The death of Stephen Hawking this past week has inspired so many comments; both his debilitated body and his towering intellect, including his impact on physics will be much discussed in the future. But Hawking’s atheism will also be discussed, which causes some Christians no small distress. How can a man who denies the existence of God be blessed by God with such powers of observation?
One of the important yet often forgotten Christian doctrines is the doctrine of common grace. The doctrine of common grace is distinguished from the doctrine of saving grace. Saving grace is God’s grace, in which He grants hell-deserving sinners the forgiveness of sins, a new heart through the new birth, inclusion into His family and the promise of eternity.
Although it does not include forgiveness for sins, common grace is grace nonetheless. In common grace, God bestows His favour on all people, regardless of their eternal standing before Him. Jesus spoke of this in Matthew 5:45: “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Some of us find the kindness of God to all men and women to be unfair. After all, God should curse the unjust by withholding rain from their fields. But, in truth, He doesn’t. Indeed, there seems to be no discernable difference in the way He cares for the fields of both.
The kindness, or grace, of God on all men is also felt in His gift of intellectual achievements. We notice, for instance, that John calls Jesus, “the true Light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9). It is this natural light in all men that allows all to have the powers of observation. In his commentary on the book of John, Leon Morris argues that Christ therefore allows people to observe and understand many true things about both God and His universe.
Consider what people know about God apart from saving faith. According to Romans 1:20, unsaved people do notice the invisible attributes of God. Paul speaks there about His eternal power and divine nature. It should therefore not surprise us that even some non-Christian religions do notice some true characteristics of God.
The same is true about observations of the created world. Genesis 11 tells us that the citizens of Babel had invented brick and bitumen, allowing them to advance the technology of human buildings. Joshua 17:18 tells us that the Canaanites had iron chariots, a technology that the Israelites obviously didn’t possess. When Jerusalem fell to Babylon in 586 B.C. and was taken into captivity, they were overwhelmed at the city of Babylon. So much of what was available in Babylon had never even been conceived in Jerusalem.
But the very heart of the doctrine of common grace is not that non-Christians sometimes can do things that Christians can’t. The heart of the doctrine is that when non-Christians do extraordinary things, they do these things by the grace of God. God in His kindness has blessed the field of both the just and the unjust.
That brings us back to the remarkable life of Stephen Hawking. He is a man to be admired. His raw determination in the face of an overwhelming physical limitation is surely noteworthy. So also are his breathtaking insights into black holes, his theory that the universe had a point of beginning, and that the universe inevitably gets more disordered as it gets older. He will surely be remembered as one of the greatest scientific minds.
And for that, I ponder at the grace of God, which gives such light to some.