“Meaning” in a world without God
I recently read an article about a monument erected on a public space in Florida, counter a ten-commandments monument, celebrating “atheism.” It was billed as an expression of free-speech, and I suppose it was. But thinking about it further stirred a question within me. Beyond the pettiness of it (framed within the context of “protecting atheist rights”), why would an atheist erect such a monument?
If one truly rejects the existence of a god of any kind, and thus rejects any sort of telos to the universe (and one’s own life), why would one choose to celebrate this reality? And if one lives out what one believes, what possible “moral” justification would there be for being concerned about resisting those who do believe? I don’t mean to suggest, as has often been the case, that atheists cannot be moral and have no motivation to be so. I merely wonder what justification there would be for anything in light of the meaninglessness of it all.
Over 60 years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book calling the bourgeois German church to Discipleship. In this masterful work, Bonhoeffer excoriated a church that had been lulled into a stupor by “cheap grace”—grace that allowed Christians to find forgiveness apart from understanding and embracing the depths of transformation this grace required. The implications of what God had done in Christ, for Bonhoeffer, required (and motivated/empowered) real transformation. To understand the person and work of Christ was to understand that life is forever different and must be lived under the horizon of God’s future. And this grace, this costly grace, demanded of the church a radical holiness.
Certainly the church in America should hear the call to costly grace. We have made the gospel of Jesus Christ into a commodity bought and sold, an entertainment piece, a self-help, affirming gospel that requires no transformation. Indeed, “Jesus is Lord” is often another slogan set alongside “your way, right away.” We have embraced cheap grace with perhaps a deeper fervor than any before us.
But we are not alone in this. For “atheists,” such as they are, have also embraced the “cheap grace” of trendy atheism. A world with no telos, a life without God, would look very different than that lived by so many self-proclaimed atheists today. What are the implications of a steel-eyed, set-jaw atheism? And where are those who really grasp and accept this today? Has anyone ever, really, lived the life of an atheist and expounded the lifestyle (if there is one) which it would imply?
The closest, I think, would be Friedrich Nietzsche. Here was an atheist who understood the implications of staring into the black abyss that is the meaninglessness of a life without God, without telos.
Nietzsche understood that the atheist “story” is a story, ultimately, of meaninglessness. From the moment that we crawled out of the cosmic sludge humans have been living lives without any transcendent meaning, waiting for the day the meteorite or super-eruption or other cosmic event brings a terrifying end to it all.
The end of the story is the end of the line, and it offers no particular judgment or motivation for any particular morality, at all. It matters not one wit how you treat your neighbor. It matters not at all how we as a society treat the poor, the widow, the orphan. Oh, sure, we spend a lot of time extolling the virtues of doing such things—they make for a better society, they are compassionate, even human. But, ultimately, the true atheist story says, “So what?” The very idea of morality is a scream into the black hole of the cosmic abyss.
The Christian story, though, is the story of the God who created and redeemed, who even now works toward that day when he will set all things right. He is a God who relentlessly pursues, to the cross, a humanity determined on rejecting him. And thus he has imbued existence with immeasurable meaning. Every action of peace, of compassion, of neighbor love, of care for others—every action echoes into the eternity of this God.
It is a tragedy that more Christians do not live their lives in keeping with their story. But thanks be to God that more atheists don’t live in keeping with theirs.
Please share this article with others you know by using the social media icons at the top of the page. Also, subscribe to the Christian Studies blog to receive notifications of articles straight into your inbox.
Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others. Austin Grad — one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas — is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.