Stephen Hawking was a confirmed atheist. In his proposed “theory of everything” Hawking sought to reveal the unifying laws of physics that rule the universe and would enable mankind to “know the mind of God.” But he later clarified that he meant that only in a figurative sense. Hawking didn’t believe in a personal God, and regarded heaven and hell as a fairy tale.
Suppose he was wrong. Suppose there is a God in the old monotheistic sense of the meaning. Let’s just say there is an afterlife for all those never-say-die souls who pass on to the next world.
Imagine how shocked any nonbeliever would be when he stops breathing and continues just being. Picture the state of Hawking right now, that is, if “now” is even the right word or if time has any meaning in an otherworldly manner of speaking.
Hawking’s sensation would no doubt be one of total release. Free of the neurological disease that crippled him for life. Free of the wheelchair that kept him a prisoner for life. Free of the electronic voice generator that was his only means of communication with his peers.
But for Hawking, this state of pure spiritual elation must have a price tag: An understanding that without the human soul his “theory of everything” amounts to nothing. The belated realization that he should have just stuck to physics and kept his annoying voice box shut on matters of theology. Has any man who ever lived proved or disproved the existence of God? Indeed, has any man ever validated or invalidated the very meaning and essence of soul? These are the questions that must be baffling Hawking in his hypothetical next life.
But that’s not the only shock that hits Hawking as he hovers by the gates of heaven in his liberated yet defeated spiritual state. The gatekeeper, who in this imaginary tale is more like a low-level bureaucrat than Saint Peter, has another surprise for him.
Reading from what looks like a luminescent tablet, the gatekeeper says: “Your ashes will be scattered in Westminster Abbey by the graves of Newton and Darwin, and those souls await your arrival in heaven. They are anxious to meet ‘one of the most brilliant physicists of all time.’ But the entrance committee won’t give you a free pass. You have to first go to a waiting zone for a good soul cleansing.”
One can only guess what Hawking must be thinking. Was it something I said about God? Does He keep all atheists waiting by heaven’s gate? Or does heaven just make atheists feel everlastingly foolish?
The humbled Hawking inquires: “What kind of soul cleansing?” and is surprised at the richness of his own voice. Unlike the eerie sounds that came out of his hi-tech vocalizer, this new power of speech comes from a soul with so much depth that if it needs a good cleaning he must have a big job ahead of him.
The gatekeeper, whose human appearance is translucent but with a gloomy kind of glow, just touches the tablet and gets a detailed response:
“It says here that all your achievements, your world renowned brilliance, your miraculous long life and above all your triumph of spirit over matter, all that was compromised when you refuted the very notion of the human spirit. But that’s not what’s keeping you out of heaven, Hawking. That’s just a mistake that so many people make because no one knows for sure what happens after death. That part is forgivable. What’s putting your blemished soul into the waiting zone, which up in these high regions we call the ‘yawning delay,’ is your spiritless, mindless and somewhat hateful decision to support that inexplicable academic boycott of Israel.”
“But I was only trying to encourage Israel to make peace with the Palestinians!” cries an indignant Hawking.
“What, are you arguing with me?” The annoyed gatekeeper’s translucence almost loses its glow now as he taps the tablet for a snappy comeback:
“The Israeli academic world is the backbone of the Israeli peace camp, and your academic boycott shot it in the back.”
“So who’s on this cosmic committee?” Hawking wants to know.
“Einstein, Freud, Spinoza, Maimonides and Jesus.”
Another Jewish conspiracy, Hawking reflects.
But thoughts are not private in this domain, and the next retort is already on the tablet screen for the gatekeeper to throw back at him: “Some Jews are actually mourning your passing, but on Earth time the seven days of mourning just ended. And many more Jews, among the living and the still living, are pretty upset with you, Hawking.”
With the thought that his soul, so newly discovered and already tormented, must look cloudy in a celestial mirror, Hawking inquires:
“Is there any way to get around this biased entrance committee?”
This time the gatekeeper doesn’t have to read from the tablet, and as he speaks his translucent glow turns absolutely brilliant.
“That committee just likes to talk. The big decisions come straight from the Top.”
As a weightless Hawking is whooshed towards an obscure waiting zone, he calls back over his transparent being: “How long is this soul cleansing supposed to last?”
The gatekeeper doesn’t have to shout for his voice to carry: “Forever, or no time at all.”