Monday, May 30, 2011

Hawking on Heaven

Stephen Hawking (b. 1942), the British physicist and cosmologist, is one of the best-known academic celebrities on earth. He may also be one of the most brilliant scientists on the planet.
As you have probably heard, Hawking recently made the news by saying, in an exclusive interview with the Guardian on May 15, that “There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story.”
I have not read, and likely could not understand, Hawking’s technical books, such as his Information Loss in Black Holes (2005). But I have read, and led a discussion on (with the teachers at Seinan Gakuin High School), Hawking’s popular book A Brief History of Time (1988), a bestseller that has sold more than ten million copies.
In his most recent book The Grand Design (2010, coauthored with Leonard Mlodinow), Hawking argues that invoking God is not necessary to explain the origins of the universe, and that the Big Bang is a consequence of the laws of physics alone. In response to criticism, Hawking has said, “One can’t prove that God doesn't exist, but science makes God unnecessary.” So, not unsurprisingly, Hawking says he does not believe in God.
Having rejected God, Hawking now clearly denies the reality of Heaven. (I capitalize Heaven, for I am using the word in reference to a “place” and not just as a metaphorical concept.) In his interview with the Guardian, he commented, “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.”
Since he does not believe in Heaven, Hawking “emphasizes the need to fulfil our potential on Earth by making good use of our lives,” according to the Guardian.
Back in March, I wrote about “Bell on Hell” (link here). Now, what can we say about Hawking on Heaven? And what should we think and do if Hawking should be right (even though I don’t think he is)?
We have to appreciate Hawking’s bravery in following what he thinks to be true rather than what would be more comforting. And shouldn’t we also appreciate his emphasis on making good use of our lives now? We have heard of people “so heavenly minded they were of no earthly good.” But shouldn’t those who are followers of Jesus love God and love our neighbors for their sake, and now, whether there is a Heaven or not?
And on this Memorial Day, people who visit the graves of their loved ones don’t do so because they are specifically thinking of them being in Heaven. At the cemetery we usually think of our loved ones’ life on earth, giving thanks for their lives and legacy. And that we can, and should, do whether there is a Heaven or not.
While Heaven is not nearly as important to me as it long was, I do believe in Heaven. And I think it is a “crying shame” that Hawking doesn’t, that he doesn’t have anything to look forward to after the death of his brilliant computer-brain other than the leaving of a significant intellectual legacy.
But I don’t know that I would, or should, live any differently even if Hawking should be right in his views about Heaven.


  1. I am not very confident about the images of heaven that have been shared throughout my life from the pulpits along my journey. However, I do choose to believe that the Sacred Source/God who created me and sustained me throughout this earthly life will receive me when I die. I also trust that power has received all others who have died before me, therefore I will continue to be in good company. Heaven is living and dying in the presence of God.

  2. I've not yet come across a reading that "proves," to my satisfaction, the existence-or-not of a next-world place called heaven. But I've seen with my own eyes both heavenly and hellish places in this world. Quite often these are interlinked in such a way that one person's "heaven" is built squarely upon another person's "hell." As Adolf Hitler supposedly said, "By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise." Transnational resource extraction, weapons manufacture and finance are three huge segments of the global economy that illustrate this point quite starkly.

    Rather than expend more time and energy on what appears (to me) to be a perpetually disconnected DEBATE between faith-less science and science-less faith, we might try to encourage scientists and religionists to engage in convergent DIALOGUE to foster more heaven (truth, justice, peace) on earth. The first task of such dialogue, then, might be to employ ancient faith AND modern knowledge to disarm black-is-white propaganda ("corporate communications" in today's lingo), which is at once an assault on religion and an insult to science.

  3. Ever since Socrates demonstrated an amazing ability to reduce the leading citizens of Athens to intellectual soup, we have stood face to face with an unexpected abyss, deep within ourselves. We are what we are, but we cannot define what we are. So we begin with confession. Like Genesis, we begin without form, and void, with darkness covering our deep. We confess that God moves upon the face of our deep, or we do not. This lies far beyond any science or metaphysics. We experience God, or we do not. No one can prove that. We confess, or we do not confess.

