My brother-in-law, sister-in-law, nephew and his friend were on their way to the Life is Beautiful concert in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 1, 2017 when Stephen Paddock began shooting. Had they not been delayed while on their way by just a few minutes, they would have been in the line of fire. Though I am thankful they were running late, I continue to grieve over the 58 who were not so fortunate. In my grief, I ask the same question everyone else is asking: Why? The answer may be right in front of us, but it is not one we want to acknowledge.
Over the next few days as we learned more about the shooter, I began to have a sinking feeling that the reason for the shootings may be the one reason we fear most—that there was no reason. Now, almost a month later, I am becoming more convinced that this is the answer. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, understanding this may help us in our struggle, and allow us to help others.
Searching for a Motive
Like so many others, I kept watching the news and hoping investigators would find a motive—a lost love, radical extremism, financial ruin. But the more we know about Paddock, the less those or other reasons seem plausible. He seemed to be happy with his romantic interest. The authorities have found no link to extremist groups. He was quite wealthy. He appeared “normal” and gave no one any sense that he may be plotting a massacre. Nothing seems to explain his actions.
As the investigation eliminates possible motives, I am grudgingly more and more willing to admit that my worst fear may be true—nihilism may be the “cause” of his actions. My son and I are reading through James Sire’s The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue. Just before the shooting, we had discussed the chapter on nihilism, so it was on my mind. When I heard about the murders my worst fear was that it was nihilism that drove Stephen Paddock to do something so horrific. But I didn’t want this to be the “reason.” In the past few weeks, I’ve heard a few others, who I respect, suggest this as well.* If so, it is essential to understand nihilism, why this would lead to such an atrocity as the 2017 Las Vegas shootings, and what we can do about it.
What is Nihilism?
Nihilism is the view that life has no objective value, meaning, or purpose. It is Enlightenment philosophy in full bloom. The Enlightenment rejected everything but the “here and now.” If something is not physical, tangible, observable and measurable, it is not real. Ultimate faith was placed in science as the only way to know anything.
Therefore out went God, souls, objective moral values, meaning, and purpose. There is no room for such ideas if all that exists is matter since matter can’t give rise to values, meaning or purpose. From this metaphysic (view of reality) a new epistemology (view of knowledge) emerged: Science is the only, or at least the best way to know anything (known as “Scientism”). If something can’t be “proven” scientifically, it is not real (or at least not worth knowing). So there can be no knowledge of objective values, meaning or purpose. Science tells us only what, not why. (See here for more on the Enlightenment. See here and here for more on Scientism.)
As children of the Enlightenment we have embraced these themes, becoming “free-thinkers” who have grown up intellectually and are “beyond” old beliefs about God and morality held by those pre-Enlightenment (or “Dark” Ages) people who didn’t know any better.
However, most of the Enlightenment thinkers were not willing to live with the consequences of there being no objective values, meaning, or purpose whatsoever. So they smuggled them back in—using these ideas grounded in Theism without giving due credit. For centuries we have lived on this borrowed capital. We have talked as if the Enlightenment was truly enlightening, but have continued to live as if there are objective moral values, true meaning, and ultimate purpose. For instance, we have to tell ourselves that murder is wrong. We have continued to tell ourselves that there is meaning in life—found through money, sex, fame, prodigy or legacy. We have repeatedly told ourselves there is an ultimate purpose to our lives because we have a hard time pressing on if there is not.
Nihilism In Our Culture Today
Slowly some have seen the inconsistency of rejecting the Theistic view of reality, yet still trying to hold on to belief in objective values, meaning, and purpose. Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) did more than anyone to identify these inconsistencies. He argued that without God there is no grounding for objective values, meaning, and purpose. Therefore values, meaning, and purpose are merely what one decides they are. The one who realizes this can become the “Ubermensch”—the “Superman” who rises above these old fables of objectivity and imposes his will—his view of values, meaning and purpose—on all others.
Nietzsche’s nihilism is a full and final rejection of all vestiges of the Christian worldview, which assumes
- There are ultimate values, meaning, and purpose,
- We can find them through reason and revelation,
- In doing so, we will flourish individually and as a society.
Without these assumptions, all that remains is will—the ability to forcibly impose one’s will on others by taking control and exercising power over the others who are weak and powerless.
Those who have read and embraced his thought, such as Hitler, have lived this philosophy out in terrifying ways. I fear Stephen Paddock is but the most recent example of a Nihilist seeking to be the Ubermensch and impose his view of value, meaning and purpose on others through sheer will.
Unfortunately, this should not surprise us. Through the influence of Nietzsche and his followers, nihilism has gained more and more of a following. Today it is common in popular culture. Shows like Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Parks and Recreation repeat the mantra that there are no objective values, meaning, or purpose, and anyone who says so is trying to “have his way with you.” If you watch for it you will see nihilism in many movies as well, including one of my favorites, The Princess Bride, when the protagonist Westley says, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” There is no Good, Meaning or Purpose—just Pain (capitalizations intentional to indicate ultimacy). It is fair to say nihilism has now thoroughly permeated our culture.
Living “Under the Sun”
Nihilism is not a new idea. In fact, it is the focus of the book of Ecclesiastes. The book opens with
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3)
The phrase “under the sun” recurs regularly, and is telling. It means “in the world we can see—if this is all there is.” The writer goes on to explore things that might give meaning if “under the sun” is all there is—if there is no God to provide ultimate, objective value, meaning, and purpose. He pursues study and knowledge—the equivalent of obtaining advanced degrees (1:10-18). He engaged in physical pleasures, aesthetic pleasures, and wealth acquisition (2:1-10). He turned to wisdom as a source of meaning (2:12-16). Everything proved to be meaningless.
And So We Come to Paddock…
Next week I’ll conclude this blog series by showing how Stephen Paddock seems to embody this Nihilistic philosophy. If so, this may be the “reason” we are searching for in order to explain his horrific actions. I’ll also identify three very important lessons we must learn as a result.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading, James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue; Chapter 5—Zero Point: Nihilism
* Most recently Tom Nelson, President of Made to Flourish, during his plenary address at the Common Good 2017 conference. (On another note, I highly recommend his ministry and the Common Good conferences.)