In yesterday’s post, I began to consider the “faith” of Stephen Hawking. He expressed this faith in a recent interview with the Guardian:
“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.
Hawking has faith that there is no heaven. This is not something he can know as a scientist. Rather, it is a matter of belief beyond evidence. In common English, it’s faith.
There is another element in Hawking’s faith that I heartily endorse. It emerges in this segment from the Guardian story:
In the interview, Hawking rejected the notion of life beyond death and emphasised the need to fulfil our potential on Earth by making good use of our lives. In answer to a question on how we should live, he said, simply: “We should seek the greatest value of our action.”
Hawking believes that we need to make good use of our lives on earth. This, I note, is also a matter of faith, or at last a matter of non-scientific knowledge. Science cannot dictate how we should live. That’s the realm of ethics, even religion, even, yes, faith. Thus, Hawking can affirm: “We should seek the greatest value of our action.” This “should” is not something that can be proved through science.
I don’t mean this as a criticism, mind you. In fact, I completely agree with Hawking that “we should seek the greatest value of our action.” I also believe that we need to make good use of our lives on earth. I can’t prove these convictions scientifically. Nevertheless, I take these matters of faith to be true in a way that is both reasonable and faithful.
Hawking appears to believe that we have to choose between belief in heaven and belief in the value of our earthly actions. In this regard, Hawking misses something essential about the Christian understand of life beyond this life. Christians do not believe that we have to choose between heaven and earth. In fact, the promise of heaven becomes, for Christians, a strong motivator to live this life to the fullest.
To be sure, some Christians have taken a different course, living for life after death and minimizing the value of earthly life. But this course misses the distinctive vision of the New Testament. For one thing, the New Testament affirms that in the life beyond this life our actions on earth will be judged. The vision of final judgment motivates many believers to seek to do what’s right in this life, no matter how seemingly insignificant their impact might be. Thus, many Christians feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner, not only because of love for the needy, but also because we believe that in the last judgment, those actions will be recognized by God and received as acts of worship (see Matthew 25:31-46).
But, the Christian vision of the age to come (that which we often call heaven) offers more than the threat and promise of final judgment. It also includes a vision of life that is both beautiful and inspirational. In the closing chapters of Revelation, for example, the vision of a new heaven and earth includes God’s dwelling with people, wiping away every tear. All nations dwell together in peace as they walk in God’s own light. This apocalyptic vision stirs Christians to act today in light of the promise of the future.
Stephen Hawking and his supporters might well say that this sort of thing is unnecessary, that people can act with significance and compassion apart from belief in heaven. I agree, though I’ll find this argument even more persuasive when hospitals begin to be identified as “Atheist Memorial” rather than “Baptist Memorial,” and when the agnostic version of World Vision feeds millions of hungry children each day. But my point is not that one must believe in heaven in order to do good works. Christopher Hitchens has done many extraordinary good works in his life and he is not exactly a big advocate of the afterlife. Rather, my point is that Hawking misunderstands the Christian sense of heaven if he sees belief in heaven as somehow minimizing the value of this life. I would argue, in light of Scripture and my experience, that belief in heaven can, in fact, lead us to live on earth with more gusto and generosity.
This brings me back to Jesus and his teaching about the kingdom of God, which is sometimes rendered as the kingdom of heaven. Jesus proclaims the coming of God’s reign, not so that believers might neglect this life, but so that they might live today with greater purpose. Moreover, heaven serves as a model for how we are to live today. Thus, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If heaven is the place there the lion lies down with the lamb, where swords are turned into implements for farming, where divisions and conflicts between people have been abolished, then we are to pray for the presence of heaven on earth, at least in part. And what we ask for in prayer, we are to live out in our daily lives.