The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, which may have been written by King Solomon, was a forerunner for Soren Kierkegaard, the Father of Existentialism. Most existentialists believed that man was abandoned in a meaningless, godless universe, but Kierkegaard would have said that life was meaningless without God.
Ecclesiastes states that everything is meaningless… “utterly meaningless.” The word “meaningless” is used 35 times in this book, but only one other time in the Bible. Ecclesiastes also emphasizes that life is meaningless without God.
We are trapped in a world that has no meaning. And we are locked in a world where nothing is new under the sun. We are doomed to live in a world of repetitiveness and sameness. Ecclesiastes 1:11 sounds like existential angst.
Book 2 of Ecclesiastes explains that wisdom, pleasure, and work are also meaningless. So after this wonderful negative start, what in life is worth living? One of the dilemmas of an existentialist is if life is meaningless, why endure it? Why not just commit suicide in a life that has no meaning? If life is not worth living, why live it?
Ecclesiastes in Book 3 makes life even more depressing. In this section, God will judge both the righteous and the wicked equally. All will go to the same destination. All came from dust and will return to dust. In Book 9, all humans, good and bad, will share a common destiny. “This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: the same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.” Ecclesiastes 9:3.
But it even gets worse as you age. Chapter 12 paints a very depressing picture of the aging process. Old people will find no pleasure in anything as the days pass in their jail cells waiting for their death sentence to be carried out. “Everything is meaningless!” Ecclesiastes 12:8.
So how can we have goals in this depressing and meaningless state? Well, it all goes back to what Ecclesiastes and Kierkegaard were saying: only in God does life have meaning. It is true that God cannot be proven or even shown to be probable through objective reasoning. None of us knows the explanation of things, Ecclesiastes 8:1. The inductive method of “adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things” will fail, Ecclesiastes 7:27.
It is only through subjective thought or “inwardness” that we encounter God. Life can be considered to be so meaningless as to be absurd unless there were a cause and a reason for that creation. In other words, if we were created, then we can infer a creator.
Kierkegaard goes so far as to say in Christian Discourses that being a human being is nothing, but to become something, we must exist before God. In other words, our lives are meaningless without the creator. Kierkegaard searches for a goal in this meaningless universe and finds two: (1) a temporal goal of satisfying your desires and (2) an eternal goal of reaching the creator.
We know that life is temporary, so if death is the end of your consciousness, then your temporal goals will be meaningless. It will not matter how much gold and silver you collected, you will be leaving all that behind. It will not matter how much you improved your house during your life since it will not be going with you. When you are “dead” dead, none of your goals during life will matter.
However, if there is something after life, then the eternal goal is the better choice. Kierkegaard, who was a maverick among Christian writers, expressed the goal to “continually become more and more Christian” in preparing for eternity. In an August 1, 1935, journal entry, Kierkegaard made it clear, “What matters is to find my purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”
Kierkegaard continued in that same 1935 letter, “One must first learn to know oneself before knowing anything else. Not until a person has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning; only then is he free of that irksome, sinister traveling companion – that irony of life that manifests itself in the sphere of knowledge and invites true knowledge to begin with a not-knowing Socrates, just as God created the world from nothing.”
The controversy surrounding Kierkegaard was his point that man can reach God through his individual effort and not through the church leaders. Kierkegaard argued that he “sought to preserve my individuality” when his spirit reached toward God.
The centerpiece of existentialism is that we make choices every day and that there are consequences for those decisions. If we die and there is nothing more, then these choices will only impact us temporarily and probably minimally during our lives. But if there is an afterlife, then the consequences could become much more significant for both punishments and time frames. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:14.
Existentialism and religion fit together like a surgeon’s glove on a hand.