Posted by: Andries Louw | 3 February 2009

Life after death – watch 50/50 on 9 Feb

I imagine what happens to human consciousness when we die is much like turning off a computer. I don’t believe in a heaven for computers. I think the after-life is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

Stephen Hawking, dubbed the world’s most famous living scientist.

The interesting part for me is the context within which Hawking said these words. Any idea who posed the question? Pik Botha, in Muizenberg nogal! Yes, our former cabinet minister had met prof Hawking in Cambridge in the 1990’s. Along with a few others these two gentlemen were the guests of mathematical science professor Neil Turok, founder of AIMS, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

David Block, Pik Botha and Stephen Hawking at the TV interview

David Block, Pik Botha and Stephen Hawking at the TV interview

All photos used by permission from David Block. See more photos of his meeting with Stephen Hawking here.

Botha’s question, aired 7 July 2008 on the South African environmental television programme 50/50, was:

What happens to human self-consciousness when one dies?

On last night’s (2 Feb) edition of 50/50 it was announced that although 50/50 is not a religious programme, it will speak to various religious leaders next week, 9 February about the question of life after death. This was prompted by the overwhelming response of viewers to prof Hawking’s statement about the subject.

I am looking forward to next week’s discussion but it also triggered a few other questions in my mind: Firstly, it would be sad if Christians were only interested in this programme to get a clear-cut, once-and-for-all proof that Hawking is wrong on this point. Secondly, I fear that many of my fellow believers’ obsession with their interpretation of the truth might blind them to the significance of Hawking’s visit to South Africa for the kingdom of God. He has demonstrated his support for the development of science in Africa by travelling here.

One of the other conversation partners was our very own world-renowned scientist and outspoken Christian, professor David Block. Read about prof David Block’s faith journey here. Block asked Turok about getting Hawking to come to South Africa:

Prof. David Block’s question to Neil Turok:
What does it take for a South African in Cambridge to persuade the world’s greatest scientist – with his disability – in coming all this way? What brings Stephen here?

Neil Turok:
Well! Maybe people in South Africa don’t realise the esteem with which the country is held worldwide. It was a very easy case to make, because Stephen has been following the progress in South Africa for years. He’s a huge admirer of Mandela. He’s written to Mandela… there’s this connection with Pik Botha. So I just go to him and I want to start an institute in South Africa, attracting students from all over Africa – the best lecturers in the world – will you support us? And he said of course I will.

If ever there was a time for Africa to lift its head high, to solve its own problems and to take responsibility for this continent and its people, it is now. The opportunities, technology and expertise have never been more readily available. And when somebody of the stature of Stephen Hawking actively engages in developing science in Africa, the church should be excited. Instead of resorting to a who-is-right and who-is-wrong attitude about life after death, let us rather embrace every opportunity to discover the beauty and mystery of God’s creation while we are still alive! The sooner we realise that these kind of developments have everything to do with our God-given purpose of working the earth and caring for it, the better. The more we regard science as a tool for meeting the needs of humankind in an environmentally sustainable way, the more we will see the kingdom of God established in real tangible ways on this earth.

Here is another interesting excerpt from the conversation with Hawking, the full transcript of which can be read here:

Pik Botha:
Professor Hawking, an issue we didn’t discuss during our first meetings has been this one: Is the present observable universe the first universe?

Stephen Hawking:
The universe seems to have begun in a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. All the evidence is consistent with the universe having been spontaneously quantum created out of nothing at the Big Bang. So there would be no earlier universe. This would be the only universe of which we have knowledge.

Prof. David Block Speaking to Pik Botha:
That’s one of Stephen’s greatest contributions – is that the universe has had a definite beginning, and simply not the result of a bounce – but the beginning of the cosmos.

Professors David Block and Stephen Hawking

Professors David Block and Stephen Hawking

I love it when people start engaging issues regarding the origins of the universe, our species and ultimately our life purpose in a spirit of non-threatening dialogue. I find it fascinating that the same scientist who believes that there is no life, or consciousness as he puts it, after death, is also the one who uses the term created out of nothing when talking about the origin of the universe. Granted, he might not attach the same meaning to it that I would, but at least I can spot some common ground here.

