Last week, we talked about how meaning is not objective. Every appeal for a rational justification of meaning in turn requires its own appeal.
This is the “infinite reference problem,” and pursuing it in search of some ultimate and rational end-point is a “chasing after the wind.”
We’re given this lesson from Ecclesiastes.
But, for us Christians, the future is not bleak. We have a unique solution, thanks to Jesus Christ.
It doesn’t solve the infinite reference problem, but it creates a practical meaning-fountain that annihilates the “existential monster.”
Everything is Meaningless
First, it’s vital to understand the extremely uncomfortable lesson given to us by Ecclesiastes.
In Ecclesiastes, the assumption is that when a man dies, he’s dead, and that’s it. You go to the grave. Your dust goes into the ground, your breath goes back to God. You’re finished.
“I also said to myself, ‘As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same spirit/breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit/breath rises upward and if the spirit/breath of the animal goes down into the earth?’
So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?”
His early conclusion is to “just stop” on the axial value of enjoying your toil and lot.
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them — for this is their lot.”
The essential premise of Ecclesiastes is that we’re not going to be around after we die.
Leaving a legacy still leaves uncertainty.
- Our bequests?
- Our treatises?
- Our progeny?
We cannot be certain in any of it.
“For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?”
Thus, the “just stop” existential conclusion:
“Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun — all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”
Additionally, investments (though uncertain) are lauded (11:1-6), and obedience to God is demanded (11:7-10) because it’s our duty, and because we’ll risk his judgment — in life.
Many mainstream Christian teachers would like Ecclesiastes not to exist, or to say something other than what it does.
They’d prefer that it conclude with a rejection of “everything is meaningless,” as if teeing up a ball earlier only to finally smash it out of the park.
But that’s not what happens.
“Remember [the Creator], before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit/breath returns to God who gave it.
‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!’ Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.”
Even though everything is ultimately meaningless, we still create meaning since we’re beings with innate and/or molded interests. Each one of us is a “meaning fountain” — as is God himself.
It’s not about what simply is meaningful in a vacuum. It’s about what is regarded meaningful, according to the interests of beings with interests.
The writer of Ecclesiastes recognized that we generate meaning in this way through the provisions of life that we enjoy. We find meaning in food, drink, our projects, our families, our investments, and our thankful obligation to our Creator.
But, for us, that “generation” dies. In the end, we all go kaput.
That’s the sad and bleak part of all of this.
Then Comes Christus Victor
Paul tells us that man’s physical death is a consequence of his having sinned:
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned. To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.”
Through the appeal of baptism, we can voluntarily die to our sins. We are “baptized into his death,” which has a real and profound result:
“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
In Paul’s scathing first letter to the Corinthians, he calls out those who would deny the down-the-road resurrection of the dead.
He makes an argumentum ad absurdum in support of that general resurrection, which is this: Why the heck would we risk life and limb without a prospective purpose?
1 Corinthians 15:30-32a
“And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour [if there is no resurrection of the dead]? I face death every day — yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained?”
And then 32b:
“If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'”
That’s technically a quote from Isaiah — but it reminds you of another book, doesn’t it?
Without these resurrections, our faith is useless says Paul (v. 13-14).
Instead, we have a hope in that down-the-road resurrection, because of victorious Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:54,57b
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In other words, we’re back in Ecclesiastes-Land without the general resurrection.
The general resurrection doesn’t make Ecclesiastes false. Ecclesiastes was correct — “upright and true” — when it said that there was no objective underpinning of meaning, and that meaning is generated by interests and experience.
But the sighing sadness of Ecclesiastes has been eliminated. “Where, O death, is your sting?” writes Paul quoting Hosea.
The Limitless Future
We’re in a pickle when we demand, for every statement of meaning, an appeal to a higher justification.
But what if we simply demand a future justification?
And what if our future keeps going?
Suddenly, while the infinite reference problem still exists (and can never be solved), it can at least be made practically moot by the fact that we’ll always have new and novel prospects — forever — after the advent of that “New Earth.”
Really, Really Limitless
Some folks are afraid that we’ll get bored.
While we have a sacred hope that being in the presence of God will be overwhelmingly satisfying, it’s a hope impossible to convey or even conceptualize.
So let’s also say: “Actually, eternity probably won’t ‘run out.'”
- First, our material brains don’t store things very well. Can you recall what you were doing exactly one year ago? No, you can’t. You even find new enjoyable elements in movies you’ve seen dozens of times. You take pleasure and satisfaction in that “weakness” of perception and memory.
- Second, God’s universe is likely stocked with innumerable things to discover. And the time it would take to discover even a miniscule fraction of that universe would represent a period under which innumerable new potential discoveries would be born.
- Finally, however God’s universe is brimming with things to discover, it’ll be brimming over exponentially more with things we’ll be building ourselves for his glory.
