Tolstoy's pain: Why atheism leads to despair

If atheism is true life has no meaning or purpose. Photo: Leo Tolstoy

LONDON, February 25, 2012 — In his book The Gospel in Brief, Leo Tolstoy wrote about a personal crisis he underwent around the age of fifty. It was a crisis that nearly claimed his life:

“Fifty years after my birth, having asked myself and all the wise ones in my circle who I am and what the purpose of my life is, I received the answer that I am an accidental clutter of parts that there is no purpose in life… I fell into despair and wanted to kill myself.”

Tolstoy’s long season of despair was one the great trials of his life. Things became so dire that he stopped going hunting for fear he could not resist the urge to shoot himself while out in the woods.

The root cause of Tolstoy’s anguish could be easily pinpointed – his predicament was brought on by his atheism. It could not have been otherwise, because despair is the inevitable destiny of every clear-thinking person who subscribes to this worldview.

If atheism is true life is devoid of meaning or purpose. We are here for a blip of time and then we die. All we do in our lives – all our efforts and aspirations – are completely meaningless. It does not even matter whether one is a good person or a bad person. Ultimately, it really makes no difference whether you are a Mother Theresa or an Adolf Hitler. They both died and ceased to exist and soon will also everyone whose lives they touched one way or another.

In the end the universe itself will die a thermodynamic death. All the achievements of man – the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Bach, the sculptures of Michelangelo, the discoveries of Newton and Einstein – will have been for naught. The earth will be a block of dead ice floating aimlessly through a cold, burnt-out universe. Everything that man has ever done or accomplished will have been in vain.

There are those who say that even though life has no meaning we should try to snatch as much pleasure during our time on earth as we possibly can. But this a futile effort also, because pleasures – whether of the body or of the mind – are ultimately empty. In fact, people often find that as they grow older the pleasures that had once brought a measure of joy become tedious and unexciting.

King Solomon who as an old man penned the book of Ecclesiastes articulated this truth when he wrote: “All things are wearisome; man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing.”

We do not, however, have to go to an ancient Jewish text to read about the frustration that inevitably engulfs a pleasure-orientated life. More recently, a rock star who could freely indulge in every conceivable pleasure sang, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Whoever says that we can gain some degree of real happiness by pursuing pleasure – whether of carnal, intellectual or aesthetic kind – is simply not telling the truth.

If atheism is true then despair and frustration are our inescapable lot. But the most painful of all is the notion that life has no meaning. To a man who truly grasps the idea that his life is meaningless this realization cannot but become a source of unceasing torment. To a perceptive unbeliever his existence must appear as some cruel cosmic joke that is very hard to bear.

If one is a cheerful atheist, it is only because he has either not thought his worldview through or he deceives himself regarding the inevitable implications of it. When once grasped for what it really is, atheism is nearly impossible to endure. Suicide would, indeed, seem as the most reasonable and logical solution to the meaninglessness of human existence. That’s why Tolstoy wanted to kill himself. He experienced that suicidal urge, because he was an atheist who could see clearly the bleak hopelessness of his position.

After a long and agonizing struggle, Tolstoy finally overcame his despondency by finding transcendence in God. If you, too, happen to be an atheist in despair over the absurdness of life take heart. Your predicament can be easily remedied, since deep down you know that atheism is untrue. Even though you may declare yourself to be an atheist, you certainly do not live like one, because to live consistently in accordance with your profession is simply impossible.

Somewhere in your heart you know that life is not meaningless and that it does matter how we live. You know that there is good and evil and that there is a world of difference between a Mother Theresa and an Adolf Hitler. You know that love excels hate. You know it is better to be a good person than to be a bad one. It is, in fact, very likely that you yourself try every day to be the best person you can be and that you rejoice in your moral progress and regret your failings.

This knowledge and these intuitions are common to all sane men and they show atheism for the lie that it is. Atheism is the product of a stubborn and rebellious heart that is at war with itself. Every day the atheist denies his worldview by his own actions and way of life.

Thankfully, there is a simple solution to this contradiction. You need to stop denying the obvious and start believing what you already know is true. You are God’s creature and you bear his divine stamp all over your being. To become whole, you need to accept and acknowledge Him who is the source of all life, goodness and meaning.

This is what Tolstoy did and his change of mind saved his life and sanity. This is how he described his great decision in his book Confession: “I returned to a belief in God, in moral perfection, and in a tradition transmitting the meaning of life.”

Even though he was already considered the greatest living writer, Tolstoy was not ashamed to confess his mistakes and personal insufficiency before the creator of the universe. We should do no less.

____________________

Born and raised under communism, Vasko Kohlmayer is a naturalized American citizen. He has lived in several countries under various forms of government, but he still marvels at the goodness of God and the wonder of life.

He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and internet journals. Vasko currently lives in Europe with his long-suffering wife and two beautiful daughters. He is the founder of The Christian Writers Foundation.

His column “Higher Things” deals with matters pertaining to God. You can read more by clicking on this link.

If you wish to be notified of Vasko’s new articles you can subscribe for updates here.

 


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Vasko Kohlmayer

Born and raised under communism, Vasko Kohlmayer is a naturalized American citizen. He has lived in several countries under various forms of government, but he still marvels at the goodness of God and the wonder of life. He has discovered that no matter how many places you've been, there is always something new to learn wherever you go.

Having started with sciences, he earned degrees in philosophy and literature. He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and internet journals on subjects ranging from Russian politics to the gold standard. Vasko currently lives in Europe with his long-suffering wife and two beautiful daughters. He is the founder of The Christian Writers Foundation.  

 

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