Loving a nihilist

Hi friends,

One of the saddest conversations I had in campus ministry took place at the Starbucks Reserve that overlooks Harvard Square. I had met a student earlier in the week who identified himself as a nihilist. So I suggested we sit down for coffee to get to know each other and talk more.

Over coffee, he told me that nothing mattered. I asked him if that mattered. He said no.

I asked him if it bothered him that his own ideas so easily contradicted themselves. He said no.

I asked him if he thought it might be more reasonable to start with the assumption that his life did matter. I suggested he could intuitively know it was true that his life was significant. He said no.

Whatever route we explored, he always had a veto: nothing matters.

Towards the end of our meeting, I asked if he would give me his study notes. He slid them across the table. I said, “these are mine now.” He got very agitated. He said, “I need those. Finals are next week.” I tried his veto: “But nothing matters.” He got angry and demanded I give him the notes before he called the police. I pressed him to explain himself. But the conversation was over: the notes were too important to him. (Of course I gave him his notes back).

Whenever I think about this student — it’s likely that he’s now a successful professional somewhere – I’ve felt sad.

I invite you to consider how one nihilist recently shared their perspective:

I tell you, the thing we call “us”, the consciousness, has hardly any actual control over the body. One simply can’t defy his inherent biological structure. “I” tried to swim against the current of the river of life, but it only leaded to self-destruction. I can’t float on the river anymore, either. A human will never be content without having a purpose, I’m sure of that at this point. But that’s unachievable when you know that both contentment and purpose are worthless.

Humans continue to reproduce. Is that the prime example of “our” powerlessness, or are people just ignorant? It’s sweet to be brainwashed by religion. Sincerely, I would prefer being born a literal slave, because I would have a clear purpose then. Just read a book from the age of feudalism. I argue that peasants used to be more content than aristocrats. As long as they knew their place and didn’t yearn for more, they were fine (sadly, it’s human nature to want more than one has).

I wonder if life can get any more absurd than this. The universe is devoid of meaning, yet humans are drived by the meaning they derive from it. What’s more, they are capable of realizing all this, which essentially kills the illusion. On some days, I can embrace absurdism and reenter the illusion. On other days, I write these posts. This is not under my control. It’s not “me”, who is writing this post. It’s the body.

If you had the opportunity, how might you engage with this person?

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I would start with prayer and asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit. Only God can break this demonic mindset. I say demonic because hopelessness and despair are the work of the enemy. I would try to find common ground and agree with many of the points he has brought up because there is some truth to what he says. I would tell him I’m sorry that things are so hard and express concern that he finds himself in this place where nothing seems to matter. Most importantly, him. I would tell him he does matter, or he wouldn’t be here. And that there is meaning and purpose in his life. I would share with him some of my own struggles and times of despair and how God has been in the trenches with me during those times and how He used it for good and brought me out. If the conversation allowed, I would ask him about his upbringing and what he is currently reading and watching. Who does he like and follow? Hopefully that would open doors for more trust and conversation.

I am constantly amazed and heartbroken at some of the things I read but shouldn’t be. Last week, a feed came up on Twitter from a woman who has been sober for 8 days straight, but said she was still in a mental fog. The number of people who chimed in to say they were in the same boat was shocking. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep from crying. I wish I could sit them down and look them in the eye and tell them they matter to God.

As a believer, I forget how blessed I am and how hard life can be for those who don’t know Him. May He open our eyes to the despair around us so we can share what is ours, by grace, in Christ.

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Before we can attempt a conversation with someone, its important to understand the beliefs a person holds. Since I dont have this person in front of me, I am going to go with the impressions I get from his statements.

One simply can’t defy his inherent biological structure

He understands he has limitations. I would agree with him that we have limitations and cant always achieve whatever we want. For me, that tells me we were never meant to journey alone but in the company of others depending on each other and on God. Limitations bring humility in us and force us to learn how to get along with each other as we face common problems. I might ask, why do you think we are born with such limitations?

“I” tried to swim against the current of the river of life, but it only leaded to self-destruction. I can’t float on the river anymore.

His attempt at living life with a purpose has been disappointing. I would clarify what I hear him say and try to empathize with the disappointment. Though I may have not been through exactly the same situations, I too have faced a lot of disappointments. A lot of it seems to come from the imperfections of the hearts of us humans in general. I would ask in what ways he has experienced disappointment. I might ask, if there was any value in experiencing disappointment?

A human will never be content without having a purpose…both contentment and purpose are worthless

He acknowledges a purpose would give meaning. His experience of living with the purposes he has defined for himself seem worthless. I would agree with him that purpose does give us a drive to live on, and contentment depends on the purposes we choose to live for. How must we go about defining a purpose? I might find agreement that if the world is coming to an end, any purpose and contentment only based on this world is probably worthless. There is also no justification to live by righteous means as long as we know how to avoid consequence of unrighteous behaviors. Living with justice and purpose only makes sense if our works are going to be judged one day by a greater just being.

