Book Review: Can Man Live Without God? by Ravi Zacharias
Can Man Live Without God (Kindle Edition) is a treatment by Ravi Zacharias of the philosophical issue of meaning and the psychological issue of despair. The book is separated into three parts and spans 179 pages. This review is intended to give a chapter-by-chapter summary of the contents of the book, but the review only scratches the surface of Zacharias’ intent of the book.
Part 1: Antitheism Is Alive And Deadly
Chapter 1: Anguish in Affluence
Zacharias begins the book by setting a foundation for the reason behind the book and his philosophical method. He shows how a person’s view of God influences that person’s entire life- from what they believe about everything else to how they act. If they get their understanding of God incorrect, then their beliefs and actions will be antithetical to reality. He also shows that he believes philosophy takes place on three levels: through logic- and reason- based arm-chair theory, through the emotional artistic productions, and through everyday, practical, “dinner table” application. He appeals to each by using the first for raw argumentation, the second for illustration and examples, and the third for relevance to our lives. His goal is to appeal to all three levels throughout the book, so that the reader may be able to understand his argument at all the levels and be able to communicate it likewise to others at all three levels.
Chapter 2: Straying through an Infinite Nothing
Chapter 2 focuses on the moral vacuum that is left by the atheistic view. Zacharias first establishes what he means when he uses the term “atheist”. Summarily, it is any person who affirms that they believe that there is no God. He then quotes Nietzsche’s entire parable of “The Madman” to show the existence (and recognition) of such a moral vacuum in atheism. Zacharias then addresses how atheists have “smuggled” in Christian morality to raise arguments against the existence of the Christian God. He discusses how the moral vacuum in atheism has led to the atrocity of the Holocaust, yet atheists can only shun it because of the previously mention “smuggled” foundation.
Chapter 3: The Madman Arrives
In Chapter 3 Zacharias focuses on the message of Nietzsche’s madman: that God is no longer a viable intellectual belief. Thus we are no longer tied down to the limits of pursuing communion with Him. Heaven and Hell do not exist, and the person is free to act as they wish with no fear of consequences, and the person on their death bed may die in peace knowing that they will not be held accountable for their many “misdeeds”. Zacharias shows how, on the surface, this is quite liberating, but it comes back to bite the person in the end. Since atheism has no grounds on which to call anything “good” or “right”, it also lacks a foundation to call anything “bad” or “wrong”. Each person is left to their own devices- even if one should choose to eliminate the other in the most heinous way, it cannot be labeled at “bad” or “wrong”.
Chapter 4: The Homeless Mind
Zacharias begins chapter 4 by explaining that the failure of humanism’s promise of a human utopia has failed because of its adherents’ inability to recognize the lack of moral foundations. He goes on to show that Kantian ethics is claimed to be the foundation for opposing political theories, and he shows how the reasoning of Kant fails the very test of reason, itself. Specifically, he critiques Kant’s insistence that an objective ethic may be concluded (and practiced) without appealing to God. He ends the chapter by quoting journalist Steve Turner’s “Creed” to show the shear unreasonableness of such a position.
Chapter 5: Where Is Antitheism When It Hurts?
Chapter 5 really starts to examine the problem of evil. He explains that the problem of evil comes in three different forms: metaphysical- source of evil; moral- God’s involvement; and physical- evil with no personal agency involved (such as nature). He points out that the reason that the man questions suffering is because man believes that there must be a purpose behind it. He offers that this way of thinking is backwards (from death to life), but is necessary. We always establish a purpose or goal, then act accordingly to accomplish it. In atheism, there is no final purpose and no goal. Suffering has no ultimate meaning. Zacharias offers that only worldviews with ultimate purpose can make sense of suffering- putting those, who hold a worldview without an ultimate purpose and yet complain about suffering, in an interesting philosophical predicament. Since man has eliminated God, man has become god. Man sets up his own purpose and must make sense of his own suffering in the context of that purpose. Though, man has discovered that he is not trustworthy to establish his own purpose. If he is not, and he will not establish his own purpose, then the question of suffering will continue to haunt him.
