We do not hear the words ‘nihilism’ or ‘postmodernism’ in our normal conversations. Most of us, perhaps, have never heard them at all, though some will have experienced their hopelessness.

‘Nihil’ is Latin for ‘nothing’. So, nihilism is the understanding of life and reality that says ‘There is no meaning and no purpose. There are no absolutes and no truth. There is nothing about which we can be sure and certain. There are no distinctions and no opposites’. Modernism was committed to find truth, even if that truth was that there was no god. Agnosticism says that ‘if there is any reality, if there is any truth, if there is anything that can be called ‘god’ we cannot know it, we cannot even know that it is there.’ Postmodernism and nihilism go to a deeper level of despair and say ‘there is nothing there to know - no meaning, no purpose, no reality’.

Postmodernism and nihilism are the logical extension of the denial of God and of absolutes found in secular humanism. Having denied the existence of an-outside-of-me absolute God who has revealed ultimate, absolute truth, secular humanism paved the way for relativism and existentialism, in which truth is variable and subjective. This in turn opened the door to post-modern nihilism in which there is no truth and no reality.

Nihilism leaves us alone with ourselves and our own uncertain, subjective thoughts. In denying the existence of absolute truth, of God, of right and wrong, of reality and meaning, it robs us also of our identity. We no longer know what it means to be human. We no longer know who we are, or why we are here, or even if we are here. It cuts us adrift to float in bottomless black hole whose sides we cannot touch and into which no light shines.  And the result? Hopelessness. Meaninglessness. Despair. An overwhelming feeling of being utterly alone, and even of doubting one’s own existence.

In denying God, we as a society, have also denied ourselves. In saying ‘there is no God’ we have also said ‘there is no meaning to human existence’. Now we as a society have to bear the consequences of this nihilism.  Among these widespread consequences are:

[1] the escape from despair into addictions to drugs, sex, violence and gambling,

[2] the attempt to transcend normal consciousness by means of drugs, sex, meditation, Yoga and computer games, and

[3] the supposed ultimate escape of suicide. 

How does nihilism affect the individual Christian?

The person who is a Christian is essentially the opposite of a nihilist. 

As Christians we know God is there.
As Christians we know who God is.
As Christians we know who we are and where we have come from.
As Christians we know why we are here.
As Christians we know where we are heading.
As Christians we also know, as Max Lucado has pointed out, that our failures are not fatal: as Christians we know we are loved and forgiven.

But into all of this grand certainty and meaning and purpose and sense of identity, the sneaking fingers of post-modern nihilism are reaching with deceptive and destructive intent. We fall prey to their seductions 

when we think that nothing, including our lives, has meaning or purpose;

when we let go of the clear distinction between right and wrong, good and evil;

when we embrace a self-negating, self-destructive mentality; 

when we take on board a ‘what’s the use’ attitude;

when we begin to feel helpless in the face of the hopelessness and despair we see all around us;

when our children are in danger of falling into a nihilistic mind set because of their exposure to godless evolution, humanism, atheism and postmodernism and because of the failure of the church to adequately address and answer these belief systems; and

when we feel that the Gospel is irrelevant.

Next week we will consider how we as Christians ought to respond to postmodernism and its devastating impact on our culture.

 © Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2011