‘Spontaneous creation’, Stephen Hawking and God

  • Question 166 from Stella, United Kingdom

    How would Christians respond to Stephen Hawking’s comments about creation being “Godless”.

    Professor Stephen Hawking is well-known as a cosmologist and author, and his most recent book, The Grand Design, has been widely quoted following serialisation in The Times newspaper. In excerpts repeated across the media, Professor Hawking has been quoted as stating:

    “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

    “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”

    “[The discovery of planets orbiting a star other than our Sun] makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions – the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass – far less remarkable, and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.”1

    Such comments from an eminent scientist such as Professor Hawking do seem to have the potential to re-ignite debates that pit science against religion. However, the compatibility of belief in God and scientific understanding of the world is still possible.

    In Christian terms, the doctrine of creation is primarily a statement about God, rather than about the universe. Although there have been many, often persuasive, attempts to prove the literal truth of the creation stories in Genesis, or to harmonise scientific theories with doctrinal belief, the actual point of the doctrine of creation is that it says something about the nature of God rather than about the universe.

    Since the early centuries of Christianity, the concept of ‘creatio ex nihilo’ (creation from nothing) has been the classical doctrine of the Church, which is remarkably similar to the idea of ‘spontaneous creation’.

    God’s pre-existence to creation is essentially a meaningless concept within a universe governed by time. St Augustine first put forward the idea that time came into being alongside creation – which seems to tie in with our present cosmological understanding of the universe.

    The metaphor that Professor Hawking utilises of God ‘lighting the touch paper’ and then standing back seems to imply a deist notion of God. Deism posits God as an Aristotelian ‘prime mover’ that causes creation to occur and then lets it continue through natural laws that have been set in place as part of creation.

    Although this view has been found in many branches of Christian doctrine through the centuries, it has always existed in conflict with the assertion that God is actually involved in the created universe, sustaining it, interacting with it and existing in relationship with created beings.

    It is the definition of God as a relational being that enables Christians to accept Professor Hawking’s views without rejecting their beliefs in a divine ‘creator’. God could only be defined as God if there was something to define God against – a universe. Without a universe as a backdrop to deity there would be no God, because the Christian way of defining God is that which transcends the universe, and yet seeks to relate to it.

    Process theology, which became a serious branch of liberal theology in the twentieth century could take this a step further. As a form of theology it acknowledged the idea that God could ‘develop’ in tandem with the universe.

    This viewpoint would not be affected by the idea that creation arose spontaneously, because God’s nature is directly affected by creation and vice versa. Because everything (even God) is in a state of flux and change, creation is not defined as one single event at the beginning of time.

    This leads back into the idea that God is defined through relationships that develop over time. The experienced reality of that relationship is essentially what Christians claim to ‘know’, and it is as a statement of faith through revelation of, and relationship with, God that Christians call God the creator and sustainer of the universe. Again, to call God ‘creator’ is a faith statement about what Christians claim to have experienced about God’s nature, rather than a statement about the universe.

    Professor Hawking’s comments are of course shaded by nuance. To say that God was ‘not necessary’ to the process is not the same as a definitive statement that God was not involved, although it does seem from the rest of his statements, that Professor Hawking believes creation happened without any divine impetus.

    This is not the first time that Professor Hawking has created some ambiguity. In 1988 his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time, included an enigmatic statement that “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.”

    Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, was scathing of this phrase because using the word ‘God’ in this way opened the door to claims that Stephen Hawking believed in God. It would seem from his new book that Professor Hawking has at least made it clear that he does not.

    Notes and References
    1: All quotes as reported on BBC News.

    Liked this? Try these articles about creation:
    Rocks of Ages (from Brazil)
    Babylonian Influences in Genesis (from UK)

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    1. Stella Sep 6

      Thanks for an excellent analysis of my question. I suppose religion and science will forever be intertwined as uneasy bedfellows because science will never have all the answers and the spiritual needs that humans seek.

    2. Daniel Sep 23

      Stephen Hawking is one of those scientists who use their fame to peddle atheism. Any physicist will tell you that there is a difference between physics and metaphysics. The claim about creation out of nothing is not a claim that is within the domain of physics. It is purely a metaphysical proposition.

