“There Is No Heaven” – What the Faith of Stephen Hawking Misses

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.

  • Evan

    Mark,

    This quote jumped out at me:

    >>>In answer to a question on how we should live, he said, simply: “We should seek the greatest value of our action.”<<<

    I don't want to get too far afield here, but until I hear how "greatest value" is being defined by someone from the Theological Left, I get nervous. The Left routinely re-defines terms to suit its fancy, and the path leads to some very disturbing places as a result. For example, if Hawking is in the school that asserts that there is no objective Truth, nor Right nor Wrong, then "the greatest value" can actually involve some pretty horrific things. I obviously do not know about Hawking's exact position on these philosophic matters, but there are a number of historic examples of people that claimed to be doing beneficial work that involved mass murder and other atrocities.

    Our definition of Right and Wrong, and from which our understanding of "the greatest value" derives, is fixed in the unmoving and unchanging standard of the Eternal Living God. We can debate particulars, but it is in the context of a commonly-understood and constant standard.

    I am reminded of your "debate" with Christopher Hitchens, who ducked all of the above by saying, "I appeal to Conscience" when asked to state his standard of Right and Wrong. C.S. Lewis devoted the first chapters of "Mere Christianity" to noting how the onboard and pre-programed standards we all appear to share from our youngest memory are evidence of the Eternal Creator who placed them in us, and how the standards differ from mere animal instinct. Hitchens, bless him, was actually appealing to God and His standards.

    That said, I agree with Hawking, and your assessment of his statement, if we are operating in the commonly-understood standards set forth in the Bible. If we are in the ephemerous world of the Theological Left, then all bets are off until the standards are clearly defined.

    Evan 

  • C. Ehrlich

     ”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.”  

    Consider the belief that the universe isn’t controlled by a pink, three-legged demon named Bob.  Is this likewise just “a matter of belief beyond the evidence”?  Is it likewise just a matter of faith?  

  • C. Ehrlich

     ”…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.”

    To be fair, atheists aren’t really organized into institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention with all their networks, local churches, missions, seminaries, etc. etc.  And, also to be fair, comparable atheistic organizations would be quite unnatural, just as it would be quite unnatural for baseball fans to think of themselves and meet together as “non-Cubs” or “non-Dodgers.” You don’t see “Atheist Memorial Hospital” largely for the same reason you don’t see “Non-Yankee Stadium.” 

  • C. Ehrlich

    I think, however, we’ve got to acknowledge the other side of this coin.  We can also plausibly trace a lot of questionable, irresponsible, and immoral behavior to religious beliefs regarding the afterlife, the relative insignificance of the earthly life, the divinely-ordained future destruction of the world, the priority of saving souls, the relative ease with which God can create (or re-create) complex ecosystems, etc.  

  • Moonsray

     

    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.

     

     

    Dr
    Roberts,

     

    You offer an iteration of currently
    fashionable Christian post-modernism: Nothing can be proven; all
    beliefs are faith. Faith cannot be proven; all faith is equal.

     

    This fails to persuade
    reasonable people because,

     

    1. It is not true that nothing
    can be proven. Claims can be tested against observation—against observed
    fact. That’s what Hawking does. He has examined the observable basis for claims
    about Heaven and has concluded the observed facts disprove the claims. Hawking concludes
    that stories about Heaven do not line up with observed facts.

     

    Christian post-modernism
    fails to refute Hawking’s analysis of the observed facts. Christian post-modernism
    just says observed facts don’t matter.  
    “Who you gonna’ believe, the Bible or your lyin’ eyes?”

     

    Reasonable people will choose
    their lyin’ eyes.

     

     

    2 You recognize Hawking is
    correct. The only way to be able to make claims about Heaven that are not
    contradicted by observation is to say that observed facts don’t matter and to invent
    a Heaven that has no basis in observed fact. But now you’re telling the same
    sort of myths told by the naked Hottentot and the stone age cannibal Aztec. Post-modernist
    Heaven is real in exactly the same way that Zeus and Shiva and Quetzalcoatl are
    real.

     

    Reasonable people do not
    believe fairy stories like that.

     

     

    Moonsray Thea

     

     

     
     

  • Anonymous

    Evan: Thanks. Yes, of course this opens up the “greatest value” question. How we determine what is of greatest value is another thing altogether. Also, not a matter of science.

