Is the world getting better, or worse? What is your thought? Some people take the same question as a personal one. So they take it as “Is your life getting better?” When their personal life appears to be getting better, particularly from an economic point of view, they think, the world is getting better. Maybe that’s why Bill Gates, one of the richest persons in the world, said last January that “The world is getting better, actually.”
I don’t think he said so only because he is getting richer every day. In an editorial in Time Magazine last January, he mentioned: “A drastic decrease in child mortality rates for children under five,” “A dramatic decline in the proportion of the world population that lives in extreme poverty,” and “A rising number of women worldwide are being elected to public office.”
I agree, particularly “the rising of women” or “the rising of wives.” What was on Vision and Voice last Sunday made me laugh: “In the 1400’s a law was set forth in England that a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. Hence we have ‘the rule of thumb.” English husbands in 14th century must be no match for wives, for they needed a stick as a defending weapon.
Various reports from World Bank, World Health Organization, and OECD, support what Bill Gates said. There has been a remarkable improvement of the quality of life in various areas such as Extreme Poverty, Basic Education, Literacy, Democracy, Vaccination, and Child Mortality. For example, 200 years ago, 94% of the entire population, lived in extreme poverty whereas only 10% of the world population today live in extreme poverty. 200 years ago, 88% of the total population were not able to read whereas only 15% of the world population today are not able to read. We can see a similar tendency of improvement in the other areas as well. However, there are hidden details in this general sketch of the improvement, which send us an alarming signal. For example: It’s only 10% of the world population who live in extreme poverty today,
but it is equivalent to 750 million people. It is only 4% of children who die before they reach the age of five today, but it equals to 5.6 million children which translates into 15,000 babies per day. We can find similar hidden details in other areas as well. No wonder, there are some other people who say, “the world is getting worse,” not only because their life is getting tougher, not only because of the news media’s frequent coverage of the dark side of the world, but they are aware of these problems.
The World, not perfect
It is clear that the world where we live is “troubled water” just as Simon and Garfunkel pointed out as they sang “Bridge over Troubled Water.” (I wish we could listen to the song this morning, but we are running out of time). In a nutshell, the world is not perfect, the world is not safe. So, we need a bridge that carries us safely over this troubled water. Here I have got three big questions: Why is the world not perfect? Why all the suffering in life? How can we be liberated from suffering? Now we are going to have a panel discussion.
Moderator: Let me introduce three panelists who will respond to each question from their own point of view. The first panelist is Mr. Science, an atheist who values scientific methods in understanding the world and supports the evolution theory. The second guest is Dr. Wisdom who has a Theravada Buddhist background, and represents the relativist circles which claim, “life is an illusion.” The last panelist is Sister Grace, a Christian who believes in God as Absolute Being.
1. Why is the world not perfect?
Moderator: Just I mentioned earlier, the world is not perfect. Or we may say, “the world is not safe,” which means, there are life-threatening elements almost everywhere. Why do you think the world is not perfect? Can you put it in one sentence?
Mr. Science: The world keeps evolving.
Dr. Wisdom: The world is the world.
Sister Grace: Because the world was fallen.
Moderator: Thanks for your succinct comments. I have got some questions for you. Let me begin with the evolution of the world. Mr. Science. You said, “the world keeps evolving.” Do you mean, the evolution process continues until the world becomes perfect?
Mr. Science: I believe so.
Moderator: Then, the world eventually becomes a place without any life-threatening danger such as earthquake, flood, cyclone, or famine. Is that what you believe?
Mr. Science: I haven’t thought about that in such detail. The world has been evolving, and yet I don’t know how far it will proceed.
Moderator: Thank you, Mr. Science. Now, my questions go to Dr. Wisdom. You said, “The world is the world.” That sounds like a riddle for us. I think, we need your explanation.
Dr. Wisdom: When you say, “perfect” or “imperfect,” that is your own judgment based on your own observation. There are others who see the world differently. What you see forms your world, not theirs. Let the world just be there without labeling it.
