At the end of every year, dictionary websites choose a word that they feel best represents the year that is ending. They then name that word the word of the year. For 2019, dictionary.com chose the word ‘existential’. You probably don’t use this word a lot in everyday conversation (unless you like using big words), but understanding it will help us understand a little more about how our world thinks and it will helps us understand how we should think as Christians.
Dictionary.com defines existential in two ways. The first is “of or relating to existence”. For example, a business might talk about their existential requirements, by which they mean the things the can’t exist without. Environmentalists sometimes talk about existential threats, by which they mean things that threaten our existence as humans. The conversation around climate change was an important factor in the choice of this word for 2019.
The second definition is as follows: “concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual’s freely made choices.” This definition is a philosophical one; it comes from the philosophy known as existentialism. Existentialism is the belief that the universe is random and meaningless and therefore our purpose for existence as human beings is something we must determine ourselves as we make purposeful choices.
In other words, there is no absolute Truth or meaning in life that is knowable through science or through revelation from God and therefore we must each be purposeful in deciding how to live our lives in ways that are meaningful and true to ourselves. In existentialism, living this way is referred to as living authentically. You can see why this would be significant for 2019 (for instance, take a minute to look up Merriam Webster’s word of the year for 2019).
Dictionary.com has posted a video of several people talking about what the word existential means in their own lives. They talk about rising above the grind of working and paying bills. They talk about defining who they are outside the norms of society. They talk about the anxiety of trying to live a meaningful life. And then there’s a little boy at the end who clearly has a more simple existence and isn’t worried about such things.
Watching the video made me think a lot about how people in the world see their lives. If there is no Truth with a capital T and if there is no real meaning to the universe, then what is left but to define it for yourself? But even in the testimonies on that video, you can hear how much confusion, anxiety, and regret is the fallout from this kind of worldview. They try to couch it in positivity and freedom, but even as they laugh about the futility of their lives, you can see that they desperately need an anchor outside of themselves to make life truly meaningful.
The Bible, thankfully, gives a very different perspective on Truth, purpose, and the meaning of our existence. The Apostle John began his gospel by talking about these very topics. He opens the gospel by referencing a philosophical term logos, which is translated into English as ‘Word’. The Word was a Greek concept referring to the logic and Truth of the universe. It was the reason for existence, the essence of all things; the Word is everything that existentialism denies. But the Word was also an important concept for the Jewish people.
The Jewish faith is based on the Truth that God has spoken to His people. His will, His Truth has been revealed to us in the Bible through God’s prophets. When the Apostle John speaks of the Word, he is bringing all of these ideas together. The Word is the Truth behind all existence, the meaning of life, revealed to us by God in Scripture. But John takes it a step further and says, that the Word isn’t just an abstract concept or a written story, the Word is a person. And it’s only through this person that we can know God, know ourselves, and find true meaning and purpose in life. This is how John puts it:
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 all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 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 did receive 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 Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. – John 1:1-5, 9-14, 18 (NIV)
As 2019 closes and 2020 begins, we need more than what existentialism offers us. There is Truth. There is Reason. There is Purpose. His name is Jesus. The world may not recognize him, but that doesn’t change the Truth. Jesus was the Word in the beginning with His Father and He will be the Word long after the empty philosophies of today are forgotten.
Article originally appeared at the Forward Baptist Church blog in a similar form.