On the (in?)significance of what we do—two perspectives

What does a man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? –Ecclesiastes 1:3

While I have posited previously in this space that the question of Easter’s empty tomb (here) is the most important question one must answer in life, there is a question that in most cases precedes it—the question of meaning in our lives. Does our toil under the sun matter? Can we effect change? Will anyone remember us?

Philosophers dating back at least to King Solomon have pondered it, but I suspect most of us have either altogether, or at points in our lives, ignored the question. We either fear we cannot answer it with any certainly or fear what the answer might suggest for our lives. Sadly, we are more prone to spend time contemplating the destination of our next vacation or the location of our next dinner date than asking whether any of it matters.

The answer set is binary—we are either temporal or eternal beings—but the implications are infinite, literally.

Solomon explores the issue in Ecclesiastes (Verses 1-18):

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow.

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

What is twisted cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.

I thought to myself, “Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.

And though it may sound like Solomon is answering the question, I rather believe he is asking it—offering us a logical argument and forcing us to wrestle with its natural conclusions. Solomon says that if what’s under the sun is all there is—if we came from nothing and are going to nothing—there can be no meaning. We exist as inconsequential players in the cycle of temporal life, like the stream that flows to the sea, never filling it and only recycling again. We can do nothing new, cannot add or subtract anything from the world around us. Meaninglessness fills our days and surrounds us, and our lives will end in it (Tim Keller, Problem of Meaning; Is There Any Reason for Existence?,  May 31, 1992).

While many modern thinkers seem perfectly content with the assumption that there is nothing except that which is under the sun, they refuse to come to the conclusion of meaninglessness. Philosophers have created three main frameworks whereby we can claim to profit from our lives or gain significance in them. Humanism suggests we achieve meaning by fighting for justice to help an evolving world-order reach its potential. Hedonism admits nothing we do has eternal value and concludes that we should profit by drinking in the pleasures of life while we can. Existentialism posits that our significance is demonstrated by our individual ability to bring justice and nobility to “…an apparently meaningless and absurd world” (Wikipedia) (Help from Tim Keller here also).

I would argue that in each of these, the original question has been either left unanswered or answered without sufficient logical support. Humanism is aptly compared to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; if the ship is going down, what have we achieved by fixing the place up a bit? Besides, by whose standards are the changes considered progress (see Are all truth’s equal?)? Hedonism at least attempts to acknowledge its presupposition of temporality, but does anyone think “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is sufficient to sate our desire for significance? It’s a chasing after the wind. As Solomon points out, almost in anticipation of the hedonists:

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

And existentialism claims that individuals can somehow derive a form of justice or nobility in spite of the inherent absurdity of the world? It acknowledges there is no order, but then suggests that we can demonstrate one—they, like the humanists must ask, whose standards determine nobility in a world without it.

What is twisted cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.

In spite of our best philosophical efforts through centuries I would argue that if all that exists is under the sun, we must conclude that it is all meaningless—it utterly devastates any hope that we can find significance regardless of where we look.

We can promote some ideal we judge to be good, but we have no measuring stick by which to judge between notions of goodness. We can pursue pleasure and personal gain through money, sex, power, wine—even family, children, relationships, romance, etc…, but none of those things fill us (and actually leave us wanting more & more). Or we can stand against the absurd, meaningless world as beacons of nobility, but to what end? Who is the Arbiter to judge our sanity over the world’s insanity? Who can say the role we played meant something? And even if it seems significant today, the next philosophical iteration may render it folly.  Either way, when the ship goes down, will moving the chairs around have helped? We will not be remembered.

There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow.

The natural conclusion is the lowest view of the value of life and of the world we live in. We are insignificant and our toil does not matter—we can add nothing to a world that spins on in cycles and forgets with each generation, until it too is gone.



What if the philosophers could be partly correct instead of all wrong? What if we could construct a worldview in which things do matter? What if we come from something and have a future? What if there is something beyond the sun?

Jesus’ best friend John (Gospel of John 1-14) claimed that:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.  […]

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Do you see it? John is making the claim that there is Something that preceded—the Something beyond the sun turns out to be the very God who created us and calls us His children. It is the One who was here already, long ago; here before our time. And He made us no less eternal than Himself.