Moderator: So, you say, “Do not worry.”
Dr. Wisdom: Well-said.
Moderator: Thank you Dr. Wisdom. Now we turn to Sister Grace. So, what you mean is that “the world is not safe because it was fallen.”
Sister Grace: That is right.
Can you elaborate on that?
Sister Grace: It is not my personal comment, actually. It is from the Bible. So I should go back to the Bible for more explanation: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1), which means the whole universe. Seeing what He had created, God said, “It was good”(Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Having finished the work of creation, God put a mysterious tree in the garden, which was named “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” And God said to the first man and the first woman, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden” but “do not eat of THIS TREE, for the day that you eat of it you shall die”(Gen. 2:15-17). But, unfortunately they ate of the tree, which was forbidden (Gen. 3:11-13). So, as a result of their disobedience, they were fallen from the initial state of creation, which was so perfect that God exclaimed “It was very good,” to be imperfect, and at the same time the world was fallen to contain a variety of life-threatening dangers in it.
Moderator: I have got many questions arising in my mind about that. Let me share just one of them. Why did God put the mysterious tree in the garden? If God had not, the first couple would not have disobeyed and the world would not have been fallen.
Sister Grace: That’s a good question. The tree in the middle of the garden implied the boundary that lay between God and Adam, Creator and the creature. It was unfortunate that Adam and Eve crossed the boundary and trespassed the realm of Creator, of which the result was terribly disastrous. They got involved in the first boundary issue in history. That was the point of temptation of the Liar who said to them, “Your will not die. Instead, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God when you eat of it”(Gen. 3:4-5). The first couple wanted to be so and ate of it. It is not difficult to see even today that we keep trying to take the throne of God. No wonder, we are the descendants of Adam and Eve—the first boundary violators.
2. Why all the suffering in life?
Moderator: We turn to the next question. Why do you think we all have to experience suffering in life?
Mr. Science: I feel tempted to say, “because the world is not perfect,” but it would be a pointless comment. To my knowledge, I don’t think science has got an answer to the question because science does observations, analysis and experiments on things or events, not trying to find out the meaning of their presence or appearance, which, as we know, is the task of philosophy or theology.
Moderator: I see that. So, you argue that the role of science is different from philosophy and theology.
Mr. Science: That is right.
Moderator: Dr. Wisdom. Why do you think we all have to suffer?
Dr. Wisdom: I am not interested in the question because suffering is given as part of life. Siddhartha Gautama made a careful observation of human suffering, which includes birth, aging, sickness and death, and he felt vanity of life. So he eventually left behind his home and family in search for the truth. And yet, he did not attempt to figure out why people had to suffer because he knew that it was beyond human understanding. The Buddhist worldview does not try to figure out the origin, the cause or the purpose of existence because it is beyond human understanding. I mean, by Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism which has remained closest to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
Moderator: I agree with you. Human beings are only part of the whole. It would be a very ambitious attempt for a “part” to try to fathom the “whole.” In this sense, I think Theravada Buddhism is honest. Sister Grace, why all the suffering in life?
Sister Grace: The Bible explains that human suffering is the outcome of the fallen world and the fallen human nature, which is punishment for their sin— their rebellion against God. Punishment is justice for the unjust. Genesis 3:16-19 reads that “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ And to the man he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it”, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’”
Moderator: So, you said, “Suffering is the result of human rebellion against God.” I think, it entails a number of theological implications which require more discussions. We want to invite you to another panel discussion next time.
3. How can we be liberated from suffering?
Moderator: Here we come to our last question: How can we be liberated from suffering? Any idea from your perspective?
Mr. Science: If it means suffering which is accompanied as part of human life—birth, aging, sickness, and death—I don’t think, humanity could ultimately be liberated from it. But I hope, human life may evolve to the extent that it is liberated from suffering.
Moderator: I see that. You admitted that there would be no paradise for humanity, and yet you expressed your hope in evolution. Are you really sure that the evolution process will make the world a perfect place and human beings so perfect as to be free of suffering?
