No Excuse

By any reckoning Stephen Hawking was gifted with a great mind. The former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, who died on 14th March at the age of 76, was known around the world for his contributions to theoretical physics as well as for his battle with increasing bodily disability. He lived many years beyond the short lifespan predicted when his motor neurone disease was diagnosed and with the aid of sophisticated technology, including a speech generating device necessary when he could no longer use his natural voice, he continued to contribute to scientific thought right up to the end. As a result of media exposure he was an instantly recognisable figure and, at the popular level, was familiar to multitudes who would not understand the first thing about his scientific work.

The second holder of the Lucasian professorship was Isaac Newton and Hawking is widely regarded as the equal of Newton in his contributions to the explanation of the nature of the universe. Necessarily his work was highly complex and abstract. His early work A Brief History of Time (1988) was bought by many but probably read by relatively few. Even a simplified version of his ideas baffled most non-specialists. His chief contribution to theoretical physics was his pioneering and revolutionary work on black holes, resulting in the discovery of previously unsuspected radiation emitted by these strange entities, now named ‘Hawking’ radiation.

Like others in his field Hawking has had wonderful opportunities to study the intricacies of the cosmos, to unravel some of its complexities, to engage at a deep level with creation. His studies have confronted some of the biggest questions regarding the origins of the universe and its purpose (if any). He came to some firm conclusions. He upset many when he claimed in 2011 that science had replaced philosophy: ‘philosophy is dead’, he asserted. Philosophers have not kept up with modern science and so, he said, scientists ‘have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’. A big claim for science as the fount of wisdom, or at least of the knowledge that matters.

Perhaps our hearts don’t bleed for the philosophers, but his view of religion, including Christianity, was equally dismissive. He was a self-professed atheist and believed in a universe governed by impersonal law. Narrating the first episode of an American television series on the Discovery Channel in 2011 he said, ‘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.’

As Christians there are many ways in which we could respond to such views. Surely one of our first thoughts has to be, ‘How profoundly sad.’ To be gifted by God with such an outstanding intellect and to use it to conclude that there is no God is so utterly foolish. To be grated such opportunities to examine the Creator’s handiwork and to talk about ‘the grand design’, yet to be unable to see him in any of it underlines the fallenness of human beings, their intellect included. Hawking, of course, is not alone. Think of the naturalists and scientists of all varieties who have unparalleled access to the wonders of the natural world and who come away believing it’s all a big fluke, the product of blind chance. How unutterably sad, and how unforgivable.

In Romans 1:19-20 we read, ‘For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.’ The conclusion, God’s conclusion? ‘So they are without excuse.’ Clear and simple. Pleas that there was not enough evidence will not be accepted. All the necessary evidence is there. We have to close our eyes so as not to see it. ‘I didn’t know’ will not wash in the final judgment. What in fact we do is ‘suppress the truth’ by our unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).

How ironic that the ashes of a man who described the idea of an afterlife as ‘a fairy story for people afraid of the dark’ are to be interred in a cathedral built for the worship of the God he has now met in that afterlife. Unless there was a fundamental change of heart in his final moments, he must bear the consequences of his unbelief, as must every sinner. There is no excuse. How sad.