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A Brief Look at A Brief History of Time

by Dr. Hugh Ross

Recently I was invited to give an evangelistic message to a group of movie and television writers, directors, and producers. My idea was to present new scientific proofs for the God of the Bible, but someone more familiar with the group implored me to critique Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. A book review for an evangelistic outreach? It seemed bizarre. But the night of the event, I found the place packed with twice the number of people expected.

What I discovered that night is that British physicist Stephen Hawking has risen to the status of a folk hero for many Americans and a cult figure for New-Agers. The folk hero status is easy to understand. Who can help but be stirred by the valor of a man who must force the communication of his brilliant mind through the constricting barriers of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease)? His status as a cult figure comes from his reputation for suggesting that theoretical physics renders God impersonal and unnecessary for our existence.

A Brief History of Time is Hawking's fourth book, but his first aimed at a popular audience. It has sold phenomenally well-six months on the New York Times best-seller list-an amazing fact considering the technicality of its content.

Most of the book relates the history of the universe to the latest discoveries about the theories of gravity. It is engaging if for no other reason than that one of the key history-makers is telling the story. The chapters on black holes are perhaps the most lucid one will find on that subject anywhere. Occasionally in his history-telling, Hawking trips over some self-righteousness. After chiding fellow researchers for failing to admit mistakes,1he incorrectly accuses Paul Steinhardt of committing plagiarism,2then quotes the Pope out of context.3 But such flaws seem minor. Anyone desiring to learn about the latest research on the application of gravitational theories to the origin and development of the universe will not be disappointed.

As a popular level text on gravitational theories for the universe, A Brief History of Time is not alone. Several authors have tackled the same task. My personal favorites are The Moment of Creation, by James Trefil,4 and The Left Hand of Creation, by John Barrow and Joseph Silk. 5 What makes Hawking's book unique and controversial are its philosophical and theological pronouncements. It is on these that I wish to focus my comments.

In the opening paragraph of his final chapter, Hawking declares the goal of his life and work. He bends all his efforts toward answering four fundamental questions: "What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did it and we come from? Why is it the way it is?"6 Hawking's dream is to answer these questions through physics alone. Thus far he gives no reason for his refusal to acknowledge, or to accept, the answers already given elsewhere, specifically in the pages of the Bible. From his close contact with Christians, including his wife, Jane, and physics colleague Don Page, we can assume that he is aware, at least, that the Bible addresses these issues. Yet he chooses to ignore its answers. In an interview for the Sunday Times (of London) Magazine, Jane Hawking says,

There doesn't seem to be room in the minds of people who are working out these things for other sources of inspiration. You can't actually get an answer out of Stephen regarding philosophy beyond the realms of science.... I can never get an answer, I find it very upsetting.7

The thrust of Hawking's philosophizing in A Brief History of Time is to demean the role of God in the affairs of the universe and to elevate the role of man. Spearheading this thrust is Carl Sagan, who foreshadows the theme in his introduction to the book. According to Sagan, A Brief History of Time speaks "about God, or perhaps about the absence of God." It represents an effort to posit "a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do" (emphasis added).8 Ironically, this message contradicts the conclusions from Hawking's remarkable work (1968-1970) with George Ellis and Roger Penrose on singularity theorems.

In that earlier, breakthrough research, Hawking, Ellis, and Penrose proved that under very general conditions every solution to the equations of general relativity guarantees the existence of a "singular" boundary (or starting point) for space and time.9, 10 In other words, a universe that is expanding, filled with matter and energy, and obeying any physically acceptable equation of state must have been "singular" (must have had a beginning with boundary conditions) sometime, somewhere in the past, regardless of any lack of symmetry today. Hawking himself pointed to the breathtaking conclusion that "...time has a beginning. "11

Through the principle of cause and effect, this theorem pointed obviously, perhaps too obviously, to the existence of some entity beyond the dimensions of the universe who created the universe and its space-time manifold within the finite past. Thus, this theorem effectively eliminated all "steady state" cosmological models, models presupposing a virtual infinitude of time or space. In doing so, it also eliminated the cosmological models of all "holy writ" except the Bible.

The only possible escape was a question about the validity of the equations of general relativity. At the time of the formulation of the singularity theorems, general relativity was verified only to one or two decimal places. Thus, in the 1960's and 1970's, a few theoreticians proposed cosmological models based on slight departures from general relativity. Their work was abandoned, however, when sophisticated experiments verified general relativity to three, four, and even five places of the decimal.12 The only hope, then, for escaping the beginning, hence the Beginner, and more specifically the Biblical Creator-God, lay in finding some possible point in the history of the universe where the equations of general relativity might break down.