You have made known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand. –Psalm 16:11

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” –Mathew 16:46

The philosophers are all partly right.

For humanitarians, the Word means that there is a Standard by which to measure our deeds—there is a New Order that we can help usher in (see Upside-down, Inside-out). For hedonists it means there is finally something that quenches. For existentialists it means we can stand for order in a world designed for it—that has lost it only temporarily.

What we do does matter. Humans are eternal creatures. But there is more.

We learn the following in Revelations 1, verses 1-3:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.  On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.

Not only are humans eternal, but so too is the world itself. The Biblical picure of heaven is a city! The world will not fade or disappear—it will not freeze with the inevitable cooling of the sun that warms it, but will instead be renewed by the God whose hand placed it into orbit. Our destiny is not extinction and devastation but renewal. God’s eventual Kingdom will not take us from the earth to some ethereal heaven, but rather God will renew this earth to its state of Grace and Shalom—removing the curse. The nations will be healed not relocated.

Sadness and disease will be gone, laughter will replace tears, singing will replace gnashing of teeth. Everything sad will come untrue.

This is the highest view of the value of life and of the world we live in.

Our toil does matter, and what we do here can be accretive to the New Kingdom. It is the ultimate expression of being created in God’s image—that we can be co-creators with Him—that what we do here will echo into eternity. Therefore, art matters; architecture matters; investment banking matters; music matters; learning, teaching, discovering, inventing, constructing, everything matters!—for all will stay with us in some form as we move to the renewed world—it will be perfected, not lost.

While it may go without saying, I would feel remiss if I did not point out the implication for the value of humans and of relationships.

As C.S. Lewis observes in Mere Christianity, “Christianity asserts that every human being is going to live forever. […] If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilization, which may last for a thousand years is more important than in individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important, but incomparably more important for he is everlasting (pp. 74-75).

Any one of us will outlast the longest surviving civilization. We’ll be around to see the sun burn out!

So we would do well to remember that all the people in this world—those we pass by and those we never will, those we get to know and those we ignore—are eternal beings also.

We may not be important or powerful people in this world but we are eternal people and our actions will resonate forever, in other people and in this world that God promises to heal.


I realize I have allowed a fair amount of Biblical presupposition in this case. We can (and should) argue apologetics (the defense of Biblical validity and truth) over time, but here we see the logic of a Biblical worldview is the only one that holds up to review. The logic of humanism, hedonism and existentialism fail outright.  They claim no basis for meaning but then suggest we can find it.  It’s a nice idea, but it can’t be applied–it can’t be lived!  Furthermore, each philosophy is inherently unable to justify its own presuppositions—for it is far more difficult to prove God does not exist, that we came from nothing, than to point to evidence that He does exist (an idea I plan to explore more in future posts).

So the philosopher is asking you to wrestle with the natural conclusions of a worldview based on a closed system with no God above it.  Or as Tim Keller put it in a sermon on the text (found in multi-media on the right toolbar):

“The philosopher is pushing you to show you there is no middle ground. Listen, either there’s a God; there’s a life above the heaven…either there is a God who created you, and a God who sustains you and a God who will judge you and there’s an afterlife, an eternity…either there is a God or else everything is utter futility and there is nothing in the middle…How could this modern secular mindset work that says yes, there is no God; yes we’re accidents; and yes, eventually we’re going to annihilation? In other words, my origin is insignificant, my destiny is insignificant but while we’re here we’ve got to work for human rights…every human being is valuable, we have to work for human dignity, we have to work equal rights and for justice for all….come on!”

“If my (your) origin is in insignificant, and my (your) destiny is in insignificant, have the guts to admit that your (my) life is insignificant…Either there is life above the sun and there is meaning or there’s no life except that which is under the sun and nothing means anything.” (Tim Keller, Problem of Meaning; Is There Any Reason for Existence?,  May 31, 1992)

In the end, I think intellectual honesty forces us to conclude either nothing matters at all; or everything matters greatly.


I take the high view of human worth and of the significance of our lives and look forward to the day when everything sad will come untrue. More than that, as C.S. Lewis puts it: “God is not merely mending, not simply restoring status quo. Redeemed humanity is to be something more glorious than unfallen humanity (Miracles, Chapter 14, para 21).

There is much for which to hope as we toil under the sun.

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