Within the past two months, two preeminent figures of the 20th century passed away: Billy Graham and Stephen Hawking. The two may have represented very different camps, but within their respective worlds they occupied remarkably similar positions.
On the one hand, Billy Graham was arguably the most well-known evangelist, if not Evangelical, of the 20th century. His global crusades drew in countless millions and his direct ministry led to the conversion experience of over 3 million individuals. In addition, Graham was a respected voice in the political world, serving as a spiritual advisor to Presidents and advocating for racial integration and nuclear responsibility during the Cold War.
Graham may have only considered himself a traveler through this world, but he nonetheless left a legacy of a life shaped by the Gospel.
On the other hand, Stephen Hawking was arguably the world’s most well-known scientist. Despite his lifelong battle with ALS, Hawking’s work has given us incredible insight into the nature of our universe. A professed atheist, however, Hawking was committed to the notion that the observable universe was all there was, and that science would ultimately be able to answer any question, even philosophical ones. Hawking’s legacy is best summed up by his own words: “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
For many Christians, these figures are two sides of coins from warring countries. In other words, the work of Graham and Hawking are diametrically opposed to each other. In large part this is due to the claims Hawking has made about his own work and the nature of scientific inquiry in general. When taken at face value, Hawking’s claims that science repudiates the existence of God lends itself to an anti-science view from those who do believe in God. Thus, we are unable to affirm his theories because his model of the universe leaves no room for God.
However, it is important to recognize that the claims Hawking is making are metaphysical claims and by their very nature cannot be empirically shown. Science, even theoretical physics of the kind that Hawking practiced, is incapable of making metaphysical claims. So while one can say that a theory of everything would eliminate the notion of God, that would be a speculation made by the individual and could not be demonstrated by the theory itself.
I say this as a reminder that we cannot discredit the whole of one’s work based off viewpoints they possess which we might disagree with. In fact, if we held ourselves to such a standard we would be hard-pressed to affirm the authenticity of Billy Graham’s ministry on account of his inclusivist understanding of salvation, a position deemed unorthodox by many Evangelicals. The Bible never calls us to anti-intellectualism, whether that intellectualism be science or academic theology. Nor does it call us to reject ideas that come from individuals outside our faith tradition. Paul demonstrated quite the opposite when he quoted pagan philosophers and poets in service of the Gospel.
Rather, we must be sensitive to truth in whatever form it may take.
It is important that we honor the legacy of those individuals who have come before us and contributed to the betterment of society. Despite their radically different beliefs and occupations, both Billy Graham and Stephen Hawking are two individuals to whom great honor is due. Thus, we honor Graham by advocating for more than just people’s souls, but their right to a life well-lived while here on Earth. We honor Hawking by encouraging scientific inquiry done not in pursuit of the proof of God, but in understanding the beautiful complexity of the created order. We live in a world created by a God who actively participates in creation to this day. As part of that created order, we are to be responsible stewards of that creation and all which dwells within.
Being responsible stewards calls us to possess a greater understanding of the physical, political, and social worlds around us.
Scientific discovery not only reveals the awesome glory of God, it allows us to better understand how to care for all creation. Politically speaking, Christians have the model of individuals like Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. who worked with both sides of the aisle to see how they could fight injustice and uphold the Gospel in contemporary society. Socially, we must be informed about the history of those standing across from us not simply from a communal perspective, but from an individual perspective as well. Each person has a story which needs to be understood if we are to effectively steward our relationship with them.
For many, the deaths of Billy Graham and Stephen Hawking have stood as an opportunity to preach a message of eternal salvation and damnation, respectively. Instead, why don’t we take this opportunity to truly honor the lives of two individuals whose legacies on Earth leave us with so much more than an altar call illustration, but a real opportunity to inspire ourselves and those around us to create a better future for all creation.