No “Objective Meaning”; Rather, Endless Meaning
Many apologists rely on the idea of “objective meaning” in order avoid existential anxiety. They also use it as a logical wildcard in service of a rubber sword “Godproof” — often, they’ll threaten the listener with existential emptiness if they don’t accept the “objective meaning” they’re selling.
This is a very, very common tactic. But it’s not Biblical.
The Biblical message is that meaning is not objective. It’s generated by subjects with interests.
The writer of Ecclesiastes didn’t say, ‘Everything is meaningful, because it is grounded on some objective source of meaning.’
Rather, he said, ‘Everything is meaningless, and this is an upright and true teaching.’
We attain our hope by means of Christ, by whom death is conquered and obliterated. This grants us a beautiful device that allows us to generate meaning forever — and it has an infinite-year warranty.
This is our grand and overwhelming “happy non-ending.”
You’re at a church social gathering, eating at a table with three of your friends. You mention how your legs move around at night, bothering your spouse, and you say that you think you might have restless leg syndrome.
- “Restless legs? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the restless leg demon out of you?”
- “Restless leg syndrome is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing your legs to move around, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop your legs from moving around like that?”
- “It’s irrational for your brain to cause your legs to move like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that there’s no point in doing that.”
The next week, you invite your friend Mike to church and, afterward, are again talking to your three friends. Mike, who visibly shakes, explains that he has Parkinson’s disease.
- “Can’t stop shaking? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the shaking demon out of you?”
- “Parkinson’s disease is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing yourself to shake, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop yourself from shaking around like that?”
- “It’s irrational for your brain to cause your body to shake like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that there’s no point in doing that.”
A few weeks later, you bring your cousin Deborah to church and, after the service, are again talking to your three friends. A while into the conversation, Deborah explains how she’s been grappling with depression.
- “Feeling a persistent sense of despair? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the demon of despair out of you?”
- “Depression is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing yourself to be sad all the time, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop yourself from being so depressed?”
- “It’s irrational for you to despair like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that you are valuable and the future is not bleak.”
It’s vitally important, especially as Christians, to remember to ground ourselves on what is observable and understood (or, becoming more understood), even though we have a convicted faith in what isn’t very observable or understood.
We are understanding more and more than emotions aren’t magical. They are our experiences of physiological activity in our bodies, of which our brains are a part.
We are also understanding more and more the absolutely pivotal role played by the neurotransmitter “dopamine.” Dopamine stimulation is like pattern recognition nitro — it’s all about hopeful expectations and deciphering patterns in service thereof.
Take a look at this 3 minute clip from neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky:
Dopamine underpins almost everything we consider entertaining and/or psychologically addictive: rhyming, jokes, gambling, hoarding, story twists, conspiracy theories both true and false, wonder/awe, mysteries, chord progressions (I-V-vi-IV is perhaps the most resonant progression ever for Western listeners because of its cyclical and dramatic rising and falling), video games, watching sports, turning pages, etc.
When something is wrong with your dopamine transmission, it can cause life-altering problems. Parkinson’s disease is the most well-known, where the cells that generate dopamine die. The shaking typical of Parkinson’s, restless leg syndrome, and shaking when afraid are all related to dopamine deficiency or over-stimulation.
Chronic depression is a neurotransmitter problem, often related to dopamine (among other neurotransmitters, e.g., serotonin) issues. When the ability to create hopeful expectations is hobbled or killed, then everything turns hopeless. Our conscious brains respond to this crippling problem by dwelling on the unclaimable, like the nostalgic past, and concluding nonsensical or irrational conclusions, like that a future full of potential is actually bleak.
This isn’t something that you can, generally, “think your way out of.” You can “think your way through and during,” as people with Parkinson’s do every day, but your thoughts alone don’t typically cause alleviation. Reliable alleviation comes through physiological treatment (like medicine that stimulates neurotransmitters), or through natural remedial brain activity (which makes depression merely temporary for some people). But this truth is complicated by the fact that some depression is the result of hopeless thoughts (usually a sudden or intense new realization of the limitations of, or recent reductions in, one’s prospects), like during existential crises or cataclysmic life events, and can be remedied in various ways (the most popular being anchor-setting and/or distractions).
Concluding Ought Thoughts
In any case, chronic depression is a chemical issue, as “non-magical” as Parkinson’s and RLS, but it has the sinister symptom of convincing us that it IS something in our “magical minds.”
- We ought to avoid jumping to supernatural conclusions recklessly, like “Superstitious” Steve.
- We ought to avoid treating all brain activity as a libertarian product of conscious will, like “Buck-Stops-Here” Buck.
- We ought to avoid pretending like the brain is magical and can reason itself out of various thoughts and behaviors, like “Dualistic Philosophy” Sophia.
Evangelical Pastor Tom Nelson of Denton Bible Church, on his experiences with physiological depression and anxiety (especially 24:55+).
Robert Sapolsky’s Standford lecture on depression in the U.S.