  • Anonymous

    Sure, in the sense that you cannot prove it or disprove it with science. You have to deal with this possibility from the point of view of others kinds of knowledge.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, but you get my point. An atheistic point of view will be much more compelling when atheists, both individually and in partnership, act in ways that care for people and show the moral excellence of atheism. Hitchens’ support of Salman Rushdie would be a notable positive example.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, to be sure. Here’s where, from the point of view of Christian faith, I can say that these folks are wrong and have misunderstood what Christian faith is all about.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t know how you take me to be postmodern in my Christian faith. Let me reassure you that I am not, at least not in the ways you suppose. I believe in absolute Truth and believe that it can be known genuinely, even though we now see through a glass darkly.

  • C. Ehrlich

    If the criterion is whether or not you can “prove it or disprove it with science” then, at least as we commonly understand “science,”  simply theorems of arithmetic (e.g., that 2+2=4) will count as matters of faith.  

    I think we should look for a more useful and interesting notion of faith. 

  • C. Ehrlich

    During your undergraduate years at Harvard I expect that you were surrounded by morally praiseworthy atheists.  Who were your teachers in the philosophy department? Did you see any of John Rawls’s lectures?  

    But perhaps there is something mistaken about thinking that there ought to be moral excellence in atheism itself.  Atheism, like arithmetic, might simply  be entirely compatible with moral excellence. What arithmetic has going for it is that its theorems are true or well-founded.  It’s not as if we look for the moral excellence OF arithmetic (that would at least sound odd, to my ear).  

  • Anonymous

    Well, as you no doubt know, proof in mathematics is a complex matter. But it does seem to rely on certain foundations that cannot themselves be proven. One would be the reliability of reason.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, many of my faculty were fine people. Most, I expect, were atheists, though Hillary Putnam once said that the probability of the existence of God was 50%. Not sure how he got that! Yes, I did hear Rawls, but I was foolish enough not to get to know him much better.

    I don’t think there needs to be moral excellence in atheism, that is, in the ideas. My point is that atheism will be much more compelling if it makes people better. This is clearly Hitchens’ belief in god is not Great. The moral character of atheists doesn’t prove or disprove atheism as an idea, of course. But it will either draw or repel people. The same is true of other religious and philosophical options, including Christianity.

  • C. Ehrlich

    The point is that if we decide that basic theorems of arithmetic and even the basic rules or axioms of logical and scientific inference should count as “matters of faith” (because of a peculiar definition of “faith” we happen to favor), then the category “matter of faith” loses its usefulness and we will probably end up having to define new subcategories to re-capture what we used to call “matters of faith.”  

    Please understand: I’m not saying that inquiries into the comparative epistemic foundations of arithmetic, faith and science would be uninformative, nor that the analysis of “faith” is a simple task.

  • C. Ehrlich

    I still envy your experience.  And your general point strikes me as a fair one. Stated in its converse: atheism is less compelling/attractive if it tends to make people less moral.  

    My own suspicion, however, is that religious people (at least since the time of Abraham, lying to the Pharaoh about his marriage to Sarah) have tended to greatly exaggerate morality’s dependency on God or religion.  It’s a very strong myth with very little philosophical or empirical merit.  

  • Moonsray

      I don’t
    know how you take me to be postmodern in my Christian faith. Let me reassure
    you that I am not, at least not in the ways you suppose.

     

    Your analysis
    betrays you, for the reasons I described.

     

      I believe in absolute Truth and believe that
    it can be known genuinely

     

    Right. But your
    belief in absolute Truth is a matter of faith. Faith cannot be proven. All
    faith is equal. You reject the label but your methods are identical with those of postmodernism. You have
    no choice; your belief can be arrived at only this way.

     

    Moonsray

  • Evan

    >>>Claims can be tested against observation—against observed fact. That’s what Hawking does. He has examined the observable basis for claims about Heaven and has concluded the observed facts disprove the claims. Hawking concludes that stories about Heaven do not line up with observed facts.<<<

    Might I suggest here a parallel with theories about bacteria? Up to a certain point, all possible observable facts would be with the unaided eye. Facts that were not possible to observe (prior to the microscope, etc., coming on the scene) would not be available. Once bacteria could actually be observed, a lot changed in the scientific world.

    The very nature of the idea of a spirit, embodying the essence of one's being and personality, journeying to Heaven upon their death would be the sort of "fact" that by definition CANNOT be observed. From what you are saying, Hawking would be observing a death and concluding, since he did not sense anything happening, that nothing had happened and thus "the observed facts disprove the claims." Of course, exposing oneself to a vast amount of radiation would not register anything on the senses, either, and "the observed facts" would lead one to also conclude that nothing had happened, which would certainly not be the case.

