Summary: In this ministry update, apologist, Ben Fischer, compares the lives of two prominent human figures, Stephen Hawking and Billy Graham. Against the backdrop of Easter, Ben challenges readers to consider the brevity of life and the hope of eternal life.
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On February 21st, we were met with the news that Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, the man who preached to more people than any Christian in history, and who was the principal figure of American evangelicalism in the twentieth century, had passed into eternity and into the arms of his Lord.
In over 50 years, Graham traveled the world and preached the gospel at crusades to more than 100 million people. His travels took him to Europe, Asia, North and South America, Australia, and Africa. Graham ministered in evangelistic crusades which repeatedly broke stadium attendance records. Additionally, through the advent of television, radio, and satellite technology, Billy Graham was able to preach to more than two billion people throughout his lifetime. He truly exemplified a life lived in pursuit of one thing—to preach Christ to a world that desperately needed him.
Conversely, in the early hours of March 14 of this year, the most famous scientist of the twentieth century, Stephen Hawking, died. Hawking left behind an almost unparalleled legacy of exploration into the very farthest reaches of science and the human imagination. His groundbreaking work, developed in conjunction with mathematician and philosopher of science, Professor Roger Penrose of Oxford University, paved the way for a bold new coterie of theories in the origins of space and time. Hawking brought fresh exploration into questions on the creation of the universe. His life has inspired people of virtually all races and creeds and has become a testament to the ability of "mind to triumph over matter." His was a voice known around the world, not just for his brilliance, but for his power to captivate the heart. Sadly, just over a week after his death, the Washington Post carried the headline, “...the Pope Did Not Convince Stephen Hawking to Believe in God on His Deathbed.”
As I ponder such a news today, I cannot help but see it as striking. The death of these two geniuses leaves us with a disparaging conjuncture one cannot ignore. Two colossal giants (in their own right) who have left the world behind them reflecting on time, God and eternity. Two unforgettable persons with a very different view on life and the existence of man in our vast, expansive universe. What can we learn from their stories? Or how should we react?
One unfortunate answer came to me in an online chat room in which I happened across a disturbing post written by a Christian bearing the stunning inscription: “Stephen Hawking—Now in Hell!” The comment was extremely cutting and immediately summoned to mind a tale told me by my two wonderful parents who recently returned from a vacation in Italy. The story dealt with the ongoing feud between the famous renaissance figure, Michelangelo, and a man named Agustino who had previously been well-known for his work in producing pornographic materials.
Apparently, as history reports, Agustino had managed to convince the pope at the time that Michelangelo’s work was indistinguishable from pornography. The accusation caused not a little disturbance amongst the religious bureaucracy and lead to the suggestion that the famous artist style his subjects in proper attire. An historic debate proceeded to break out between the two men. So fierce was the brawl that the last painting created by Michelangelo (aptly called “The Last Judgment”) featured a hapless soul, confined to hell, wearing the distinct likeness of none other than Agustino!
Obviously, there lies in the heart of some Christians today, a bit of Michelangelo. Perhaps the same could be said to be true of you and me…
No one can know for sure where Professor Hawking will spend his eternity. For the moment, it is something which we cannot know with infallible certainty. One point, however, nevertheless, appears to be of supremely timely importance: Though the mind may be king over matter for day, death will eventually be master. As scripture warns, “It is appointed unto a man to die once and then comes the judgment.” ( Heb 9:27)
The fleeting nature of life therefore brings us to the point of reflection regarding the ultimate meaning of human existence in a universe with (or without) God. As the world remembers the lives of these two great men, lived at the forward-most zenith of temporal achievement, many acutely sense the need to re-evaluate life's ultimate meaning. They wonder how to face the abyss which yawns before us. They ponder how to grasp a world which is slowly fading to dust. Only the words of the Savior therefore seem to strike the appropriate air: “[W]hat will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul?” (Matt 16:26)
Such questions are the kind that drove the ministry of Billy Graham. His was a life lived fully for God and for his name. He preached and wrote persuading his listeners to put their trust in Christ alone. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6).
Graham therefore pursued Christ with everything within him. He lived his life solely to make Jesus known. Commenting very close to the end of his course, he surmised: “I realize that my ministry [will] someday come to an end. I am only one in a glorious chain of men and women God has raised up through the centuries to build Christ’s church and to take the Gospel everywhere.” The preacher's life therefore explicitly carried a purpose and a meaning which had the ability to extend beyond the grave. His was a story of monumental and lasting achievement, one which will not be soon forgotten.
Professor Stephen Hawking, on the other hand, had a different aim. He spent most of his life attempting to argue the point that based upon science, God was obsolete, and therefore, did not exist.
Hawking died at the age of 76. Ironically, he was the same age as the world famous scientist, Albert Einstein. He also eerily happened to die on Einstein’s birthday, showing a strange connection with his late mentor and predecessor in death. Whether the theoretical models which Hawking and Penrose developed in conjunction together will survive even another decade yet remains to be seen. The prime lesson, however, should be presently clear to us all—Trust not in temporal things.
In 10th century Spain, a caliph by the name of Abd-al-Rahman III seemed to imbibe that very principle. Throughout his life lived with all the pleasures which a man of his prestige is privileged to enjoy, he left the following script as a warning for future generations: “I have now reigned for fifty years in victory or peace...riches and honor, power and pleasure have waited on my call; nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to fourteen. O man! place not thy confidence in this present world.”
Some centuries later, another prominent human figure and scientist had his day. Renowned cosmologist, Carl Sagan, addressed the international scientific community before he died. Noting its many accomplishments at the time, Sagan claimed that of all the discoveries regarding the nature of reality, there was one which was presently incontestable. Speaking of the science of thermodynamics, Sagan noted that the law of material breakdown ranks as the most proven principle in all of nature.
Therefore, as we Christians draw near to the conclusion of this Lenten season, we are brought in our hearts once again to the location of Jesus' empty tomb. Here, the promise of Easter holds out the only meaningful conclusion to such a grand and unsettling dilemma as this. The gospel-writer notes:
“But on the first day of the week, at the early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces towards the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’ ...And...returning from the tomb they told all these things...and they worshipped...with great joy...’” (Lk 24 vs. 1-6, 8-9, and 52; ESV)
This is the hope that is held out to you and me through the promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who gives us the ability to make sense of all the suffering in our world. As Wilhelm von Goethe, the German statesman once wrote, “The happiest man is he who is able to integrate the end of his life with its beginning.” Only through the gift of eternal life in Jesus can man live with ultimate meaning in this world. Only through the resurrection can we face our end with happy resolve.
This Easter season, I wish you our fondest and most heartfelt blessings. I pray that you are continually enthralled with the meaning of this season. On behalf of my wife, my two children, as well as our whole leadership team, we wish you and your family a joyful and happy Easter. May you be encouraged as you celebrate the only eternal answer to the crisis of our hour—Jesus Christ.
In the Harvest: Ben Fischer