Is it better to exist than not? Don’t answer too quickly! For this is a subtle question requiring careful thought. First of all, it is stated as a comparison between two things that are difficult to compare. “Better” is the comparative of good, and good can mean “good for” for a particular nature or absolutely good, which means something “good for” every possible nature. Only God is absolutely good. Life with food is better than life without food because food is “good for” living things. It is difficult to say that it is better to exist than not, because there is no comparison between nonexistence and existence. Not existing is not a defective state of existing. Indeed it is not a “state” at all. Hence we can’t conclude from this comparison that existing is better than not existing. Nor can you get at the question by asking an existing person whether being deprived of existence would be a loss of good and then concluding to the superiority of existing because of its greater goodness. In so far as we imagine a state of being deprived of all goods, of course we would find that condition worse than our present state of relative contentment. But our imaginations fool us here, because ceasing to exist is not comparable to losing a good while remaining in existence.
Is there a way to answer the question? I do not think so if we limit ourselves to the original question: is it better for me to exist than never to have existed? But there are other possibilities: is it better for the universe or others that I exist rather than never to have existed? We may not be able to answer this question, but at least it makes sense. Perhaps we can ask it another way: was it better for God to have created the world than not to have created it? The only workable answer I can imagine to this question goes like this: God created the world out of sheer love to share his eternal joy with creatures. If so, we can safely assume that God determined that it was better for God’s purposes that the world, which includes us, exist rather than not. But even from a divine perspective how does God know that it is better for you and me to exist than not, since there is no way to compare the two? I can think of only one way. God can know that it is better for me to exist—for myself and not just for others—only if I am not merely nothingness and chaos before I exist in this world and for myself. I must in some way exist for God and be known and loved by God from all eternity even before I exist for myself. I can then understand God’s act of creating me as enabling the me God knew eternally to exist and act for myself as good for the world and good for me.
Hence we can assert that it is good to exist not only because we desire it naturally or when we experience more good than evil but also as in faith we validate God’s decision that we should exist. Since you in fact exist, you can know that it is better for you and for creation that you exist than never to have been. As long as God wills it, then, “To be” is better than “Not to be.”
Note: Recently, a student asked me the question discussed in this essay. I wrote these thoughts in answer to his question, but I thought I’d share them with you as well.
There is quite a bit on superlatives (good, better, best) in scripture when you look. And Jesus was very fond of them in His teachings. Looking at the use of a superlative always causes my ears to prick up because of Jesus’ usage.
For example, when we talk about the love of the Father as you have mentioned, bringing us into existence there is a marvellous piece of scripture that I like. It is the casting of the nets which John placed at the end of his gospel. The fishermen disciples are floundering and failing to catch and they haven’t the first idea who is watching them. Jesus talks to them and advises, the situation is immediately good. Second He makes a suggestion which they are unsure about, but they do it, and the situation becomes manifestly better (they catch many fish!). In the superlative learning part of this parable, we have the “best” part saved till the end. Contrary to what anyone might think, even the dsiciples, Jesus had already made a perfect fire and prepared a perfect meal of fish right there on the beach, which none had noticed: and yet He allowed and did not let the situation, as it played out from the will of the disciples. There is nothing to be gained from denying that God wishes us to move in superlatives from good, to better, to best without us knowing it… This is the love of the Father.
Regarding the philosophy of such a paradoxical question, Genesis also mentions that ‘it was God whom even put infinity (the concept) into their hearts’. Such is that love of the God of which you speak, made glorious by the painful and loving gift of free will demonstrated itself by this question of existence. Perhaps have a quick look at the misunderstood and often mistranslated article of Romans 8:27-30. and ponder more properly about existence, being very wary of Tulip if you must dear students. Note Paul is making a retrospective statement here, look at the Greek tenses properly.
Also, isn’t the question a little biased in the first place? Since if we are not in any form of existence in the first place, then the question may not have been asked? This then means that the question only has one possible outcome, in that if there was ‘no existence’ then the question does not exist. This is a paradox (see above).
Finally, a quote from a friend of mine that has been in my heart for many years, “True existence must involve the ruthless stripping away of life’s kernels of pretence”. Paradoxical questions are fine but God never pretends, it is a form of dissimulation.