The Meaning of Life

by Benjamin Kuipers

Why are we here? Why do we suffer?

I take as an axiom that there is a loving God, who cares about each of us as an individual.

I also take it that God and the meaning of life are transcendent, meaning that we can never have more than a partial understanding of them. Every philosophical insight and every religious teaching, including the Bible, gives us an incomplete reflection of some underlying truth that we can never completely grasp. Our goal is to combine insights from various sources to get a better, though still incomplete, understanding. As happens so often, the need for this is well expressed by a children's poem, in this case, "The Blind Men and the Elephant".

I grew up with Calvinist teachings about Heaven and Hell, and a Last Judgment after death that depends on personal acceptance of a particular set of facts about Jesus Christ. As I was growing up, I had a hard time reconciling my belief in a loving, universal, transcendent God with the historical specificity of this criterion for eternal salvation or damnation.

Let's suppose that my Calvinist teachers, like all other humans, see through a glass darkly. Over the centuries, holy books and wise writers have tried to explain the lessons that God is teaching us about how to live eternal life. I assume that all of these reflect some aspect of the transcendental truth, and that the differences come from the cultural backgrounds of the writers and of their intended audiences. Let's try to infer a more accurate picture, accepting that there is much truth in various teachings, but perhaps distorted with interpretation. Looking for shared bits of transcendent truth, we find some surprising conclusions.

First, every human being has eternal life.

Eternal life is not something granted with salvation and taken away with damnation. Both the promise of Heaven and the horror of Hell are their eternity. Streets paved with gold in Heaven, or fire and brimstone in Hell, are metaphors designed to speak to various audiences, and convey vividly that spending eternity one way will be really good while spending it the other way will be really bad. But eternity is what you get, either way.

If you take the concept of eternal life seriously, it's pretty scary.

Imagine waking up, after your physical death, and realizing that you are still around, still aware, still able to interact with others in like circumstance, and this will go on forever. In his famous play "No Exit", Jean-Paul Sartre looked at this situation, and concluded that "Hell is other people." If you think about it, you probably know someone about whom you could say, "That person has created his own Hell."

Suppose this is literally true. And similar statements are true for all of us. During this life, we prepare ourselves for eternal life. Eternal life is a demanding environment, not because God imposes any specific requirement, but just because it is without end. What does it take to remain sane over that kind of time?

Suppose a loving God creates a collection of thinking beings. And suppose that He has decided that all thinking beings will have eternal life. Eternal life is a big load, and many of these beings will self-destruct in various ways.

What does a loving God do? It seems to me that He tries to teach the survival skills that will make it possible for some of them to live and thrive through eternal life.

It seems to me that God does not act as a judge, holding each of us in the balance, and sending us forever through one door or the other. Rather, He is a Teacher, who knows that, by creating us, He has sent us into a risky and demanding eternity, and He offers us what we need for that journey. We can take what He offers or not, but we are on the journey regardless.

What are the survival skills that help one cope with eternal life? It seems to me that these include things like: love, humility, forgiveness, faith, hope, charity, curiosity, humor, and surely many others. Characteristics like hatred, resentment, pride, envy, sloth, and so on, experienced over eternity, are the ingredients of a person's self-created Hell.

Just as in this world, two people may pass on the sidewalk, one in Heaven and one in Hell, I believe so it is in eternity. I believe the teachers who have said that Hell is separation from God. While living through eternal life, those survival skills are useful for maintaining good relationships, both with others and with God. With those relationships, we may be able to grow closer than would be possible in this life.

What is the meaning of life on Earth? Why do we suffer?

Why spend a few decades on Earth in these limited bodies, when we will then have all eternity with greater powers and fewer constraints?

Because God has provided this life on Earth as our Kindergarten, a protected environment where we can learn about life, about others, about love and hate, pleasure and pain, good and evil.

In this life, we learn what it means to be a Self. We learn that others are Selves, too. We learn that we can be hurt, and that we can hurt others. We learn that we can be close to others, or that we can hold them at a distance, and with closeness and love comes both pleasure and pain. We learn that there are pleasures and pains beyond the merely physical. We learn that sufferings are not always just, and are not always the consequence of our own actions. We learn that God is there, that we can talk to Him, and that He will answer. We learn that we cannot always understand His answers.

This life is our protected Kindergarten, where we can learn important lessons without getting too badly hurt. It seems bizarre to say that we can't get too badly hurt, when innocent children die in natural disasters and from genocidal murder. How can this level of suffering be reconciled with a loving God?

My only answer here is that all of us are trying to learn the lessons we need to survive eternity. Once created, we have eternal life, and we are given a few decades (maybe much less) on this Earth to learn some very important lessons. If God, the loving Teacher, puts us on this Earth to learn important lessons, possibly some of us might need to attend this school more than once.

A double-handful of decades might not be enough to learn the lessons needed for eternity, much less a few years or months. If this life is a school, and we need to learn about suffering and injustice, just as we learn about faith and love, then even short lives of unjust suffering are part of the lesson, both for the soul that experiences it, and for those around, whether they are doing good or evil.

This is not intended to be a philosophy of fatalism. It seems to me that part of the lesson that leads to Heaven in eternity is learning to work to reduce injustice and relieve suffering. Those who learn instead to profit from injustice and to inflict suffering are learning the lessons that lead to Hell in eternity. Not because Heaven or Hell is imposed from the outside, but because it comes from who you are, who you have made yourself, and what you have learned from the lessons that God is putting before you, here on this Earth.

What is the meaning of life?

To summarize:

Written 28 January 2007.