World-famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s newly released book Brief Answers to the Big Questions, compiled from years of speeches, interviews and essays prior to his death, is a fascinating read.
In the very first chapter he tackles the big question of, “Is There a God?” Ultimately, he concludes that the laws of science are such that the universe didn’t need a God to create it. “If you accept, as I do, that the laws of nature are fixed, then it doesn’t take long to ask: what role is there for God?” he queries.
Furthermore, he argues that because it can be shown that time did not exist prior to the Big Bang, there was no time for a cause and, therefore, no God: “For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.”
He proposes, consequently, that it’s scientifically “possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.”
Now, to establish up front, there is a tendency for some people of faith to try to villainize people like Hawking for daring to speak such notions – or to arrogantly try to “shut them down” by proving how ignorant that person really is.
I have no such intentions. I hold the greatest amount of respect for Mr. Hawking and recognize the amazing contribution he has made not only to science in general but to me personally in helping provide a greater understanding of our universe and how it works. I also do not pretend to even come close to holding the intellectual prowess and knowledge that he has.
On his own part, Hawking confesses that he doesn’t “have a grudge against God” and has “no desire to offend anyone of faith.” To me, he is merely attempting to speak truth as he sees it.
That said, I do believe he is ultimately incorrect in his assertions on God’s existence because he, like the rest of us, is the victim of false assumptions about God – many of which have been purported for years by theologians and scientists alike.
The following are the reasons his conclusions fall short:
1) Hawking fails to acknowledge the higher laws, and ultimately highest law, needed for his own explanations.
While Hawking points to the laws of nature as being able to create something out of nothing, he never references how the laws of nature existed in the first place. Yes, the laws of nature may have “popped” the universe into existence without assistance, as he phrases it, but what popped the laws of nature into existence?
He uses if-then terminology as a means of explanation such as, “…if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it.” But if-then conditions need higher laws in order for them to take place. If x+y creates a universe, what law says that x+y could create a universe in the first place? And what law said that x and y could even exist? He furthermore uses words like “need” above and other vocabulary such as “demand,” “possible,” “required,” and “possibility” in which he is unwittingly relying on higher laws as a means of explanation.
This gets to the heart of the problem with the “How did something come from nothing?” question that has plagued scientists and philosophers for centuries. The moment you try to explain it (or anything at all), you are automatically relying on pre-existing laws or conditions. But when trying to explain something from nothing, the moment you have “pre-existing” you no longer have “nothing” but rather “something.” This starts a chain of if-then conditions leading higher and higher until eventually you reach a highest law, a “God” or a God law, for which there is simply no pre-existing or higher condition and, therefore, no explanation at all.
In other words, the moment you have an explanation for God, you are no longer actually talking about “God” but something less.
Of course, Hawking would argue that pre-existing implies the prior existence of time, which he points out did not exist before the Big Bang. This brings us to my next point:
2) Hawking’s belief that the non-existence of time prior to the Big Bang proves the non-existence of God, completely ignores a central Judeo-Christian tenet.
This one actually quite perplexes me. One of the core teachings of Judaism and Christianity is that God is omniscient (knowing all things past, present, and future) and omnipresent (able to be present anywhere and everywhere) and, therefore, exists outside of time and space.
The biblical text portrays an eternal God who is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2) and for whom “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).
Therefore, it is odd to me that demonstrating time did not exist before the creation of the universe is somehow proof that God could not have existed. It might prove that Hawking’s idea of “God” doesn’t exist but certainly doesn’t disprove the Judeo-Christian God believed by many. Was he not at least familiar with the theological concept to try to address it?
This means, of course, that Hawking only saw existence as existing materially or spatially (once the universe began). But can we really ever know that nothing existed prior to that? After all, something had to exist (even if just immaterial law) prior to time and space in order to ignite the Big Bang in the first place.
3) Hawking falls into the supernatural versus natural trap.
This is a trap that theologians and scientists alike most often fall into.
The truth is we have created a false supernatural line that doesn’t really exist.
If by “supernatural” one means there are things that happen which are beyond our natural comprehension and/or beyond humankind’s natural abilities, then it is completely reasonable. There are aspects to this enormous and magnificent universe we will likely never fully comprehend and things that happen that are definitely beyond people’s natural ability or control. Thus, they are miraculous from our perspective.
However, usually what one means by “supernatural” is something that breaks the laws of nature.
