Meaning in Suffering
By RODNEY J. DECKER
Before we can talk about meaning or the basis for morality,
we need to figure out the basis of meaning itself (epistemology).
What gives an action or life significance? Since human beings
are finite (only a very few people would deny that), meaning
must come from elsewhere. The choices are very slim. My choice
is that of Christian theism as revealed in Christian Scripture.1
There are alternatives (most obviously, atheism), but I do not
see that they provide an adequate basis for meaning or morality.
They essentially amount to declaring that something is good or
meaningful because the advocate (or a group of advocates) says
that it is such.2 The Christian worldview has an explanation for
Note: There are many specialized terms here that cannot be defined or explained
in a paper of this length. For the serious reader, see The Zondervan Dictionary
of Bible and Theology Words for brief, helpful explanations. There are a number
of short passages from Scripture included that serve to indicate a basic context
from which the comments in the body of the paper are based/drawn. As in any
literature, most anything can be proved from statements taken out of context,
so the reader is encouraged to get a Bible and read them in context. For this
purpose in English I recommend the New International Version of the Bible.
1. Though theism in general could serve as some basis of meaning and values,
I assume here the system I know best and to which I am committed: Christian
theism. “Christian theism, as I am using the term, differs from religion, commonly understood, in that it involves God’s gracious quest for the person rather
than the person’s groping search for God. Central to the Christian way is the
claim that God has taken the initiative and has, in intelligible ways, disclosed
himself to people” (Lewis and Demarest, 1: 61). This choice requires divine
revelation; experience/intuition cannot provide an adequate basis.
2. How can an atheist explain the existence of morality and the acceptance of
moral standards if there is only pure contingency in the world? Is morality only
convention or social custom? Why should it be accepted? What is the basis for
morality and meaning/significance: God’s directions regarding
what is right and wrong. 3
On what basis does God establish standards of morality? On
the basis of Creatorship. That is, if God created the inhabited
universe, he has the inherent right to govern the conduct of the
inhabitants. 4 Those standards of morality reflect God’s own character: “You [i.e., God] are . . . Holy” (Psalm 22: 3). He explicitly
commands His people to live as He does: “But just as he who
called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be
morality in an atheistic, naturalistic worldview? (Even if they define them as
changing social conventions, everyone will assume that there are things that
are right and wrong at some time—but what happens when there are conflicting conventions?) The point should be that the Christian worldview has an
explanation for morality. The atheist worldview does not. Apart from God,
there can be no argument—nothing can be proven because there is no basis
for the laws of logic in an atheistic, naturalistic universe. Thus atheism proves
theism. The only way an atheist can argue is to use “borrowed capital”—he
must assume the validity of the laws of logic to do so, and the only basis for
the laws of logic is God.
3. My assumption of Christian theism explains the existence of the world: if
there is a personal God, it would make sense that He would/should create a
world. It also explains how there can be purpose, order, and design in such a
world. It explains how it is that people have a moral nature, how there can be
such a thing as right and wrong. It also explains the very concept of God—
where did such an idea come from? Except for Theodor Seuss Geisel, no one
would have thought up the idea of a “jibboo” because such things don’t exist.
Similar fictional constructs could, of course, serve the same purpose.
4. Perhaps the current surge in a “popular atheism” is an attempt to deny such
accountability. People want unrestricted autonomy, the thought of giving an
answer to anyone—even a loving, just God—flies in the face of current cultural
standards of distrust and deceit.