This is not a question asked by octogenarians when they enter a room and wonder what brought them there. It is a question about human existence. Does life have a purpose beyond simply the living of it? That question is not the same for everyone. It is suitable only for those on the front end of life. For those on the back end of life the question becomes "why was I here?" Only the young have the luxury of asking the question in the present tense. The question has two foci: first, what is the purpose of all life, and second, what is my individual purpose in life?
The first focus is a wide-eyed wondering that anything at all exists, and hence in part asks about origins. Depending on your commitments, however, that question may or may not be answerable. If you are a Creationist, you believe that a God originated all you see about you. Various religious traditions offer a number of different answers to the question, but all would consider creation as an act of God. The ancient Hebrews answered the question "why am I here?" as follows. Your purpose as a human being is to:
Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth (Genesis 1:28).
Hence in this view the chief aim of humanity is to manage the earth and all its life processes. The answer that comes out of the Christian Puritan and Reformation traditions is that human beings are here to serve and glorify God (e.g., 1 Peter 4:11; 1 Corinthians 10:31).
On the other hand, if you are an Evolutionist, the origin of life was not a purposeful act. Life happened "quite by accident" over time around "4.0 billion years ago in the ponds and oceans of primitive earth" (Sagan, Cosmos , 30-31]. Hence the answer to the origins question "why am I here?" for an Evolutionist is: there no reason; you just happened along in the course of things.
There is, however, a second aspect to the question "why am I here?" It is: what am I supposed to do with my life now that I am here? In many ways it is a quotidian question. That is, how should I occupy my time throughout the day? It is also a serious existential query and prompts the question: what is my purpose in life? We usually bump up against this aspect of the question when we think about occupation, but it also has a more narrow focus: how should I act in a particular situation?
A good example of this latter significance of the question is found in Esther. Hadassah (Esther), a Jewess, had become the queen of the Persian Empire. Her uncle Mordecai learned of a plot to annihilate all the Jews in the Empire and sought help from Esther with these words: "Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this" (4:14). In other words: this is your moment; time to step up to the plate!
Creationists have already answered the origins question by projecting a Creator behind the cosmos whose will must be satisfied: we are here to obey the will of the creator in all things. The Evolutionist, on the other hand, finds no need to pander to the will of a supposed deity mediated through imperfect and contradictory interpreters. The Evolutionist is free (to a point) to decide what to do in life and with life. It is both exhilarating and terrifying to realize that what I do with my life is my personal choice; or in the words of the poet:
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul (William Henley, Invictus).
From the perspective of the Creationist, however, the child of the Creator replies to the Evolutionist's arrogant assertion: true freedom can only be found in complete submission to the Creator—for only where the Spirit of the Lord is does true freedom exist (2 Corinthians 3:17). Everyone is enslaved to sin, and only the Son brings freedom from sin (John 8:31-37; Romans 6:17-28 and 8:2). Or in the words of the poet:
Free to be me, God, I really am free.
Free to become what you want me to be.
Free to decide whether I should be Lord
or be your slave and obey your word (Kate Wooley, Free to be me).
How do you answer the question, why am I here?
Missouri State University
Does the presence of randomness in the universe negatively impact God's running of the universe? Or put another way, does God have absolute control over everything that goes on in the universe? In the final analysis what is at stake in the question is nothing less than the Being of God. If one accepts that a principle of randomness exists in the universe, one must also accept that God does not control everything, for some things happen "randomly"; that is, they are events "lacking a regular plan, purpose, or pattern." God is likely as surprised by such events as we are. Randomness in the universe challenges one who believes in God to explain how s/he knows what events happen randomly and what events are planned and controlled by God. Failure to answer that question raises another: "Is God in control of anything?" And then for some the ultimate question will arise: "Is there a God, after all?" In this essay, however, I am only concerned with the issue of randomness in the universe.
Physical scientists recognize randomness in the behavior of light. Light can behave simultaneously as a particle and a wave. "This wave-particle duality is an unresolved dilemma of modern physics" (Young, 283). Another example of randomness is found in Darwin's views on natural selection and the survival of the fittest. His views are described as a theory, but only by those who have never read his Origin of the Species. The truth is randomness, chance, and fortune determine who or what survives in nature—or not. For example, the sudden disappearance of dinosaurs and similar creatures that inhabited earth from the Jurassic until the end of the Cretaceous period (200 to 66 million years ago)—and then became extinct. Chance and genes in part explain why I am a living octogenarian rather than a deceased septuagenarian, like many of my high school classmates.
Oddly enough we even find some Biblical authors acknowledging that chance and randomness play a part in everyday life. For example, one biblical author describes the Philistines devising a test to know whether a plague was caused by Yahweh, God of the Israelites (1 Samuel 6:1-9), or whether it had happened to them "by chance" (1 Samuel 6:9). In 2 Samuel 1:1-10 the biblical author notes that the death of Saul at the hands of a young Amalekite (2 Samuel 1:1-10) happened "by chance" (2 Samuel 1:6). In the law code attributed to Moses, the lawgiver describes how one should behave upon the chance finding of an occupied bird's nest (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). Koheleth (the "preacher") observes that the same fate eventually comes upon good and bad people alike (Ecclesiastes 9:2-12), for "time and chance happen to them all" (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Even Paul describes a happenstance sowing of one sort of seed or another (1 Corinthians 15:37). In a parable of Jesus (Luke 10:29-35) Luke describes the three specific travelers passing by a severely wounded man lying beside the road as chance occurrences (Luke 10:31). In all of these texts there is a tacit acceptance of the principle of randomness and chance in human life. Apparently not even some biblical authors assume God controls everything.
Even though Jesus claimed that the very hairs of our head are numbered (Matthew 10:30; Luke 12:7), we seem instinctively to know that some stuff happens randomly. Hence we make room for "luck" in our view of events, and describe some as good or bad "luck"—like accidents or misfortunes. Only the true believer describes the weather as an "act of God," as insurance companies describe floods, tornadoes, tsunamis, ice storms, and other catastrophes of nature. Accidents happen due to our carelessness or the carelessness of others. They cannot be predicted or guarded against; they are random and simply part of the natural order of things. Some conservative religious folk appeal to the permissive will of God to explain such phenomena:
Because God is sovereign, nothing happens that is outside his will. But there is a difference between what he causes and what he allows. By the permissive will of God things happen which God does not cause…
Such a response has always perplexed me, since it impugns God's character, and ultimately makes God responsible for all the bad and tragic experiences of our lives—at least that must be so in the view of James, who wrote:
Whoever knows to do good, yet does not do it, for him it is sin (James 4:17).
It works this way: God knows to do good; God can control what happens in the world; but God nevertheless allows bad things to happen.
It seems to me that standing idly by and allowing bad things to happen when one could have prevented them, whatever one's reasons for doing so, is ethically wrong.
Missouri State University
Louise Young, ed., Exploring the Universe (2nd ed.; Oxford, 1971).