I am taking a slight detour from my series on the message of Jesus because of a fortuitous (providential?) coincidence. Yesterday, I asked: “Is the kingdom of God the same thing as heaven?” The answer, according to Jesus in the New Testament Gospels, is “No.” Heaven is encompassed within God’s reign, but the kingdom of God has as much to do with earth as with what we call heaven.
Today, heaven is in the news. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the absence of heaven is in the news.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, British scientist Stephen Hawking proclaimed what his fellow Brit, John Lennon, once encouraged us to imagine. Hawking confidently stated that there is no heaven.
“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first,” he said.
“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,” he added.
I have to admire Stephen Hawking’s courage, both in life and in his pending death. And I am certainly in awe of his intellect. But what I find curious is his faith. Yes, that’s right, his faith. Stephen Hawking has faith every bit as much as I do. Let me explain what I mean.
Hawking is a scientist, one who operates in the realm of the material and the testable. Now, much of his scientific theorizing goes far, far beyond what can be seen in a microscope or telescope. Testing in the disciplines of theoretical physics, astronomy, and cosmology is not something one can do in a home laboratory. Nevertheless, at least in principal, Hawking’s theories about nature can be tested within the complex theoretical framework in which he operates.
Yet there are many things Hawking cannot know as a scientist because they are untestable. For example, he can’t know as a scientist whether there is an afterlife or not. He cannot know as a scientist if there’s a heaven, and, if so, what it’s like. To put the matter differently, Hawking cannot know as a scientist that there is no heaven. The existence of heaven is beyond the scope of scientific knowledge, even for a man as brilliant as Stephen Hawking.
So, when Hawking affirms confidently that there is no heaven, he is not speaking as a scientist, but as a person of faith. He is expressing his belief that is not based on scientific evidence. Now, he has every right to do this. And he has every right to be taken seriously as a brilliant man with a courageous spirit. But we make a big mistake if we think that Hawking’s conclusions about heaven are a matter of science. They’re not. They can’t be.
“Oh,” you might object, “there is no real knowledge beyond science. The only things that can be known are those things that are determined by science.” The strange thing is that this very statement is itself unscientific. Science cannot prove that science alone is a reliable source of knowledge. So the one who makes this argument has already disproved the argument.
A defender of Hawking might respond by saying that I cannot know that there is a heaven. I would agree, if we’re talking about scientific knowledge. Heaven also cannot be known by means of history or sociology. But if there are other kinds of knowledge, if there is knowledge that transcends the empirical, then heaven might be knowable in that way.
“Ah,” my interlocutor might assert, “but now you’re in the realm of faith!” Yes, perhaps I am, just as Stephen Hawking is when he talks about heaven. But there is a kind of knowledge that interacts with, critiques, clarifies, and strengthens faith.
As you might expect, I believe Hawking is wrong about heaven. And, yes, I hope he’s wrong. But my zeal for heaven does not have to do with my fear of the dark, as he says. In fact, it has everything to do with another of Hawking’s faith commitments. I’ll weigh in on this tomorrow as I talk about what Hawking’s view of heaven misses.