Everything Under the Sun is Absurd
Everything Under the Sun is Absurd: Considering the Existential and Biblical ideas of the Absurd
Since July, I have been reading The Plague, by Albert Camus, alongside an older member of my home church. We discuss parts of the book through the lens of Christianity, and one topic which recurs over and over is the absurd. Truly, the entire book seems to be about the absurd and responses to it. Camus’s idea of the absurd is central to his existential writings: however, this idea of absurdity is also present in the Bible. In this article, I will discuss the absurd as it is shown in both works and contrast the responses they present.
Existentialists define the absurd as the tendency to search for meaning in an existence that has none. Camus himself defines the absurd as being “born out of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” It is the idea that in spite of all our hopes and desires the universe does not care. One could say that the many natural disasters demonstrate this lack of care. For they often destroy property and take lives regardless of our efforts to avoid both. I often experience the absurd when I cannot fall asleep at night, even though I could fall asleep in a lecture that afternoon. Camus gives the example of Sisyphus, a mortal sentenced to repeatedly rolling a boulder up a hill only to let it roll back down, as the epitome of the absurd.
The idea of the absurd is fundamental to The Plague. A plague itself is an action of nature opposing man’s hopes for comfort and life. In the book, the experiences of one character shows the absurd especially well. This character, M. Michel, is sick with the plague. Yet one day, the weather is beautiful which creates an atmosphere of hope within the town. M. Michel’s condition even seems to be improving. However, the plague continues to worsen, and M. Michel dies the next morning. Such dashed hopes occur throughout the book. For each time the plague was expected to lessen, more people died. That is the absurd: that despite all hopes, or even rational expectations, the universe does not care.
The Bible surprisingly confronts the absurd, though it was written much before Camus articulated his ideas of the absurd. The author of Ecclesiastes, referred to as “the Preacher”, repeatedly uses the word “vanity” in order to express a sense of absurdity. The second verse reads “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” It is helpful to know that “vanity” was translated from the Hebrew word “hebel,” which refers to trying to grasp a mist or wind. So the Preacher claims that all things are like attempting to hold onto wind; not only is it impossible, but it is pointless to try. Throughout the book, the Preacher asserts the vanity of things such as self-indulgence, toil, wealth, and honor. He even includes wisdom, though there are expressions of its value in other parts of the Bible. This vanity is analogous to the existential absurdity because the Preacher claims characteristics such as wisdom and honor are impossible to hold onto, in spite of our desire and effort to do so. So there is no fulfilling way to be wealthy, as it is insubstantial like a mist. Toil becomes pointless because working for security or wealth is like chasing after wind. In this manner, the Preacher would claim that wise spending is vain. Similarly, he would say that working all day to pay the bills is absurd.
The claims in Ecclesiastes which concern wise spending and work seem to contradict other passages of the Bible. While the Preacher claims that wise spending and work is absurd, other parts of the Bible praise them as having worth. For are we not called to be good stewards of our resources, including money? Are we not also called to honor God in our work? It is important to notice a distinguishing remark which the Preacher makes concerning all that is vain. Often, the preacher notes that all that is “under the sun” is vain. For instance, this occurs when the Preacher questions the meaning of work: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” Further, the Preacher notes that he “has seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” So, everything that the Preacher claims is meaningless exists “under the sun.” One Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, that in the original Hebrew, the phrase “under the sun” signified a situation without God. So, in 14 when the Preacher claims “all is vanity,” he refers specifically towards all that is done without God. Thus, wise spending is not absurd, as long as the spending centers around God. Wisdom is not absurd either, if it is used to the glory of God.
Though we can live in such a way that life is not vain, we still are confronted by the absurd. This happens when a tornado comes through, uprooting trees and destroying our houses even though we desire for them to stay intact. The idea of the absurd is most often noted in the question: why do bad things happen to good people? This is often discouraging to Christians and is used to argue against the Christian God. For how can we experience the absurd in this manner if God were truly all-powerful and loving? I believe there are two ideas which help to understand our experience of the absurd: that some of the absurd results from the fallen world, and that the existence of the absurd can result in good.
When I say that we exist in a fallen world, I mean that the universe does not exist as it was created. When God created the universe, he called it “very good.” However, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, sin entered the world. Because of this, childbirth became painful, the ground was cursed, and work grew less fruitful and meaningful. So the universe was created to be good, but with the fall of man the universe fell too. This fallen state causes natural evils such as devastating hurricanes and tornadoes. In this way, the “unreasonable silence of the world” towards our hopes and desires is a manifestation of the effects of sin. So, as we confront the horrible effects of hurricanes or plagues despite our desires for safety and health, we can understand the source to be the fallen-ness of the universe.
Though some absurd results from sin in the world, God may use instances of the absurd for our good. We often experience the absurd, but God may use these events for our good, such as to bring us closer to him. For instance, an illness is certainly contrary to one’s desire for good health, and may be a manifestation of the absurd. Yet this illness might cause you to rely less on yourself, and focus more clearly on God. So this illness, while being bad in itself, may result in good from a spiritual perspective. It is important to note that the absurd occurrence is not good in itself because it results in good. Instead, God uses a bad occurrence for good, giving it a dual purpose. Similarly, I do not mean to say that we simply accept the illness. For it remains absurd that people become sick in spite of their efforts and desires to remain healthy. In light of this, we can still mourn the absurd as it represents part of sin’s effects in the universe.
Even understanding these ideas of the absurd, we may be tempted to fall into pessimism. For these experiences remain absurd even if they result from sin in the world. Likewise, instances of the absurd which may be used for our good remain absurd as we live in a universe which is deaf to our hopes. It further may seem absurd that we are attached to Adam and Eve’s sin: sin which we did not commit. Through this, it is evident that we will always wrestle with the absurd and its existence. However, if we look “above the sun,” we can find hope as we look forward to the new creation where we will not experience the absurd.
As Camus articulated the absurd in his novels, the Bible confronts this idea in Ecclesiastes as well. Though the Preacher claims that all things are vain, he specifically relates it to life without God. In contrast, life centered around God is not absurd but has meaning. Though we still experience the absurd due to sin in the universe and will continue to wrestle with it, we can look “above the sun” for hope. Further, we may also eagerly await the new creation, where we may live in a new universe without sin or confrontations with the absurd.
1 Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage Books 1991.
2 Albert Camus, The Plague. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
3 Ecclesiastes 1:2 ESV
4 Ecclesiastes 1:3 ESV
5 Ecclesiastes 1:14 WSV
6 Ravi Zacharias, “What is Worthwhile Under the Sun (part 1 of 2).” Podcast audio, March 10, 2012. http://rzim.org/let-my-people-think-broadcasts/what-is-worthwhile-under-the-sun-part-1-of-2/
7 Genesis 1:31 ESV
8 Genesis 3:1-7, 16-18 ESV
9 Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage Books 1991.
Michael McGinnis is a freshman Physics and Philosophy major in the College of Arts and Sciences. He was born in Budapest, Hungary, but he currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Tags: absurdity, Albert Camus, apologetics, Existentialism, hope, love, Ravi Zacharias, Sisyphus, wisdom, work