A Hope-Filled Life Some remarks on the meaningful life in the Bible
Anyone who goes looking in Scripture for a book of the Bible or a paragraph that deals specifically with the question about the meaning of life will undoubtedly end up with the book of Ecclesiastes or the book of Job. In other words, this question is very much alive in the Old Testament. People struggle with this question from the perspective of the incomprehensible fact of the suffering of God’s children. They also struggle with the fact that God is on the side of his people, and that he leads his people through all their anxieties and that he provides justice.
However this question regarding the meaning of life does not appear explicitly in any of the books of the New Testament. Yet, throughout the testimony of the New Testament the answer to the question rings loud and clear. Yes, there is meaning and a destination for our life. I could even say that here in the New Testament a very decisive and especially encouraging witness is given about a turning point in the history of mankind on earth, through which the apparent meaningless, futile and empty existence receives new and unprecedented perspectives.
In this chapter we will look at some comprehensive remarks about this witness of the New Testament as it regards the inquiry to the meaning of life.
Let us not forget that the apostolic message in the time of the New Testament has gone forth in a world in which various answers were given to the question of the sense of human existence. You can think of the Greek philosophy, which in fact has been an endless human struggle trying to come to grips with this question. Its connotation was always the idea that the world and human existence were only an appearance, and that man needed to attempt to break through this to the reality behind this material and in fact inferior world. For instance, Socrates sought for all that was good, for the beauty in the eternal Ideal. In fact, what hurt could be done when in prison he took the cup of poison, to which he had been sentenced, took it upon his lips and drank it all to the last drop? For indeed, based on his view, his immortal soul could then make the great escape from the illusionary world of the human body.
The world is all about appearances. Other philosophers of Greek antiquity solved the riddle of the meaning of life in different ways. Some observed that there was an element of tragedy in the life of man. Man is doomed to fail, hopelessly tangled in his fate. Others advise men to seek a joyful life instead. “The world is like a lollipop, each sucks on it; it doesn’t stop” (Epicureanism). There were others who preached resignation; you take life the way it comes (Stoicism).
There is a story in Greek mythology that informs us in a few sentences about the meaning of life. It is the story of Pandora who at one time, out of curiosity, opened a box filled with all sorts of disasters and calamities. In multiple quantities these started to flow out across the world. Fortunately though, Pandora was able to close the box at the last minute. And who remained dangling on the edge of this box? Hope. The hope that life on earth, our human existence, is not meaningless and that better times will follow. Such is the answer of the ancient Greeks to the question about the meaning of life.
It is all perfectly understandable. Because where man has become the centre of all things, and where the glory of humanity has become the basic principle of our thinking, ultimately it does not leave much but a closed circle. Man is thrown back on his own resources. He ends up as a tragic case. Either that, or he tries to enjoy himself as much as he can. Perhaps he holds on to a vague hope for a better life, possibly after this life. Or he proclaims boldly: “I’ll manage; just bite the bullet; as long as I’m alive death isn’t here yet, and when I die I’m simply no longer there.”
Jesus Christ: the Second Adam
In such a world, at God’s time, the message of the apostles has sounded. A message of hope, but not a hope as the one from Pandora’s box, a smarting of human expectation in the face of all calamities which characterize life. No, it is a hope that has a solid foundation; one that gives perspective.
When you start to look in the New Testament for a catchword that identifies the meaning of life, you’ll end up with the word “hope”. And when you check the sources of this scripturally proclaimed hope, you end up with Jesus Christ. For he was given as the great turning point in the history of mankind. He did not preach great ideals that are inspiring for human progress. He was not a groundbreaking pioneer working together with humanity toward paradise, if necessary by way of a revolution. The decisive turning point of all times was initiated when he died on a cross, and rose again from the dead.
That is the absolute new and unheard-of message of the hope of the New Testament. There is hope because there was a cross on Golgotha. It has been Easter morning.
In order to understand this, we need to know two things well. In the first place it is necessary to have insight into what the Bible teaches in regard to creation. Man, and human existence on earth, is in its origin not something inessential, something that is inferior or fatal, as in the Greek philosophies. No, the world is not an illusion. It is created by God (Gen. 1:26f), a showcase of God’s virtues. And man is the crown jewel of this creation (see Psalm 8). In the image of God, the King of the entire earth, man is placed in a world that he may rule, in which he may live to the fullest for the other.
