Stephen Hawking 1942 – 2018
The last week saw the death of the great physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, known both for his scientific achievements, and the great courage and dignity with which he battled the creeping paralysis of motor neurone disease for fifty-five years. The tributes from around the world have been fulsome. Even the Archbishop of York tweeted a prayer that the angels of God would welcome him.
This is a little surprising, as Hawking didn’t believe that was a heaven or any angels to welcome him in. He was one of the foremost “celebrity atheists”, remarking that: “We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation. There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful”, and that heaven was a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark”. To which the mathematician and philosopher of science John Lennox wonderfully replied that “atheism is a fairy tale for people who are afraid of the light”.
What I find astonishing about Stephen Hawking, and many other atheists is how little they understand of what Christians actually believe about the God they claim to have rejected. It is willful ignorance. For instance, Hawking said that: “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist”. This is ridiculous: it suggests that “the mind of God” is simply the sum total of all there is to know about the universe. But Christians believe that God’s knowledge goes far beyond this, because it is the knowledge of his own being, which is infinite, and therefore God’s knowledge is infinite. Furthermore, that which God knows, he knows as God; whereas even if we were to acquire complete knowledge of the universe, we would know it as finite human beings. God does not have to acquire knowledge as we do because he is simple; that is, nothing can be added to him and nothing can be taken away from him; he simply knows because he is God. To think that we could become God by accumulating knowledge was the lie believed by Adam and Eve in Eden, and propagated by some scientists.
The Bible says that “God has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end”, (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The beauty and wonder we see in the universe, the majestic order in the midst of breath-taking complexity, and the capacity in our minds and hearts to respond to this with love, awe, and a thirst to know more, are where science begins. They are not so much evidence from which we can derive a “proof” of God, as signs pointing us towards him. But we can only find the one the signposts point us to if we will follow them in a personal relationship of love and commitment. God has put eternity in our hearts: we see the universe, and we sense that there must be a meaning behind it, a meaning that cannot be limited by space and time; and yet no amount of intellectual effort will enable us to find out what that meaning is. It must be given us as a gift; it must come to us by grace, and be received by child-like trust.
Along with eternity, there is another, darker reality within our hearts: “The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterwards they join the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3). It says something about how modern science has become a religion that it has its saints like Stephen Hawking, people who are held up as shining examples of humanity. Yet amid all the tributes, it is easy to forget that Stephen Hawking was an adulterer who left his wife for his nurse, (strangely, the Archbishop of York doesn’t mention what the angels might say about this). This darkness, which is there in each one of us, blinds us and stops us from recognizing the truth about God that is clearly displayed in creation. We don’t want God to be there because we don’t want him to rule over us. We prefer the deliberate madness of atheism; we love darkness rather than light.
Contrary to what Stephen Hawking thought, Christians don’t believe in God just because we need an explanation for the universe. We believe in God because the brilliant light of his glory and grace shines in his Son, Jesus Christ. At Christ Church tomorrow, we will think about another man who was crippled and paralysed by illness for decades, with no one to help him; you can read his story in John 5:1-18. He wasn’t searching for God; yet Jesus found him and healed him, as a pure act of grace and goodness. The sign of God’s goodness, power, and love was so clear. But the man didn’t follow the sign where it led. Tragically, he didn’t put his faith in Jesus, because he wanted to carry on sinning. When Jesus found him again and said “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something else will happen to you”, he turned away into darkness. Stephen Hawking made his choice, and that choice now lies before all of us: will we turn to the darkness or to the light?
*Quotes from Stephen Hawking and John Lennox are taken from their Wikipedia pages.