What is the purpose of life? Today, few people give this question much thought. They either assume there is no purpose or are too busy living life to care. It wasn’t always so. Ancient Greece became the foundation of the Western world and of our modern society to a great extent precisely because they cared about such questions.
In general, the Greeks concluded that everything was created for a purpose, and the key to a meaningful existence is fulfilling the purpose that is unique to each created thing. Our ability to reason is the primary distinguishing characteristic of humans, so we fulfill the purpose of our creation by living a life of reason. Consequently, they believed that we realize our greatest joy in life by utilizing our capacity to think so we can live an ordered, balanced life. This was our end goal or telos. We still use derivatives of the Greek term telos in reference to reaching a distant objective such as in the words telephone, television, and even theology.
Later Christians adapted this perspective and believed we realize our telos through unity with our Creator. In the fifth century, Saint Augustin of Hippo helped shift this focus to just seeing God in what he referred to as the beatific vision. Based on this perspective, society throughout the Middle Ages was obsessed with meeting the requirements to go to heaven to see God and avoid going to hell. In the 1500s, Martin Luther had an epiphany and taught that we are saved by grace alone, not through any merit of our own. John Calvin followed and taught that everyone is predestined to go to heaven or hell, and we can find out if we are one of the lucky few who get to go to heaven by having a born-again experience that changes our character and actions. Many Calvinists, such as the Puritans, became preoccupied with finding out if God had elected to save them. The Age of Enlightenment came along, and Deists viewed God as a great watchmaker who created the system of the universe, set it in motion, and then stepped aside so as not to be involved in the affairs of His creation. Near the end of the 1800s, Nietzsche declared that God was dead, that we educated persons had killed Him, and with his death, the Cosmos, the ordered purposeful universe, was no more. Thus, nihilism was born. Today, all these various perspectives and their progeny have survived. So there is a great diversity of ideas regarding the purpose of life for those who will even consider it.
I propose that our divine destiny is to become united with God through love to the extent we desire it. Additionally, because all are children of God, we can connect and become more united with God by connecting with other individuals through love. Our divine nature expands when we mourn with those who mourn, when we feel their pain and sorrow, and when we rejoice in their joy. When we are so connected with someone else that we share their emotions, we are connecting with God. This is why family relationships are integral to God’s plan for our eternal growth and happiness. This is why spousal unity is essential. This is why Jesus instructed his followers to love one another as he loved them (John 13:34).
Consequently, our eternal happiness is dependent on and proportional to the extent we develop our divine capacity to love. The hereafter is not simply two extremes of eternal bliss or endless torment. Instead, Paul taught, “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory, so also is the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor 15:41–42). The degree of glory and happiness we will experience in the hereafter will correspond to the degree of unity we have developed with God and His defining divine essence of love.
The Nicene Creed talks about God the Father and His son Jesus Christ being of one substance or essence. What is that essence? The traditional concept that they are the same being because their substance is the same yet they are still separate persons is nonsensical and borders on Sabellianism, which was condemned as heresy one hundred years earlier. Yet, they are one, but how? A key to this apparent mystery is found in the apex of Christ’s mortal ministry, his great intercessory prayer before he suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane. The climax of his plea to God, his Father, was that his disciples be one with them in the same way that they are one (John 17:21–22). Are we going to morph into one substance with God and become Him similar to what Hindus believe? Of course not. Jesus ended his prayer with an explanation. He prayed “[t]hat the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” That is it! Love. Love is the divine essence. The Father and the Son are one because they share the same love for each other and for all of us. This is our mission: to develop this divine capacity to love.
Jesus gave us this charge in his Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Many people grossly misunderstand this verse and think that Christ was commanding them never to make a mistake. That is not at all what he said, which is clear when we notice that he was talking about love when he made this statement. Unfortunately, our English translation of what Jesus said creates this confusion. In the original Greek, the word that has been translated as “perfect” was telieos, which means complete, fully developed, or finished. If the writer had intended to say “error-free,” he would have used the Greek adverb akribos, which means “exactly and accurately.” So, in reality, Jesus’s message about love was that our ultimate objective or purpose in life is to develop our capacity to love as God loves. This is our telos.
So becoming united with God in love is our divine destiny, if we will accept it. This is why Paul taught the Corinthians that a more excellent way was to seek to develop charity, the pure love of Christ, because it endures forever (1 Cor 13:1–13). This is the purpose of life and of our whole eternal existence. This mortal life facilitates our ability to increase the intensity of our love as well as to develop new qualitative aspects of love through various means. The natural affection that a parent feels for his or her offspring is a type and level of love we were incapable of experiencing in our premortal existence. A healthy marriage enables romantic love to grow through sacrifice, forgiveness, and consideration to reach a deeper level of unity between individuals than is possible in practically any other way. We learn to love our neighbors through service as they struggle with their life challenges. Interacting with other imperfect beings in this life also offers us the opportunity to ultimately learn how to love, even our enemies, just as God loves us.
The spark of divinity that God has placed in each one of us acts as a homing signal guiding and lifting us up to God. However, just as it is unlikely that a person will reach a distant destination by simply stumbling along through life without striving to reach it, it is unlikely that we will realize eternal objective if we do not seek it. It is much more likely that we will realize our divine destiny if we identify what that destination is and then make it a priority in our lives so that it informs our daily actions.