Did Stephen Hawking really convert to Christianity?

In a time-honoured tradition that goes back at least to the life and death of Charles Darwin, some Christians are claiming that a famous scientist converted to the faith before he died.

This time, it's Stephen Hawking, whose death at the age of 76 on March 14, 2018 was that same day used by the group Catholics Online on to declare on Facebook that he suddenly believed after being blessed by Pope Francis.

As the fact-check website Snopes highlighted, Catholics Online stated:

'Before he died, Stiph [sic] Hawkins [sic] who did not believe in God requested to visit the Vatican. "Now l believe" was the only statement he made after the Holy Father blessed him.'

Stephen Hawking and Pope FrancisCatholics Online / Facebook

Snopes explained: 'There is no evidence that Hawking deviated from those lifelong views before his death, and he did not make any declaration of faith after a meeting with Pope Francis. The photograph in the Facebook post shows Hawking and Francis together at the Vatican in November 2016, the last time the two men met. Contrary to the claim, Hawking did not request a private visit with the pontiff; rather, he travelled to Rome for a scheduled meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

'Hawking was a valued member of the academy, having been appointed to it by Pope Paul VI in 1968. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences listed has among its aims "fostering interaction between faith and reason and encouraging dialogue between science and spiritual, cultural, philosophical and religious values." After his death, the academy honored Hawking, tweeting a series of photographs of the physicist meeting Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.'

Nonetheless, Hawking's views on religion were pretty clear.

In 2010, he told ABC News: 'One can't prove that God doesn't exist, but science makes God unnecessary.'

Indeed, in his 2010 book, Grand Design, Hawking declared that God was not needed for the start of the universe, and in an interview with the Guardian a year later, he dismissed religion.

'I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,' he said. 'There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.'

That's not to say he had no positive relationship with Christianity. Christian Today's editor Mark Woods, in an article titled 'Did Stephen Hawking believe in God,' speculated thus:

'It may be, in fact, that his views evolved over time. I'm told he attended St Andrew's Street Baptist Church in Cambridge on occasion years ago, and his first wife Jane was a Christian. Journalist Andrew Graystone recalled today on Twitter interviewing him once, saying: "I asked him at length whether he believed there is a God. He refused to answer the question. When I asked him why, he said "If I say I believe in God, everyone will immediately claim that I believe in the same God they believe in. So I won't say at all."'

But that is a very different form of speculation to some of the unhinged claims now being made about Hawking elsewhere.

As the website Right Wing Watch has pointed out, one US evangelical pastor, Mike Shoesmith, has said that Hawking was kept alive despite his illnesses by the devil as an agent in a spiritual battle with Billy Graham.

'[Graham] is a hundred percent devoted,' Shoesmith said. 'The Lord sees his heart, gives him a tremendous ministry, and who do you think is sitting in the background going, "I have to do something about this, this guy is sold out, I have to do something?" Who do you think is sitting in the background doing that? The devil, right?

'So, in 1942, that is when Billy Graham's ministry really takes off, and who do you think was born in 1942? Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking comes from a long line of atheists—his father and all these people—so I believe the devil said, "OK, this guy was just born and I'm going to use this guy. This guy is already primed to accept my message that there is no God. He is already primed for it, he is going to be awash, immersed in atheism all his years as a child, I'm going to take over this guy's life."'

Shoesmith went on: 'I believe Stephen Hawking was kept alive by demonic forces. I believe that it was the demonic realm that kept this man alive as a virtual vegetable his entire life just so he could spread this message that there is no God.'

As Right Wing Watch noted, Shoesmith went on to assert that if Hawking had simply reached out to God, Jesus would have cast the demons out of him and he would have been completely healed.

Stephen HawkingFlickr

Indeed, it is because of the perceived war between science and religion that some conservative Christians attempt to claim leading scientists as their own.

Of course, it all goes back to the 'big bang' and the question of whether God created the world, for if Hawking and his like were right, then that particular strain of conservative Christianity that insists evolution is fale are wrong.

In reality, many sensible Christians know that science and faith are far from mutually exclusive.

But the claim by some that they are incompatible, typical of this binary era, means this battle will surely run and run.