Chapter 6: In Search of Lower Meaning
Zacharias continues to show the implications of man being his own god. He opens chapter 6 by quoting the biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s argument that since man has occupied such a short time of the universe’s history, that man must be a random and ultimately meaningless occurrence. He discusses the marketing industry and how its goal in advertising is to make viewers forget about past desires and form new ones. He observes that this desire for more never concludes with any satisfaction. He points out that someone who is committed to living life without God is committed to constantly coming up with more goals and purposes, never being satisfied. Zacharias also shows that this commitment leaves nowhere for the adherent to go should God’s existence be shown to be true. He ends this section of the book by saying that man can certainly live without God, but it is devoid of any meaning, purpose or morality.
Part 2: What Gives Life Meaning?
Chapter 7: The Science of Knowing and the Art of Living
Zacharias begins the second part of his book by examining the question of finding meaning, itself. He states that in order for an investigation into answering the question can commence, we need to make sure that the terms of the question are clearly understood. After giving an explanation, he examines two different philosophies of meaning that both end in despair. He explains how both of these are quite commonplace in today’s society. He ends this chapter by quoting a passage fromShakespeare’s play As You Like It to set the foundation for the four necessary factors of meaning to be discussed in the next chapters.
Chapter 8: The Romance of Enchantment
Chapter 8 focuses on wonder. Zacharias appeals to a child’s sense of awe at the world around him that gives him purpose. Zacharias believes that this is key- wonder. Man’s insatiable appetite for knowledge, for knowledge’s sake, is what keeps man from feeling wonder any more. Man wants to understand things to the point that there is nothing left to know. Man desires that mystery be removed from his life altogether. Zacharias shows how such a lack of wonder leads to despair. He also goes into many of the unintended consequences of such a quest for ultimate knowledge. He, of course, does not devalue knowledge nor states that man should remain in the fantastic world of a child, but that the objects of our wonder must change. However, unless we have a personal relationship with the Christian God, the possible objects of wonder will be quickly exhausted. Without God, despair is inevitable.
Chapter 9: Truth – an Endangered Species
The second factor for meaning presented by Zacharias is truth. He states that there comes a time when a child must move from the fantastic world of imagination to the world of reality- where truth rules. He states that a survey of youth in Canada showed that the “number 1” thing they wished for was someone they could trust. Zacharias presents stories that illustrate where truth has become less than objective. He shows why today’s youth are not having their need filled. He points to the scripture John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me.” He shows how this claim by Jesus assumes not only that truth exists, but that it is knowable. He also shows that the implication of such a statement is that Jesus Christ is the only one person who will be able to meet the “number 1” need of today’s youth (and everyone else, for that matter).
Chapter 10: Love’s Labor Won
Chapter 10 is the presentation of the third of the necessary components of meaning: Love. Zacharias describes how culture has completely destroyed the meaning of the word “love”. He contrasts the English word with the four words for “love” in Greek. He points out that even though the words in Greek have very specific meanings, all of them involved commitment. He moves back to the West’s concept of love and observes how it is completely empty of commitment. From that he concludes that love in the western sense, is not actually love at all. Zacharias, once again, shows that this component is offered in the person of Jesus Christ.
Chapter 11: Crossing the Bar
Zacharias states that after all the other factors have been realized in life, one still remains. He also states that even if Christ can fulfill all those requirements, if it is only for this life (and the person realizes that), despair is bound to creep back in- meaning is lost once again. The final component he presents as necessary for meaning is security. He looks at the claim of life existing after death. If life does go on after death, then, he concludes, security is possible, and meaning is also possible. But without it, even as great as the other are, if security does not exist then they are ultimately undermined. Zacharias concludes this second section of the book by stating that if wonder, knowledge, love, and security are all required for meaning, then the only source of meaning is Jesus Christ.
Part 3: Who Is Jesus and Why Does It Matter?
