This is a follow up to my brief thoughts (Thoughts on David Wood vs Michael Shermer @ KSU, GA 10/10/2016) on the debate which I attended this Monday. Click here to see the video that David Wood shared. It was meaningful for me to go and to shake David’s hand. David was my church when I didn’t have one.
As I mentioned in my earlier post, I noticed that Michael’s presentation was easy-going, sarcastic (in a funny way) at times, and pretty much routine. However, at 2 points, he was a little more emphatic than normal. For a split-second, I think I saw the ‘child’ in him in that statement. Not that he was ‘childish’, but more that I think that question has a lot of history for him. It was an honest question. A question unfiltered by his professionalism. It probably reminded him of past hurts that changed his path. It was when he challenged David with the timeless syllogism, “If God is good and powerful, how is there evil?”
He raised the example of children dying of leukemia.
Actually, at the moment Michael ‘cracked’, I actually felt for him. For those questions were very real for me too, especially when I lost EVERYTHING. I was going to ask him during the open-mic time. I lined up, but before it got to my turn, it was times-up. But I think that was God’s will. Because a great deal of importance was to explain my context to Michael before my 2 questions, which probably could not be done on an open mic due to time constraint.
So I spoke to Michael after the debate. I shared my story, and then gave my opinion on how to this syllogism was not a paradox to me, and it was slightly different from the responses that he was used to hearing. For I am that person who went through years of senseless, arduous suffering. I spent years “burnt” up, with no hope of recovering. I saw that people can be indifferent to things they don’t understand or who gravitate towards you for superficial reasons, and leave you when you aren’t that “shiny object” anymore.
After my sharing, I was very surprised when he said, “I really liked that answer” without giving any counterpoint. I remember taking a picture with him later, happy that we separated as 2 human beings with respect for each other’s journey.
This is what happened.
I first thanked him and shared how I actually enjoyed listening to him. I proceeded to tell him I had 2 questions for him, but I have to share my history first – the senseless long suffering. I was also an ex-skeptic, lost many years of life and was disappointed in the Church / God at that time too. When I said, “I have struggled with this question for years”, we looked eye-to-eye and I suspect we recognized something in each other that had mutual respect – that human journey of discovery.
I shared with him my story for a minute. The image of my body covered with sores on the iPhone between us. Then, I said (as best as I can remember – parts in * are my own additional thoughts):
“I call tell you that some of my experiences in my dying moments were far more intense, meaningful and higher in quality as compared to when I was healthy and everything was easy.
For example, when 99 friends left me, the 1 that stayed behind was so precious to me. When I was covered with sores and no one wanted to touch me, the stranger that held my hand made me experience a grace and love like no other. When it was easy for others to make fun of me, or belittle me; the few that defended me caused me to appreciate such moral courage on a different scale. It meant 100x more than before. After I knew I lost my chance of making it back in my career, my experience of actually flourishing in my career in ways unthinkable generated in me a intoxicating wonder about life. Even in my suffering itself, I also empathized and encouraged people that others could not encourage. And we had unforgettable exchanges – baring our human spirits without ego and pride. Being forced to confront this darkness also changed my perspective for the better. I recognized and was touched by higher degrees of love and moral courage that I soon recognized around me. Problems that used to be big became shadowy small. Even if I didn’t recover, that point of losing my life caused me to drop many of the trappings of the world. I no longer cared about ego and pride. I no longer cared if I had a better career than others or not. I no longer cared that I would have the perfect girlfriend. When I made peace with my mortality, I was freer than when I was healthier. These are meaningful experiences that money cannot buy. * No wonder Jesus said “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matt 16:25)
As one of my favorite writers said,
““You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”
* Taking an observation from a person who really was naturally selected to despair in this world:
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
Here’s the kicker. When I was young, smart, successful and healthy, I would have never known this. This particular realization is almost impossible to know until you are forced there – because it is not intuitive to our base carnal instincts of pleasure or survival. I used to think that arduous long-suffering was useless and bad. That any benefits of it, if any, were trivial compared to the negative. It was only when I am walking “in the valley of the shadow of death” for a prolonged period that I can see these things. The experiences I’ve had were meaningful on a scale totally different from when I was healthy. But we can only know this from a different vantage point, a hindsight, and from the benefit of a future moment. From the vantage point of those who haven’t lost their lives, the ‘evil’ (as defined by senseless suffering) will always incite a knee-jerk reaction of useless, negativity and hopelessness to be avoided.
