God is always central in biblical theology, but not in a way that any other religious message can parallel. He is always present in the Christian message in his relation to Christ, and the earliest Christian message will not permit us to give Christ a secondary or intermittent role in the gospel. To catch the distinctive flavor of the biblical message, therefore, we must find a starting point more characteristic of the original gospel message. In this paper, I will examine the meaning of human existence in Christian theology (McGrath 44). In Christianity, the maiming of human existence is reflected in the essence of religion itself. The meaning of human existence is to reach, understand and perceive God. For the essay, the essence of Christianity is defined as: “The central teachings of traditional Christianity are that Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy spirit that his life on earth, his crucifixion and ascension into heaven are proof of God’s love for humanity and God’s forgiveness of human sins; and that by faith in Jesus one may attain salvation and eternal life” (Christianity 10349). There are several different positions on this topic, thus Christian theologies and religious leaders agree that the meaning of human existence is to perceive God. The paper will analyze this issue describing the meaning of revelation and understanding of God.
In Christianity, God is the axiom, actor, and constant reference point of the entire story, but we must find a focal center that will bring out the unique character of that story. This movement from God to man through which all of a man is involved is called revelation. It is God making Himself known to us, disclosing Himself so that we, in turn, must do something in response (Loewe 190). Our problem, therefore, is not to project our thought to Him: it is more simple to recognize and understand His approach to us. Revelation in some form is basic to all religions. It accounts for the experience of complete involvement apparent in the sense of obligation. But the crucial question, the answer to which distinguishes Christianity from other religions, is how God reveals Himself and what is given in this revelation (McGrath 207). Often when people think of revelation, they think in terms of specific information given to men in a manner outside the usual ways of obtaining it. Revelation, it is thought, gives us knowledge of specific events to take place in the future. In more cultures, the revelation of God was sought from seers especially gifted, and later from religious texts which were usually the writings of religious men of an earlier day. The date of the end of the world has been sought for centuries in the cryptic words found in the books of Daniel and the Revelation (Gula 88).
The meaning of human existence can be through the concept of knowledge and universal truth. Some feel, for example, that our knowledge of man’s origin would be forever closed to us because no one was witness to the event, but that God has given us this interesting information by revelation in the Bible. Others feel that historical facts such as the length and extent of the reign of King David of Israel are given by revelation (Donovan 419). While this information, if it were so given, might be interesting, it cannot be regarded as of scientific or historical accuracy (Loewe 194). This does not mean that it is untrue; but if it is accepted as fact, it must be verified on grounds other than revelation (McGrath 218). Whatever claims to be scientific data must be scientifically verifiable, and whatever claims to be historical fact must be verifiable as history. No scientist can introduce into his line of reasoning data which he obtains not by scientific methods but rather from his dreams or from consulting prescientific books. In other words, revelation cannot guarantee the truth of what is rightfully a matter of scientific or historical investigation and confirmation. This recognition has led people to confine the meaning of human existence to purely religious matters. Many would therefore say that what God reveals are the great eternal truths of the Christian faith, such as that God is one in three persons (McGrath 235). But doctrines vary not only from one religion to another, they vary from one group to another within any one religion. The problem may focus on man’s faulty apprehension, but revelation cannot be successful if it results in obscurity or contradiction. In either case, it is hard to see how revelation could be relevant to life (Gula 115).
A more promising approach begins with the question as to why revelation should be given at all. The answer is not to expand our scientific or historical knowledge. Revelation is given primarily to answer or to help us answer the question of the meaning of life as a whole. It does not give us something that lies within our powers to supply. It gives us, rather, that which we can receive in no other way (McGrath 632). Since life, as we know it, neither guarantees its fulfillment nor defines its meaning, we can see that knowledge of the scientific or historical sort can furnish no answer to the questions for which revelation must supply the answers; hence, scientific or historical data cannot be the content of revelation at all. And while perhaps it is easier to regard doctrine as the content of revelation, even here we have a human response that in itself cannot answer the human problem (Donovan 420). What we may expect to find as the content of revelation, then, is not impersonal information but that quality of knowledge that elicits our entire personal response. But since that sort of response is generated only by trust and commitment which are personal qualities, the content of revelation must, itself, be personal. This distinction should save us from ignoring revelation in religious matters because we know its irrelevance to scientific matters and because we see it does not save us from inconsistencies in philosophical thought (Gula 175).
