Two Lives – and Deaths

Graham Hawking

Two different lives, both celebrated in death.  One was a man of faith, the other a man of science.  In the thinking of many, faith and science, never the ‘twain shall meet.  But in Christian apologetics they are the two arms of God reaching out to His creatures.  Faith is in its place to challenge the claims of scientists that go beyond their science.  Science is right to defy claims of faith which are but a leap in the dark.

 

John Donne (1573-1631) was a Protestant minister of the Church of England during the reign of King James I.  But he is better known as one of the greatest poets in the English language.  Among his better known lines fitly introduce my present piece.  Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

 Two recent deaths invite reflection.  They are such that any balanced thinking will displease those on the extreme side – as followers or as opponents.  I seek to have a touch of humanity, while committed to my Christian convictions.

Billy Graham (1918 – 2018)

William Franklin Graham, known the world over as Billy Graham, died on February 21 at age 99.  In a tribute immediately following his passing, Christianity Today, founded by Billy Graham, described him as “the most significant religious figure of the 20th century.”  It informs us, “During his life, Graham preached in person to more than 100 million people and to millions more via television, satellite, and film. Nearly 3 million have responded to his invitation to ‘accept Jesus into your heart’ at the end of his sermons. He proclaimed the gospel to more persons than any other preacher in history. In the process, Graham became ‘America’s Pastor,’ participating in presidential inaugurations and speaking during national crises…”[i]

I know that there are those who will readily belittle this tribute.  Sadly, many of those detractors belong to my own group of Christians.  They can point to some glaring errors in Graham’s theology and methodology, and conclude that he has done more harm than good for the cause of Christian orthodoxy.  On the other side are those who will make Graham’s soul-winning zeal the bottom-line of genuine evangelicalism.  As though that covers everything else that he modelled in his ministry.  With both sentiments, I beg to disagree.

Billy Graham stands out as a man of integrity in his Christian conduct – in person and in his ministry.  This is not the place to specify, for there are excellent biographies to honour his life.  In a vocation that has been sullied by scandals of televangelist immorality, Graham was conspicuous by his honourable life.  He was a man who lived as he preached.  And he definitely preached Christ as the only Saviour.  Before anything is raised as a critique, one must remember the words of Paul: What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Phil. 1:18 ESV).  Let us acknowledge that because Graham preached Christ, an innumerable company owes their conversion to his preaching.

That said, one must remember another word of Scripture, that those who teach the Word, will be judged with greater strictness (Jas. 3:1).  That he should be considered America’s pastor is an honour – but at the same time, it raises a poignant misgiving.  It points to the inclusiveness that characterized his ministry where everyone of any persuasion is treated as a good Christian as long as supportive of his ministry.  As everybody was welcome to be a part of his crusades, so he was a welcome presence in any religious affiliation.  That is precisely because he was not a threat to serious advocacy of errors – not to Catholicism with its works-salvation; not to liberalism with its denial of inspired Scripture.  In this, Graham’s ministry was conformist that made him popular; but it is not the New Testament portrait of faithful ministry.  Paul’s characterization of a faithful minister is, He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Tit. 1:9).

Because of this welcoming character, it explains the ease of Christian conversion presented in Graham’s evangelism.  It is summarized by formula steps (coming forward; repeating a dictated prayer; easy assurance; etc.).  Its theology is Arminianism that exalts human free will above that of God’s sovereign grace.  Its methodology is decisionism that pivots that whole experience on the packaged decision by converts.  Its result is a mixture of the genuine and the disingenuous, those who are given the assurance but with no real life transformation.  This is a far cry from what should be biblical conversion, how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9).

As sad and honest as these misgivings are, I still mourn the loss of this man of God.  I agree with the assessment of Dr. Albert Mohler, “Graham was one of the titanic figures of American evangelicalism and his life spanned some of the interesting and tumultuous years of world history. We cannot even speak about 20th-century evangelicalism without referencing the impact of the ministry of Billy Graham and the movement he led.”[ii]

Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018)

The image of the man on wheelchair with his face made grotesque by Lou Gehrig’s disease passed away on March 14.  He was 76.  One can only admire the genius of such a mind.  He made popular such concepts as the black hole and other mind-boggling theories about the universe.  His book A Brief History of Time was a blockbuster success.  The science journal Scientific American describes him as “one of the most influential physicists of the twentieth century and perhaps the most celebrated icon of contemporary science.”[iii]

But in his immense genius, there was no place for a Creator God.  In an interview with The Guardian in 2011, Hawking said, “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.”[iv]

This is a classic example of how scientists arrogate to themselves expert conclusions beyond the boundary of science.  Historic Christianity has always maintained that God personally introduced Himself to mankind not through man’s ability to observe, but by the sovereign revelation of Himself.  He did so by both events of redemption  and by word-propositions.  One may wish to argue the historicity of the events and the validity the words.  But to simply jump to a massive conclusion because of the instrumentality of mental logic and lab equipments, this is haughtiness inconsistent with the caution of true science.  Questions about God and eternity should elicit that attitude expressed by the Psalmist: O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me. (Ps. 131:1).  But such humility is beyond geniuses like Stephen Hawking.

Still, Hawking’s life should both be an inspiration and a challenge, especially to Christians.

It inspires to know what summit can be reached despite confining limitations.  Many others with half of the disability of Hawking would have been cursing the misfortune of life.  There are good examples like Hawking’s fortitude.  Poetry can still attain enchanting beauty despite the blindness of a John Milton, or a Fanny Crosby.  Music can have breathless wonder despite the deafness of Beethoven.  From the confines of his wheelchair, Hawking’s mind reached frontiers unimagined by the brilliance of his more able counterpart.

It challenges the Christian to know the sort of opposition that is posed against biblical convictions.  With such a formidable genius to face, it is lamentable that many Christian apologists still opt for mediocre defense of the faith.  This will not do.  We must have the best of intellect and consistent life in our arsenal.  It is not because we think the greater genius will carry the fight.  It is because the intellectual quest is still, what Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) said, “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”

 

Two different lives, both celebrated in death.  One was a man of faith, the other a man of science.  In the thinking of many, faith and science, never the ‘twain shall meet.  But in Christian apologetics they are the two arms of God reaching out to His creatures.  Faith is in its place to challenge the claims of scientists that go beyond their science.  Science is right to defy claims of faith which are but a leap in the dark.

Most of us will live lives that will not merit the attention of the media, and at death will have no celebrated tributes.  For me, as for any Christian, it should be enough, “now as always Christ will be honoured, whether by life or by death.” (Phil. 1:20)

 

[i] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/billy-graham/died-billy-graham-obituary.html

[ii] https://albertmohler.com/2018/02/22/preacher-billy-graham-american-evangelicalism/

[iii] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/science-mourns-stephen-hawkings-death1/

[iv] Cited in World Magazine, March 31, 2018

 

 

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