I read with interest this NBC News article that summarized Stephen Hawking's views on the existence of God. In short, Hawking believes that the universe spontaneously created itself. It has no need of a Creator:
In quantum studies, it's common to see subatomic particles like protons and electrons seemingly appear out of nowhere, stick around for a while and then disappear again to a completely different location. Because the universe was once the size of a subatomic particle itself, it's plausible that it behaved similarly during the Big Bang, Hawking wrote.
I'm a historian, not a scientist, and I'm not competent to offer an opinion on the behavior of sub-atomic particles and whether or not the universe as a whole imitates them. But I will offer a few opinions about what comes next in the article. Hawking has argued that, since time itself came into being at the Big Bang, the existence of God is ruled out since "there is no time for a creator to have existed in" before the universe expanded.
But why would God need time in which to exist? If that were the case, wouldn't that make God something less than God and time itself God? St. Augustine made this very point in the fourth century, long before the Big Bang Theory was proposed.
In his Confessions, Augustine considered the question, "What was God doing before God created the universe?" The question, Augustine thought, was nonsensical because God is eternal, which means that God is outside time and not subject to it. When God created the world, God created time itself, as well as space and everything that fills it. So it is not as though there were some epoch prior to the existence of this universe in which God was standing around checking his watch until he deemed it the right moment to say, "Let there be light."
Put differently, God is logically but not temporally prior to the universe.
Time, Augustine added, "tends toward non-being," because the present is always retreating before the future and slipping into the past. Eternity, the opposite of time, is not the sum total of all the years that have passed and will pass, but it is a qualitatively different type of existence, an existence that is not endlessly anticipated and ceaselessly slipping through our fingers.
So in heaven, it is not really the case that, "When we've been there 10,000 years/Bright shining as the sun/We'll no less days to sing thy praise/Than when we first begun," as the last verse of Amazing Grace puts it. Eternal life is not an infinite number of days and nights. As Augustine puts it, God's eternity is "a simple 'Today...' that does not give way to tomorrow, nor follow yesterday." Eternal life is a fullness of experience undiminished by expectations that fail to materialize or by wistfulness for what no longer exists.
Perhaps we can forgive Hawking on this point, since we Christians often exhibit a little confusion when it comes to eternity, as shown by the different treatments of the topic by our best theologians and hymn-writers.
The article concludes,
While his view of the universe might render a divine creator and the laws of nature incompatible, it still leaves ample space for faith, hope, wonder and, especially, gratitude.
"We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe," Hawking concludes the first chapter of his final book, "and for that I am extremely grateful."
I'll just point out that Hawking retains religious language in his appreciation of the universe, even if he has jettisoned belief in a Creator. The question is, does such language make any sense apart from the existence of God? If the universe exhibits a grand design, does that not imply a designer? If Hawking feels grateful for his life, to whom is he grateful?
As Christians, we believe that "the heavens are telling the glory of God." We are grateful to many people for many things, but through faith, we have seen the One who is worthy of our deepest gratitude for the sum of all things.
Hawking certainly knew more about time than any person who has lived, but he seems to have misunderstood what eternity is. What is more, he seems to have resisted following the gratitude and awe bubbling up in him back to its source.
Where does this leave us as Christians? Our response should be to understand and articulate our faith more clearly, and to point others in the direction of the One that their feelings of thanksgiving and wonder are instinctively seeking.