In revelation, God seeks to give us Himself. This is what is pertinent to our religious questioning, and this alone will satisfy us. An excellent example of what we are talking about is found in the biblical story of Job. Job, plagued with the question of why he, a righteous man, should suffer–when suffering was regarded as the result only of personal sin–is unsatisfied by the religious counsel of his friends as they try to speak to him on behalf of God. Job says the only thing that can satisfy him is to have an answer directly from God to his question “Why?” (McGrath 582). When God does answer him, Job receives no direct reply to his question, yet he is satisfied because the question has resolved itself on a higher level in which Job freely declares his faith. What satisfies Job is not a philosophical answer to his question, but the direct revelation of God to him, which never finds adequate intellectual expression because it involves levels of his personality that cannot be expressed in words (Gula 162). This is what is involved when the Christian speaks of revelation, and it can be readily seen that this is something quite different from the idea that revelation supplies scientific or historical data or even doctrinal statements. If we can keep our analogies personal, we shall find it easier to understand revelation, which is integral to an understanding of Christianity (Gula 185).
A contrasting view states that the meaning of human existence can be perceived through suffering. Suffering releases us to some extent from an all-encompassing deterministic view of the world that surrounds us. Suffering overcomes one-sided determinism and excessive pessimism, and it clears the road toward building an indeterministic lifestyle over and above and transcending the deterministic lifestyle. We should be resigned to the fact that the world which surrounds us is causally structured, which is true of the structure and function of our body also ((McGrath 31). We cannot and we should not even try to shed that area of our existence to which we are bound down, insofar as we cannot change very much in these cause-effect sequences in objective time-space, which lack intrinsic meaning. But the heroic attitude drives us onward to continued purpose-striving. Notwithstanding the roadblocks which the causally structured world and our body functions put in our way, we try to implant our purpose-striving tendencies into the deterministic world of causality. In the deterministic-indeterministic lifestyle, we do have a measure of freedom of the will, we do create new emergents out of what seems unalterably fixed, and we do insert meaningful goal-striving activities into cause-effect sequences. Thus, this view does not reflect the true nature and understanding of Christianity and the existence of God ((McGrath 107).
I suppose that the question of the meaning of human existence in Christianity is best explored through the concept of revelation. In reply to the question as to how revelation takes place, three principal answers are given: in nature, in mystical experience, and through events in history. This first answer, looking for God’s manifestation in nature, is not to be confused with finding in nature’s orderliness and system evidence of the purpose and workmanship of God, Who is beyond nature. Rather, it is to find the only final meaning of life within the processes of nature itself. The answer is that God makes Himself known in mystical experience in which the individual, totally oblivious of his physical situation, is caught up in direct communion or even actual union with God. This type of thinking can be found to some extent within nearly all religions, but it is characteristic of Eastern religions which usually regard the world as an illusion. What is real is thought to be changeless, and, consequently, whatever changes are but a deceptive appearance of reality. God, therefore, must be sought apart from the material order is an experience not dependent upon it. Unconscious of his surroundings, even of his existence, the mystic contemplates changeless, eternal truth; and this he takes to be the true source of all meaning (Gula 201).
In sum, the meaning of human existence in Christianity can be understood through the concept of revelation; it reflects in the essence of religion itself. Thus, some critics see the meaning of human existence as suffering. It is, rather, that God reveals Himself in action in the course of human events (which we shall call “history,” noting that it applies not only to what has happened in the past but to the present as well, and even to the possibilities of the future). Since revelation is essentially personal, it must come in personal ways, through action in human affairs. God reveals Himself to the whole man as he is involved in life, not merely to his mind or his soul. This emphasis on action may help us to counteract the unhealthy idea that revelation means we ought to listen for voices speaking in some mysterious or miraculous way.
Christianity. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2007. p. 10359.
Gula, Richard M. Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality. Paulist Press, 1998.
Donovan, D. Jesus, the Kingdom and the Church. The Church as idea and Fact. Collegeville: Michael Glazier, 1993, pp. 416-423.
Loewe, W.R. Classical Dogma. Chapter 15. in The College students Introduction to Cristology. The liturgical Press, 1996., pp.188-201.
McGrath, Alister E. The Christian Theology Reader Blackwell Publishers; 2nd edition 2001.