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.