And the second thing we must realize if we want to attach appropriate weight to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that man is fully responsible for all chaos, misery, death and ruin on earth. Because man has sinned (Gen. 3:17f) he foregoes the glory of God, and is subjected to God’s judgment. Man turned the beautiful building of creation into a ruin. By his selfishness and pride he has delivered himself to the powers of darkness, which God had constrained (see Rom. 1:21f). He plays into the hands of these powers to make a chaos out of God’s wonderful creation (Rom. 3:9f).
It is against this background that we need to understand the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is especially the apostle Paul who emphasizes each time in his letters that Jesus is the second Adam (Rom. 5:12f). He represents God’s new commitment with the world and with mankind. What ended up as a total failure with Adam I, the head of the old humanity, is realized in Adam II, who is the Head of his church and the King of creation. He, Jesus Christ, is the new man in the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4). He totally answers God’s original plan and commitment with man: to reflect God’s glory (Eph. 1:10, 20f). He is the man par-excellence who rules preeminently in his ministry (Col. 1:15f). He is there all the way for the other.
However, to be able to be the second Adam, in whom God’s purpose with man could be fully realized and through whom human existence could once again have meaning and a future, Jesus had to be more than a faultless child of the King, who would do perfectly what God had asked from Adam (1 Cor. 15:20f). He also needed to be a second Adam who would take upon himself the guilt of the first Adam, and who would conquer the powers that had broken loose and through which creation had been ruined. Therefore the New Testament draws all our attention to him as the Priest who in God’s Name, as the Lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), the judgment and the curse. He is the Messiah who gives his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45) and who with his one and unrepeatable, satisfactory sacrifice on the cross at Golgotha, brings eternal righteousness to sinners so that they can stand before God. Throughout all of the New Testament and especially in the letter to the Hebrews we find this testimony about Christ (Heb. 7:26f). He is the propitiation for our sins. As the one who took upon himself our place, he suffered and died for our guilt before God. In this way he conquered the power of the evil one, the powers of Satan, of death and hell. He stood on the head of the old serpent. At his resurrection morning he opened the grave, symbol of the total failure of our human existence, and created new possibilities for life. In Christ, God himself has worked his plan to return meaning and perspective to our human existence. He is the Firstborn from the dead (Rev. 1:15), the Firstborn of all creation (Col. 1:15, 18). In Adam II new life is beginning, in him who is the Head of the new humanity in whom creation has been rescued (Eph. 1:10, 22). God’s plans never fail. The world is not a verisimilitude, an appearance from which man must try to escape, but it is the real creation of the living God in which man may serve his Creator in a royal way.
Turning Point and Crossroads
I need to add one more thing to all of this. In the New Testament we learn about the turning point of all ages in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the enabler of the new life. But at the same time it also implies that man has arrived at a decisive crossroads. He must choose for or against this Christ (John 3:36). He needs to abandon the old existence of Adam I, which is tied to sin and the powers of evil, and instead as one who is hopelessly lost, fall into the arms of Christ, to surrender to him, to be liberated by him. This means to be acquitted of all guilt, being freed from all slavish submission. I can also put it this way: it is to be born again through God’s Word and through his Spirit (John 3:5f), being regenerated by the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead to a living hope (1 Peter 1:3, 23f). It is in this way that Adam’s children are implanted into the second Adam. And it is on account of this that they may firmly believe that they were reconciled to him when he died on the cross and when he rose again from the dead (Eph. 2). By faith they are conformed to him, bearing the image of the heavenly things, and in principle they start to live in the style and the image of God, of Christ (see Rom. 8:29). This means that Christ is the one who triumphs in their lives (1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18). No longer do they desire to walk in the ways of the flesh (Col. 3:10; Rom. 6:11f). They are finished with the slavish serving of the devil, which aims only at the glory and grandeur of man. From here on in they practise self-denying love. For their entire life they will be there for the other. And in this way they also act as an army of God unto the salvation of this world. There is no area where Christ did not proclaim, “It is Mine”. The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness. All things have been subjected under his feet (Eph. 1:22). In principle, all powers are forfeited to him. The world is not an illusion of reality which we should attempt to escape, but it is a created reality in which the high and majestic God receives all glory.
