The new autobiography from scientist and well-known atheist Stephen Hawking entitled My Brief History is full of many interesting and at times surprising details.
One of the most surprising stories can be found on page 123:
I believe that disabled people should concentrate on things that their handicap doesn’t prevent them from doing and not regret those they can’t do…I visited the Soviet Union seven times. The first time I went with a student party in which one member, a Baptist, wished to distribute Russian-language Bibles and asked us to smuggle them in. We managed this undetected, but by the time we were on our way out the authorities had discovered what we had done and detained us for a while. However, to charge us with smuggling Bibles would have caused an international incident and unfavorable publicity, so they let us go after a few hours.
Stephen Hawking must be the only quadriplegic atheist to ever be detained for Bible smuggling. For nearly 50 years Stephen Hawking has been living with a progressing motor neuron disease related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). As I read his autobiography I wanted to both spend time joking with him, honor him for all he has been able to accomplish with such a health condition, but then have a very serious adult-level conversation about a God I believe he should take more seriously. More on this a bit later.
In order to write a book Stephen Hawking must twitch his cheek until a computer can recognize what word is in his mind. It takes an average of a minute for him to type just three words. A small 125-page autobiography seems like a long Russian novel when you realize how much work it took to communicate his story.
Hawking spends roughly half his book in the world of his professional passion: theoretical physics, cosmology and mathematics. The other half of My Brief History focuses on his personal life.
Hawking made front-page news in 2011 when he spoke boldly against Christianity. He said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
I wondered if Hawking was on a trajectory from being a pretty friendly atheist to now going on the attack following the lead of men such as Richard Dawkins. I was surprised how his autobiography was free from polemical statements against Christianity.
Hawking only mentions his “run in” with Christianity a few times. A prominent memory of the Bible was having a tutor use the Bible in English class. He writes:
To keep us occupied, he therefore set us to read a chapter of the Bible each day and write a piece on it. The idea was to teach us the beauty of the English language. We got through all of Genesis and part of Exodus before I left. One of the main things I learned from this exercise was not to begin a sentence with “And.” When I pointed out that most sentences in the Bible began with “And,” I was told that English had changed since the time of King James. In that case, I argued, why make us read the Bible?”
I believe, sadly, Stephen Hawking received bad biblical information. I wish I could get in a time machine to provide an alternative response to the inquisitive young Hawking. One of those frustrating moments in history where his English teacher doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
I would have let Hawking (and his English teacher) know about the importance of the conjunction in the Hebrew language. Every first year Hebrew student recognizes the conjunction used all over the place. Since all our modern Bibles are a translation there are always decisions made by the translators between being extremely literal to the text versus sounding like good English. In Greek, for instance, the verb can frequently be the first word in the sentence (Kick, the you, the ball). Only Yoda speaks that way in English.
The King James translators, to honor the importance of the Hebrew text, would bend the laws of English to be faithful to the originals. This can actually help support how vitally important everyone involved views the message of the Bible. Instead of Hawking feeling like the Bible is a book of bad English, I hope he will one day see it as an eternally important collection of Hebrew and Greek writings.
The only other major part of his book devoted to Christianity was related to one of his grad students. He writes on page 81:
While in California, I worked with a research student at Caltech, Don Page. Don had been born and brought up in a village in Alaska where his parents were schoolteachers and the three of them were the only non-intuits. He was an evangelical Christian, and he did his best to convert me when he later came to live with us in Cambridge. He used to read me Bible stories at breakfast, but I told him I knew the Bible well from my time in Majorca, and because my father used to read the Bible to me. (My father was not a believer but thought the King James Bible was culturally important.)
It seems Hawking’s perception of the Bible is “tried it and found it wanting.” I admire a great deal of his perspective on life, his academic contributions, and the great amount he has suffered yet continues to persevere. Many Christians give up on life when lesser things happen while Hawking, without Jesus in his life, has a perseverance which should inspire Christians.
I wish his perspective on the universe would be complimented by the revelation of the One who created the world. I wish Hawking could spend a day learning from men like Thomas Aquinas who were able to beautifully bring together the worlds of faith and science. Maybe if Hawking can crack time-travel that meeting could take place. Unfortunately, however, I think Hawking has given one of the best reasons why we will never figure out time travel.
He writes, “Even if some different theory is discovered in the future, I don’t think time travel will ever be possible. If it were, we would have been overrun by tourists from the future by now.”
It’s a very healthy thing to read books by people with a different view of the world. To be a good ambassador of Christ we need to understand those who don’t yet know Christ. The Apostle Paul certainly read non-Christian poets in order to be able to quote them when speaking on Mars Hill in Athens. This Hawking book is a good read to understand a man who has many reasons to be respected by all.