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Stephen Hawking and Billy Graham

Stephen Hawking and Billy Graham

by William H. Benson

March 22, 2018

A preacher and a scientist passed away weeks ago: Billy Graham on February 21, and Stephen Hawking on March 14. One lived in the USA, and the other in the UK. One promoted religion, the other physics. Billy was 99, and Hawking was 76.

Both men achieved unparalleled success, even celebrity status, despite their frailties.

Billy Graham suffered poor health for much of his life. When first married, he came down with the mumps. His biographer said he endured “hernias, ulcers, tumors, cysts, polyps, infections, pneumonia, high blood pressure, headaches, spider bites, and a series of falls that broke eighteen of his ribs,” plus a broken pelvis and hip, and also excess fluid on his brain that required a shunt.

In 2014, his son Franklin said, “He’s hard of hearing, can’t see very well, but his mind his clear.”

None of Graham’s suffering though can compare to Stephen Hawking’s. In 1963, when 21, and studying at Oxford, Hawking’s voice slurred, and he fell down often. Doctors diagnosed Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. They gave him two years to live, but later, doctors decided that his was an early-onset but slow-progressing type of ALS, and that he would live.

Over time, Hawking lost his voice, was forced into a wheelchair, and prior to his passing, caregivers fed him and lifted him in and out of his bed and wheelchair.

Billy Graham preached more than 400 crusades, in tents, stadiums and parking lots, around the globe from 1947 until 2005, when he retired. His lifetime audiences topped 2.2 billion. People everywhere recognized his distinct North Carolina trumpet-like voice. “He preached the Christian faith to more people in person than anyone ever or since in all of Christianity.” 

Billy wrote 33 books, all of a religious nature, and the royalties he received he gifted to his children and grandchildren’s educations.

Hawking was the 17th Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a position he held for thirty years, until he retired in 2009. He wrote academic papers, plus books on mathematics and black holes.

In 1982, Hawking wrote a popular, easy-to-read book on the universe. Motivated by his need to finance his children’s education, his A Brief History of Time was first published in April of 1988. It sold over 9 million copies.

Billy married once. Ruth Graham said she had the better job. She watched their five children grow up, at their home at Montreat, North Carolina, near Asheville, while Billy traveled the world.

Ruth joked that when Billy gets to heaven, he will ask for a key to his hotel room.

A historian of religion, Grant Wacker, said, “People who didn’t like Billy Graham spent a lot of time trying to find personal violations of his moral and ethical code, and they couldn’t. They didn’t exist. He was a man who maintained absolute marital fidelity and moral and financial integrity. He was an evangelist who lived the way he preached.”

Hawking married twice. In 1995, after thirty years of marriage and three kids, he divorced his first wife, Jane, who felt overwhelmed. Her husband’s need for nurses and therapists, and his celebrity status intruded into their family life. Also, her strong Christian faith contrasted with his avowed atheism.

After the divorce, that same year he married one of his nurses, Ellen Mason, but that marriage also ended in divorce, eleven years later in 2006.

Because Billy was absolutely convinced of his message, that faith in Christ is essential, he convinced millions of others. In an interview with Brian Williams, Billy said, “The mystery of death. I think there’s a mystery to it. And I’m looking forward with great anticipation to going to heaven.”

Hawking said, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

Yet, Hawking did write, in A Brief History of Time, “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we should know the mind of God.”

One interesting note. The Queen approached Stephen Hawking about a knighthood in the 1990’s, but he refused, in protest to scarce government funding for science.

Later, the Queen approached Billy Graham, and he accepted. In a ceremony performed at the British Embassy, in Washington D.C., on December 6, 2001, Sir Christopher Meyer, the British Ambassador, on behalf of the Queen, made Billy Graham an Honorary Knight.

Two celebrities. One a believer in Christianity, the other a believer in science. One wrote books on angels and Peace with God. The other wrote on space and time and how they related. One accepted the Queen’s Knighthood, the other refused. Both suffered poor health. May they now rest in peace.