      Now,let us try to understand the absurdity of Hawking’s claim: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” The law of gravity is a part of the nature of the universe. In other words, the law of gravity does not exist independently of the universe. The law of gravity, and all the other laws of physics, came into existence after the universe was created; therefore, these laws cannot be responsible for the creation of the universe out of nothing.

      Let me bring this discussion into an area that most people can understand. Take and earth and the moon as examples. The earth has a strong gravitational pull. That is why it keeps on down to earth, so to speak. If the earth did not exist in its current location, its gravitational pull would not be the same. The moon, on the other hand,has a very weak gravitational pull. This is why astronauts do not jump or run on the moon. One jump will cause them to float on the moon like a birthday balloon does on earth. The earth’s gravity exists because of the earth and the moon’s gravity exists because of the moon.

      An object must first come into existence and then occupy a place in the universe before it can acquire any physical characteristics such as gravity. The law of gravity is like human intelligence. Our intelligence does not bring us into this world; once we are created, then nature and nurture work to effectuate intelligence. For Hawking to say, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing,” it is like saying, “Because there is intelligence, humans can and will create themselves from nothing.” If this makes sense to you, then welcome on board the Hawking train.

      One final point. There are no physical laws that precede the Big Bang. This is the reality of physics, the science of the physical universe. The universe came into existence at the Big Bang. If there were no physical laws before the Big Bang, then no law of physics could ever be responsible for creating the universe out of nothing. Hawking’s claim is not one of physics, but of metaphysics (beyond physics).

      The Christian response to Hawking’s claim of a God-less creation should be the same as the response of most serious physicists: ignore it because it is not science.

    3. Jon the freelance theologian Sep 28

      Some good points there Daniel. To be fair to Stephen Hawking though, he isn’t really known as being anti-religious unlike other writers who use science as a basis to attack faith.

    4. Harry Nov 16

      Daniel, I would dispute your claim that Stephen Hawking is using his reputation to peddle his atheist agenda. He has said that he is not an atheist but that he does not believe in a ‘personal god’, and he has suggested in his previous works that God WAS involved in the creation of the universe, but he has since revised this view.

    5. Li Kong Aug 4

      Professor Hawking quoted as follows:“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”The theory of Spontaneous creation comes about due to the discovery of the creation of particles that could be produced through vacuum by means of quantum theory.  However, the experiment in the past has shown that the particles could only exist awhile after its creation and its life could not prolong for more than half an half and it ultimately vanishes.  It is erroneous to use this experiment to conclude that spontaneous creation could create something out of nothing in which the created things could last long.  Unless the experiment has shown that the created substance could prolong its life more than a year, it is then rational to use it to support there could be spontaneous creation prior to the creation of universe.  As the existence of particles through spontaneous creation through the experiment in the vacuum could not even prolong their life more than a year, how could spontaneous creation be occurred prior to the creation of this universe that could create living things that could last even up to this modern days?Thus, Stephen Hawking’s theory for spontaneous creation that could create something out of nothing could not be acceptable especially particles that had been created through experiment could not last forever.Stephen hawking also mentions that because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.   As we know, as the earth revolves around the sun, the gravity is also accompanied with the earth to revolve around the sun.  Even if the earth would cease its movement, gravity would cease its movement simultaneously.  Thus, the gravity and the earth cannot be separated.  As gravity and the earth cannot be separated, it is erroneous to assume that gravity could exist at the collapse of stars or prior to the formation of this universe as supported by Stephen Hawking.  As gravity and the earth cannot be separated, it is erroneous to support Stephen Hawking’s theory that gravity could exist prior to the creation of universe despite there was no object to be found at that time.Isaac Newton was the founder of the theory of gravity and Stephen Hawking develops the theory through gravity.  Isaac Newton supported that gravity attaches big objects, such as, the earth.  To stay away from big objects, would cause lesser or no gravity.  Yet Stephen hawking’s theory contradicts Isaac Newton’s principle that gravity would remain at the absence of object.  The worse is that Stephen Hawking supports that gravity could exist even at the absence of the creation of objects prior to the formation of this universe.  Thus, Stephen Hawking’s theory has been found to have contradiction with Isaac Newton’s principle.

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