The recent statement by the Archbishop of York on the death of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking reflects a confusion on Christian doctrine regarding salvation. It also shows how celebrity culture has influenced the church, especially when it comes to ideas of goodness.
Hawking represents a unique breed of the modern era in the celebrity scientist – even more so than figures such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Sam Harris. Hawking also represents a spirit of resilience, which was adapted into the Oscar-nominated film The Theory of Everything.
But there’s a line between resilience and true moral goodness that seems to have been lost on certain commentators, including Christian leaders. This reached its peak when the Archbishop of York, the second-highest official in the Church of England, said “May the angels of Heaven welcome you.” Seldom are Christians so eager to proclaimed an avowed atheist a reunited child of God.
Stephen Hawking a giant of science & humanity whose hope &trust enabled him to keep the greatest equaliser-Death- at a long distance.Very honoured he came to my graduation at Cambridge.Sojourner Truth go well and may the Angels of God welcome you! Love and Prayers 2yr daughters🎶
— John Sentamu (@JohnSentamu) March 14, 2018
I should be quick to point out that individual Christians have no “soul meter” that allows us to perform the office of God, proclaiming Heaven or Hell to everyone we can read a Wikipedia article on. But the implication of these statements is that virtue without Christ is enough to have confidence in Heaven. This is far from the sentiments of Christ himself, who proclaimed “the way is narrow that leads to life” and “none come to the Father but through me.” Even Paul reminds us “there is no one that is good; no not one” and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3).
By and large, Christians know these things. Why do we forget them when it comes to celebrity deaths?
Any conclusion as to the motivation of this is in danger of being called conjecture, perhaps justifiably so. But I’d like to venture a guess: we don’t actually believe in the brokenness of humankind. We know that scripture says “no one seeks for God,” and speaks in unflinching terms of the sinfulness of humankind everywhere. We recite it in our creeds and remind our congregations from the pulpit. But when we leave the sanctuary or the auditorium or the home in which we worship, we find ourselves influenced by a pop theology that says everyone is basically good. That extends especially strongly to someone with an inspirational story like Stephen Hawking.
Examples of this kind of thinking abound. In 2015, for example, The Guardian posted a story with the tagline, “Stories of greed and ego bombard us. But a new study shows that humans are inherently good” (the study showed what values survey participants identified with, not how they actually behaved). Many of the most popular purveyors of pop Christianity have adopted methods which downplay the sinfulness of humankind, sometimes avoiding it altogether. In the words of the Huffington Post, writing about Joel Osteen during the height of his popularity, “Missing from Osteen’s message, however, is Christianity’s darker side: Heaven and Hell, sin and salvation, suffering and sacrifice.”
Add to this landscape of cultural pop Christianity an increasingly tribal approach to current events, and it becomes hard to convince some Christians to part ways with any leading figure who claims the name of Christ. As much was apparent in the 2016 presidential race, in which evangelicals lined up in droves to endorse Donald Trump, and proclaim him Christian, despite his own admission that he didn’t think he had any reason to ask God for forgiveness.
This is all quite simply to say that Christians need to become more accustomed to letting Scripture and the Holy Spirit guide their thinking, rather than a tribal allegiance to pop Christianity. Many have propagated false teaching and bad philosophy in the name of Christ, and slapping a label on it we like doesn’t make it any better. Whether it’s a proclamation of Stephen Hawking’s destination or the endorsement of a morally dubious candidate, Christian culture is in deep need of discernment when it comes to current events and public figures. May we pursue it passionately and quickly.