Even before authoring this book, Hawking began to reveal his membership in the ranks of the loophole-seekers. In 1983, Hawking and James Hartle advanced the notion that since we cannot determine conditions in the universe before 10 -43 seconds (that is, 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds after its beginning point), perhaps some unknown phenomenon in that speck of time might have disturbed the governance of general relativity.13 If so, there might not be a true singularity (origin from a single point) of space, time, matter, and energy. They went on to propose that just as the behavior of a hydrogen atom can be described by a quantum mechanical wave function, so might the behavior of the universe. If that is the case, they claimed, the universe could have just popped into existence out of absolutely nothing at what most would call the beginning of time. This fanciful "hypothesis" provides the basis for Hawking's widely quoted statement, "The universe would not be created, not be destroyed; it would simply be. What place, then, for a Creator?" 14-15 It is the basis, too, for New Agers' and atheists' claims that a personal Creator-God need not, according to science, be the agency for the origin of the universe. To Hawking's credit, he admits in this more recent work that the whole idea is "just a proposal: it cannot be deduced from some other principle."16

As physicist Frank Tipler has pointed out, Hawking may simply be substituting, unawares, one kind of singularity for another, more specifically a classical singularity of general relativity for a quantum singularity:

A quantum universe [such as Hawking proposes] ... necessarily consists of not just one four-dimensional sphere, but rather the infinity of spheres of all possible radii. However, since it is meaningless for the radius of a sphere to be less than or equal to zero, a four-dimensional sphere of zero radius forms a boundary to Hawking's universe.... He [Hawking] has eliminated the classical singularity-the beginning of time-only to have it re-appear as the "beginning" to the space of all possible four-spheres.17

Even as Hawking himself has explained, there is no real escape from the singularity and the boundary conditions:

If the universe really is in such a quantum state, there would be no singularities in the history of the universe in imaginary time.... The universe could be finite in imaginary time but without boundaries or singularities. When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities. ... Only if [we] lived in imaginary time would [we] encounter no singularities.... In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space-time and at which the laws of science break down.18

If we substitute Biblical terminology here, we can say that God transcends "real time"19 and would not be confined to boundaries and singularities, but human beings and the physical universe, both of which are limited to real time, would be so confined.

Though Hawking undoubtedly seeks to show some limits on the role of the Creator or, more precisely, to eliminate the need of a Creator's involvement in the existence and development of the universe, he is not trying to eliminate Him altogether. He emphatically rejects the label "atheist." He comes closer, perhaps, to fitting the description of a deist. In A Brief History of Time he says, "These laws [of physics] may have originally been decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in it."20 He goes on to conclude that "with the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws."21 Hawking's reasons for taking such a position are made clear from the outset--he believes there exists a complete set of physical laws that would yield "a complete description of the universe we live in"22 and further, that these laws "would also presumably determine our actions."23 Accordingly, "If there were a complete set of laws, that would infringe [on] God's freedom to change his mind and intervene in the world."24

The most fundamental contradiction between Hawking's philosophy and Biblical Christianity (not to mention physical reality) is Hawking's belief that man can discover that "complete set of laws." By this, he means not just a complete and consistent unified field theory but "a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence."25 Elsewhere he has said that he wants to "know the mind of God."26 Since the existence of the God of the Bible or singularities would guarantee that his goal would never be reached, he seeks to deny both.

Ironically, his goal was proven mathematically impossible by Kurt Goedel in 1930. According to Goedel's incompleteness theorem, with incomplete information about a system, one cannot prove a necessarily true theorem (i.e., a one and only one description) about that system.27 Normal experience is sufficient to prove to most of us that our human limitations guarantee that we will never learn everything about ourselves and the universe. The nature quiz that God posed to Job (Job 38-41) some four thousand years ago would still stump even so brilliant and educated a man as Stephen Hawking. More ironical still is that Hawking's own words prove his goal impossible. He acknowledges two unavoidable limitations on man's quest for more scientific knowledge:

1) the limitation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics (the impossibility for the human observer to measure exactly both the position and the momentum of any quantum entity), and

2) the impossibility of solving exactly all but the very simplest of physical equations.28

Hawking serves to illustrate what can happen to research scientists when they reject clear evidence pointing to God. They waste their efforts on theoretically impossible lines of research.

His denial of the God of the Bible also explains why Hawking is compelled to reject the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle is the observation that the universe has all the necessary and narrowly-defined characteristics to make man and his sustained existence possible. Hawking apparently finds it impossible to believe that "this whole vast construction [the universe] exists simply for our sake."29 As support for his incredulity, he says that "there does not seem to be any need for all those other galaxies nor for the universe to be so uniform and similar in every direction on the large scale."29 But here he ignores a growing body of research. The uniformity, homogeneity, and mass density of the universe all must be precisely valued for human life to be possible at any time in the history of the universe.30

At the close of his book, Hawking suggests that a unified field theory might be "so compelling that it brings about its own [and the universe's] existence."31 Even if a unified field theory did not create us, Hawking claims, the God of the Bible is not a candidate since we would be stuck with the question "who created him?"31

Here Hawking stumbles on one of the questions most frequently posed by young children: If God created us, who created God? The great historian of time fails to understand his subject. All human beings are moving forward along a single line of time. We cannot get off the line, and we cannot go backwards on it. According to 2 Timothy 1:9 and Titus 1:2, God made that line when He made the universe. He can move on the line, off the line, or across the line whenever He wants. He lives beyond the limits of that line, even beyond its beginning point. In other words, God operates in two or more dimensions of time; so from our perspective, at least, He would not be created or have a beginning or an end.

