William Lane Craig expresses this objection in the following terms:
Scientists tell us that everything in the universe is growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, the universe grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually…there will be no life, only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever-expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space, a universe in ruins… If there is no God, then man, and the universe, are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death row, we stand and simply wait for our unavoidable execution. If there is no God, and there is no immortality, then what is the consequence of this? It means that the life that we do have is ultimately absurd. It means that the life we live is without ultimate significance, ultimate value, ultimate purpose.
In his book, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, philosopher Erik Wielenberg responds to this objection to naturalism (as well as a number of others). He calls Craig’s argument “the final outcome argument” against the meaningfulness of life. And its key premise, Wielenberg points out, is that the value that attaches to something’s final state is the value that we should attach to the whole thing. This, Wielenberg rightly notes, is a mistake. If some activity is intrinsically worthwhile, then it remains intrinsically worthwhile even if it comes to an end. If my life is full of such worthwhile activities, then my life has value—intrinsic value—even if it should come to a final and irrevocable end.
Wielenberg’s point can be made by thinking of matters in reverse: If my life has no value if it ends, then it will have no value if it is made endless. An infinite sum of zeros has the same value: zero. And so, for an immortal life to have value, the finite slices of that life must have value too—which implies, in turn, that a mortal life can have value even if what lies beyond the boundary of death is nonexistence.
In short, this particular objection to atheistic naturalism isn’t very strong. If life can have value at all, then it can have value if it comes to an end. And so belief that life comes to an end—in the limited sense of a particular organism’s inevitable death, or in the cosmic sense of the universe winding down until it, too, is dead—is not as such a reason to think life has no significance, value, or purpose.
But perhaps Craig, and others who put forward arguments of this sort, just aren’t expressing themselves very well. Maybe the problem isn’t that, if life and love and laughter must end, then they have no value while we are living and loving and laughing. Maybe the worry is better expressed in terms of Karl Barth’s Das Nichtige—the “nothingness” that lies beyond the boundaries of finite existence. This is a concept I’ve talked about before. For Barth, Das Nightige has a power, a force, that no finite creature can ultimately confront head-on without the support of an infinite God. The problem, put subjectively, is this: If you look beyond your limits, what you are not utterly dwarfs what you are. Perhaps the problem that Craig and others like him are pointing to is this: Given a naturalist universe, life and love and laughter, while intrinsically valuable, are a speck in an endless ocean of non-life, non-love, non-laughter. The value of these goods is utterly swamped by that which is entirely devoid of value, making the goods of this life of trivial significance in comparison. It’s not just that you’re dead for a lot longer than you’re alive. It’s that your dead forever. The finite value of one’s life, set against this infinite void of non-value, has a relative significance that is infinitesimally small.
In a way, of course, the same can be said of a theistic universe: Whatever value my existence has, it is swamped by the infinite value of God. But in that case, what dwarfs the finite value of my existence is positive value—and so the ultimate message is that value wins. Not my value, but value. Not my goodness, but goodness. And so, if I stop being self-absorbed and simply treasure the good wherever it is to be found, then I find myself in a world overflowing with the good, overflowing with significance. The same is not true in a reality where there is no infinite good, no infinite reality, to set against the non-being that swamps the finite reality of each creature here below. In that case, to live beyond myself, to embrace ultimate reality and live for the whole, is to live as if all positive values are, relatively speaking, trivial.
And so, in that case, I need to resist all temptation to set my worldly life against reality as a whole, to attend to its relative significance—because to do so is like stepping back from a patch of color to see that it is but a speck set against an endless sea of blackness. To appreciate the color, I have to come in close, so that the patch fills my entire vision, so that I don’t see that which swamps it. Coming in close doesn’t mean paying attention only to my own life, or only to human life. It could mean immersing oneself in the diversity of life on earth, studying it, focusing on it. Or it could stretch beyond the boundaries of this planet to the teeming galaxies and mysteries of time and space and the origins of the cosmos. What it won’t allow is dwelling on what lies beyond the borders of this finite treasure of goods. Because what lies beyond a finite reality—in the absence of an infinite source of being such as God—is the all-consuming maw of Das Nichtige.
Given a theistic universe, stepping back and taking in the whole has a different implication. Doing so will, as before, render that patch of color just a speck—but it will be a speck in an endless sea of vibrant color and beauty, one tiny fragment of a vast masterpiece.
But let’s assume that none of this is sufficient to strip life of meaning on naturalistic assumptions. Let us suppose that naturalists can preserve a sense of subjective meaning by, in effect, saying, “The great sea of nothing is nothing, and hence nothing to worry about.” If there’s nothing beyond the patch of color, then staying focused narrowly on the patch of color is staying focused on what is. And that is where we should stay focused. To set what is against everything that it is not is to set it against what we should ignore because, well, it’s nothing worth paying attention to.
If this approach can be defended successfully, then the modified version of the “final outcome argument” might admit of an effective naturalist response. Whether such a response can be adequately developed I won’t pursue here, because there is one other point I want to make about Wielenberg’s response to the “final outcome argument”: it succeeds in doing more than neutralizing a specific theistic objection to naturalism. It also neutralizes a common naturalist objection to theism, one that Wielenberg himself articulates. Here’s how Wielenberg puts it:
If we know that God will make the universe perfectly just in the end, we lose one reason for trying to promote justice, namely that if we do not, no one will—though we still have a self-interested reason to promote justice, since presumably God rewards the just.This idea is sometimes put less cautiously that Wielenberg puts it. Essentially, the atheist asks, “If God’s providence ensures that justice will prevail in the end, then why should anyone on earth care about promoting justice? Let God do it! And if there is a reason to promote it, it can only be because we don’t want to be on the receiving end of the uglier side of God’s justice. But if we promote justice simply because we don’t want God to smite us, are we really being just at all? We’re just doing the right thing out of fear of punishment. Caring about justice simply can't be a motive for theists to pursue it, since they think it will be realized even if they do nothing. And so theists who do pursue justice can only be doing it for self-serving motives.”
But notice, if the value of something here and now isn’t erased by its coming to an end, then the disvalue of injustice here and now isn’t erased by its coming to an end. An assurance that all will be well in the end doesn’t erase the reasons we have for seeking to eliminate or reduce the severity of the evils that afflict living creatures in this life. Even if we live in the assurance that God ultimately will realize perfect justice, that doesn’t change the fact that there are injustices here and now and that it would be better here and now if there weren’t.
And so, those who care about justice would have a reason to seek to reduce or eliminate the injustices that prevail around them, even if they believe that there is a divine guarantee that all injustices will be eliminated in the end. More broadly, theists have reasons to care about reducing earthly suffering, promoting happiness, and making the world a better place—even if they’re universalists who think that in the end, all will be saved, every tear will be wiped away, and the lion will lie down with the lamb.
If this is right, then ultimately our conclusion should be this: Whatever lies beyond this life and the finite boundaries of the physical reality in which we live, whether it be Das Nichtige at one extreme or the infinite and all-redeeming God at the other, the intrinsic worth of goods in the life and the intrinsic disvalue of evils provide reasons here and now to act.
(Assuming, of course, that there can be intrinsic goods and intrinsic evils if Das Nichtige is all that lies beyond the borders of physical reality--but for the moment, at least, I will grant Wielenberg's assumption that this can be true even if reality is conceived in broadly naturalistic terms).