Stephen Hawking, John Lennon and Atheism’s Fear of Eternity

Stephen Hawking appears during the 2006 press conference at the National Library of France to inaugurate the Laboratory of Astronomy and Particles in Paris. Stephen Hawking appears during the 2006 press conference at the National Library of France to inaugurate the Laboratory of Astronomy and Particles in Paris. (via Wikimedia Commons)
There is no annihilation for our everlasting souls; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the light.

In the recent book, God or Nothing, Robert Cardinal Sarah makes a comment that seems parenthetical to the rest of the work, but is nevertheless fascinating: “A Godless society, which considers any spiritual questions a dead letter, masks the emptiness of its materialism by killing time so as better to forget eternity.” While contemplating this statement, I thought about various comments I’d seen on the subject of eternity on atheist sites and in books.

For those who haven’t spent much time on atheist sites, it might surprise you to know that the discussion of eternity is, ironically, pretty common. Of course, they’re against it. Their deepest longing, as it turns out, isn’t very long at all; they seem to hope that everything will simply end when they die. That sentiment is perhaps most famously put in John Lennon’s song Imagine: “Imagine there’s no Heaven/It’s easy if you try.”

What is the atheist’s attitude toward people who do believe in God and eternity? To put it mildly, it’s often less than flattering. As the recently-departed Stephen Hawking put it: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” In Hawking’s view, each and every one of us who believes in God and eternity believes so because we are afraid of nonexistence. Apparently, Hawking was not just a theoretical physicist, but also a theoretical psychologist, who reduced the entire field of metaphysics to nothing more than a night-light for cowards.

But this prompts the question: What about those who embrace non-eternity (or annihilation)? Are they afraid of anything?  Here’s where it gets interesting. Judging by the comments on atheist websites and in comment boxes, their viewpoint of eternity goes well beyond a garden-variety distaste. Rather, their statements often exhibit something that is sometimes called apeirophobia: the fear of eternity. Some atheists and agnostics express this fear explicitly on websites, while others address their fear through the mockery of Christians, but that fear is there nevertheless.

In fact, many people cannot understand why anyone would desire eternal life.  For instance, after my blog last year titled, “Why Bother Arguing With Atheists?” someone wrote that—because I desired eternal happiness—it was clear that I had “never examined what eternity actually means.” The clear implication is that anyone who truly understands what eternity means desperately hopes that there is no such thing.  To Cardinal Sarah’s point, the outlook of some people is shaped by their desire to forget eternity.

I will concede the point that there may be some theists whose belief in God and eternity is largely influenced—not by philosophy and metaphysics—but by the fear of non-existence.  But we should be intellectually honest enough to admit that the arguments of atheists and agnostics are largely shaped—sometimes, at their core—by the fear of eternity.  Many atheists find the idea of endlessness unthinkable; ergo, it could not be so.  Or so goes the logic, or lack thereof.  As Dr. Edward Feser observes in The Last Superstition, “Atheism, like religion, can often rest more on a will to believe than on dispassionate rational arguments.”

One last point. Even devout Catholics can have apeirophobia. Eternity may not always strike everyone as a pleasant thought, as one of the two eternal options is unimaginably horrible.  But it’s worth considering something that Frank Sheed wrote in Theology for Beginners: “Infinity, omnipresence, eternity—these are rich and rewarding concepts, but we should not stay with them too long at a time without returning to the Gospels to meet the living God.”  In other words, the concept of eternity cannot be separated from the consideration of God’s love for us.  Eternity is not about time, nor the lack of it.  Eternity is about God, and about sharing in His love and in His happiness.

The saints knew this quite well.  In their earthly lives, the greatest saints had a deep concept of God, a deep relationship with Him, and a deep understanding and appreciation of what is meant by eternity.  And if there is one group of people in history who was unfearful about eternity, it is the saints.  As a reflection of The First Letter of Saint John, the saints illustrated that “perfect love casts out fear.”  But they go well beyond merely lacking fear; in fact, they go well beyond mere serenity.  The writings of the saints illustrate quite clearly: they simply cannot wait for eternity to begin.

As many have recently commented, Dr. Hawking now knows the reality of God and eternity.  Let’s pray that God in His mercy will welcome Hawking to the blessed side of eternity, and let’s never fail in communicating the love of God to the nonbelievers in our own lives.