* Even the word ‘Passion’ comes from the Greek verb πασχω meaning to suffer. I firmly believe the the pinnacle of human experience requires suffering to bring it about. Not just minor suffering, but the great suffering that brings about fear and hopelessness. In that environment can we see real moral courage, real love (not Hollywood), and real heroism.
Hence my first question: So is the word “evil” in the syllogism interpreted too simplistically by people who actually haven’t gone through the process of arduous hopeless impending death? Have they interviewed that group of leukemia children? I strongly suspect that they might have experienced meaning higher than many people. That look of a parent, holding their hands, never giving up and wishing they could transfer the fears and pains to themselves … that sight would bring meaning. That sight IS meaning. In fact, that reminds me of what Christ did. These children would have lost the trappings of the world much faster and see the real beautiful parts of the human spirit. Riches, health, fame and people’s envy is not what brings meaning … just ask the 95% rate of ugly divorces in Hollywood. There are people who have lived much longer that never got a chance to see such beauty because they always got in the way of themselves.
For myself, I am doing quite well for myself today. But in the course of my decline and darkness, I’ve had experiences many times more meaningful than when everything was good and easy. My improvement of character, and my experiences after my significant recovery are but cherries on top. The Abyss is dark, meaningless and void on the outside. But once you are forced inside and have to find a way out, that’s when we can truly get past our selfish ego and understand words like “redemption”. Many people would think my capitulation was stupid and pointless. So did I. Except it wasn’t.”
Some could say that I was putting flesh on bones on a classical Christian response that God has good reasons for allowing suffering and evil to exist. He uses suffering and evil to accomplish a greater good, even if we never know exactly what that reason. Theories like Free-will Theodicy and Soul-wise Theodicy add color to that Christian response. But Michael is used to hearing these responses.
However, I suspect this is slightly different, because my response is personal – not personal in that it’s based on my experience, but personal that this ‘evil’ is necessary for an individual to experience the most beautiful human experience in its present moment as well for his future redemption. I’ve heard many theologians talk more about good as a whole in the world. Meaning that senseless suffering exists for some; but it is necessary for history and the whole human-race to have a net good effect. Other theologians talk about heaven, that for many there is senseless suffering, but heaven makes up for it. As an ex-skeptic, I don’t like to talk about heaven in apologetic arguments, as I believe there is enough evidence on earth to strongly hint there is a God. Others talk about that bad stuff is required to make us better. However, I am arguing that the bad stuff itself is required for the pinnacle of human experience.
I believe that God has a purpose for all of us on earth, and that purpose is that through Jesus, one can have Life (capital L – the zoe life). This life is a lot of things, but most importantly, it has meaning. You may be rich or poor, start out with a lot in life, or a lot less; but God will show you great meaning with Him, especially so when there is darkness. Money cannot buy such meaning. This resonates with all humans because God created us this way.
What I am saying is that the pinnacle of meaning and human experience is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. Thinking this way is tragically myopic and this trips many of us up when trying to figure out the problem of evil. Ironically, the Bible told me this a long time ago. The drama of Earth all started because Adam and Eve had a choice, not between the tree of good vs the tree of evil. It was a choice between the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Regardless of the act of obedience / disobedience, God always knew that these were two states that men would tend to. Can you see how God separated the two sets?
God views ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as trivial, it is the lower form of life to only be captivated on these two things. Instead, He wanted us to have Life, through Redemption! And all the way back in Genesis, where it all started, He already set this plan in motion.
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your seed and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
Jesus was predestined since the beginning to be that vehicle to bring us back to Life. The Zoe Life. A life where Grace and Mercy would follow us all of our days (Psalm 23).
Hence, the pinnacle of human experience cannot be engineered by us. In our limited knowledge and sinful nature, we try out best to avoid ‘bad’ stuff and collect ‘good’ stuff. Many people do not have the ability to do that, and yet, even the people end up with a “quiet desperation” (Thoreau) – the lower state of being. But when God forgives our guilt/sin and rearranges your bad stuff and good stuff together to make great stuff that you never imagined, we see God, we see Jesus; and it transforms us in ways unbelievable. Its like the ultimate life hack, if you will. We have moved from Law consciousnesses which leads to condemnation (2 Cor 3:6-10) to Grace/Redemption consciousnesses which leads to Life. We don’t care about what our efforts deserve, but are captivated by a loving God and His master plan. And in losing our desire for material blessing, He ends up blessing you with it anyway.
My testimony of 2009 – It’s not a loss, giving up your way of supply to God’s supply according to His riches and glory.
I redefined myself as a stock market trader in 2007-2008. I had my ups and downs and simply had an average performance. The stock market was just too big and mysterious to figure out. Since mid 2007, the stock market went into what was known as the second great recession. Many investors lost great amounts of savings. In 2009, I still had many questions about God and Jesus, and a hurting heart since I lost a great many things. But after starting to challenge God to truth, I felt pushed to go to Seminary. I knew it was the only place to investigate my questions that were not trivial. For example, it was not only to question the existence of God, but what exactly does the Bible say about grace, and how do we know the Bible is authentic and inspired. I had to undo a large amount of doubt, having taken liberal religious studies in college. It was a very difficult choice. This is because my health condition was costing me thousands of dollars, and I wasn’t earning much as a trader. My bank account was draining.
But it came to a point that I told God in all honesty that I wanted to seek Him if He existed, and wanted to put a sincere attempt to discover the Truth. I took the step to go to Seminary. While there, God told me to stop day trading and concentrate on studying and investigating the Bible, history and apologetics instead. But before I stopped trading, I had a life-definting moment.
The decision to go to Seminary coincided with a significant part (although I didn’t know it at the time) with my quest to understand the stock market. After reading at least 30 books regarding different aspects of the market (that’s all I could do as I couldn’t go outdoors), I started to make theories about the market although I didn’t have the experience to verify how good these theories were. God started to put resources in my path … I would randomly meet the right person to have an interesting talk… a particular service provider would pop-up on my YouTube feed … I would come across by “random” particular articles. All of it was adding fuel to my thesis. The extent of my investigation was telling me that the bottom of the stock market was near or here.
But with all stock market bottoms, the bottoms are almost always in a climate of fear. It is very hard to plunge into the market because of all that maximum fear. There are reasons, in the mainstream media, that causes us to fear, that’s why it’s the bottom. Even though God was spoon-feeding me the answers, I had already lost half of my savings and I was too afraid to lose more.
God had to give me more than just ‘wisdom’. I’ll explore Binah (God’s wisdom) and Hakam (Street smarts) with you another day… these were the 2 things He gave me during this dark time. He also had to reverse my human sinful condition for the breakthrough to happen. I was so afraid to lose more. I felt so condemned that I lost so much to begin with.
But as I wrestled with God in those 2 years, the Spirit of son-ship permeated into my being although I didn’t know it at the time. Sometimes we can’t know it, we only know it by our actions we do later that proved that we have changed.
For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love and a sound mind
2 Tim 1:7
I remember very clearly about those days. At the moment I went to Seminary, it was like time stood still. All my fears I had about finances just became small. But I wasn’t reckless either. The noise faded away. My mind was sound. At that moment, it was almost like I saw through the market. The market was no longer a mysterious monster, but a baby acting out a tantrum. I knew that in all logic, now was the right time to make big bets. I promised God that I would make the big bets, and then I would choose to not day-trade and concentrate on the Bible instead. This was a very unnatural thing to do. When we are in fear after losing much, we are always tempted to look at our stock holdings often and keep making moves. That year also had ups and downs. But God told me to ignore the downs and focus on search for Truth.
That year was the best financial year ever.
Who would have thought that when I spent significantly less time on the market, I did far better than I ever thought? I gave up financial trading activity for Seminary activity and I did better in finance? That 1 year made up for at least 5 years of not really being able to build a career. It would have been unthinkable, until I realized that is precisely what Jesus does.
“Master,” Simon replied, “we have worked through the night without catching anything. But because You say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done so,they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to tear.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
These were the bookends of who Jesus introduced himself and re-introduced himself to his disciples. You see what Jesus does? He likes to identify himself as the One that can supply our needs, and that He knows your world better than you do. As a professional fisherman, of course he would be skeptical of Jesus. What does a unknown rabbi know about fishing? Peter has a fishing business for years. To get more money and more fish, he probably had his own protocols and strategies that he was about to do, yet Jesus showed him a new way. And when He does show his new way, the supply is not according to our limited, stingy standard. It is according to His standard, according to His riches and glory. And, after the disciples thought they lost Jesus; that maybe Jesus wasn’t who He said He was, look at how Jesus re-introduced himself. Did he come back and started talking about the Sermon on the Mount? Did he come back to preach to them all sorts of parables? Did he come back to remind them of the Great Commission? None of those things. He showed them He cared with them, supplied them and knew their world better than they did.
But I could only understand this when I lost everything most of us strive for on earth. Until we lose fame, fortune, money and health and see a new way, our sinful condition predisposes us to continue striving after all these things. The stars are shining brighter than bright, yet we don’t want to see them because we remain stuck in our comfortable bedrooms playing a figurative X-box. The game seems engaging on the short term, but we does it have value in eternity? The question pricks us like a splinter in our minds. “Never mind. I’ll just keep playing the X-box to forget about that question” – we tell ourselves.
Case in point was spoken by an Asian philosopher that I see almost everyday, talk to and argue with (especially in the restroom):
If you want to taste the tastiest, most unforgettable drink ever, it will not be the most expensive wine. It will be plain, boring water – after you have been starving in the desert for 2 week.
A central thesis in my book will be this. That God is not interested in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as how humans tend to think about it. He is interested in ‘Redemption’ which is the pinnacle of human experiences. Darkness is required by necessity to have Redemption. If you haven’t experienced Redemption, you haven’t really lived. Darkness not only makes redemption much sweeter (going from 0 to +100 is not as fantastic from going from -100 to +100), it forces us to find the purpose of Life, Jesus because He is the only one that can save us. Darkness makes us realize that we need saving. The central thesis of the entire Bible is the redemption of man, and the personal redemption of individual people. The vehicle that the whole Bible points to for this is Jesus.
Back to my second question.
This one is admitted seems like a variation of a moral law argument of sorts, but tweaked based on the context of our discussion.
“I hear many atheists talk like the worst thing is pain and death, but in theory, death is the most natural thing around. Since the day we are born we observe death occurring to 100% of all organisms. Not just people. Animals, plants, fungi, bacteria … death comes from everyone. Death is even more natural than life. Not all of us reproduce, but all of us die. The universe itself tends to chaos than order. Second question: If that’s what all organisms observe since the time we existed, why do we have this moral aversion to death? If we are but random particles competing with each other for limited resources, why is life/death so important? It should be as natural as breathing. Why do we feel sentimental if a fellow human dies? Is the fact that we have this knee-jerk aversion to death a hint that we are more than molecules?
There was a brief silence after I finished the second question, by Michael as well as the two people listening in. This caught me by surprise because he always had something to say as he spoke to a couple of others before my turn.
He looked at me, smiled and said:
“I really like that answer.”
More brief silence. Nothing else.
I took a selfie with him and wished him well.
It was time to embark on my 4 hour drive back to Nashville.
Your fellowship journeyman,
PS: What was GREAT was that many Christians came up to Michael after the debate, and had great conversations with him… they were trading opinions and lovingly agreeing to disagree. I think such behavior is what wins people over.
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What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him—
1 Cor 2:9