Thoughts from Doug Knox.
Authority and Reason
Last week, one of the most brilliant men of our time died. Stephen Hawking, a world-renowned physicist, passed away at 76. Much of what made his life so remarkable is the fact that he suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, which ultimately left him completely paralyzed. He communicated by text and through a voice synthesizer. Though he was a brilliant man, he was not a wise one in the Biblical sense. He once stated in an interview, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.” This line of thinking is typical of radical atheists. And it fails to remove the authority question. They declare religion to be irrelevant, but then they demand that everyone follow their authority and think the way they do. The question never has been about whether authority is necessary, because authority is inescapable. The issue is whose authority we follow. Notice how Dr. Hawking erected his wall. Religion, according to his definition, allowsonly authority, while it rejects observation and reason. Science, on the other hand, rejects authority because it relies exclusively on observation and reason. In his mind—as well as in the minds of any number of those who engage in science—religion’s effect on human progress is like water in the gas tank. It has to be purged. Yet for all the bravado, observation and reason divorced form authority leave us empty handed because they are unequipped to handle the most fundamental questions. In 2006, Hawking posted an open Internet question. “In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?” He later posted, “I don’t know the answer” (Wikipedia).
The Necessity for Authority
Dr. Hawking forgot a fundamental truth about reality. Observation and reason without authority are incapable of answering the deeper questions. The Bible presents all three—observation, reason and authority—in harmony with each other. Since God created a reasonable and observable universe, we find our greatest freedom under his authority. Consider this passage from the beginning of Isaiah. After a scathing review of Judah’s many injustices, the prophet Isaiah declares God’s call to the people to return to him for salvation.
“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD;
though your sins are like scarlet,they shall be white as snow;
though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,you shall be eaten by the sword;for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
--Isaiah 1:18-20 ESV
God’s Words, not the Prophet’s
For Isaiah, authority, reason, and observation—the very points that Hawking tried to divorce from each other—stand in harmony. First, the section begins and ends with the source of its authority. The declaration that God has spoken appears at the beginning and the end of the message. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD…. for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” To respect God’s authority is a reasonable idea. As Creator, God alone has the knowledge to mandate what is right. His commandments reflect his purpose and design for us from creation. They lead to our fulfillment as human beings. (This is why the gospel opens with creation. For example, Paul begins his message to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17:22-34 by declaring the Creator God who gives life to us. Our Sustainer offers salvation through Jesus Christ, and because of his position, carries the ultimate right to judge the world.)
Invitation to Dialogue in a Culture of Radical Divergence
Second, the LORD’s declaration carries an open invitation to reason and dialogue—“Come now, let us reason together.” Unlike the closed-minded religious gospels that demand blind allegiance—including atheistic science—the Lord calls us to test his words. He invites us to ask questions because his words can be tested for truth. This is the beauty of God’s offer of free grace. His call offers a level of freedom that the culture denies. A counter-example will illustrate this truth. In a recent discussion on the many modern religious views, an intelligent young adult said, “Everything is true.” When she used the word true, she applied a different meaning from the biblical one. Biblically, if one declaration is true, then any opposing declaration is false. This is why we can declare that Jesus to be the only to be saved. The young adult bought into the Stephen Hawking delusion that because values grow out of untestable sources of authority, they are unable to fit in a rational discussion. The “nice” thing to do, then, is to declare them all true and live in harmony. In reality, this view destroys any reason for any opinion to be heard. When all opinions are equal, they begin to blend into the same flavorless mix. When everything is true, then nothing carries any weight. The abandonment of the reality of value is why Dr. Hawking’s question about the future of mankind left him in despair.
Return to the Biblical Nature of Truth
Third, the Bible invites us to observe the facts. The dialogue in the Isaiah passage calls people to think about truth as something that can be observed and tested. In Isaiah’s case, the terms go back to God’s blessings and curses as Moses gave them in Deuteronomy. “If you are willing and obedient…but if you refuse and rebel…” (Isaiah 1:19, 20). Both in Deuteronomy and in Isaiah, God presents the alternatives in terms of observable consequences. If God’s people obey, they will be blessed, but if they disobey, they will suffer.
Notice, however, that the consequences are neither emotionless nor mechanical. God longs to rescue the rebellious. He begs his people to consider the value of obedience because he wants to bless them. Values come from God. As Augustine’s Confessions declares, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” JStephen Hawking did what all people of all ages do. He cut himself off from his deepest reward he blinded himself to his Creator’s authority. In the end, he left this world without knowing a final answer.