Steven Hawking belongs to that breed of atheist who builds his reputation in a narrow specialty, then uses his fame as a platform to pronounce on other pressing questions where he has no particular expertise – like questions about God.
Hawking’s final book “Brief Answers to Big Questions” was published posthumously with material pulled from interviews, essays, speeches, and questions often asked of the famous physicist.
Many news reports focused on the most important of the Big Questions: Is there a God? Hawking’s Brief Answer: No. “I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.” After all, he argues, “If you accept, as I do, that the laws of nature are fixed, then it doesn't take long to ask: What role is there for God?”
Is Hawking right that scientific laws rule out any role for God? Despite being a brilliant physicist, he seemed unaware that his objection has already been answered—most famously by the popular literature professor C.S. Lewis, himself a former atheist, who taught at both Oxford and Cambridge University.
In his book “Miracles,” Lewis concedes that, at first glance, the regularity of nature does seem to rule out the possibility that God is able to act into the world.
But not so fast. Natural laws tell us only what happens if nothing interferes. People playing a game of pool are applying the laws of physics, which decree that when a billiard ball hits another one, the second ball will start moving. But the laws do not tell what will happen if a mischievous child grabs the ball.
The laws are still true, of course, but the child has interfered with the physics.
Humans interfere with natural processes all the time, yet we do not break any laws of nature. We cut down trees to make houses, we weave plant fiber into cloth, we smelt metals to build bridges, we turn sand into silicon chips for computers. Through technology, we are constantly accomplishing things that nature on its own could not produce.
But do we break a single law of nature? No.
“All interferences leave the law perfectly true,” Lewis points out. And it’s the same when God acts in the world: He does not need to break any scientific laws. The cosmos is open to the actions of creative humans and a creator God.
A better way to understand miracles, Lewis writes, is that they feed new events into the existing structure of nature: “The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.”
And every new event immediately conforms to nature’s order. Manna from heaven is digested like ordinary bread. A miraculous conception grows into a baby and is born nine months later. The actions of a free agent—whether human or divine—are promptly assimilated into nature’s existing pattern.
In fact, historically, it was Christianity that gave rise to the concept of scientific laws in the first place. No other ancient culture, east or west, spoke of laws in relation to the physical cosmos. The distinguished historian A. R. Hall says the use of the word law in the context of natural events “would have been unintelligible in antiquity, whereas the Hebraic and Christian belief in a deity who was at once Creator and Law-giver rendered it valid.”
Scientists like Hawking imagine the cosmos as a closed system of cause and effect. They prefer a mechanistic metaphor of the universe as a vast machine, self-contained and self-operating. No God allowed!
Yet the vast majority of early modern scientists were Christians, who pictured the cosmos as an open system. A better metaphor than a machine might be a musical instrument. (Some early Christian thinkers suggested the example of a lute.) If the universe is like an intricately devised musical instrument, then it was meant to be played. It was designed for interaction with its maker.
The Christian view of the cosmos is confirmed by our ordinary, everyday experience. As we see humans harnessing natural forces through technology—or even performing mundane tasks like cooking dinner and driving cars—it is obvious that personal free agents are perfectly capable of working within a universe operating by fixed laws.
The early scientists were right: The lawful order in nature does not disprove God. Just the opposite—it confirms the existence of a Law-giver.
Nancy Pearcey is professor and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University and editor-at-large of the Pearcey Report. She is author of “The Soul of Science” and “Love Thy Body.”