Is Heaven a Fairy Tale?

I used to see Professor Stephen Hawking almost every afternoon when I lived and worked in Cambridge, England. The famous physicist would be moving along in his motorized wheelchair with his wife walking behind assisting him whenever necessary. I look back at that time and wonder what it would have been like if I’d had the nerve to invite him in for a cup of tea and a chat.

In this article published last Spring about Hawking he is quoted as saying that “heaven is a fairy story for those who are afraid of dying.”

I’ve never really understood how a world class brain like Hawking could make such a shallow, sophomoric argument. He suggests that belief in heaven is a kind of wishful thinking for those who have trouble facing death. But what he forgets is that those who believe in heaven also believe in hell, and if they believe in heaven and hell, then they also believe in judgement, and the idea of judgement is not something I find terribly comforting.

I do believe in heaven, but I also believe that I may not get there. I hope to go up, but I may go down, and either way I will face a judge who will weigh up all my faith, hope and love, but also all of my doubt, despair and hatred. In other words, I might cook, and at very least I’ll face the purgatorial fires. If I were engaging in wishful thinking, this is not what I would have wished for.

Let us stand it things on their head. Hawking also says that he believes that the brain is a computer which ceases to function when its components fail, and when it stops working that’s it. The end. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Such a view is amazingly miniscule. It flies in the face of universal human experience in practically every culture and epoch everywhere in the world. People have everywhere and always believed in the afterlife. They have done so for many good reasons and experiences. Experiences and reasoning which, admittedly, are above the pay grade of the typical Cambridge physicist, but reasons and experiences which are nonetheless part of the whole human experience.

Furthermore, when it is examined, it is Hawkings view of not believing in the afterlife which turns out to be wishful thinking, for if there is no afterlife, then there is no final reckoning. There is no hell to pay and no heaven to win. If that is the case, then I can do what I want. I can run up the credit card and never have to pay it back. If there is no afterlife I can do what I DW please and then just turn out the lights. End of story. Lucky me!

If there is any kind of wishful thinking, manufacturing of fairy stories going on, it is in the immensely talented mind of Professor Hawking and his sort. If anybody is living in cloud cuckoo land where everything has a happy ending, then it is those who believe that when we die it is all over and everybody can simply sleep in peace and all our troubles will go bye bye.

But before we finish, a word in defense of fairy stories. Professor Hawking seems to despise them because they are all technicolor, cotton candy, sweetness and light and princesses who live happily ever after. He has obviously not read very many fairy stories, or perhaps his experience of fairy stories is limited to Disney classics.

The fairy stories I read are not full of sweetness and light, but darkness and dread. The hero launches out into the unknown with a heavy heart and an uncertain future. Rather than being guilty of wishful thinking and fanciful pipe dreams, the hero in the fairy story faces evil beyond his imagining and overcomes the beasts and dragons of the dark. He risks all to gain all, and the greatest fairy stories do not always have a happy ending, but they always have a just ending.

And it is stories like that which fill me with both terror and joy–because they are far more true than Professor Hawkings sweet little tale of falling happily asleep.

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  • kkollwitz

    I'd say oblivion is a fairy story for those who are afraid of dying.

  • Anil Wang

    The universal belief in some sort of an after life and ghosts across cultures can't be dismissed out of hand.There is no particular reason to believe in "a ghost in a machine" or "a ghost machine composite whereby the ghost still survives separation from the body" or the belief that this ghost goes anywhere after death. Darwinistically speaking, groups that didn't hold this belief should have grown at a faster rate than those who did, until this belief mostly disappeared…unless the belief reflects some reality.Personally, when I was wrestling this issue, I came to the same conclusion that C. S. Lewis did in "A Grief Observed", namely, “If [his dead wife] ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook clouds of atoms for a person”.I'm not sure I can explain the logic, except that if we have no soul, we are just machines and neither free will, nor love, nor morality, nor rationality, nor beauty, nor meaning can exist. Ultimately, we're just a cloud of atoms and no one arrangement of atoms is any more moral or beautiful or rational or … than any other. At minimum, Stephen Hawking believes he is rational and that there is beauty in science, so deep down he has to believe in a soul even if he doesn't want to admit it to himself.

  • Matthew M

    I don't know what happens after death of this body BUT……. I do know that none of the scenarios I have heard and read about are appealing to me – none.I accept there is something but what???????? It has to be better than our puny imaginings and stories both secular and theological.As far as these new so-called atheists are concerned, why even pay them lip service. I only read what they have to say when I want a good laugh. The old school atheists at least had substance, these clowns just whine and moan and make accusations which make no sense.

  • Old Bob

    Pascal's Wager.

  • Dennis

    Matthew M, please do not discount the lip service we pay to the new atheists because their philosophy is dangerous to those who do not have the experience or tools to understand the flaws of that philosophy. It would be easier to dismiss the new atheists, but then we do not offer them or others the truth they deserve to hear, regardless of whether they accept it or not.God bless!

  • Sue

    Are you familiar with the dreams of St John Bosco?He gives us important clues from the "other side".One of my favorite clues:They sing in LATIN.

  • GOR

    It would have been interesting to have had a debate between Chesterton and Dawkins about fairy tales. In Orthodoxy Chesterton had this to say:“My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learned in the nursery…The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong….”

  • Howard

    Whel, Hawking suffers from a kind of double whammy here. First of all, if he were not as obstinate as he is, he probably would have died decades ago. Unfortunately, it's hard to be obstinate about some things and docile about others; it's too easy to stubborn about everything or yielding on everything. Like many of us, he doesn't get the balance right. Secondly, the kind of physics that Hawking studies is itself a kind of fairy tale. It involves theories which are not only untestable with current technology, in some cases they are untestable by any conceivable technology. All they have going for them is a sense of "mathematical beauty". However, as many other areas of physics, like the search for an understanding of high-temperature supercondictivity, show, it is easy to construct a "beautiful" theory that is still wrong. It is hard or impossible to get information about what happens in the inside of a black hole; it is impossible to perform an experiment to determine what happens after death (with the assurance of being able to report its results to the living, anyhow). Hawking is used to being taken as an authority on the former, so he sees no reason he should not be taken as an authority on the latter. Hawking says many foolish things, and he really should know better. It's hard not to have sympathy with the man, though. May God have mercy on us all!

  • Tom P

    The truth of the matter is that nobody truly knows if there is or isn't an afterlife. The non-believer doesn't scientifically know there isn't one, and the believer (like me) is open to the possibility.Professor Hawkings statement comes from his world-view based on methodological naturalism and is in essence, a statement of philosophy.Keith Ward has pointed out "no statements are true unless they can be proven scientifically (or logically)" or "no statements are true unless they can be shown empirically to be true" cannot themselves be proven scientifically, logically, or empirically.'Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life we pass..'