It is these things that give purpose to our existence. It provides a destiny for our lives. For anyone who is safe in the crucified Christ, can face God. All who know themselves incorporated into the resurrected Christ may begin a new life: unselfish, attuned to our neighbour. A hope-filled life.
The End of the Times — Convulsions and Prophecy
Does this now conclude everything? No, one more point needs to be added. Anyone who knows the New Testament is also aware of the constant notion of the end of times, inaugurated by Christ’s first coming. These last days will see both the convulsions of the old dispensation, in which the doom and the curse of Adam I make themselves felt, as well as the prophecy of a new dispensation in which the salvation accomplished by Adam II will become full reality.
This means that every believer who has started a new life in Christ will need to deal with a creation that is in many respects in the pains of childbirth (Rom. 8:18f). The whole creation is groaning. The powers try their utmost to remain lord and master. Obviously they have not yet surrendered. There is much destructive power on earth. There are floods and horrific diseases. There is war and famine. There is senseless suffering. And who of those who are not experiencing this still has the courage to say out loud that Christ is the Conqueror?
In addition, the things in the life of a Christian can often look so bleak and meaningless that they hardly dare to believe that Christ is the Victor. For often it concerns particularly them who appear to be destined to be persecuted. They especially have to go through deep valleys, such that it appears as if God does not take care of his children (1 Peter 1:4f). On top of that, lawlessness and the denial of God are increasing to such an extent that life in the godless Sodom of this world becomes practically unbearable (2 Thess. 2:2f). The old Adamic nature also has its effects on God’s children, such that it may create the appearance as if nothing has changed after repentance and faith. Who will still maintain that Christ is the Conqueror?
True, and yet... Those who are safe by faith in the crucified Christ, and who by faith have received the new life in the resurrected Christ, may see in all these things the last convulsions of the old dispensation. It is all a matter of birth pangs. And that implies also that through all of this the birth of a new life is proclaimed. It is the end of times. We live in the prophecy of a new dispensation. Christ is on his way, for the second time, now to judge the living and the dead. He will judge the world, and put a final end to all the godlessness of people.
No longer will there be any force of darkness to ruin God’s beautiful creation. No more death, which makes an end of everything (1 Thess. 4:13f). No more distressing “why” questions on account of unfathomable suffering. No more wars, diseases, catastrophes, persecutions. No more tears. The whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the bottom of the sea (Rev. 19). That magnificent future perspective in the Bible is what governs the life of a Christian. It causes a child of God to be patient in the face of suffering. It gives him the courage to persevere, even when it appears that all things are breaking in our hands. It even makes him long for the hour of his death. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 3:21). It gives him joy, even in martyrdom. Throughout it all he may experience the remnants of the suffering of Christ (see Col. 1:24).
No Past, No Future?
A hopeful life — with the cross and Christ’s resurrection behind us. And the great day of his return is ahead of us. This message of the Bible calls the tune, also in our century. Humanity, approaching the year 2000, has become wrapped up in a serious crisis, with its delusions of grandeur, in its cultural ideals. There is alarming doubt, anxiety and loneliness among people, especially among the younger generation. Particularly for them it appears that there is not much more to look forward to but an inglorious end. “No past no future”. The past has been written off, and there is no future. In the United States there is a suicide each minute of a youth between ten and twenty years old.
But just as in the ancient Greek world, in which the question about the meaning of our existence was not answered, a message could be sounded forth in which the purpose of our human life was determined by the past facts of cross and resurrection, and from a future return of Christ, so too this message is to go forth today. There is hope. The world is not an illusion, but it is God’s creation. And all who have been regenerated in Christ unto a living hope know that the decisive factors are behind them, and they look forward to the inheritance of the faithful, the full revelation of being God’s children ahead of them.
It is like the ancient seer of Patmos, the apostle John, writing the book of Revelation. Every time you find, “And I saw...and I heard...” The Lamb, the Lion from the tribe of Judah, has conquered. The book of world history, for us humans a closed book full of riddles, is as an open book for the Lamb. He rules all of world history. He holds those who belong to him forever in his heart. The entire creation sings his praise with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5).