Attacks by physicists and other scientists on the God of the Bible are not new. The Bible seems an affront to their intellectual prowess. This ancient "religious" document makes many pointed and challenging statements about cosmic origins. As Britain's Sir Fred Hoyle points out, "There is a good deal of cosmology in the Bible."32

Table 1 cites some examples of Biblical statements regarding cosmology. Most significantly for our skeptical times, the latest discoveries on the frontiers of astronomy and physics validate and help to explain all this Biblical data. 33 Moreover, the Bible among all "holy books" stands uniquely apart in its statements about cosmology. No other "scriptures" teach a personal, extra-dimensional reality independent of the dimensions of our universe. Most, in fact, flatly contradict it.

Table 1: Some Biblical statements of cosmological significance

  1. God existed before the universe. God exists totally apart from the universe, and yet can be everywhere within it (Genesis 1:1; Colossians 1:16-17).
  2. Time (for the universe) has a beginning. God's existence and activity precede this created time (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2).
  3. Jesus Christ created the universe. He has no beginning and was not created John 1:3; Colossians 1:16-17).
  4. God created the universe from that which cannot be detected with the five senses (Hebrews 11:3).
  5. After His resurrection, Jesus could pass through walls in His physical body, an evidence of His extra-dimensionality (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:26-28).
  6. God is very near, yet we cannot see Him, a further evidence of His extra-dimensionality (Exodus 33:20; Deuteronomy 30:11 - 14; John 6:46).
  7. God designed the universe in such a way that it would support human beings (Genesis 1, 2; Nehemiah 9:6; Job 38; Psalm 8:3; Isaiah 45:18).


1. Hawking, Stephen W. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 151.

2. Ibid., p. 131.

3. Ibid., p. 116.

4. Trefil, James S. The Moment of Creation: Big Bang Physics from before the First Millisecond to the Present Universe. (New York: Collier Books, 1983).

5. Barrow, John D. and Silk, Joseph. The Left Hand of Creation: The Origin and Evolution of the Expanding Universe. (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

6. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 171.

7. Appleyard, Bryan. "A Master of the Universe," in Sunday Times [of London] Magazine. (July 19, 1988), p 29.

8. Hawking, Stephen W., p. x.

9. Hawking, Stephen W. and Ellis, George F. R. "The Cosmic Black-Body Radiation and the Existence of Singularities in our Universe," in Astrophysical Journal, 152. (1968), pp. 25-36.

10. Hawking. Stephen and Penrose, Roger. "The Singularities of Gravitational Collapse and Cosmology" in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series A, 314. (1970), pp. 529-548.

11. Boslough. John. "Inside the Mind of a Genius," in Reader's Digest, February 1984, p. 120.

12. Vessot, R. F. C., Levine, M. W., Mattison, E. M., Blomberg, E. L., Hoffman, T. E., Nystrom, G. U., and Farrel, B. F. "Test of Relativistic Gravitation with a Space-Borne Hydrogen Maser," in Physical Review Letters, 45. (1980), pp. 2081-2084.

13. Hartle, James B. and Hawking, Steven W. "Wave Function of the Universe," in Physical Review D, 28. (1983), pp. 2960-2975.

14. Jaroff, Leon. "Roaming the Cosmos," in Time, February 8,1988, p.60.

15. Hawking, Stephen W., pp. 136,141.

16. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 136.

17. Tipler, Frank. "The Mind of God," in The Times (of London) Higher Education Supplement, 14.10.88, p. 23.

18. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 139.

19. 2 Timothy 1:9 and Titus 1:2, The Holy Bible, New International Version.

20. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 122.

21. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 140.

22. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 13.

23. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 12.

24. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 166.

25. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 169.

26. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 175.

27. Jaki, Stanley L.Cosmos and Creator. (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1980), pp. 49-54.

28. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 168.

29. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 126.

30. Ross, Hugh. The Fingerprint of God: Recent Scientific Discoveries Reveal the Unmistakable Identity of the Creator. (Orange, Calif: Promise, 1989), pp. 124-127.

31. Hawking, Stephen W., p. 174.

32. Hoyle, Fred. The Nature of the Universe, 2nd edition. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1952), p. 109.

33. Ross, Hugh. The Fingerprint of God: Recent Scientific Discoveries Reveal the Unmistakable Identity of the Creator. (Orange, CA: Promise, 1989).

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