The issue is that there is nothing more natural to the universe than God. If anything is unnatural, it is actually human beings who continually try to violate God’s natural law and thus inject chaos and evil into the universe.
That Hawking falls into this same trap is revealed by his premise that there was no role for God because the universe is capable of being created “without violating the known laws of nature.”
I have written before about the dangers of this false supernatural line and the havoc it has created on our thinking. In ancient times, when little was understood about the laws of nature, humankind ascribed much of what occurred to the supernatural and to god(s). However, as science has progressed along with our knowledge of natural law, the role for the supernatural and, consequently God, has continually decreased.
As science gets bigger, God gets smaller.
Hawking demonstrates this when he claims, “Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion” and ultimately proves my point when he espouses, “Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science.”
In short, he believes now that science is beginning to explain the origins of the universe, there is no longer a role for God.
On the reverse end are theists who, when science doesn’t match up to their understanding of God, believe that science has no place.
The ultimate consequence of this line of thinking is problem #4:
4) Hawking, like so many on both sides of the debate, resorts to binary thinking when it comes to faith versus science.
Hawking does allow one possibility for the existence of a God. He writes, “If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.”
I personally, can partially accept this definition for God. But most people cannot. Hawking later goes on to say,
“One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship.”
Thus, most people resort to binary thinking when it comes to God: either impersonal natural laws created the universe, or the universe was created by a personal being who operates outside of natural law.
Hawking confirms his own binary thinking when he concludes the chapter with:
“The question is, ‘Is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science?’ I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science “God,” but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you would meet and put questions to.”
But why does it have to be such an either-or scenario? Why does our definition have to only fit one side?
Could it be that God actually exists in such a way beyond our normal comprehension that he is both continually consistent with the laws of science AND he is one whom you can have a personal relationship with?
Could a personal God have naturally created this amazing universe – a universe, which by the way, consists of both the natural and the personal?
Hawking didn’t have any problem with this sort of “dual” way of thinking when it came to human beings. On one hand he viewed people purely from an impersonal scientific perspective as he describes them as “mere collections of fundamental particles of nature.” But only a few short paragraphs later he implores us with:
“…it will take people, human beings with knowledge and understanding, to implement these solutions. Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love.”
Thus, Hawking saw humans as more than just “fundamental particles” but also simultaneously as beings capable of love and worthy of being loved.
In my book Rethinking God: Because God is Bigger, Closer, and More Real Than You Think I propose the question:
Maybe “love” is just an electrical chemical phenomenon; but we still call it “love.” Perhaps “relationships” are just similar genetic codes working together for self-survival, but we still label it “relationship.” “Intelligence” might be nothing more than cells interacting with the surrounding environment, but we still call it “intelligence.”
Perhaps people are ultimately only machines, programmed by the billions of codes in the universe, but we still name them “persons.” So how can we then claim that existence itself, and consequently God, cannot be personal because it is nothing but complex mechanizations of code?
Hawking’s binary thinking is an example of what has plagued humanity’s way of thinking for centuries. It is what has resulted in the unfortunate faith versus science debate – as though one can’t be true at the same time as the other.
But it is not just scientist’s fault. Theologians have purported it as well. Some even present a dangerous choice… either believe the prevailing science or believe God. The consequence is a growing population, forced to choose, that ends up leaving the church – while another percentage ends up ignoring the science.
In Rethinking God I point out everyone’s tendency to “invent” God because of our inability to comprehend who or what God really is. We invent God because we have a hard time seeing a personal God and a scientific God as two sides of the same coin.
The result is often a God we see as too impersonal, or as incompatible with reality, or both.
It also leaves one side of the population missing out on the opportunity to interact with the creator of our universe and the other side missing out on the opportunity to know more about this creator through the wonder of scientific discovery.
Hawking, unfortunately, invented in his own mind a “God” that was not the highest law possible, that couldn’t live outside time and space, and that couldn’t be both natural and personal. The result was a God that truly doesn’t exist.
In my book I provide a new definition for God – one that melds the once opposing ideas of faith and science. It is a definition that is totally compatible with Hawking’s idea of natural law, while bridging it with the personal God often proposed in biblical theology. There no longer needs to be an invented God, but one that is bigger, closer, and more real than we think – a God that truly is possible.
Hawking often spoke of knowing the “Mind of God” in reference to the possibility of fully understanding the universe through science. Perhaps, by interacting with and choosing to enter into relationship with this God, we can know the “Heart of God” as well.