Nine Big Questions #1 ‘In the Big Scheme of Things, Why is My Life Important?’
A minister friend of mine was once leading a group for people who were inquiring into the Christian faith, and at some point early in the first meeting of the group he asked them about the role that God played in their lives. One of the members made this reply: “The way I figure it, God’s got a lot of things to worry about – earthquakes, and famines, and wars, and AIDS, and global warming and all that stuff. My little concerns probably aren’t very significant to him. In fact, the best thing I can do for God is probably to stay out of his way”.
The man was not being facetious; he genuinely had difficulty believing that, in the great big scheme of things, the mundane concerns of his life were all that important. And if that is the case for a person who believes in the existence of God, how much more for a person who has no such faith? Why is their life important? Why is my life important?
Until fairly recently in human history, we human beings have believed that we were the point of the story of our planet; the whole story of life on earth was leading up to us, and we had the manifest destiny of subduing the earth and using it to better our own lives. But the advances in scientific knowledge over the past two centuries have given us a very different view. Most scientists now believe that the universe came into existence as the result of a big bang over fourteen billion years ago, and that our earth did not come into existence until about nine billion years later. Our earth appears to be about 4.5 billion years old, and we human beings have been around for a tiny fraction of that time.
Sometimes this is illustrated in terms of a twenty-four hour clock. Suppose the entire 4.5 billion year history of our planet had been compressed into one twenty-four hour day? What would the proportions be like? Well, if the earth was formed at 12.01 a.m., then the earliest forms of life would appear at about 3.30 a.m. After a long day of slow progression to multicellular organisms, the enormous diversification of life that scientists call the Cambrian explosion would finally occur at about 9 p.m. – twenty-one hours into the twenty-four hour day. A bit later on, dinosaurs would appear and would roam the earth until they became extinct at 11.40 p.m., with twenty minutes left in the day, at which time mammals would start to become dominant.
The divergence of the evolutionary branches leading to chimpanzees and humans would occur at one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight. Anatomically modern humans would arrive with just three seconds left, and the life of a middle-aged human today would occupy only the last one thousandth of a second.
In this scheme of things, how can my little life possibly be of any significance? From the point of view of an atheist or agnostic, my life is the result of a long series of accidents. If an asteroid hadn’t struck the earth 65 million years ago, the chances are pretty strong that the first intelligent life to emerge would have been reptilian rather than human – in other words, that reptiles rather than mammals would have continued to dominate the earth. By a long series of accidents, mutations appeared in the DNA of our ancestors; those mutations were found by natural selection to be more conducive to the survival of our gene pool. And so the whole process of evolution progressed without any grand scheme or divine plan. Any sense of my own personal significance is purely subjective; my life might be important to me and to those who love me, but it’s not important in any objective view of the story of life in the universe. Sooner or later our sun will cool, the lights will go out, life on earth will end, and we’ll all be forgotten.
This is the view of the so-called ‘new atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and others like them. However, they - and people who believe as they do - don’t seem to be able to live consistently with the logical consequences of this point of view. For one thing, they all seem to have a pretty well-developed sense of ethics and morality, but if the emergence of life on earth is accidental and my life as an individual is insignificant, then surely it doesn’t really matter in any objective way whether or not I live my life according to a set of moral laws? The idea of human rights, which seems to be important to all of them, doesn’t make a great deal of sense if this is all just an accident, without a Creator to give significance to the individual human beings who are the subject of those rights. And if we’re all just a random accident, what’s the significance of beauty and justice and truth and love?
Interestingly enough, in recent years science itself has been giving us clues that there might be a purpose behind the universe after all. Let me tell you about ‘the anthropic principle’. Briefly stated, the anthropic principle is based on the observation that there are a number of fascinating coincidences about the development of the universe, and of life in the universe – coincidences that seem to lead purposefully to the emergence of human life. These coincidences include things like the fact that, in the earliest milliseconds after the big bang, the symmetry between matter and antimatter was not quite precise; for about every billion pairs of quarks and antiquarks, there was an extra quark. If that asymmetry had not been there, the universe would never have been formed. And why was it there? It would seem more natural for there to be a perfect symmetry – as there almost was.
There are other examples of this kind of thing. There’s the fact that the universe expanded at precisely the rate necessary for stars and planets to form. There’s the fact that the nuclear force that holds neutrons and protons together was exactly right for the formation of stars and for the formation of carbon, which is essential to life on earth as we know it. Altogether there are fifteen physical constants which seem to be tuned just right for the development of the universe and of human life. Was all this an accident? Many modern scientists believe that the probability that this all happened by chance is infinitesimally small.
So the idea that a good and loving God has purposely designed this universe to be our home seems to make a lot more sense these days. And the fact that we human beings have only been around for the tiniest part of the history of this planet doesn’t mean that the moment of our emergence wasn’t important in God’s plan. After all, in most of Jane Austen’s romance novels the hero doesn’t tell the heroine that he loves her until the last ten pages, but there’s absolutely no doubt that the whole point of the four hundred previous pages has been to bring the story to that moment!