In the spirit of a previous post, Hardwired for God? I am calling on Christians, other theists and atheists / agnostics alike to engage in dialogue about the origins of our universe, the nature of our self-consciousness and the purpose of our existence. Could we do it, even passionately and with conviction, but with respect for each other and with an attitude of seeking to understand before seeking to be understood?


  1. Yes, I too imagine that what happens to human consciousness when we die is much like turning off a computer.

    But to extend the metaphor a bit further, I believe God has us all backed up on DVD somewhere, and one day he’ll reboot us with better hardware.

  2. LOL @Steve, well said!

  3. Any “supernatural or Godly experiences” left aside the question “is there life after death?” can only be a rhetorical one. At very best science can provide us with nothing but theories for the origin of life on earth.

    Perhaps we should ask a question that can be pursued in the present: “Is there life before death?”. The answer to this question might very well be the key to the first.

  4. Llewellyn, welcome to this blog my old friend! Your comment sounds mysteriously interesting. I can vaguely guess where you are going but am not quite sure. Would you care to elaborate?

  5. My niewe leef Nouw

    Wat ‘n verfrissende ware nie-veroordelende benadering. Soos dit vir my lyk is die miskien die belangrikste eienskap wat meeste christene moet aanleer – verdraagsaamheid. Is dit ‘n veroordelende stelling?

  6. No one can claim to have a comprehensive knowledge of everything on this planet – this would include Stehpen Hawking. Many a leading scientist have come to a point where they have acknowledged to having been wrong regarding a previous statement. Their later statement does not negate their greateness, but would rather add to it in my opinion. By making such a controversial statement from his current perspective does not reflect his ignorance. It rather reflects on him not necessarily seeing the bigger picture. If he were to retract this statement at a later stage, no-one would probably remember it, but in my sight it would make him an even greater man.

    I therefore listen to him and take note of what he is saying while reserving the freedom to disagree. It is not necessary to exclude those with whom you disagree from your world. Acknowledge your differences and realise that we are all looking into a dim mirror, while we will understand in full when all is revealed.

  7. Neef Albertus, ek stem saam dat meeste Christene verdraagsaamheid moet aanleer en nee, ek dink nie dis ‘n veroordelende stelling nie. Dankie vir jou kommentaar. Ek sien uit na nog kommentaar van jou in die toekoms as jy wil.

    Francois, I can almost hear some believers say: “Let’s not have anything to do with the AIMS because Stephen Hawking is behind it and they have even compromised David Block!” Your remark that it’s not necessary to exclude those with whom you disagree from your world, seems to suggest that you value his scientific work although you disagree with his view on the after-life. Do you think his work can benefit the kingdom of God?

  8. Please note that 50/50 will not broadcast the discussion about life after death on 9 Feb anymore. They said they will definitely still broadcast it in the future – it has just been postponed because they haven’t been able to get the main participants to the studio yet. I will post an update as soon as I have more information available.

    Read Anika Smith’s note on the 50/50 Facebook group here. It is written in Afrikaans.

  9. […] talking of brains and religion, Andries Louw recently posted some comments by Stephen Hawking, who was asked by Pik Botha of all people what he thought about life after death, and Hawking […]

  10. There is evidence to suggest the computer is not turned off from near death experiences. People who are clinically dead with flat EEG report near death experiences and now there are also new studies that show that people in coma have active brain centers.

    Until we solve the problem of consciousness this will be an open question – an area that may supprise many of us.

  11. …Also if we flat out reject possibilities there can be no new advances in science and I think that what is happening at CERN is one of the most interesting things in science.

    With the proof of the God-particle we would also have the proof of extra dimensions and then a new world will open up where people we see the earth is no longer flat.

  12. as per my consult there is a world[dimension]
    which is yet unkown. that dimension is so advanced that people over there can travel in this dimension[ghost or fictious bodies or god]. that dimension possesses the ample of energy but the thing is they are still unknown or imaginary.

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