DEATH AND THE MEANING OF LIFE
Written by Doug Ponder on September 5, 2015
Death and the Search for Meaning
Hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is one Paul Gauguin’s most famous paintings, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? In the span of just a few feet, this painting depicts the sweep of human existence: on the far right is a small baby; in the center is a group of adults in the middle years of life; on the far left sits “an old woman approaching death, reconciled and resigned to her thoughts.” At her feet is an odd-looking white bird, a symbol, the artist said, of “the futility of words,” which cannot halt death. Of this work of art Gauguin wrote to a friend, “I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better, or even like it.”
From its title to its depressing conclusion, Gauguin’s painting touches upon two of life’s most important issues: (1) the search for meaning and (2) the inevitability of death. The apostle James, the brother of Jesus, touched upon these same issues when he wrote, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (Jas. 4:14).
In other words, your life is shorter than the steam after a shower. It’s like the flicker of a candle, or a brief breath barely visible on a cool Autumn morning. You are here today and gone tomorrow. And what then? Do you pass into the night as nothing more than a footnote in the long accident that is our universe?
The most common answer today goes by the name of “existentialism,” but you probably won’t hear that word very much outside of philosophy class. Instead you’ll hear: “It’s your life.” “Life is what you make of it.” “You only live once.
These answers aren’t good answers, though, and we all can feel it. At best they provide a momentary distraction from the fact that your life will be over and everyone you ever loved and everything you ever cared about will be gone. And one day it hits you: the universe doesn’t care about your existence, and the fact that you care doesn’t ultimately matter either. You are powerless to do anything to stop your death. You are strapped to a conveyor belt heading for death, and existentialism offers you no exits.
The Answer to All Our Searching
There is a better answer than existentialism, one that’s not only true but also makes sense of life as we experience it. It’s the true story of the whole world, including your life. It’s the good news that life is a gift from God.
We’re not just talking about your existence, though that’s obviously a gift too. The gospel is the good news of a redeemed life, fully forgiven of all our sins and made right with God to live with him forever.
The apostle Peter brought these themes together in his sermon: “You killed the Author of life, but God raised him from the dead” (Acts 3:15). Just think of all that this verse tells us: There is an Author of Life. He is the reason why you are here. Your life is not an accident. It has meaning and purpose in him.
And yet, instead of fulfilling that purpose, you (and I) killed the Author of life. No, we didn’t personally hammer the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet. But our sins were the cause of his death, the reason Jesus went the cross in the first place. The Author of Life came to live and die for us, so that our sins could be forgiven and death itself defeated.
Jesus knew this too (of course), which is why he so often connected redemption from sin and death with the meaning of life. He says, “This is eternal life: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Jesus gives us purpose and an answer to death. He tells us that we were made to know God, the source of every joy in life, at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore. And though we turned our backs on him through sin, here is how God has responded: “You killed the Author of life, but God has raised him from the dead!”
The meaning of your life, in other words, is to know the God who made you and who rescues you from sin and death. This not only gives purpose and meaning to all that we do in the present, it also gives us a hope and future. Death is not the end; it is now just a taxi to carry us home to God.
And this also means that for all those who trust in Jesus for redemption and new life, James’ reminder that life is a mist is not bad news. Because of the gospel this fact is now good news that “soon and very soon we are going to see the King,” the Lord Jesus, the Author of Life who died and rose for us.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.