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.
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.