Stephen Hawking had no time for God. In Brief Answers to the Big Questions and other places he claimed that the role played by time at the beginning of the universe is the final key to removing the need for a grand designer and revealing how the universe created itself.
On Hawking’s view, time itself began at the instant of the Big Bang. This claim is not uncontroversial among scientists.* But if we accept for the sake of argument Hawking’s understanding of the physics of the big bang, what are we to make of his claim that this removes “the need for a grand designer” and reveals “how the universe created itself”?
(1) The question of the existence of God should not be reduced to the question whether we need to postulate a god to explain the existence of everything else. The only “theology” with which Hawking shows familiarity is one that uses “gods/God” to plug in the gaps in our knowledge. This is completely inadequate for Christian theology and I am not sure that it is adequate for any other major religion.
(2) The conflation of the language of causation (used in his argument in a specific sense) with that of design (used in his conclusion about “the need for a grand designer”) seems to be indicative of a more general failure to differentiate causality. Since Aristotle four types of cause have been distinguished: formal, material, efficient and final. Natural laws define material and efficient causes. To deny that there are formal and final causes on the basis that the natural sciences cannot demonstrate them is a logical fallacy.
(3) Language of the universe creating itself is not unproblematic, not only because it attributes agency to the universe but also because we cannot readily conceive of an action of which we cannot say that there was a before and after. In other words, we could just as well say that the universe is eternal: if time does not exist apart from our space-time universe, there is no time at which the universe is not. If Hawking’s science can be shown to be correct, we can exclude a temporal cause for the universe but this not only fails to demonstrate that the big bang was an uncaused event but also still leaves us short of a compelling answer to the question why there is something rather than nothing. (Hawking seems to claim that there really is nothing because for everything positive matter there is, there is negative energy to cancel it out, cf. this previous post, but this does not sound to me like an answer.)
What then is the relationship between God and time? Gregory E. Ganssle who authored the entry on “God and Time” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy also edited God and Time: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2001) which hosts a discussion between proponents of four different views: Paul Helm who defends the view of divine eternity as timeless, Alan G. Padgett who argues that God is everlastingly temporal but not in physical (metrical) time, William Lane Craig who speaks of God as timeless without creation and temporal within creation, and Nicholas Wolterstorff who advocates “unqualified divine temporality.” As far as I can see Hawking’s science would not rule out a single one of these options.
The leap from Hawking’s reconstruction of the origins of the universe to atheism is not made on the strength of the science but relies on the truth of his premises, namely (a) there cannot be causality without temporality and (b) all temporality is material. This means that we seem to be dealing with an entirely circular argument.
* Other physicists favour “the idea that our universe is but one expanding bubble in a much larger pre-existing area of space-time, sometimes called the multiverse” (source).