There’s a fascinating scene at the beginning of John Green’s bestselling novel, The Fault in Our Stars, where the protagonists, Hazel and Augustus, meet in a church basement at a cancer survivors’ support group.
When the support group leader asks Augustus to share his fears with the group, he responds, “I fear oblivion.”
And Hazel, clearly on his wavelength, jumps in with this:
“There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was a time before organisms experienced consciousness and there will be a time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”
In other words, your life is just a blip.
At the end of that blip, you will die and be forgotten.
And eventually, so will everyone else.
Which, if true, must surely raise some serious questions about the lives we live in the meantime — and of course, John Green isn’t the first to raise them.
Millennia before Hazel and Augustus first set foot in that church basement, the Teacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes made a similar case:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? … No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them (Ecclesiastes 1: 2-3, 11).
It’s the same basic line of thinking, right?
This might seem like it kind of contradicts the rest of the Bible — but what’s really important to notice is the phrase, under the sun. It’s the Teacher’s way of saying, in this world, here and now.
In other words, the Teacher asks, if we just consider the material world as we currently experience it, if we leave God out of the picture for the moment, where does that leave us?
And his conclusions resonate remarkably strongly with what science has uncovered over 2,000. years later.
One major issue with “life under the sun” is that, as Hazel points out, the sun isn’t going to be around forever. Every star has a limited lifespan, and the one at the center of our solar system is no exception.
The good news is that current scientific estimates give us another billion years or so before our world becomes uninhabitable, so our species has a bit of time up its sleeve to find a new home.
The bad news is it’s not just planet Earth that’s running out of time.
Back in the late 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered new evidence showing that the universe is expanding, which is fine for now.
But eventually, it turns out, this is really bad news for those of us who happen to live in the universe — because our best evidence suggests that this expansion isn’t going to stop.
The universe is just going to keep expanding until we eventually hit what’s called maximum entropy, by which point, the universe will be unable to support life of any kind.
Sure, maximum entropy is a long way off. But still, if this universe is all there is, then, as Hazel puts it: “There was a time before organisms experienced consciousness and there will be a time after.”
Which, as Timothy Keller points out in his book Making Sense of God, ultimately means that “everything we do is radically insignificant.”
Because let’s say you dedicate the rest of your life to finding the cure for cancer. Good for you! Unfortunately, no matter how many lives you save, the human race will eventually go extinct anyway, so what difference does it actually make in the long run?
On the other hand, let’s say you start a cigarette company, and you spend the rest of your life getting rich by giving people cancer.
Most people would call that a less virtuous life choice, but if the human race is doomed to eventual extinction anyway, what difference does it actually make in the long run?
Now, you may be tempted to argue that, of course, it makes a difference — that saving lives is good, that giving people cancer is evil, and that even if we are all going extinct eventually, we should at least live good lives while we’re here.
But if life under the sun is all there is…, where are you even getting this idea of “good” from?
The Scottish-American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that the only way to figure out whether a person is “good” or “bad” is to first figure out what the purpose of human life is — what people are for (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory).
But if there’s no God, if humanity is just a cosmic accident, then people aren’t for anything; in the end, any definitions of good or evil are really just made up.
If life under the sun is all there is, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort was right: “there is no good and evil. There is only power and those too weak to seek it” (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone).
God Under the Sun
Here’s Timothy Keller again: “If your origin is insignificant, and if your destiny is insignificant, then have the guts to admit that your life is insignificant” (From his 1992 sermon, Problem of Meaning; Is There Any Reason for Existence?).
The thing is, though… we can’t.
Even if you say you believe your loved ones are just random collections of matter thrown together by evolution, you still live as if they’re so much more than that.
Even if you say you believe life is ultimately meaningless, you still live as if love, beauty, and goodness are real and true, and meaningful.
We all do.
And as far as I can see, there are only two ways to resolve that tension.
Either we commit ourselves to the idea that life under the sun is all there is, and we admit that morality and meaning are really just made-up stories we tell each other — or else we open ourselves to the possibility that there’s more to our existence than life under the sun.
I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to guess that, somewhere deep in your bones, you know that this life matters, you know your family and friends matter, you know that love and joy and truth and beauty and goodness are real.
And I’m convinced that you’re right.
But I’m also convinced that the reason you’re right is that life under the sun is not all there is — that there’s a God out there who made you and loves you, and who, in the words of Ecclesiastes, has “set eternity in the human heart” (3:11).
And that changes everything.
Because it means life is not an accident — and it means your life is not an accident. Whatever your family circumstances, you were made on purpose by a God who loves you.
It means we absolutely can know what right and wrong are because they’re defined by God and by the purpose he made us for — the most profound and beautiful purpose imaginable —to love and be loved by him, to love each other, and to take care of his good world.
And that love is not just a deterministic biochemical response generated by mindless evolutionary forces. It’s the most real thing in the universe because it’s straight from the heart of God.
And through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see that perfect love of God, perfectly expressed, right here under the sun — and we see God’s ultimate declaration that your life is not just a meaningless blip; that, despite all appearances, the universe is not doomed.
In Jesus, the universe is saved.
And if you put your hope in him, you have no need to fear oblivion.
For further reading:
Can Christians Be Scared to Die?
What Does Faith Over Fear Really Mean?
How Is God Not the Author of Fear?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Motortion
Chris Morphew is the author of the award-winning book, Who Am I and Why Do I Matter?, part of the Big Questions series for 9-13-year-olds. He is an author, teacher, and school chaplain living in Sydney, Australia.