Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me. (John 14:1)
In a recent talk, the famous physicist Stephen Hawking said that heaven ‘is just a fairy story for people afraid of the dark’.
It’s just one statement of course, which is part of a much bigger talk about a wide range of things. And it’s not a new idea or point of view - non-believers have being saying similar things for centuries.
But it has always struck me as an odd idea, and one strange for a scientist to hold, as it seems to fly in the face of evidence.
You see it is simply not true that people of faith are those who are afraid of death (that’s what he is really talking about) and that people who have no faith are not. You don’t have to be a believer to see that just isn’t the case.
Look at the lives of the martyrs, who in courage and faith are willing to surrender their lives, praying for their persecutors and submitting to death. Look at the lives of other saints, good and faithful servants of God, who give themselves in service of others and approach death not with fear but with hope and joy. And look at the words of Christ, who invites us to cast fear and doubt aside and embrace the love of God: “Do not let your hearts be troubled”, he says. “Trust in God still, and trust in me”.
And I am reminded that this Gospel reading is read so often at Funeral Masses and Funeral Services. It is a time when, as a priest, I see most clearly how people deal with grief, loss, and the reality of death. And I can tell you this, the greater the faith of the one who has died and of the people who mourn him, the more serene, the more positive, the more realistic the experience of grieving - and the weaker the grasp of faith which the bereaved have, the harder the whole experience of loss is, the greater the pain, the more acute the suffering. It is those who have faith who do not shirk from words like death - and those who struggle with faith who avoid the word, with talk about ‘passing away’ ‘moving over’ ‘going to his rest’.
And I can truly say that some of the most inspiring acts of worship I have ever been part of, have been the funerals of faithful Christians. Now none of this is to say, of course, that believers do not grieve. Of course we do. Or that we are not aware of the reality of death. Of course we are. We can face the pain of loss and the reality of death because we have a hope.
If Stephen Hawking, and those who agree with him, think it is praiseworthy and honest to remain in the dark, then that is their choice.
But its much better to come out into the light.