The Meaning of Life – or, The Big Why
In Douglas Adams’ book, Life, the Universe and Everything, there’s a scene in which two characters, Fook and Lunkwill, create a computer in the hope that it will tell them the answer to life, the universe and everything. The computer, named Deep Thought, says that it will be able to do it, but it will take seven and a half million years. After the seven and a half million years have finally elapsed, the descendants of Fook and Lunkwill, Phouchg and Loonsuawl, gather to hear the long-awaited answer, only to find that the answer is the very baffling and anticlimactic “42”.
Who hasn’t wondered about the meaning of life, the universe and everything? Every religion and philosophy has its version of an answer. Some are spiritual: “To glorify God.” “To attain oneness with the universe.” “To attain enlightenment.” Some are noble: “To leave the world a better place than I found it.” “To do good.” “To be the best person I can be.” “To spread love.” Some are self-centered: “To grab as much pleasure as possible before I die and cease to exist.” “To be remembered.” “To be rich and famous.” Some are nihilistic: “There is no such thing as meaning.” So many answers, often contradictory, rarely completely satisfying, so that the question, “What is the meaning of life?” often becomes a punchline or a cliché rather than a serious question.
What does the Bible say about the meaning of life? I could try to quote verses and piece something together that way. Which isn’t a bad way to unpack the meaning of human existence. But recently, I hit a point where all the answers I had - all the bits and pieces, as important as they are – still seemed to be missing the bigger picture. I mean, relationship with God, redemption, reconciliation, the greatest commandment and the great commission – all vital. But I was still asking the “big why”. What’s the point of all of it? Is it “get saved, live for Jesus, die, go to heaven, be with God forever”? I mean, in a sense, yes. But is this life on Earth just a formality, a stepping stone into Eternity, or are we here for something more? What do my life and my relationship with Jesus mean in the bigger context of what God is doing? Does the Bible even answer that question?
I believe the Bible does answer that question, but not in the form of a straightforward answer that we can accept, absorb, and then apply in three easy steps. Frankly, in the day and age of pick-and-choose-your-favorite-answer on the internet and of YouTube how-to videos, that’s what we tend to want in an answer. But the Bible wasn’t written as a how-to manual, science textbook, or encyclopedia where you can pick a topic and look up the information in one handy article.
The Bible often gives us answers in the form of word pictures – images and analogies that we don’t just read, remember, and tuck into our spiritual tool box. Rather, as Jon Collins and Tim Mackie of The Bible Project state, the Bible is “meditation literature” (https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/bible-jewish-meditation-literature-h2r/). Yes, we read individual books that are collections of stories or poetry, letters, or prophecies. But interwoven throughout the Bible are themes that keep coming up, or images and allusions that remind us of things we’ve read in other parts of the Bible. Like Mary, who “treasured up” all her experiences with angels and shepherds and magi and prophets and “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), we’re to do that with what we read in Scripture. The Bible is written in such a way that, like its readers 2000 or more years ago, we treasure up what we’ve learned through reading and acting on God’s word. And when something else we read or learn reminds us of those treasured up things, we bring them out, ponder them, compare them with the new things and see how they work together to enrich our understanding of God, God’s purposes, and our purpose and relationship with him. This is part of what it means to meditate on Scripture.
I’m not really great at that myself, so I’m always glad when a book or podcast or Bible Project video helps me see those connections. I’m also somebody who prefers a straight answer. Yet even Jesus often didn’t give those. How often did he answer a question or make a point with a parable? “What is the Kingdom of God like?” he’d ask, either rhetorically or echoing someone else’s question. His answer? Not a point-by-point description, but word pictures: a banquet, a pearl buried in a field, a tiny mustard seed planted in a garden, a net full of fish. Say what, Jesus? Can’t you just give a clear answer? To which he’d respond, “He who has ears, let him hear.” In other words, to those who really want to hear him, who are willing to engage with him and wrestle and trust and follow him (individually and in community with other Jesus followers), the answers will emerge.
There’s a word picture that the Bible paints early on, and that keeps coming up throughout the Bible, all the way through to the end of Revelation. I used to think it was just a story that described some events and explained some important stuff, and it certainly is that. In fact, it explains some pretty foundational things about who God is, who we are, what God intended for us and what went wrong. But it goes beyond that. Echoes of that word picture show up in the stories of Abraham, of Israel, of the tabernacle and temple, of Jesus, of the church, and in God’s promise of a new heaven and new Earth. That word picture and its echos keep showing up, I believe, because the story holds the key to the “big why” that I was looking for.
That picture is the Garden of Eden. Over the next while, I’ll be exploring that with my class of middle- and high school students, but I want to share what we’re learning here, too. So stick with me. I hope you’ll see the “big why” as it emerges through the story and picture of the Garden of Eden.