And so we come back to the authors of Genesis. We know far more about the creation of the universe now than they did, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t know a thing or two as well. Their statement, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1), still seems to make a lot of sense, even with all the scientific knowledge we have today. Their poetic account of the formation of the universe reads more like a hymn of praise than a science textbook, and when we understand it as a hymn of praise it doesn’t conflict with what we know from science about the emergence of life on this planet. And then, toward the end of the chapter, we read these words:
‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27).
Biblical scholars have discussed the meaning of this phrase ‘made in God’s image’ for centuries. Obviously it isn’t a physical image; we know that God doesn’t have a body as we do, and that biblical language about God’s strong arm and the finger of God and so on is purely metaphorical. So what does it mean to be made in God’s image? Many suggestions have been made. God is a creator, and as creatures made in his image we also have the ability to imagine and create things using the materials he has made. God has a sense of right and wrong and he has communicated it to us in our conscience so that we will know instinctively the sort of life he designed us for. God has free will – he isn’t a prisoner of instinct, as many of the animals seem to be – and he has also given us that free will so that we can make significant choices about the lives we’re going to live. God is love, and he has granted us the ability to give and receive love as well.
These are all suggestions that have been made, and I’m sure that they are all true. But I think another illuminating suggestion comes from reading a few chapters further on in Genesis, where exactly the same language is used about a human being. Genesis 5:3 says, ‘When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’. In other words, the language about being ‘made in the image of God’ is parental language. And we can easily grasp this; after all, most of us do share the image and likeness of our parents, both in terms of our physical appearance and in terms of our personality traits. To say that we are made in the image of God is to say that we are the children of God and that God is not only our creator but also our parent – our ‘Father’, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer.
And this leads us even further. Yes, the Bible seems to be teaching us that the human race is important to God, and science seems to agree, given the clues scientists have discovered in the ‘anthropic principle’. But am I important to God? After all, there are currently six billion of us on this planet; does God know each of us individually, or are we just some sort of collective to him?
The idea of God as a parent helps answer that question for me. I have four children, and they like to joke about how, when they were growing up in a house that also included two cats and a dog, I would often get the names wrong when I was calling one of them. I’d go down the list: ‘Sarah – Cali - Matthew – Ben – Leah – Nick – Jacqui – that’s the right one!’ I’m sure I’m not the only parent who’s ever done this! But if you were to draw the conclusion that we can’t tell our kids apart (or tell them from the pets!), you’d be seriously mistaken. We know each of our kids and their different personality traits, and we love each of them as individuals, not just as members of a collective.
This is the incredible good news that Jesus brings us. Yes, God is an awesome God, far beyond anything we can imagine. Any metaphor we can use for God is only a metaphor, and we need to constantly remind ourselves of that. Our minds are too small and limited to be able to conceive of God in any way that is remotely adequate. And yet – Jesus assures us that this awesome God calls each of us his children, and knows us so well that he even knows how many hairs we have on our heads. One of the favourite metaphors for God in the Bible is the shepherd, and in John 10 Jesus says of the good shepherd, ‘He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out’ (John 10:3). Incredible but true – God knows your name.
One of the other shepherd stories in the Bible is the parable of the lost sheep, which Jesus told when the religious establishment criticized him for keeping company with disreputable types. Imagine a shepherd, he said, who has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. What does he do? The common sense answer, of course, is ‘He chalks it all up to experience, fixes the broken gate, and takes better care of the ninety-nine!’ But apparently God’s math is different from ours, because in Jesus’ story the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to their own devices and goes to search for the one until he finds it. When he does find it, he carries it home on his shoulders, calls all his friends, and throws a party to celebrate the fact that he’s found the sheep that was lost.
Obviously this is not a common-sense shepherd; if he was, he’d know that it made no sense to leave the ninety-nine unprotected to go and find one. And of course that’s the whole point of the story. When it comes to God’s care for you as an individual, when you get lost, common sense doesn’t even come into it; it’s all about the passion and depth of his commitment to you, and to finding you and bringing you home.
Some years ago a man walked into a church in northern Alberta on a Sunday morning. He hadn’t been at church for a long time, although he had friends that went, and lately things had not been going very well in his life: he had lost a well-paying job, and his marriage had broken down. In church that day, the gospel reading happened to be the story of the lost sheep, and the preacher preached a sermon on that text. The man said later, ‘That text was for me; I was the little lost sheep coming home’. The man realised that morning that no matter what other people thought about him, his life mattered to the most important person of all – God.
And this, ultimately, is the reason why my life matters – it’s important, because it’s important to God. The God we Christians believe in is a God who loves each of us more than we can possibly imagine, who created us for the sheer pleasure of knowing us, and who will move heaven and earth to find us when we get lost. So my life matters – and so does every other life on this planet, because God loves every one of us in the same passionate and committed way. Exploring that love, and sharing it with others, is what being a follower of Jesus is all about. If you haven’t done so already, I invite you to join us in that journey.
Next week: 'Aren't Right and Wrong Just a Matter of Opinion?'