In a public response to the announcement of Stephen Hawking’s death, the Archbishop of York, the second highest position of the Church of England, offered these words of condolences:
“Very honoured he came to my graduation at Cambridge. Sojourner Truth go well and may the Angels of God welcome you! Love and Prayers to your daughters.”
Did the Archbishop just violate Christian doctrine? Is Stephen Hawking in hell or has he been welcomed by the angels of God?
Stephen Hawking was an outspoken atheist; he did not believe in God. In an El Mundo interview in 2014, Hawking stated,
“Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”[i]
But that didn’t stop him from also invoking God, “God is the name people give to the reason we are here…that reason is the laws of physics rather than someone with whom one can have a personal relationship. An impersonal God.”[ii]
In fairness, Hawking infused an incredible amount of thought into his worldview. But even though Hawking was a careful thinker[iii], his decision about God still has an air of personal bias:
There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either…for that, I am extremely grateful.
This leads us to the heart of the issue.
Let me be very clear, not everyone goes to Heaven. Jesus says in John 14:6, I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Let me also say that all can be saved. Paul discusses this in Rom 10; a critical passage to understand when thinking about whether Stephen Hawking, or any atheist for that matter, is in hell when they die.
In Romans 10, Paul reminds us to not ask who is in Heaven or hell when they die because to do so is to bring Christ into our shoes. In other words, when Jesus told us not to judge in Matthew 7, he did so in a way that called us, Christians, to look at ourselves first. And when we look at ourselves, we see sinners saved by grace—undeserved grace. In the parable of the unforgiving debtor[iv], the first man was forgiven far more than the second and, for that, the first was condemned. The same is true with Stephen Hawking.
Here is a man with a legitimate emotional hang-up: how could God allow such a disease as his? But he still devoted his life to seeking truth. Now I’m not saying he was forgiven, that’s between him and God, but I am saying that his heart was pure in focus. He was a kind, loving man, with a heart for truth.
Truth, which happens to be the exact thing Christians call Jesus: the way, the truth and the life (John 14).
Is Stephen Hawking in hell? Honestly, I don’t know, and neither do you; nor should we. But we can use his life as an example. Hawking fought through adversity. He continued learning for 51 years longer than doctors thought he’d live. He’s the epitome of courage.
Did he get the wrong answer—yes. Did he lead others astray—yes, again. But so did Paul, so did James. So has this author, and I’m willing to bet—so have you. Fortunately, it’s not our answers that save us, it’s the perfect intercessor between God and Man who saves us. So, let us rejoice that we have a High Priest who is able to empathize with our weaknesses[v]. Only God knows the fate of Stephen Hawking. I do hope to meet him one day—though not in hell.
Stay strong, Christians, we have been forgiven far more than we give ourselves credit for. I love you, and I love Stephen Hawking—wherever he is.
[iii] In an interview with Discovery Channel, Hawking stated, “We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God”