    The problem is not that Hawking has said that Heaven is utterly unlikely, statistically implausible or illogical on its terms. He has made a claim that it flat-out does not exist, complete with derision for those that do not agree. He has not gone to Heaven and found there was actually nothing there, nor documented data from subjects who have died nor claimed to have a basis for observing life forces that conclusively proves there is only biological life. He is stating something that cannot be demonstrated via the scientific method as a FACT. That is as non-scientific and as faith-based as saying that Heaven DOES exist.

    I have no problem, as I have said, with him looking at such facts as there are and concluding there is no Heaven, but it simply is a matter of faith, not scientific fact. 

  • Anonymous

    I agree. The category of faith is either very broad, perhaps too broad to be useful, or it is a subset of some larger category.

  • Anonymous

    Sometimes, yes; sometimes, no; in my opinion. Plus, sometimes very bad people will use religion to justify their evil or even to stir them up to more of it.

  • Anonymous

    Ah, but the fact that faith cannot be proven does not mean that all faith is equal. This would be a place where we disagree. So, do you think faith can be proved true or false or somewhere in between?

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Evan, for this added insight.

  • Selim Gomez

    Hawking is making a joke; when he says we “should seek the greatest value of our action” he means the action functional, which is greatest (or smallest) for the classical trajectory a system follows. That is, he’s just saying we exist in a material world, and following or not the laws of physics is not our choice.

  • Moonsray

      Ah, but the fact that faith cannot be proven does not mean that all faith is equal. This would be a place where we disagree. So, do you think faith can be proved true or false or somewhere in between.

    Dr. Roberts,
    “Faith” is your idea. You defined it as “beyond evidence.” All claims that are beyond evidence are by definition equally unable to be tested or proven or disproven. They are by definition all equally irrelevant to observable reality. They are by definition all equally nothing more than the product of someone’s imagination—or else they depend on evidence and are not faith.

    Claims that cannot be tested cannot be proven or disproven. There can be no reason to believe them true.

    Your dilemma is that we all believe what we experience and observe is real, but that you also want to believe an ancient myth that is contradicted by observed fact. Again, your problem is two fold.

    1. Claims like Hawkings’ do depend on observed facts, on evidence. According to Hawkings your mythology contradicts observed facts. You fail to adduce observable facts to refute Hawkings’ analysis. Reasonable people do not believe claims that contradict observed facts.

    2. Your escape from problem 1 is to retreat to believing stuff that is “beyond evidence.”  But when you do that you admit Christian Heaven no more or less believable than Zeus or Shiva or Quetzalcoatl. And nowadays reasonable people do not believe in those.

    The fix to #2 your most recent note seems to be working up to is to say that your faith is    more reasonable than faith in Zeus, etc.  But to tell us why it is, you’ll have to abandon your “beyond evidence” business.  But when you do that you will, according to your own definition, not be dealing with faith anymore—and your original dismissal of Hawkings’ opinion as nothing more than “faith” will have been abandoned. Reasonable people do not believe claims that contradict themselves.

    Moonsray

  • Anonymous

    Oh. Well, I didn’t get the joke.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve never said anything about faith being beyond evidence. I think there is plenty of evidence for and against faith. I just don’t think that the evidence for and against heaven leads to proof in the scientific sense of the word. So, when a person says either “There is a heaven” or “There isn’t a heaven,” that person is going beyond the evidence. Moreover, when Hawking says that belief in heaven is “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,” he is making a statement that can be tested, and is, in fact, often not true. Many people who believe in the existence of an afterlife are not in the least afraid of the lack of afterlife. Attributing this belief to such fear shows that Hawking lacks knowledge of what many religious people actually believe and why.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry. You keep trying to make me say more than I said. My point is the when Hawking says there is no heaven, he is not being scientific. I did not say he had no evidence for the existence of heaven or not.

    Thanks for this dialogue.

  • Pgray1

     He seems to be taking the same stance as Albert Einstein: “Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”    In some ways, I agree with the assertion that if any of mankind requires a punishment or reward in order to behave in an ethical fashion then it speaks very poorly of those that require it…

  • Pgray1

      It’s a bit odd to say that Hawking has to have faith in order to deny a claim that wasn’t made by him.
      The person who first makes a claim carries the burden of supplying reason for the claim.  Reason is based of a logical progression of thought from existing available evidence and any reason must include the evidence used as a premise.
     If they fail to supply proper evidence, then the denial of the claim is simply a logical rationalization based on lack of reason for the claim’s acceptance.   
     In the same manner, the judicial system shouldn’t go around jailing people whenever someone makes a claim someone is a criminal and fails to supply reason and evidence for the claim.  The judicial system should NOT rely on faith for it’s decisions.
      This isn’t a issue of faith..  Hawking just fails to see evidence in the same manner as Christians.

