A helpful perspective from J. John
Stephen Hawking and God
In a slow week for news the theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has made headlines by stating in his latest book that he now sees no necessity for God in the creation of the universe. (He also said that ‘philosophy is dead’ which suggests that when it comes to promoting books even the best scientists recognise the commercial value of a controversial statement.) His view raises issues for Christians; so let me respond to them.
First, Hawking’s apparent change in belief is not as radical as it seems. The way the story is being portrayed is that Hawking the believer has now, as a result of his research, become an atheist. But was he ever really a believer? His association with the idea of God came about when, in his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time, he concluded by mentioning the possibility of a theory of the universe that would allow discussion of the great question of its origin. In a final sentence he wrote, ‘If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.’ It was a great line to end with and his editor must have loved it; Hawking himself has said that, ‘In the proof stage I nearly cut the last sentence … had I done so, the sales might have been halved.’ Now many people read that final sentence or heard it quoted and felt that Hawking was supporting religious faith. Indeed, in the twenty odd years since it was written it has sometimes been quoted as a defence of religious belief. Yet when you read more about Hawking’s thought it is clear that the ‘God’ he mentioned in that throwaway comment was little more than a philosophical concept. His god was an academic answer to a cosmological puzzle and no more. So his denial of God in his most recent book is hardly a backtracking from a living faith but rather a shifting of position on what is a purely intellectual debate.
Second, it is very clear that even if Hawking ever really seriously believed in a Creator, such a figure bore very little resemblance to the God of the Bible. A God who does no more than ‘light the blue touch paper of the universe’ and then disappears is not the God of Scripture. The Bible’s God is a being who doesn’t just create the cosmos but is intimately involved in every aspect of it and continues to sustain it. The God of the Bible did not create once but continues to create things every second. He is involved in the world at this moment; see for example Job 38, Psalm 104:10-30 and Matthew 6:26; 10:29. The Christian God is a God who was not just the Ultimate Physicist at the dawn of creation but someone who through Jesus Christ can be our heavenly Father.
Third, we need to listen to such pronouncements on the origin of the cosmos with some caution. Hawking is a very brave man in his confident belief that the origin of the universe does not need God. He is saying that he understands how, 13 or so billion years ago, this unimaginably vast and complex universe came into being. Given that serious cosmological research is barely 300 years old and has been conducted from only one small planet in a tiny corner of just one galaxy, perhaps a greater degree of humility would be appropriate. The mind of man is extraordinarily clever – and Professor Hawking’s is especially so – but it is wise to know our limits and to recognise that there are some things about which we may not have all the data and even some that may be utterly beyond our comprehension.
I am not at all surprised that Stephen Hawking did not find any proof for God in the incredibly complex mathematics of the Big Bang. Let us suppose for a moment that he had – that he had detected unmistakable evidence of God’s handiwork in the early history of the cosmos. On the one hand, it would be gratifying for the believer. Yet wouldn’t it suggest that God was some sort of academic snob who only really wanted to reveal himself to those who were extraordinarily intelligent? What would such a revelation say to those of us who struggle to add up our shopping bills? Or to those who can’t either read or write? No, I think I prefer the God of the Bible, who makes himself accessible through Jesus Christ to all who seek him.
Finally, it is worth making the point that an enormous problem still remains for Stephen Hawking and his followers. One of the most fundamental of all questions is ‘Where did the universe come from?’ The Christian answer is to simply state that God made it out of nothing. Hawking’s answer to such a question is to say that nothing made the universe: that this greatest possible something came, of its own accord, out of absolutely nothing. Both views require faith but I know which of the two I find it easier to believe in!