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?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University