Below is the text of my Thought for the Day offered on BBC Radio Kent yesterday.
Speaking in an interview with a national newspaper last week, Stephen Hawking, who is widely and rightly admired for his courage in the face of his debilitating condition, commented on the big topics of God and death. Unafraid of death, Professor Hawking is reported as dismissing heaven as a “fairy tale for people who are afraid of the dark”. He goes on to say that the human mind is a “computer which turns off when its parts fail”, and that we should concentrate on “seeking the greatest value in our action” in this life.
Like much of what is heard in the media about religion, these comments miss the mark in terms of the nature of faith in general and Christianity in particular. They assume that faith is a scientific proposition which can either be proven or disproven like a scientific hypothesis, and they misunderstand the meaning of religious language.
In fact, the deeper we enter into Christian spirituality, the more profound is the awareness of the shortness of life, in comparison with eternity, and the certainty of death. “Remember thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” we are told on Ash Wednesday. Christians are under no illusion that we die physically, in the full sense of the word, when our time comes. The child’s notion of heaven as just another place for a disembodied mind is not a Christian concept. That poem so often heard at funerals
Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped away into the next room.
does not reflect Christian belief. Indeed, in the New Testament Jesus’ disciples invariably do not recognise him when he appears to them after the resurrection – he is clearly not just the same person “in the next room”.
In saying that the afterlife is a fairy tale, Hawking and others are misunderstanding what Christianity teaches. Not a shadowy afterlife in another place, but eternal life, is the Christian and Biblical promise. Eternal life is a spiritual reality for us now, rather than a prediction about a future event. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”, Jesus says in John’s Gospel. The message of Jesus Christ is that our life has infinite value in the sight of God, that God keeps faith with us and gives eternal hope, however hopeless our lives seem. God is present in the midst of our messy existence, and transforms it with hope. As the Book of Ecclesiastes puts it: “He has set eternity in the human heart.”
So, of course a simple promise of a migration to another place after death is for people who are afraid of the dark. Of course our brain stops working when we die. Of course we should do the best we can for others and the world in this life, while we can, “seeking value” in our actions. But there is a deeper dimension. We also know that the eternal and uncreated God walks with us through all this, and “sets eternity in our hearts” as a sign of infinite love for us.