nihilism: Much ado about nothing!

No, this is not a comment on a play by William Shakespeare. It is about the increasing interest in what some philosophers term “nihilism”. That term comes from nihil which is a Latin word meaning “nothing”. The discussion goes back centuries, and the way the term is used has changed a bit. The current debate seems to focus on whether or not there is any value in seeking a meaning to life; does human existence actually have no point: nothing? Nihilists say there is no ultimate meaning to life, and for humans there is nothing beyond the grave. It is worth thinking about where that conclusion leads.

Certainly, the inquisitiveness of our species has always made us seek answers to questions about the origin, extent, composition and order of the universe. Looking in the other direction, the mysteries of microbiological research and nuclear physics has brought increasing knowledge of tiny things hidden from the human eye, or even the microscope. Did we emerge from nothing, only to eventually vanish again into nothingness? In this information complexity and overload context, some may think religion is too simplistic. They may think attributing origins, powers and rules to God is just an easy way to avoid the harsh realities of an otherwise apparently pointless existence. Yet the fine-tuning of the universe, the laws by which it operates at cosmic and microbiological levels, and the shear mathematical improbability of complex life emerging by chance, all provide substantial support for accepting these are the result of design by a Designer who is not confined to this physical universe, and for which the name “God” is the appropriate term. To bring something out of nothing is the prerogative of God (see Heb.11:3).

The expansion of available knowledge made possible by the development of super-computing has changed outlooks. For every unwanted effect, people may believe its unwelcome cause can be identified, if sufficient research is done. Then the problem can be avoided, and we can be happy again. Yet we all know that in reality remedies are not available for all problems, and we have to come to terms with suffering, and dying. Sometimes accidents happen. Sometimes violent people inflict harm and seem to get away with it. Present suffering is a big problem for people who are nihilists because they have no confidence in life beyond the grave. Therefore, they inevitably must conclude suffering is unfair. Christians on the contrary can take comfort from relying on a just God who has an eternity beyond the grave to make up for any “unfair” suffering in our present lives (see Rom.8:18).

Assuming there is no meaning to life may lead to at least two major problems. First, we may devalue our own lives, and even opt to end them prematurely when things are not going our way. Second, we may devalue the lives of others, and adopt an extremely selfish attitude. After all, if there is no ultimate meaning to our seemingly very temporary life, and no unavoidable lasting consequences for wrong choices, why not just live for the moment without a care about the effect on the lives of others? But if that idea offends our sense of moral expectation, then we must ask where does a sense of moral accountability come from? Why are people different from so many other animals in this respect? Yet, if our Designer had moral objectives to achieve when bringing humanity into being, and intentionally extended our DNA and related aspects governing what we are as humans to enable achievement of moral goals, resolution of our questions is in sight. As the Bible indicates, these added-values specific to humanity are not discernible merely by physical examination (see 1 Cor.2:14).

The increased interest in nihilism is occurring while interest in spiritual matters is also increasing (yes increasing!), as noted in 2017 Pew research results for the USA. Moreover, there is good reason to have faith in God, since data shows people’s degree of religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes (see for instance the research report on “Religious Involvement, Spirituality, and Medicine: Implications for Clinical Practice” by the Mayo Clinic in 2001). To believe in nothing, is not really liberating, since one person’s liberty may act as an undue constraint on others’. And taking account of the needs of others may bring the happiness that eludes those who strive only to please themselves. A sense of responsibility for others, and personal accountability, can help satisfy spiritual needs we all have. But “spirituality” is a very broad expression, and once we appreciate its importance we need to find the meaning of life by reference to its Creator. Christians see in the Bible the written result of the Creator communicating with His creation, including us.

The wise writer of the Bible book Ecclesiastes was challenged by the realities discussed above. If God is left out of the equation, the result must be “life is pointless; just like chasing after the wind” (see Eccles.1). But that writer’s conclusion was that it is wisest to focus on our responsibility to our Creator, based on God’s right to hold us to account for the lives we are given to live (see Eccles.12:13,14). Interestingly, the Bible cautions us that if we operate selfishly, without love for others and for God, that is exactly what results in our being “nothing” (see 1 Cor.13).  As Christians we need to be ready to demonstrate the value of our faith, and be ready to provide answers when it is challenged (see 1 Pet.3:15). If we are not merely “nothing”, how are we to establish the value of a person to God? The Bible begins to provide an answer when it describes the sacrifice God was prepared to make to demonstrate love for us (see Rom.5:6-8).