by Dan Copeland
Stephen Hawking, arguably the most influential scientist in the world of physics and cosmology who died March 14, was remembered June 15 at a memorial service at Westminster Abbey. Despite his own protests that “philosophy is dead,” Hawking was also quite a philosopher and wrote eloquently about the meaning of life.
Because he was influential, highly intelligent and a gentleman (not a crude anti-religionist like some of his colleagues), I have often cited Hawking when teaching philosophy to high schoolers. While I disagree thoroughly with his philosophical conclusions, I respected Hawking’s ability to explain many of the mind-bending principles of particle physics to a layman like myself.
Obviously, my core disagreement with Stephen Hawking is over atheism. However, there was a more fundamental flaw to his reasoning, out of which his atheism grew. Hawking had an unwavering, thoroughly religious commitment to scientific naturalism, the belief that every natural event must have a natural cause.
Hawking’s commitment to this philosophy meant that he abjectly denied a supernatural cause to the universe, no matter how absurd the alternatives may have been. As he said in his book, The Grand Design, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”
How can someone with a brilliant mind make such an absurd statement? It is essentially illogical, but he did present arguments that seem to address the contradiction. Further along in The Grand Design, Hawking explains M-theory (also called superstring theory), which suggests that outside our universe there exist “cosmic strings,” and these cosmic strings cause multitudes of universes to come into being, each with its own set of physical laws. The conclusion is that the laws which govern our universe are themselves merely the product of chance, and billions upon billions of universes have existed, each with different laws; some succeeded and may even have intelligent life, while most collapsed on themselves.
It sounds intriguing, but what Hawking has ultimately done is simply push back the question of cause-and-effect by one more step. Once we solve where the universe came from, we must ask where the cosmic strings come from. Most pointedly, consider this: If the cosmic strings are entirely self-existent and cause other things to come into existence, then they are by definition supernatural gods. The only difference is that Hawking sees the cosmic strings as inanimate objects which create with no purpose, whereas gods (specifically the Creator God, Elohim) most definitely create with purpose.
While his philosophy puts Hawking and me in direct opposition to one another, I still learned a great deal from him, and not merely about science. Hawking taught me some lessons on faith. You see, while he was clearly and dogmatically an atheist, which deeply saddens me for him now, he was also a man of faith. Like we Christians, Hawking had a deep faith in things he could not see, and he chose to boldly face eternity with those convictions intact. To be clear, we understand that a person is saved “by faith,” but we know it is not the faith that actually saves us. Faith is the instrument through which Christ’s blood is applied to our sins; the author of salvation is Jesus himself. Faith must be placed in him and no other.
As I pondered Stephen Hawking’s life and passing, I thought for a moment, “It’s unfortunate that the truth of the gospel is not something that can be discovered through the scientific method alone.” Surely if it were, many more scientists would be believers. Or would they? The children of Israel saw God descend on Mount Sinai and worshiped an idol instead. Solomon saw the Shekinah Glory fill the Temple and built pagan shrines afterward. Hawking gazed upon the wonders of the heavens and concluded there is no God. It is not a matter of evidence, but of faith, and one of the great mysteries of God is that faith is a gift, but also a choice.
I deeply regret Hawking’s choice to place his faith in scientific naturalism. At the same time, I am grateful to God for this great scientist and philosopher, who helped me to see a little deeper into the infinite depths of this universe. As I read some of Hawking’s work, I find myself drawn to deeper wonder and greater worship of the God who made such intricacies as galaxies and atoms, all working together perfectly. Indeed, I believe my faith in Jesus Christ is a little stronger because of Stephen Hawking.
Dan Copeland, a member of Bethesda Church in Huron, SD, teaches Bible at James Valley Christian School, a private high school in Huron. He is a graduate of Sangre de Cristo Seminary, Westcliffe, Colo., and served as a youth pastor for four years before being called to Christian education.
This article has been posted by Christian Leader staff. The Christian Leader is the magazine of U.S. Mennonite Brethren.