Chapter 12: Getting to the Truth
The third part of the book is focused on testing the claims of Jesus Christ. If Christianity is not actually true, then all the content of the rest of the book is useless. In chapter 12 Zacharias establishes what truth is and the tests that he will be using against the claims of Jesus Christ to discover if it is true. He offers and describes five tests: logical consistency, empirical adequacy, experiential relevance, unaffirmability, and undeniability. He explains the foundation for exclusivism and the law of non-contradiction. He concludes the chapter by explaining that even if someone does not believe that Jesus’ claims to exclusivity are true, they must acknowledge that the claims are logical and testable.
Chapter 13: Humanity’s Dilemma
Zacharias wastes no time in putting to the test one of the foundational teachings of Jesus Christ- that the default posture of the human heart is evil. He examines different philosophies that have founded their prescriptions for humanity based on the idea that the human heart is good. He noted their utter failures and explained why they have failed. Zacharias offers several anecdotes that every person identifies with, and because of that identification, cannot deny the sinfulness of their own hearts. Zacharias concludes that since man has misunderstood his own condition, he has failed to reach his hopes of humanistic utopia. He also concludes that Jesus’ claims about the human heart are undeniable; therefore, true.
Chapter 14: The Philosopher’s Quest
Chapter 14 examines a second claim of Jesus Christ- to be coequal with the Father- being part of a triune God. The Trinity. Zacharias explains that since the days of Thales, the philosopher’s quest has been to find unity in diversity. He contends that God is the unifying factor, but since man has been trying to live life without God, he gets further and further from finding unity in diversity. Yet, the further he gets, the more he recognizes that diversity exists, but unity among the diversities must also exist to make life coherent. Zacharias offers that worship is the quintessential key. He observes that man has the natural desire to worship something- God, creation, ideas, himself- to have a single “something” that he can come back to to understand the diversity. Zacharias explains that the Trinity provides the only way in which unity is found in diversity- the desire of man is found in Christ, who is worthy of worship.
Chapter 15: The Historian’s Centerpiece
In chapter 15 Zacharias examines two issues: Christ’s view of history and the historical event of His resurrection from the dead. He begins the chapter by discussing the different foci of history: past, present, and future. He explains that when a worldview focuses on one at the exclusion of the others, then they are not taking all of reality into account. He offers that only Christianity can make present sense of and offer future hope in light of the past. He presents evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ and explains the historical context in which the claim is made. He connects the resurrection to victory over death and implies that it is through the resurrection of Christ, alone, that security may be realize (necessarily connected to meaning in Chapter 11).
Chapter 16: The Believer’s Treasure
In the final chapter Zacharias addresses suffering. He explains that Christianity does not ignore or deny suffering. Rather it addresses it, head on. He presents the cross of Christ as addressing suffering in three related ways. The first, the brutality of the cross on the Innocent indicates the condition of the human heart. Second, the cross is the means by which forgiveness is offered for the condition of the human heart. Third, the cross is evidence that God is not distant from the human condition, but being aware of it, He did something about it. Referring back to Chapter 11, Zacharias states that growing older causes man to see more and more failures of humanity to give himself security and to make himself worthy of praise. As one grows older, the reality that security (and meaning) cannot be found in man becomes painfully apparent. Zacharias points to the cross as the answer to the problem.
Can Man Live Without God was an incredible read. This reviewer did not want to put it down, even though more pressing issues called. It not only has apologetic value, but it has counseling value. Its focus on meaning and despair and their foundations in Christ and apart from Christ, respectively, can offer comfort and relief for those who are going through life’s inevitable difficulties. The book is quite accessible to all levels of theological or philosophical understanding and is useful for every member of the Body of Christ in carrying out the Great Commission. For the unbeliever, Zacharias challenges them to find meaning apart from Jesus Christ and offers Him as a reliable source of perpetual meaning. As mentioned in the introduction, this review is only scratching the surface of what Zacharias has in the book. It is highly recommended at the reader of this review take the time to read the book in its entirety and think seriously and deeply about what Zacharias has presented.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Luke Nix is a Computer Systems Administrator in Oklahoma, USA. He has a beautiful and supportive wife, but no kids yet. In his spare time he enjoys studying theology, philosophy, biology, astronomy, psychology and apologetics. If you liked this review, more of his writing can be enjoyed at lukenixblog.blogspot.com.