Mr. Science: I do not know because that is what I haven’t experienced.
Moderator: Thank you, Mr. Science, for your sharing. Dr. Wisdom, I am sure you have some words to say.
Dr. Wisdom: Human life is nothing but suffering. And the cause of suffering is human desire. Therefore, when you detach yourself from all desires, you will be free of suffering.
Moderator: I think, that’s so logical that we are able to understand it. My immediate question is: Can it be possible?
Dr. Wisdom: Sure, it is. There are the eight practical means which will lead you to find freedom from suffering. What is called, The Eightfold Path: (1) Right view. (2) Right intention. (3) Right speech. (4) Right action. (5) Right livelihood. (6) Right effort. (7) Right mindfulness. (8) Right concentration.
Moderator: I think, that may be helpful, but I have got questions:
Firstly, are you clear about what is wrong and right? As far as I know, there is no absolute truth in Buddhism which claims “nothing is everlasting.” Consequently, there has been a controversial debate on that issue among Buddhist leaders.
Secondly, is the Eightfold Path practical and applicable? I guess, it would be extremely difficult for a person to view rightly, intend rightly, speak rightly, act rightly, live rightly, do things rightly, be mindful rightly, and concentrate rightly, let alone for those with family, work, friends, education, business, and relationships.
Thirdly, to my knowledge, some old Buddhist monks are known to have reached the state of being free from suffering, but not without the help of their followers and supporters. I am wondering how valuable such an individual gain would be, which was obtained at the price of the others’ suffering?
Fourthly, once that one has obtained such freedom, is it sustainable until one’s death? Of course, not everlasting, because you do believe “nothing is everlasting.” I am asking this question because if your freedom does not last, you have to keep putting the Eightfold Path into action all your life. In this case, it will be a huge sacrifice to be made. Maybe this explains why Siddhartha Gautama left behind his wife and children in search for his freedom from suffering.
Moderator: Sorry, Dr. Wisdom, for not giving you an opportunity to respond to my questions. Due to the time limit today, I will bring these issues back to you some time later in the near future. Thank you. Now Sister Grace, how can we be liberated from suffering?
Sister Grace: It is not possible for any human being to be freed of suffering in life. Precisely speaking, not yet.
Moderator: Which means, that is possible sometime in the future?
Sister Grace: Correct.
Moderator: When is it that we are able to be ultimately free of suffering.
Sister Grace: No one knows it.
Moderator: Then, how do you know that the day is coming for sure?
Sister Grace: Because the Bible tells us so. Revelation 21 reads, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. …. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”
Moderator: So, Sister Grace, what you are saying, based on the Scripture, is that: Firstly, the world was created as perfect and safe as God said “It is good.” Secondly, the world was fallen by the sin of the first couple, which was boundary violation. Therefore, thirdly, suffering is due course for human life in the world. However, lastly, the day is coming, when our tears will be wiped away by the gracious hand of the One who created the world. That will the day when we will be free of suffering completely. Is that what you meant?
Sister Grace: Yes. Again, that is not my words, but what the Bible tells us.
Moderator: Thank you Sister Grace. And a big thank you to Mr. Science, Dr. Wisdom, and Sister Grace, for your valuable contributions to our panel discussion today.
This is the first half of my sermon under the title The Corrupted World. As I was preparing the sermon during the week, I found it getting longer and longer. So I decided to make it in two parts. I will share the second half on the first Sunday in May Because we have a guest speaker from Laidlaw College next Sunday.
Let us pray: God of Grace, we live in the world which is not perfect, where we are facing challenges and difficulties in life, which King David described as “the valley of darkness” in his psalm. And yet we feel calm and safe and we feel grateful because you are with us, you walk with us, and you hold us with your right hand of righteousness. We trust in you, so we declare, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.” We give you thanks in the name of Jesus who is our Good Shepherd. Amen.
Readings: Psalm 23; John 10:11-18. Rev Joohong Kim. Crossway Community Church. 22 April 2018.