    The problem with calling faith a fairy tale is that that is far too neat a solution. Soon the cynic will race on to prove that there is no such thing as love or beauty. Justice and valor will be illusions. This person must either abandon the journey, or else undertake the most perilous of journeys, much like the mountain climbers who choose to scale tall cliffs without any equipment except their bare hands.

    The problem with metaphysics is that it tries to put God in a box. It tries to put faith in a bottle. And even if it could somehow do this, it risks being utterly smashed by science. As Jesus said to the Devil, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." (Luke 4:12) What husband or wife would put his or her spouse to the test, except one who already doubted? If we know not to do this to each other, why do it to God? If we already doubt God, what can we do, but listen for the still, small voice? God can only be experienced, never proven.

  4. It seems that God has given humans free will. Freedom of choice. We can accept or reject or be unsure of the existence God and Heaven.
    We don't have the freedom of accepting or rejecting the existence of say, the Sun, the Moon, our planets or stars , however.

    I respect Hawking's rejection of Heaven. I assume that God also respects that choice ( since He has given Hawking the choice)

    I am thankful that many of my non-believing friends respect my choice to believe in God and Heaven.

  5. What Hawking fails to address is our ultimate purpose. If that purpose is to understand the physical universe, then Hawking may be fulfilling his notion of humanity's purpose. As a scientist and believer, I feel called to not only understand the universe but to follow Jesus as My Savior. This commitment to Christ often feels overwhelming and daunting, but, I dare say, it is crucial to our relationship with God and our ultimate purpose.

  6. So many thoughtful responses!

    It would appear that Hawking has applied for membership in the New Atheism Club. In my view, one of the most important points made above is that encouraging scientists and religionists to converge in dialogue for more heaven on earth. I think it unfortunate that humanists and moderate-to-liberal religionists are consuming each other's energy in intellectual drive-by shootings. We need to be working on common ground and in alliance to oppose the fundamentalists, jingoists, and ideologues who want to keep recreating the world in their own image regardless of the human costs.

    It is perhaps important for religionists who are not fundamentalist to examine themselves in light of the New Atheists' criticism that moderate-to-liberal religion provides cover for fundamentalism.

    If I'm not mistaken, according to the canonical gospels, Jesus' statements about anything we might consider a heaven, as Hawking is talking about it, are all linked to how we exercise life on this side of death. And most of what he says concerns a lot more than the popular and simplistic conservative Protestant notion of being born again.

  7. Well said.

    Science should be able to stand on its own, regardless of the religious presuppositions one espouses. However, all presuppositions should be on the table including philosophy and theology. There are some very good scientists who are Atheist, fundamental Christian, Muslim, etc.

    Ad hominem has no place in scientific discussion. Galileo is a good case in point.
    The concept of perpetual motion is widely know to be a physical impossibility, yet I had a chemistry professor who presented evidence of its temporal existence. Several of his colleagues laughed at him, but could not refute his evidence.

  8. I have wrestled with such questions for many years, often making me a black sheep in churches and theology classes. One evening while I was working on my MDiv I asked a group of Christian young adults "What if there is no heaven?" The reply of many was that they would probably not worry about all of this Christian stuff then. I used this as an opportunity to push them to examine their motives and what was truly at the center of their faith (self-preservation?). Their response also spurred me on to continue asking that question.

    I strongly believe that too often Church ends up encouraging selfishness by emphasizing afterlife (both sides, Heaven and Hell)instead of calling people to something more by saying, "What if there isn't a heaven after all, and THIS is what God is actually calling us to? Let's make the most of it!"

  9. Randy Alcorn has done an exhaustive Biblical study of the concept in his book "Heaven". You may not like some of his personal presuppositions, but the book is worth the read.