The only real difference between the Christian conception of hell and the atheist view of death is that the atheist doesn’t believe he will be aware that he has ceased to exist in any meaningful way once he passes.
While there is widespread agreement that Stephen Hawking is an unusually bright light in the firmament of theoretical physics, he shows himself to be considerably less stellar when he applies his mind to other disciplines.
In his recent book The Grand Design he made philosophical proclamations about the universe while simultaneously claiming philosophy was dead. Some trick that. And in a recent interview with The Guardian, he made this claim:
“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.”
At the outset this old trope, which bears striking similarity to Karl Marx’ claim that religion is the, “opium of the people” begs the question a bit – he doesn’t even seem to pause to wonder how or why computers would be afraid of the dark to begin with or of being shut down.
But his statement also belies a fundamental ignorance of religion, Christianity in particular. Obviously in Christianity there is the definitive belief in the existence of hell. As an afterlife experience, hell is always portrayed as considerably more horrible than this life – it doesn’t incite comfort about the afterlife at all, but a fear of eternal punishment. Now here the atheist might inject that it is this very reason for the creation of the idea of hell – to scare people into seeking ways to get into heaven. The problem is if people created heaven because they were scared of death, why would they need the idea of hell to further motivate them? And if the whole set of beliefs are imaginary, why imagine an eternity so horrible at all when one can simply be comforted by heaven?
This seems to be another case where atheists criticize religious beliefs for completely contradictory reasons – we are somehow simultaneously trying to scare people into belief and comfort them into belief. Indeed, in view of hell a belief that death is a mere shutdown of our mechanical systems might be the real attempt to ease one’s fears about death.
In addition, Christianity doesn’t hold heaven itself to be a place of mere comfort and ease. Our actions in life are understood to have eternal impacts even if we are going to heaven – we can suffer loss by our choices, or gain through right choices in this life.
As much as a Christian understands this to be true, it makes this life considerably less easy from a practical standpoint. A Christian who believes he will reap what he sows in eternity isn’t afforded the luxury of devoting himself to material comfort or selfish pursuits. He isn’t allowed to conform to society at large in terms of its customs and practices. Paul commands us in Romans 12:
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Though adamant atheists are generally disliked, committed Christians are often actively persecuted and excluded. In fact the most comfortable set of beliefs to adopt in the Western world if one wants to fit in is to have a casual indifference to all things spiritual, and a devotion to physical attractiveness and material wealth. That is the pattern of this world. So being strongly committed to the idea of an eternity in heaven creates great discomfort, at least in terms of one’s daily life.
Hawking’s notion that heaven is a mere pacifier created to ease our fears of death is a sign of his ignorance of the actual concept. He should probably stick with theoretical physics which seems to be his stronger suit.
“It is an infinite sin to prefer anything to the infinitely attractive God. Therefore, hell is just.” — John Piper
Rejecting God because His absence consigns people to hell makes as much sense as rejecting light because it’s absence consigns people to darkness.