Stephen Hawking is among the greatest scientific minds since Einstein. But he is a better theoretical physicist than he is a theologian. In an interview, Hawking declared, “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers [Hawking regards the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail]; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Another exquisitely intelligent person spoke about heaven in a much more sophisticated manner than Hawking.
C. S. Lewis believed, with J. R. R. Tolkien, that Christianity was “true myth.” The Gospel story, they believed, had what one commentator called “the emotional and imaginative power of a myth.” They also believed that understanding myth was part of understanding truth, that myths foreshadowed the drama of the incarnation. “If you take the sacrificial idea out of Christianity you deprive both Judaism and Paganism of all significance,” Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves in 1932. “Can one believe that there was just nothing in that persistent motif of blood, death, and resurrection, which runs like a black and scarlet cord through all the greater myths—thro’ Balder & Dionysus & Adonis & the Graal too? Surely the history of the human mind hangs together better if you supposed that all this was the first shadowy approach of something whose reality came with Christ—even if we can’t at present fully understand that something.”
What Hawking said about fairy tales, then, may be closer to the mark than he intended or understands. A fairy tale, as Lewis pointed out, is merely a story about the world of the spirit, “the only real ‘other world’ that we know.” Where Hawking and Lewis really differ is over the question whether the human spirit is real.
Whether Hawking or Lewis is right is impossible for us, the living here on earth, to know with certainty. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” Jesus told Thomas (John 20:29). Being an empirical sort of fellow I have long sympathized with Thomas and wondered why exactly it is more blessed to believe having not seen than having seen. Why is arguably the most important commitment of our life based on convictions that can’t be fully tested or proven? Why are we asked to be sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see? Perhaps part of the answer has to do with the fact that if all doubt were cleared away, the investment of trust in a person (or object) would somehow mean less. In any event, I know enough to know that faith by definition transcends (but does not necessarily contradict) reason and evidence.
Stephen Hawking is a terrifically bright person. But in this instance I’m betting C. S. Lewis was right: Hawking’s myth prefigures something true, something real, something glorious.