Nihilism letter to Massey Uni "Chaff"

Let’s begin with definitions:

Nihilism The belief that all endeavors are ultimately futile and devoid of meaning.

Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, nothing) is a philosophical position that argues that existence is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.

In my youth, the understanding I had of the world was that everything was ultimately meaningless. I mocked the religious kids at school for believing in a god, for Darwin had shown there was no need for such a creation of our minds.

I also understood where this thinking led to. On one occasion, I can remember being in tears, telling my parents that there was no point in going on. “Life is pointless”, and that “I had not asked to be born.”

As an adult, my thinking has not changed at all, given the assumption that God is something humans have invented. Consider the wisdom of the writer of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (chapter 1) some 3,000 years ago:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow.

With that in mind, the following is a letter I wrote to Chaff, the Massey University student newspaper, in response to their focus on nihilism.

Letter to Chaff in reply to Nihilism articles (Monday 15th Sept 2008)

Here is a letter for u 2 publish, if you care :-)

Re Nihilism…

I skim read the nihilism material in the latest Chaff, only to realise why I don’t usually waste my time reading what my money is paying for. Moaning aside, prior to my converting to Christianity, I guess I was a nihilist — I planned to live-it-up until my body went down, then drive a beautiful fast car off a tall cliff to end my miserable existence. Needless to say, my life changed direction when I found God was not dead, and have since discovered the enormous explanatory power of a solid Christian worldview in light of the soooo-confusing world described in Nash’s Trash. Laugh if you prefer, but seriously, true Biblical Christianity provides a beautiful coherent worldview that makes sense of life, death, suffering and pleasure. It fully understands Solomon’s 3,000 year old philosophy that: “meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless” is indeed true if the Biblical God is false. (Rob Ward, PhD Student, Physics.)

The Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society (www.christian-apologetics.org) would be very happy to provide a piece similar to the Nihilism article(s) for Chaff next year. We would, of course, be advocating a solid Biblical case for creation, fine-tuning of the universe and life, the basis of morality, the reliability of the Bible and anything else that springs to mind :-)

P.S. If you enjoyed the beautiful poetry and philosophical genius from Ecclesiastes Chapter 1 (above), then here is some more from the second chapter:

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.

Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom,
and also madness and folly.
What more can the king’s successor do
than what has already been done?

I saw that wisdom is better than folly,
just as light is better than darkness.

The wise man has eyes in his head,
while the fool walks in the darkness;
but I came to realize
that the same fate overtakes them both.

Then I thought in my heart,
“The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
What then do I gain by being wise?”
I said in my heart,
“This too is meaningless.”

For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
in days to come both will be forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise man too must die!

And from chapter three:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

Riches too are meaningless:

Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
This too is meaningless.

As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owner
except to feast his eyes on them?

The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether he eats little or much,
but the abundance of a rich man
permits him no sleep.

I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner,

or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when he has a son
there is nothing left for him.

Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,
and as he comes, so he departs.
He takes nothing from his labor
that he can carry in his hand.

This too is a grievous evil:
As a man comes, so he departs,
and what does he gain,
since he toils for the wind?

All his days he eats in darkness,
with great frustration, affliction and anger.

Chapter 12 (for those who are older):

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”-

before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;

when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;

when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;

when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,

and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. [a]
“Everything is meaningless!”

What does the writer conclude of all this?

Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he 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.

The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.

For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

So there you have it.

If you made it this far through this beautiful 3,000 year old philosophy in poetry, you even got the bonus of discovering the un-meaninglessness of life.

Here is what the Lord God, Creator of the heavens and the Earth tells us is the meaning of life:

“Fear God and keep His commandments.”

…which ties nicely into Proverbs 9:10:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Feel free to comment below :-)

6 replies
  1. Murray
    Murray says:

    I think the “meaning of life” is actually a great part of the reason so many people are attracted to religion. People desperately want the world to have a meaning, a reason for them being (to attain a good place in the afterlife?).

    I think subconsciously most people don’t like the idea of their lives becoming a void once they die. We want to live on, and that requires our lives to have a meaning. The only possible meaning comes through faith, which some have and some just don’t.

    Personally I accept that life ultimately is meaningless. When I die there is nothingness. However, for the time we are alive there definitely is meaning – just to be happy. If there wasn’t then we would not care if we led the life of a king or the life of a slave.

  2. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Hi Murray; actually I think that people are attracted to religion because they perceive that life manifestly does have a meaning, and that this can only be explained in a religious context. How well various religions succeed in explaining this is a debate for another time; I would argue they all ultimately fail except for Christianity.

    Personally I accept that life ultimately is meaningless. When I die there is nothingness. However, for the time we are alive there definitely is meaning – just to be happy. If there wasn’t then we would not care if we led the life of a king or the life of a slave.

    If life is ultimately meaningless, then it is a contradiction in terms to say that, for the time we are alive, there definitely is meaning. Without objective meaning, there is no meaning at all. Without ultimate meaning, there is no subsidiary meaning.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. Rob
    Rob says:

    Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

    William Provine, Professor of Biology at Cornell University.

    Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy  April 30 1994.

  4. Rob
    Rob says:

    “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    River out of Eden (1995) p.133.

    Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

  5. Rob
    Rob says:

    “The existentialist…finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven….Dostoevsky once wrote, ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted.”

    Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
    (Source: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/features/2000/cortesi1.html)

    (Note: apparently this ‘everything is permitted’ quote did not appear to originate with Dostoevsky.)

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