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July 25, 2012

Stephen Hawking, British theoretical physicist and author of A Brief History of Time (1988), was diagnosed with degenerative motor neuron disease at age 21. He has a history of drawing criticism for his comments on religion. His 2010 book The Grand Design provoked a backlash, including chief rabbi Isaac Lord Sacks, for arguing there was no need for a divine force to explain the creation of the universe. Hawking did it again recently in an interview published May 16, 2011, in the Guardian newspaper:

“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I am in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computer parts. That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

What Hawking is referring to is a very old yet still common picture of God as an external being somewhere (heaven) who some time ago manipulated something and “created” the universe and life and us. And at times he interjects himself again into the workings of his creation. This is a recurring picture of God throughout the Bible, especially in the earlier stories. Moreover, the vocabulary of the Bible uses words of an ancient three-tiered cosmology of (1) heaven “up there” where the gods live, (2) earth “here’ where we and the animals live, and (3) the underworld “down below,” all places relatively near by. That cosmology has now been replaced with a universe of vast distances and time spans, of galaxies and stars, of DNA and the evolution of life. As a result, more recent theology together with modern biblical scholarship presents us with a changing understanding of that earlier picture of God and even of the Bible itself.

We speak of the Bible as “the word of God.” But no longer does that necessarily mean the Bible as the “words” of God. It is increasingly recognized that the words of the Bible are human words with all their limitations of language. But behind those words are very real God experiences by human beings over hundreds of years – experiences that still continue to this day. The stories in the Bible are thus human attempts to interpret those experiences, and to find meaning and direction for their own lives. And that meaning and direction can still guide us today. But we no longer should take the stories as literal history or biography, although there is clearly history and biography underneath them.

That is unsettling to those who still see the Bible as the literal, inerrant, words of God, and accept heaven as an after-life reward and hell as a punishment for our behavior in “this life.” But I understand and recognize that religion is a human construct that developed when humans evolved with a self-consciousness and a self awareness in space and time that also included an awareness that we will die. Religion became essential for humans to cope with that awareness. But even within our new cosmology, our religion still insists that there is more to life and more to me than just atoms and energy. God is more than a divine force. So is there still a place for the idea of heaven?

Heaven was considered as the dwelling place of God, and so for us as humans, heaven was the place for us to be “with God” after we die. But we can no longer locate heaven within space and time any more than we can locate God within space and time. Yet space and time are an integral part of the universe of stars and galaxies and also of life itself. To me, it is no longer meaningful to say that God created this universe, but rather God IS that creation. God is in the structure, in the energy, the motion, in the mathematical relationships that make up the universe. And God is also in life itself, in the “dance of the atoms” that make up each unit of life – even including me!

And so for me, heaven does exist! It is not a place. It is in the love that we experience in relationships. Relationships within family and all of life. Relationships with nature with all its complexity and order and beauty. It is in the love that we can experience each day if we open our eyes and ears and hearts to it. And it is through that love that we see and hear and feel and know and experience God.

So yes, Stephen Hawking, heaven is not a future place for our used computer parts. It is that part of me – and you – that exists right now and is eternal.

Loren Bullock
May 24, 2011

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