The world lost a brilliant mind and remarkable person when Stephen Hawking passed away on March 14. Through his popular books, movies, and TV series, he has introduced an enormous audience to big questions about the universe and the science that can help us answer them. And as a top-notch physicist, he has advanced human understanding of the cosmos at the cutting edge of science.
Stephen Hawking made no secret of the fact that he was an atheist, but people of faith can nevertheless learn much from him. When I read his work as a teenager, it left an indelible impression on me. His writing contributed to my interest in physics and nurtured my desire to comprehend the world around me. It set me on a path of exploration and discovery, which ultimately deepened my faith in God. Despite his atheism, Hawking enriched my understanding of God by enlarging my understanding of the universe.
To be sure, Stephen Hawking made significant contributions at the frontier of physics, developing new insights into black holes and advancing our scientific understanding of the world in ways I’ll probably never fully realize. But to armchair physicists and other ordinary people like myself, his main influence has been in the way he introduced us to a cosmic perspective on the universe. Hawking’s popular writing stoked our curiosity about the world we live in. He helped us see that our universe is much weirder and more wonderful than we could possibly know from our everyday experience. He gave adults and know-it-all teenagers permission to ask big, childlike questions like, “Where did the universe come from?” “What was there before that?” and, most crucially, “Why?” Through his popular works, Hawking gave many of us a broader, deeper view into the world.
I encountered Stephen Hawking chiefly through his book A Brief History of Time, which has sold over 10 million copies since it was first published in 1988. I read it when I was 13 or 14, when my interest in such things was just taking off. It wasn’t my first introduction to theoretical physics and cosmology, but it was more understandable than the things I’d read previously. When I read of Hawking’s death on March 14, I pulled my copy of the book down from my bookshelf—I have kept it all these years and knew exactly where it was. As I looked through it, the diagrams, illustrations, and select passages I read still seemed familiar after 2 decades. That alone is a testament to the impact Hawking’s writing had on me, as it no doubt has had on millions of others.
As I read back through Carl Sagan’s introduction to the book, I was reminded how it skates at times between theology or philosophy and science. “This is also a book about God…or perhaps about the absence of God,” Sagan writes. “The word God fills these pages” (A Brief History of Time, 1988, x). Sagan is right. Hawking’s book is much more about physics than theology. But his thoughts on the origin of the universe, its ultimate destination, and the purpose behind it all cannot help but enter the realm usually associated with the philosophers and theologians. Consider the words with which A Brief History of Time ends, as Hawking reflects on the quest to discover a “theory of everything”:
However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God. (A Brief History of Time, 1988, 175)
That quote captures so much of what Hawking’s writing did for me at a young age and what he’s done for millions of other readers. He set before us a puzzle whose solution was nothing less than a theory of everything—a single framework for understanding all the phenomena of the universe from the subatomic scale to the cosmic, from the most mundane to the most exotic. He showed us the tools of science, math, reason, and imagination that we must use to solve this puzzle. And he inspired us to take up the challenge, to push the limits of human understanding until we encounter the mind of God, however we understand the meaning of that phrase.
Ultimately, I decided to pursue this challenge with the tools of theology rather than physics, confident that the God who has created the universe is revealed also in Christian scripture. Hawking would likely conclude that this was a foolish decision on my part, but that doesn’t matter so much to me. We can learn much from those who disagree, especially if those people are as intelligent as Stephen Hawking and physicists like him who have done the hard work of reaching and teaching the non-specialist. We can learn that curiosity and wonder about the universe are important, as is an unwavering commitment to reason and logic. We can learn that discovery of something new is hard work, but it is a source of joy. We can learn that questions of ultimate cause and purpose are beyond the limits of science, but science can help us in answering them. And most importantly, we can learn that the cosmos is far more immense and strange than we are able to comprehend. For those of us who believe the universe is the work of a Creator, such a perspective can only enrich our faith. We marvel all the more as the heavens declare the glory of God.
Thank you, Stephen Hawking, for sharing your insights and discoveries with so many of us. We don’t understand everything, but we understand things a little bit better because of you.