Stephen Hawking gets one more chance to give “Brief Answers to the Big Questions” in his new book, finished after his death last March by friends and family members. And in this book he assures us that there is no God.
How does he know? Because his last theory about the Big Bang needs no such hypothesis. And so that’s that.
It apparently doesn’t matter that for at least part of his life, and even quite recently, he was open to the idea that God created the world. It doesn’t seem to matter that his wife was a churchgoer. It certainly doesn’t matter that his expertise was in physics, rather than in theology and philosophy—the intellectual disciplines that do deal with the existence of God. What will matter, for many, is that a major scientist (= Big Thinker) answers some big questions, no matter his credentials to actually address them.
What is perhaps most interesting, however, is that even a brief news account mentions what may be the central reason for Stephen Hawking’s lack of belief in God:
“For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God…. I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature.”
Rather than believe in a God who allows extensive suffering for whatever mysterious reasons—as a young man, Hawking contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease—he preferred to believe in a universe devoid of design and purpose.
Charles Darwin, not incidentally, also conceived of a world without God under the impress of tragedy. While he had formulated much of his thinking about evolution while young, he resisted publishing his thought out of his regard for his wife’s earnest Christian faith. (Darwin had studied toward becoming a clergyman, but he abandoned that vocation for his first love, natural science, upon returning from his voyage on the Beagle.)
The death of their daughter Annie when he was in middle age, however, impelled Darwin to publicly portray the world as “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson). The world according to natural selection is a constant contest of life and death that shows no sure signs of design by a wise and good Deity.
When great scientists such as Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking pronounce on metaphysical matters, therefore—although Darwin was much more reticent than Hawking—one might want to listen to them. But one ought to listen to them on such big questions primarily as people who have been hurt by a hurting and hurtful world, not as experts offering considered conclusions from systematic reflection on the pertinent evidence.
The God of the Christian Bible could certainly have created the world through the Big Bang. And, as many theologians and scientists have agreed ever since Darwin published The Origin of Species, God could have supervised evolution to achieve God’s purposes in creation. What Darwin and Hawking seem to have concluded is merely that there is no convincing scientific proof of God performing a miracle at the start of the cosmos or at the genesis of each new kind of creature. But that conclusion isn’t much of an argument against God’s existence.
“We can’t find sure proof that God was definitely there” is hardly proof that God wasn’t there.
No, this final book of Hawking’s will persuade only those who don’t understand the problem. And it’s not a scientific problem, but the problem of evil: However the universe was formed, and however we ourselves got here as human beings, is there better reason than not to believe in God, and particularly the God of the Bible?
I have offered my best answer to that here, among the many other replies available. As Christmas approaches once more, this would be a good season to give that question, along with the interesting ones Professor Hawking was indeed qualified to answer, the attention it deserves.