When It Comes to the Meaning of Life, the Question is Not “What”, But “Why”

150I’ve written before about the importance of recognizing the role of the Creator in determining life’s purpose, but as a non-believer, I had little problem determining the purpose of my life. As a man who rejected God’s existence, I was comfortable assigning meaning to my life. What was the purpose of life? Well, for me, it was to live nobly and enforce the laws as a police officer, to be a faithful husband to my wife and a good father for my kids. I had no problem answering the “what” question. I failed to recognize, however, that the more important questions did not begin with “what”. When it comes to the meaning of life, the most important questions begin with “why”.

I’ve written an entire chapter about the nature of objective, transcendent moral truths and values in my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for A Divinely Created Universe. If the universe (and everything in it) is merely the product of physical laws, space, time and matter, there is no reason to believe there is any transcendent innate purpose for our lives. As individuals struggling to survive in the midst of a pitiless, hostile, unconcerned universe, we get to assign our own meaning. As an atheist, I was more than prepared to do just that.

But, why did I think it was noble to enforce the law and be a good husband and father? Why did I think my standard of good and evil was the correct standard? Why did I think my ideas about purpose and meaning were important or honorable in the first place? Were my ideas about purpose and meaning simply a matter of opinion, or did I think I was living a life that was objectively valuable and meaningful? I first discovered the importance of these “why” questions as I became saturated in the subcultures of our society. As a patrol officer, a member of the gang detail and then a member of the career criminal team, I found the offenders I investigated had no problem assigning meaning to their lives as well; these folks lived contentedly within the purposes they had constructed for themselves. The gangsters I worked with for two years lived within a world of values and mores that were quite different from my own. Their goals and desires were influenced by their status within the gang and this status was achieved as they rejected much of what I valued in my own life. The more they misbehaved, the more stature they achieved within their own group. They definitely had their own ideas related to purpose and meaning, and they retained these values throughout their lives, both in and out of custody.

As a police officer, I rejected the values held by the people I arrested. I disagreed dramatically with their definitions related to the purpose of life. But why did I think my beliefs related to purpose were more valid than theirs? If everyone gets to assign their own meaning, who are we to judge those who select an evil (or even benignly contrary) purpose? Why should we even think anything is good or bad related to life’s meaning? There are gang neighborhoods in Los Angeles County in which people are living with an idea of purpose and meaning that is very different than my own. Are they wrong about the meaning of life? If so, why? Some would say it simply comes down to whether or not any harm is being done to others; if someone’s purpose in life involves harming others, we ought to be able to appropriately judge that purpose as misguided and wrong.

But I bet you would attempt to re-direct your son or daughter if they told you they decided the purpose of their life was to watch Hulu and Netflix all day. Even though this behavior would have no negative impact on the lives of others, I think you would invest some time trying to convince them to adopt a “better” or more productive purpose for their lives. But why should they listen to you? Why should they come to believe that your ideas about purpose and meaning are more valid than their own? Why isn’t the meaning they’ve chosen for themselves good enough? Why should they accept what you have to say in the first place? It’s a times like these, when we find ourselves evaluating two competing ideas about meaning and purpose that we confront the impotence of our subjective choices. If there is no transcendent, objective meaning to our lives, it’s all really a matter of opinion. If that’s the case, good luck trying to get your kids to stop watching videos. If, however, we have been designed by a Creator God for a purpose that transcends our own limited desire and perspective, we can begin to help our kids understand that we are arguing for more than an opinion. When we address the “why” questions, the “what” questions are much easier to answer and defend.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene.

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