”13  Gould answered this inquiry with finality: “We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer—but none exists.”14
The atheist Aldous Huxley found the logical conclusion that life is meaningless exhilarating:

We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people at the same time justifying ourselves… we could deny that the world had any meaning.15

Aware that purpose was either objective or nonexistent, Huxley and his contemporaries exchanged purpose for greater personal freedom. He confesses later in Ends and Means that “those who, to be liberated from political or sexual restraint, accept absolute meaninglessness tend in a short time to become… much dissatisfied with their philosophy.”16  As Huxley found, a hedonistic approach to life’s purpose must ultimately disappoint. The Preacher from Ecclesiastes also claims to have tried hedonism and found it wanting:  “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.’ And behold, it too was futility.”17  Having abandoned the pursuit of objective purpose for the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure, the hedonist arrives at a place of still greater emptiness. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.”18
In order to be live consistently with a materialist worldview, it is necessary to accept the inevitable meaninglessness of life. Christian theism, on the hand, addresses the question of our age in a way that satisfies the mind and heart. The Bible claims that human existence is neither accidental nor finite. Created in the very image of God, we are destined to exist into eternity in companionship with Him. Eternity also endows our earthly choices and relationships with unmistakable importance. Moral choices will be judged, relationships will transcend time, and neither dies with the material body. Pleasure also finds its supreme expression in fellowship with God, and it is in that communion that meaning and consummate joy are found.
No one can remain indifferent to the questions raised about materialism’s logical ramifications or the answers Christianity offers. As Ravi Zacharias puts it, whether or not man can live without God “must be answered not only by those who are avowedly antitheistic, but also by the many who functionally live as if there were no God and that His existence does not matter.”19  C.S. Lewis argued that “Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”20  As we seek the answers for ourselves, we ought to consider the testimony of others who have faced the crisis of existence already. Leo Tolstoy, the same man who contemplated suicide as an alternative to a meaningless life, wrote after his conversion to Christianity, “God is that without which you cannot live. To know God and to live is one and the same thing!”21


1Ecclesiastes 1:1-2.
2Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons, trans. Michael R. Katz (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996) 97.
3Will Durant, On the Meaning of Life (New York: Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, Inc., 1932) 23.
4Keith Campbell, “Materialism,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 6, 2nd ed., ed. Donald M. Borchert (Detroit:  Macmillan Reference, 2006) 14.
5Madalyn Murray O’Hare, qtd. in Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live without God (Nashville: W. Publishing Group, 1994) 16-17.
6Stephen Jay Gould, qtd. in The Meaning of Life, ed. David Friend, et al. (New York: Little Brown & Co., 1991) 33.
7“On one planet, and possibly only one plant in the entire universe, molecules that would normally make nothing more complicated than a chunk of rock, gather themselves together into chunks of rock-sized matter of such staggering complexity that they are capable of running, jumping, swimming, flying, seeing, hearing, capturing and eating other such animated chunks of complexity.”
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006) 366-367.
8Gould in The Meaning of Life.
9William Lane Craig, “The Absurdity of Life without God,” Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008) 78.
10Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” Two Modern Essays on Religion (Hanover, NH: Westholm Publications, 1959) 25.
11Leo Tolstoy, Spiritual Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006) 58.
12Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (New York: Grove Press, 1967) 121.
13Craig 71.
14Gould in The Meaning of Life.
15Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means (New York and London:  Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1937) 316.
16Ibid. 318-19.
17Ecclesiastes 2:1.
18G.K. Chesterton, qtd. in Ravi Zacharias, The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008) 39.
19Can Man Live without God xvi.
20C.S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994) 101.
21Tolstoy 58.

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