We all have at least one thing, if not many, in common: we are both living. To exist can be overwhelming, especially because no one in the history of humanity has ever chosen to be born. Life is thrust upon us. One day we weren’t, the next we were. You are. Yet, every day we make the decision to persist. Whether it be a conscious or subconscious decision, whether it’s easy or difficult, we are all here. We persist.
Can we define life?
It’s human nature to search for answers, to beg for clarity, to seek the division between black and white. But life is many colors, a consumption of every hue, seen and unseen. While it may be easy to identify something that is living, encompassing life as a whole or an entity, can be much more difficult.
Is life something just experienced here on earth? Might life be a verb- is it the sun rising without fail every morning and setting every night? Is life coursing through our lungs and pumping through our veins? Is life a noun- the space from here to there? Are we in life? Are we suffering through life? Or, are we life? How can something that eight billion people are objectively experiencing at the same time be so difficult to define? What are the parameters and who put them there? Do we have the right to define the indefinable? Is it self-righteous to do so?
It is often wise to steer clear of dictionary definitions of words that are heavier in meaning than in writing. It is helpful, however, to note that the Cambridge Dictionary calls life, “the period between birth and death.”Sometimes dictionaries do their job and hand us the map to our destination. And if not a map, at least a finger pointing in the general direction. Life is the time spent between birth and death. Even simpler, life is time. The only thing certain about life is that it ends. Forever and ever and ever life has ended.
Life is the time given to us. And time runs out.
What do scientists say?
For every question we posit, scientists are asking ten more- because they too, are searching for the answers. In science writer Carl Zimmer’s book, Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive, he discusses the difficulty that scientists and philosophers have in giving a definition to the meaning of life. He writes:
“‘It is commonly said,” the scientists Frances Westall and André Brack wrote in 2018, “that there are as many definitions of life as there are people trying to define it.” As an observer of science and of scientists, I find this behavior strange. It is as if astronomers kept coming up with new ways to define stars.”
Zimmer goes on to explain that some scientists claim one definitive answer is not necessary and that working definitions can suffice.
“NASA can come up with whatever definition helps them build the best machine for searching for life on other planets and moons. Physicians can use a different one to map the blurry boundary that sets life apart from death.”
In an excerpt, Zimmer mentions philosopher Carol Cleland who pushes back on the need for any definition of life at all. She argues that searching for a definition of life is bad for science because it “keeps us from reaching a deeper understanding of what it means to be alive.”
“As a result, it’s futile to search for a laundry list of features that will turn out to be the real definition of life. “We don’t want to know what the word life means to us,” Cleland said. “We want to know what life is.”
Cleland argues that we need to give up our search for a definition. And while it may be of some comfort to know that even the most educated minds of our time cannot confidently define life, it can also be discouraging. It makes us ask- if they can’t explain this, who can? That being said, humans have made it this far and this long without all the answers and we will continue on until a higher power or greater force renders us extinct. But until then, we persist. Though our lives will inevitably end one day, someone else’s life will just be beginning. Somewhere the confused cries of a baby being heard for the first time will collide with the tears of those mourning our deaths. In that cyclical sense, life never ends. There will always be someone living- someone to take our spots, someone to fill the void.
So, while time runs out for the individual, it endures for the whole.
What does the Bible say?
For those of us who are still searching for a more definitive or maybe spiritual meaning of life, we can turn our attention to the Bible. What can’t be answered by science can always be studied and analyzed from a Biblical standpoint. Rather than rely on facts, we are given the opportunity to come to our own conclusions. Because the Bible is not only a religious text but also a historical one, it’s vital to keep an open mind when reading. Theologians offer plenty of diverse interpretations of important topics, albeit many are universally agreed upon and have stood the test of time.
According to the Wycliffe Global Alliance, the full Bible has been translated into 724 languages worldwide. It says over seven billion people, almost 97 percent of all people on earth, have access to some extent of scripture in their language. The expanse of this text makes way for numerous interpretations. Its reach proves we are not alone in the continuous search for answers and the quest to understand what it means to be alive.
The Bible talks about life in many ways. Here two categories are enlightening: earthly life and heavenly (eternal) life.
25 Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?[a] 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
34 Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
This passage serves as a reminder that to worry is a waste of our fleeting time on earth. To live in fullness and to have faith in God is all we can be expected to do. He will take care of us.
Ephesians 5:15- 21
15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
These verses tell us how to spend our days- a directive to praise the Lord and be kind.
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
1 John 5:12
12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
These verses take a very complex topic and attempt to simplify it for the sake of our understanding. While life on earth will end for everyone, God promises us eternal life in Heaven with Him. It is there that our souls will never stop rejoicing, the heavenly spirits singing of an infinite life where no one will ever be thirsty, no mouth will go unfed.
16 For God so loved the world,[a] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
How should we spend life?
As with all faith-based texts, it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact answer to anything and confidently state it as fact. We have been gifted a book that individuals have spent thousands of years trying to decipher- and new individuals will take on this task and spend thousands of years more looking for truth between the pages. Before the Bible, humans had to look elsewhere for answers to the existential pits in their stomachs and the confusion as to why they’d wake up every day on a planet that spins and with plants that grow. But now, the Word has been written. It’s in our hands to do with that what we will- to come to our own conclusions that help us sleep a little better at night and rise a little easier in the mornings. If anything, we can turn to the Bible for comfort and solace.
In reading the passages about life on earth, it seems that maybe the definition of life is not nearly as important as what we do with life. How we spend our days is what gives our existence meaning. The Bible offers us a guideline and directions on how to make the most of our time in our earthly bodies. The takeaway is one that people of all faiths, all backgrounds, and all experiences are familiar with, to be good, to be kind, to love, and to run out the clock in earnest.
12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts below.
Too often, people answer faith questions with dogmatic certitude and neglect the historic diversity and complexity of Christian ideas. The Questions Project is a resource that responds to questions about faith, history, and scripture in a way that honors the historic diversity and complexity of Christian thought. But, this is a work in process and we need your help. Please provide feedback. We are particularly interested in knowing what we have missed and how we can improve our responses. Please keep all comments kind or risk deletion.