What Is a Human Being?

When the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking was twenty-one, he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease: a terrible illness, that gradually broke his body down. Hawking eventually had to use a motorized wheelchair to get around and a specially designed computer to help him speak and write. His daily life depended on computers. But in an interview toward the end of his life, he went one step further: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” Hawking said. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”[1]

Hawking believed that his brain was just a computer. He did not think he was made in the image of God. He thought he was just a complex machine. In his opinion, the specially designed computer attached to his wheelchair that allowed him to speak and the brain-computer in his head that allowed him to think weren’t fundamentally different. When he died, he thought, it was going to be just like a computer breaking down.

Many atheist scientists think this way. They believe the only real truth is truth we can measure with the tools of science. Oxford physics professor and Christian believer Ard Louis calls this way of thinking, “nothing buttery,” because people will say we’re “nothing but” what science can describe.[2] So, has science shown that we are “nothing but” the things science can measure? Not at all. As we have seen already, the people who first invented modern science believed in a God who created the universe and could not be measured by science himself. And just because we can study the physical features of a human by using scientific tools does not mean we can understand everything about humans through those tools. MIT professor Ian Hutchinson agrees that he is a complicated biochemical machine, made up of atoms and molecules and all sorts of things we can investigate with the tools of science. But he says he is also a husband, a father, and a sinner saved by God’s grace, and these different kinds of descriptions don’t have to push each other out.[3] They can all be true at the same time. If one of his kids said to him, “You’re not my father! You’re just a bunch of atoms and molecules!” we’d think that kid was confused. But we’d also think he was confused if he said the opposite: “You’re my dad: you’re not atoms and molecules!” If we think about it, we’re used to understanding that there’s more going on in any situation than science can describe.

Imagine you were watching a football game on TV, but instead of the commentators talking about plays and scores, they were commenting on what was happening scientifically. “One somewhat hairy mammal (height: 6 ft., 2 in., weight: 195 lbs.) extends a limb at velocity 30 mph. Limb collides with ball (weight: 16 oz.), and ball leaves ground at velocity of 15 mph, angle from the ground 30 degrees . . .” You can imagine the commentary going on and on, with more and more scientifically measurable details. These statements could all be true. But no one would watch that TV channel, because the point of football is not the scientific details. It’s the game!

Likewise, if someone asked me to tell them about my husband, I wouldn’t give his height and weight and blood pressure. I’d tell them about his personality, his interests, and the things that make him laugh or cry. Science can tell us many useful and important things, but it can’t tell us the most important truths. Science can measure how fast my heart is pumping blood around my body, but you can’t use a stethoscope to measure how much I love my husband.

So What?

Stephen Hawking thought that heaven was a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” If we only believe in science, as he did, we don’t just lose the hope of life after death. We lose the meaning of life before death as well.

I’m writing this on a laptop computer. My one-year-old son is lying next to me, asleep. If I threw my computer out of the window it would be a waste of money. But I could buy a replacement. If I threw my son out of the window, I would be doing something deeply and profoundly wrong. My son is not replaceable, like a computer. He’s a unique and precious being, made in the image of God.

Science is an amazing tool. It helps us to discover useful things to make our lives better and to recognize beautiful things about our world. But if we boil everything down to what science can measure, then you and I don’t matter anymore. We’re just computers in a fleshy case. Believing that God created the universe isn’t illogical or outdated. According to some of the top thinkers in science today, believing in the God of the Bible is the best foundation for science. It’s also our best foundation for understanding what a human being is, and why you, and I, and my little baby, Luke, are infinitely valuable.


Content taken from 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin, ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway.


[1] Stephen Hawking, “‘There Is No Heaven; It’s a Fairy Story,’” interview by Ian Sample, The Guardian, May 15, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com /science/2011/may/15/stephen-hawking-interview-there-is-no-heaven.

[2] See Dr. Ard Louis, “Science or Religion: Do We Have to Choose?” http://www-thphys.physics.ox.ac.uk/people/ArdLouis/downloads/Ard -Louis-London-Alpha-Oct10.pdf.

[3] Ian Hutchinson, Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? An MIT Professor Answers Questions on God and Science (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 32.

Rebecca McLaughlin

Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD in renaissance literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. She is cofounder of Vocable Communications and former vice president of content at the Veritas Forum, where she spent almost a decade working with Christian academics at leading secular universities.

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