  • Moonsray

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve never said anything about faith being beyond evidence. 

    You wrote: “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. ”

    I think there is plenty of evidence for and against faith. I just don’t think that the evidence for and against heaven leads to proof in the scientific sense of the word.

    The meaningful distinction must be between beliefs that can be tested by observation and those that cannot. Belief that derives from observations—from evidence-cannot be made more or less likely by any factor that does not ultimately depend on observation.

    What’s left is belief in things no more real than Zeus and Quetzalcoatl.

    So, when a person says either “There is a heaven” or “There isn’t a heaven,” that person is going beyond the evidence. 

    Your theory of how “faith” relates to “going beyond the evidence” needs working out. “Faith” is generally understood to mean  belief in matters not amenable to observation.  You seem to have in mind simply “unproven.” The ideas are different, with different implications.

    Moreover, when Hawking says that belief in heaven is “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,” he is making a statement that can be tested, and is, in fact, often not true.

    Yes, you are right, current attacks on Christianity include plenty of  gratuitous nastiness.  The answer would be for apologists to smile and win on the substance. But you fail to do that. In our exchanges here, for example, you fail to present a coherent theory of “faith” and “truth” and “proof” and “observable reality.”  

    Moonsray

  • Evan

    The problem is not that Hawking disagrees with the notion of Heaven, rather that he rules it out as a fact, complete with ridicule for those who do not agree with him.

    There is evidence for and against the existence of Heaven. The evidence, however, only takes you so far, and after that, you are in the realm of Faith, one way or the other. As I have mentioned elsewhere, whether you believe the matter in the universe was always there or you believe God was always there, you have a scientifically unproveable theory: faith in Eternal Matter or Eternal God, in this case. You cannot state either as a fact.

    I am reminded of the story Jesus tells in Luke 16 about Lazarus, who died and went to be with Father Abraham (Heaven, if you will) and the rich man who was in Hades. The rich man wanted Lazarus to be sent to warn his brothers:

    27 “And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send (Lazarus) to my father’s house – 28 for I have five brothers -in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets ; let them hear them.’ 30 “But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”

    There is much evidence in support of Heaven. There is even One who has been to both Heaven and Hell and tells about it. Hawking is free to dismiss His evidence, but it is not as though there is no evidence to be had.  

  • Anonymous

    Well, I guess that’s that, then. Sorry. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Anonymous

    No doubt you’re right here. I know very few Christians who are motivated to do right by their belief in heaven or hell. I’m sure some are motivated this way, but that’s not the standard in my slice of the church.

  • Anonymous

    But that’s not what he said. He did not say there is no evidence for heaven. He said there is no heaven. That’s going far beyond the evidence.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this input, Evan.

  • Jboscomol

    Religion and faith are geographical ancient issues, can not be erased of humanae history. Galileo did the same in an inverse sense. Any way, Steve have reached the cientific demonstration of God’s creation.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NJWTPVYMKXWRHEJ7AKV535I3HM Kong Li

    Stephen quoted:
    “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.
    Stephen compares computers as to human beings and derives his conclusion that there is no afterlife.  However, he fails to identify the discrepancies between human beings and computers that would come to the conclusion that we could not use non-living objects, such as, computers, to challenge the thought of human beings:
    a)      Computers do not have soul and emotion and yet computers do not have;
    b)      Computers could not be movable and human beings could travel on foot;
    c)      Human beings could recuperate themselves from some illnesses and could even fight with diseases if their bodies are strong.  Yet computers could not recover or even counter-attack viruses unless antivirus software is installed;
    As there are a great difference between computers and human beings, it is erroneous to use computer system to describe or even to predict the lives of human beings.  Or in other words, as computers would stop working when its components fail, it is erroneous to use it to explain the same to human beings to be without afterlife since both of them are of different nature.  One is a living thing and another is not.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your insights.

  • selimibn

    Hawking was making a joke; when he says we “should seek the
    greatest value of our action” he means the action functional, which is
    greatest (or smallest) for the classical trajectory a system follows.
    That is, he’s just saying we exist in a material world, and following or
    not the laws of physics is not our choice.


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