The Parable of the Drill
Let’s begin with a little parable. A man wishes to build a support frame in his garden to hang a swing for his children on, but finds that he needs to drill holes in the beams so they can be bolted together.
He is on good terms with his neighbour, so he walks over to the fence between their two gardens.
“Hey, Bill. What is it?”
“Could I borrow a drill?”
“I don’t have one, but I can borrow one from Jim next door.”
Frank walks across his garden to the fence on the other side and calls across: “Hey Jim!”
“Hey, Frank. What can I do for you?”
“Could I borrow a drill?”
“Hang on a sec, I’ll go and borrow one from Greg next door.”
Jim asks to borrow from Greg, who asks to borrow from Mark, who asks to borrow from Neil… You get the idea.
If this chain of requests went on forever, without someone who actually has (or can make) a drill without needing to rely on someone else, then none of them would ever get the drill, none of them could pass it forwards, and Bill would never get to build his frame. If there is such an owner to start the chain, then all of them get to hold onto it, use it for a while if they choose, and pass it on.
It really is an all-or-nothing deal.
The same is true for the question of existence. Every physical object exists because of something prior to itself. Here ‘prior’ doesn’t necessarily mean something earlier in time, I am referring to what is called ontological priority: X is ontologically prior to Y if the existence of Y requires or presupposes the existence of X, if the existence of Y is impossible without the existence of X.
Examples of this dependency that do not require X to occur before Y:
The movements of a glove puppet requiring the movements of the puppeteer’s hand.
The light and heat generated by an incandescent light bulb presuppose a light bulb that is functional and has power flowing through it, even if it has been that way for all eternity.
In summary, the existence of A depends on the existence of B, which depends on the existence of C, which… which depends on the existence of AAKRDJSOF, which depends on the existence of AAKRDJSOG… The existence of physical objects and entities is borrowed, just like the drill in the parable.
As we saw in part 3 of this series, this applies even more so to us humans, since our very atoms are constantly being borrowed and loaned out. Without something at the start of the chain that just exists without being dependent on anything else, and is able to grant existence to everything else, there would be nothing.
In Exodus 3:14: “ 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.[a] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” ”
a OR I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE
God’s name is ‘I exist’ He is that which simply exists, independent of all else, who is the source of existence for all else, who is the start of the chain of existence that makes all other existence possible. He will exist far beyond the end of this universe, never in any danger of his existence being ended, or in any way diminished.
Our lives, our world, and our universe are temporary, borrowed.
If the atheists are right, and material existence is all that there is, then everything is just a passing phase. This runs into the problem outlined above of what could have begun the chain of existence, but let’s grant that for the moment. What does that mean for us?
It means that even if we make the greatest discoveries in the history of humankind, build the greatest monuments, devices, institutions, ideas, philosophies and nations the world has ever seen, even if we transform the very nature of our world, or galaxy, or universe, eventually all traces of us, our achievements, our creations, our legacies, and even all who could possibly remember them will be gone, lost forever.
No matter what we do, or how much we do, it will all be ultimately utterly meaningless, in the end it will make no difference.
Let’s take a step back from that. Let’s say there is an eternal reality, a God who started the chain of existence but then left it to ruin its course, utterly indifferent to all that occurs in the material world. This is the position of the deist. Under this system, the source of existence is explained, but since whatever we do has no impact on the eternal, our lives and actions are just as meaningless as if there was no eternal reality, since we will play no part in it, and the part we play down here will leave no echoes.
Let’s take a step back from that. Let’s say that there’s an eternal reality, an impersonal God, and we are again and again being reincarnated into a particular quality of life as a reward or punishment for our past lives, the ultimate reward for a perfect life is to be absorbed into the impersonal God, our individual selves being utterly lost in that process. This system leaves us trapped in this seemingly endless cycle, with the only way out (and the aim of the process) is to effectively annihilate ourselves and make all of our efforts over all of those lives utterly meaningless.
Let’s take another step. Let’s say there is an eternal reality, a God who takes some interest in our lives by laying down a set of rules for us to live by, and our successes and failures of living up to those rules will be measured against each other at the end of our lives, deciding whether we will face eternal reward or eternal punishment, neither one of which will involve any sort of access to that God or to others, just our own little personal ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’, our own little isolated pleasure or torture chamber. This both answers the question of origins and gives us some meaning to our lives, in terms of how well we follow those rules, and something towards a sense of fulfilling our desire for justice to be done. But those rules may be all (or mostly) arbitrary and needlessly complex, and may all (or mostly) deal with purely superficial matters, the central issues of humanity remaining relatively untouched, such as the desire for love, community, significance. Those issues would remain devoid of meaning.
One more. Let’s say there is an eternal reality, a God who takes an interest in us not just in terms of our obeying a set of rules, but values us as individuals and desires us to be of good character, not merely obeying out of fear, but serving out of love and gratitude, continually improving ourselves not just for ourselves but mostly for the sake of others; who both demands perfection from us and enables us to move towards it; who invites us to join Him in eternity for a life of eternal love, community and purpose in a vast glorious city and a whole new heavens and earth, but also allows us to refuse that offer.
A God who reveals his character to us in many ways so that we might know, explore and love Him. If that were true then our lives here on earth would take on enormous meaning, every struggle would be significant in that every choice we make impacts on our character, the things we learn and share, our interactions with others will help to form their character, influencing their choices and perhaps even their eternal destinies. This world, in all its flawed beauty is a temporary gift to be enjoyed and be grateful for, to be explored and celebrated. Our healthiest relationships will be foretastes of this heavenly community, our noblest gestures glimpses of that heavenly love, our deepest insights flashes of divine truth, our best decisions hints at that day when all wrongs will be put right.
Every day, every experience, every opportunity is to be savoured because it may not come again, and its effects may last into eternity. Merely drifting though life, doing nothing but occupying ourselves with meaningless distractions becomes inexcusable.
Many people who have been told they have a year or two or less to live by doctors, after the initial shock has worn off, find that they are able to prioritise their lives, discard the dross and live with a whole new depth of meaning, finding a joy and freedom they never experienced before, which they treasure beyond description. Do we have to be facing our own imminent deaths to do the same?
Next in the series: The Joy (and Terror) of Judgement Day – Part One