Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, amid his difficult and tormented existence, once wrote the following based on his experience in a Tsarist prison camp where he spent a few years for political reasons
“The idea has occurred to me that if one wanted to crush, to annihilate a man utterly. . . one need only give him work of an absolutely, completely useless and irrational character. . . . [I]f he had to pour water from one vessel into another and back, over and over again, to pound sand, to move a heap of earth from one place to another and back again—I believe the convict would hang himself in a few days or would commit a thousand crimes, preferring rather to die than to endure such humiliation, shame and torture.”
And yet, Dostoyevsky had extended this idea, not just to prisoners in the Gulag, but to life in general and the inherent meaninglessness of life lived without God and the hope of eternity. Dostoyevsky biographer Robert Frank expressed it like this: “One has only to transpose the terms of this passage slightly in order to see its metaphysical implications. Not to believe in God and immortality, for the later Dostoevsky, is to be condemned to live in an ultimately senseless universe, and the characters in his great novels who reach this level of self-awareness inevitably destroy themselves because, refusing to endure the torment of living without hope, they have become monsters in their misery.”
No question that we as human beings struggle with the fact that though we can, unlike clams and ostriches, contemplate the idea of eternity, of transcendence, we in and of ourselves have no way to get it. We all face our inevitable mortality. And we know it too, which can easily make life, as Dostoyevsky understood, seems as meaningless and as useless as, well, pouring water back and forth between vessels.
How thankful we should be for the promise, over and over in the New Testament, of “eternal life” (Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; John 3:16; John 6:54; John 10:28; John 17:2; Acts 13:84; Romans 5:21; 1 Timothy 6:12, 19; 1 John 1:2, Jude 21). Read these promises, marvel over them, and realize what it cost the Lord to give them to us.
There’s no meaning, no purpose, nothing in this life that death doesn’t ultimately annihilate. Dostoyevsky, like many others, understood that. And the Lord does, too, which is why, through the Gospel, through the plan of salvation, we have been given the answer to death: eternal life in Jesus Christ.