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.