In 1979 Douglas Adams answered one of humanity's great questions. The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, was 42. This was of course in the fictional novel titled "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" where a supercomputer called Deep Thought pondered the issue for 7.5 million years. The irony of course was that though the answer was revealed, it was fundamentally meaningless as no one knew what the ultimate question was. Perhaps this irony was a comment, on the foolish nature of a humanity that greedily seeks knowledge and answers without a real sense of understanding or wisdom.
Adams' answer might be a bit of a joke, but the fact is that the question is not. This question of the meaning of life is a real one, and one that countless people over countless generations have pondered and struggled with. Even now, though we may not always think in such philosophical terms, our thoughts in the everyday life pose this very question. When we go to our jobs and feel deflated at the seemingly inconsequential nature of our efforts we are asking ourselves whether or not there is true value to what we do. When we are dissatisfied with our current position or lack of advancement, our feeling is that there are bigger and better uses of our time and energy. When we go to school or university and feel that the things we study are ultimately just matters of knowledge but not real life, we recognise that there is more to life than the things that we know and do. And when we are troubled by the sense that decisions we make now have monumental life consequences, we are sensing that there really should be greater purpose or greater reason for making the choices that make. Our frustrations and our confusions, those feelings of futility and our desires for meaning, are all reflections of this one same sentiment, that there has got to be more to life than just the comings and goings of life.
We may not all wrestle with this meaning of life stuff in the same way, but we do all wrestle with it. Everyone desires purpose and meaning. Everyone wants to know why we are here and why we live.
Many things have been attempted in pursuit of an answer. Whether it is religion or philosophy, science or society, people from all walks of life and from all kind of disciplines have sought to concretely provide an ultimate meaning to our existence. These things can get complicated, so perhaps a more straight forward and simple approach would be of benefit. We do not always have to wrestle with difficult and complex reasoning in order to come to rich conclusions. We should simply start somewhere at the beginning.
The question then of why we are here can only be answered if we understand what we are. Put another way, meaning and purpose is derived from definition. The purpose of a cup is a product of the nature of a cup. The purpose of a car is derived from the nature of a car. These things are made with a purpose, and the purpose with which they are made are in their definition. And so it is with humanity. Our purpose and reason for being can only be begun to be understood if we have a clear idea of our definition. We can only know why we are here, if we have understood what we are.
This is (one reason) why the creation account in the opening chapters of Genesis is so important. Regardless of one's beliefs about how the world is created, what is clear is that God is the creator. And that as creator, there is something special about how God created people.
Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26-17)
What are we? Well there seem to be two important things here. Firstly, that we are created by God. Secondly, that we are created in God's image. Notice the emphasis in these verses really is on our being made in God's image. Surely this has to be the starting point for any reflection on the meaning and purpose of our existence. What we are determines why we are here. What we are is created by God in His own image.
We have been made by God as reflections of Himself. And so in our lives, we exist to bear that image. There is nothing more fulfilling than fulfilling our function. Thus it is our joy and not surprise, nor insult that God would declare that we have been made for His glory. We are not independent and neutral beings that are coerced and forced into the glory of another. No, this was the purpose for which we were made from the beginning. We exist because the glory of God is a goal or function that the creator deemed necessary to fulfil. In his grace, life is his chosen way.
And not only is this the case, but as image bearers, we also do it in a special way. We don't exist as glory givers to God by having 'glorious lives'. It is not simply that glorious deeds and great achievements bring honour to God. It actually ought to be in everything that we do, whether they are things of interest or things of mundanity, because we are doing them in ways which are God-like. We do it by reflecting the character and nature of God in our lives, by being an actual 'image' of Him. It is the justice and righteousness, the humility and peace, the goodness and fairness and the kindness. It is these sorts of things that follow the nature our existence. We are not glory doers so much as we are image bearers.
And this is, amongst other reasons, precisely why we need Jesus. Jesus is the only true image bearer, the only one who does it all perfectly. We can't truly find this meaning or purpose without relationship with Him, without his salvation and reconciliation, justification, sanctification... We need the gospel and everything it entails.
What is the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything? It is not 42, nor is it success or victory, power or prestige. It is that we bear God's image and we exist to reflect his likeness and therefore his glory in whatever it is we are doing. And it is that we can find this peaceful satisfaction of purpose and meaning in Christ.
Sometimes this does not seem like the answer. It is not some silver bullet solution that magically takes away all those feelings of frustration and futility, the discontentment that we all wrestle with. And certainly there is more that needs to be said on the matter. But it is the starting point to understanding with some biblical clarity what exactly God has put us here for. It has to start here if our sense of why we are is to match with our understanding of what we are.
Some questions to consider: