The recently passed Stephen Hawking, who even became a pop-culture icon, said in an earlier interview, “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
RIP Stephen Hawking.
I recall my own journey. Just like Hawkings, I too got “crippled” at what was to be the prime of a man’s life, there was so much I wanted to do, my bodily components failed, and my brain functions also started to fail as well.
This prompted me to write this piece.
Whenever I reach into my past to draw from my personal war with atheism, it also triggers a deep-seated mono no aware, residual echoes of a harrowing past from the battle-scars upon my heart. I likely still bear some of the damage in the soul, having experienced the injustice of being debilitating sick without reason, the hypocrisy of the church, and being exposed to liberal historical Jesus scholars (EP Sanders, Marcus Borg etc – they believe the Bible does not tell us who the real Jesus is) without the chance to hear from the other scholarly side.(1)
Today, I am no longer atheist, but when I do talk to atheists, I talk to them having been one myself, a long-lost brother, so to speak, but also as a veteran of injustice, and someone with unsatiable curiosity for truth.
In that spirit, there are three things I would like to tell Dr. Hawkins.
But before I do, let me recount a personal story first.
Years ago, I remember meeting an intelligent atheist called Edward in Singapore. He was an expatriate British computer programmer earning a good wage and I met him as an acquaintance. He took pride being well-read, having shelves of literary works and non-fiction books in his bachelor pad. He was thin-framed, seemed slightly repressed but opinionated. He knew I was Christian and we got along totally fine as long as we didn’t go into discussions of religion. After discussions about economics, politics and my personal journey on how I learned to trade the stock market, he found me to be an ample thinker and sincere in my approach. At one point, he dropped a snide remark to me like “you look like an intelligent guy, why are you a Christian?”
I would reply back with a twinkle in my eye, “it’s because I am intelligent, that’s why I cannot deny Christianity.”
I followed that up with raising two intellectual curiosities – how the majority of scientists acknowledge “someone” had monkeyed around with the laws of physics during the origin of the universe; and even more poignant, how it’s by definition, impossible to get something out of nothing. (A quantum vacuum fluctuation is not “nothing”, sorry Lawrence Krauss). I also talked very briefly about my time in Seminary, where I investigated certain parts of the Bible in a historical and hermeneutical manner so that I could ascertain if real prophecies exist. I had to do so because I have a skeptical mind and some parts of the Bible certainly looks divinely inspired. I told him that the book of Daniel (written circa 6th century BC), roughly 600 years before Christ died on Calvary predicted when “the anointed one will be put to death and have nothing” (Daniel 9:24-25). This prophecy need not be taken by faith and can be investigated empirically.
These “new ideas” at least warranted acknowledgement of facts or an invitation of future preponderance, but instead this conversation thread died off. It was sad because I was careful to not talk about my opinions, but just the scientific and historical facts – I was playing in the atheist’s playground rules, so to speak. But as Gerald Schroeder once wrote address how the atheistic scientific community was resisting acknowledgment of majority of science work pointing towards a beginning of the universe, “Yet old ideas cling even in the face of contradictory evidence. It’s a biological fact that the song a sparrow learns in its youth is its song for life. We humans are not so very different.”
I remember Edward’s initial response, it was a stunned silence. Christians who were logical, empirical and persuasive in a personal and non-combative way did not exist in his experience. I could tell he appreciated the way I shared it – in the form of a personal learning journey, and not in a pedantic manner. Soon, we changed topics, went to dinner, and talked about his experience as a white British guy in Singapore.
After that dinner, I don’t recall seeing him for months, for we did not have much in common.
However, one day, when I found out he was jaundiced and hospitalized for the last 4 days, I promptly went to visit him.
He laid in bed, with yellowish skin, looking weak. Under a calm demeanor was a worried undertow. What betrayed his façade of “what, me worry?” was that he knew the doctors couldn’t quite figure out why he was so jaundiced, and by now, he seemed to have lost 20 pounds and could not speak with ease.
Edward was going through 2 of an Atheist’s greatest nightmares at once.
One, he had to come to grips with our frail mortality – that for all of our ego, trophies, and endeavors on earth, we will eventually come to nothing. That possibility leered closer and closer with every throbbing pain. Two, established human institutions pride themselves on being the intellectual authorities but in actuality does not have all the answers. Doctors couldn’t figure out what caused this jaundice and the great uncertainty of what might be waiting on the other side came to roost. He didn’t have to say anything, I could see it in his eyes and feel it in his spirit. I know because I’ve had the same spirit before.
Seeing how hopeless he looked, I offered to pray for him. At that moment, you could see his deep-seated hatred over something. He aggressively insisted that I not pray for him. At that point, I realized that a core component that led to his atheism was not just intellectual, but past hurts and disappointments. The reason he puts up a wall is that he projects bad past experience to the present. In psychology, we call it “projection”. (2) In Christian jargon, we say this is a stronghold.
This is because rejecting my sincere prayers at a time of need is very inconsistent for a man that prides himself in his intelligence. Because firstly, if God didn’t exist, my prayers are empty words and would mean nothing; at best, you get my positive thoughts (psychological research has shown that religious activity like prayers and singing significantly improves health, far more than placebo effects). Also, if He did exist, you have a maximum to gain since the doctors are clueless. This is a form of Pascal’s Wager except it is much better since Edward has absolutely nothing to lose. Second, I told him that many atheists claimed to be all about the individual and they are free to grow and believe anything so long as it’s not personally harmful. My prayer is the way I express myself the best. It would be the same as stopping a singer from singing, or a baker from baking. Singers sing, bakers bake and Christians pray for the needy. At best, my prayer might cause a miracle; at worst, it’s just positive wishes from a genuinely caring but deluded person. Either outcome is better than most others that didn’t even care to visit. Hence, his refusal is not consistent with his logic of individual expression, programming, and doing things for max wellbeing. Is a wounded ego superseding logic at this point?
I told him that I never took any offense in his lack of belief in God and snide remarks.
“I let you be you, so why not let me be myself around you?”
Without any explanations, he kept insisting. This was when I realized that although his position had been framed by his intellectual worldview, the blueprint of that worldview was entrenched a long time ago by past hurts and disappointing experiences (albeit deep-seated and tucked away). I can tell because of his disdain for certain Catholic priests, having studied in a Catholic school when younger.
I went away shaking my head. Such stubbornness, I thought to myself. But of course, I prayed for him once I stepped out of the hospital bedroom.
However, weeks later, something happened.
He came to me and said that not only did he recover shortly after my visit (more stunned silence after I told him I prayed for him anyway in the hallways) but only the Christians (me) were the only people that visited him in the hospital and showed concern with his life. The other professionals and blokes he shared beers with regularly (atheist too) didn’t even bother to visit. They were too busy with their selfish ambitions. That caused him to really reflect on things.
It was acts of real love and a genuine reach out that caused him to reflect on things, not the arguments themselves. Why?
Because man is born as a cosmic orphan.
He is the only animal in the cosmos that asks the questions why? He needs to know his place in the universe, where other animals are guided by a lesser instinct. All of us know that we will eventually return to dust, and is trying desperately to find a “home”, a “family” in the hope that our identities have intrinsic value. We yearn for something or someone to validate that will not be eventually reduced to a statistic or an incomplete remnant in the memory of his descendants. We have a soul that seems have a touch of eternity and desires to be fully known and still loved, yet nature tells us everything tend to decay, is transient and no one will remember you when you’re gone… there’s no practical reason to.
One of my favorite bands, Plumb, calls this yearning “a God-shaped hole“.
A wise man once said:” human life is like a book whose first and last chapters are missing.” But it’s those two bookends that frame our existence. It gives a lasting meaning to all the narration and actions of everything in between. Without knowing how we start or how it ends, we have a great lack of purpose to our momentary pursuits today. Are we like flowers of the field that sit pretty in the sunlight in the day, but end up on the threshing floor later?
Most atheists ignore this inevitability, for it is too terrifying to bear. I respect Bertrand Russell because he follows the logical conclusion to such a worldview.
“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms… Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
As for Edward, prior to the hospital visitation, I hardly socialized with him. I was still afflicted with my autoimmune disease so I could never be part of his regular drinking parties. He had a budding career as a programmer, I was still trying to get off the floor literally at home. So I am the least likely person to visit him. So when I came, my visitation was a message without words. It was a message that said that we are in this together, that there is something that binds us outside of what we can do for each other. That even though we have nothing in common, you are still valuable. I visited him because God loves him and God has a plan for his life. The beauty of such a belief is that nothing on earth can take away such value. Though unspoken, I know that Edward can fractionally be one step closer to believe this could be true.
St Francis of Assisi said it best, “Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words.”
When we show people they have intrinsic worth, which is the basis for God’s unconditional love, we show them that somehow we are connected – that we are brother or sister. That connection cannot come from selfish genes or the unfeeling universe, thus opening up the possibility that there indeed is Someone outside of the known universe that is above and beyond. This Someone offers love when there is none. This Someone offers us hope when there is none.
Are you a cosmic orphan, not knowing your place in this vast unfeeling universe? Or better put, are you a spiritual orphan? Just as earthly orphans bear the resemblance and traits of their parents but might have no idea who they or where they are, a spiritual orphan does not know the heritage of where his spirit comes from.
It doesn’t have to be this way. God is the Father to the fatherless. He is where you came from, but we got separated by sin. Jesus paid the price of that sin by taking our place of death on the cross. Now, our spirits can find it’s true home, with God the Father.
The fact is that all of us are cosmic orphans until we find God’s love. Receiving physical expressions of God’s love and grace either directly through serendipitous events, or through His children might not intellectually convince a person that loving God exists, but it definitely removes the poison in the soil that prevents it. When that poison is removed, the new fruits can form, although it might take a lot of time. Keep the water poisoned, and the fruits will continue to look jaundiced.
Let’s continue to pray for grace and healing for ourselves as well as those who fervently champion the idea of there being no god.
Going back to Stephen Hawking’s quote, he said “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Hawkins indeed had great contributions to scientific work and was brave in the face of debilitation. He was a brilliant cosmologist, but he also is a cosmic orphan. In fact, he was a spiritual orphan too. He didn’t know his place in the universe and it’s a tragedy that he did not admit his spirit had such royal origins.
But if I had the chance I would have told/asked him:
- Why are you ignoring the majority of the scientific community? They are tending towards either a God or a higher power. Here are the reasons why …
- Your response is not logical with your actions, and your a priori declaration of no heaven is actually very unscientific. But I know why you keep asserting it, as I’ve been an atheist myself …
- I apologize on the behalf of those evil, immature men who hurt you or others in your formative years. I am positive it shaped your ideological direction…
I will write 3 separate posts to address each one, and hopefully, weave my own experiences to personalize it. Today’s post is just an introduction.
Our God is a Father to the Fatherless. There is hope even after life.
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