As long as they knew their place and didn’t yearn for more, they were fine (sadly, it’s human nature to want more than one has).

He recognizes he has a greater longing than the purposes in the world can satisfy. The solution for him is to get rid of the desire itself. I might ask him about his thoughts on the quote from C.S. Lewis, “If I find myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

The universe is devoid of meaning, yet humans are drived by the meaning they derive from it.

He sees life as meaningless. He thinks people give themselves false hope of coming up with some sort of a meaning just to find the drive to live on. I would agree that false hope is not worth living for as it wouldnt deliver. What if there was a hope that delivers? Would he be willing to test out those claims of hope?

On some days, I can embrace absurdism and reenter the illusion…It’s not “me”, who is writing this post. It’s the body.

He sees religion or any purpose that people live for as an illusion. So life is not worth living. Contentment is having no desire or existence. To me the problem doesn’t seem to be desire but misplaced desires. Perhaps its the excessess of our desires and not recognizing its boundaries is the problem. There is a lot of evil that happens in this world that people should be held accountable for and illusion just seems to excuse the behavior. Believing the world is illusion doesn’t take away the pain we experience in reality. So I would probably ask, how can people be held accountable for evil in an illusory world?

Most likely any of those questions would take the conversation deeper. My goal would be to just give alternative explanations to consider and respond to any questions of Christianity that may come up. I have never had a conversation with a nihilist. I dont know how such questions would be handled but would be nice if we could learn from each other. I agree with @mary that we would really need to have this conversation prayerfully depending on the love of the Lord. Also, I really appreciated Mary’s point of view of sharing from our struggles.

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I agree with Mary on asking for prayer first. I really don’t think thats a one correct way to approach this. Lakshmi really broke it down in detail

Just as Lakshmi said, living to uphold moral standards has to mean that there is something more than nothing. Where do those moral standards come from and why do we bother with it? As much as the OP(person who posted the thread on reddit) would claim that life and the universe are devoid of meaning, there has to be somethings innately important to him.

From the tone of his posts, I could tell that there was an ongoing battle within his mind. The disappointment and frustration he has gone through in life could have been fuelling it. It is almost as if he is desperate to deny or seperate his nature from his being.

It reminded me of a friend I talked to who claimed to be nihilist. He was tired of the disappointments of life and didn’t see a point in giving meaning to anything. Because he could not find answers, it was more comforting to explain everything as pointless away. That way, he didn’t have to believe in anything or try to find a reason for anything. It was in a sense, giving up. There wasn’t a God and there was no meaning, one should embrace nothingness as it was freeing, even enlightening. It might be harsh to say this, but he turned to nihilism as a cop out from facing the reality of life.
Despite his efforts, it was not possible to do so. Humans innately desire things and he was often contradicting himself, which created more frustration. I do suspect that part of this applied to the writer of the posts as well. The example Carson gave is an example of nihilism being difficult to adhere to.

Personally, I think something like this is difficult to engage online or via one post, as even if one were to post something, it would be deemed as pointless or it might aggrevate him more. If I could meet this person, I would spend as much time as I can talking to him and loving him. Along the way I would talk to him about life and hear his thoughts and troubles out while giving a biblical perspective on things.
Over time, there would be a higher chance of him seeing life and people as purposeful when continuously exposed to the love of Christ.

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Hi @kiko ,

Great insight overall! Appreciate your thoughts on how careful we have to be in these conversations, in taking time getting to know someone, their troubles and their concerns. Without intellectual honesty, without mutual respect and without recognition of the fact that we have their best interest at heart, the best of arguments seem useless and cause aggravation not only in posts but even face to face conversations.

Today I heard a testimony of an atheist who became a christian on a podcast hosted by Jana Harmon, UP’s recent guest speaker. One of the things that helped this atheist change his mind was the problem of meaninglessness. It was difficult to live a life that has no meaning and with no eternity to look forward to. He wondered what would happen if he died and his existence continued in some way. He was willing to consider evidence and was open to reading the Bible even when he didn’t believe it. He prayed, “God if you exist, help me to find answers”. He was honest and his search led him to Christ. So from this testimony, it seems just suggesting prayer and reading Bible may also be a start to a deeper conversation.

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Hi Lakshmi, thank you for addressing so many issies and breaking everything down🙏 Yup! No matter how good the counter argument it, it doesn’t really matter if one is not willing to have a proper conversation😅

Jana Harmon’a testimony sounds really encouraging. It is indeed not realistic to live without meaning, it is great that he was able to come to a place of realization and admission. I do pray that the person who posted the post would be as open to finding answers as well. The willingness is the first step after all.

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