Broadly speaking, man has developed three views that attempt to explain the meaning of life without God. These have had an enormous impact on the world and the way people live.
The nihilistic view
The first conclusion that springs from an atheistic mind-set is that human existence, laws and institutions are meaningless. This approach to life is called nihilism—a conviction that, since God does not exist, the universe and anything in it has no goal or purpose. We are merely the product of matter, time and chance. There is no life beyond our temporary existence. We are the sole masters of our earthly life within the limits that natural forces allow.
This worldview denies that values exist. It denies the existence of any objective basis for the establishment of ethics, morals or truth. It claims you are free to adopt any set of likes or dislikes since there are no moral absolutes. Your standards and choices are determined by what seems best for you, by what gives you personal satisfaction or pleasure.
The nihilistic approach provides no rational justification for living a moral life. It may be to your advantage to conform to the moral values of society if that is in your best interests, but you have no obligation to be a moral person if doing so would go against your personal interests. In this sense an atheist may have morals and be a moral person, but we should understand that an atheist appeals to no authority for those morals.
Nihilism led to the pronouncement in the 1960s that "God is dead." That slogan implied that the biblical God and His laws are irrelevant and should not be used to influence man to a higher moral standard. It implied that you can do whatever you please.
This philosophy led to a generation that did whatever it wanted. It ushered in a time of rebellion against long-held values. Drug use, violence and promiscuity skyrocketed. Moral standards and the number of stable marriages and families plummeted.
Although we rarely see such open displays of rebellion and anarchy in our streets and universities as we saw then, the damage has been done. Whole societies were—and remain—permanently corrupted by this rejection of biblically based standards and values. It has exacted a terrible toll. Ideas have consequences. People who promulgated this philosophy didn't realize the extent of those consequences.
The humanist or existential approach
The next worldview is similar. Humanism also rests on the idea that the universe exists for no purpose. It too maintains that we are the result of blind processes that don't necessitate any kind of meaning.
Humanism differs from nihilism, however, in espousing that life can have a meaning if we assign a meaning to it. This idea is also called existentialism. Its adherents believe that life can have as much meaning as we put into it. Life is worth living, humanists argue, because we ourselves make it worthwhile and enjoyable. As with nihilism, however, no objective values are acknowledged. This view holds that a person may be moral because it gives him personal satisfaction to create values and live according to those values.
There isn't much difference between the humanistic view and nihilism. Humanism acknowledges that values exist, but it sees values as neither objective, universal nor permanent—and no one, by this conception, is obligated to be moral, for no absolute values exist.
Humanism fails to provide moral objections to immoral behavior. In other words, if no moral absolutes exist, you can't demonstrate that anything is wrong or evil. Thus no one is in a position to judge or condemn the choices or actions of others.
The immanent compromise
A third worldview, that of immanence, is that objective values do exist, but they exist independently of a Creator God; they do not need Him to exist for they are intrinsic to the universe. This approach to life is common to pantheism, which sees all of nature as God or divine force. It does not require a Creator, since a permeating divine force can be deemed to have evolved with the natural realm (these being seen as one and the same). Immanence differs from the first two worldviews in that it recognizes the existence of objective values.
However, according to this view, man has sufficient moral intuition to become aware of the moral values that exist and influences the moral order. Here again, man is the discoverer of morals and has within himself the ability to live by morals if he chooses. He does not need God to tell him of absolutes or what the moral absolutes are. Therefore there is no need for God. The meaningfulness of life does not depend on the existence of God or something outside human life.
Viable alternatives to God?
All three of these perspectives have elements in common: They remove a Sovereign God from consideration. They offer no hope of life beyond death (although some immanent philosophies give a semblance of that, seeing us reabsorbed into universal consciousness). All three views proclaim, in essence, that man came from nothing, that we have evolved to find ourselves the highest order of life and that we are in a position to order our own values and define ourselves and our meaning as we go. Of course we could not guarantee our chosen purpose, since we are subject to the choices of others and the vagaries of circumstance.
When it comes right down to it, can we have a real purpose and absolute values without God? People can fathom some meaning in life with these philosophies—if you define meaning as a sense of temporary happiness and enjoying life at the moment. It is sad that far too many have come to define meaning this way. But these views fail to answer the real questions concerning meaning. Only when you put God in the picture can you find a complete answer that not only gives meaning to this life now but satisfies our longing for purpose beyond this life.