Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot got in trouble when she tweeted on March 14, the day of Stephen Hawking’s death: “Rest in peace Dr. Hawking. Now you’re free of any physical constraints. Your brilliance and wisdom will be cherished forever.” It’s well known that Hawking, a theoretical physicist at the University of Cambridge and author of A Brief History of Time (1988) and other books that made the “Big Bang theory” a household phrase, suffered from a rare form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that paralyzed him almost completely, so that by the time of his death at age 76, he was able to communicate only by activating a speech-generating machine with a single muscle in his cheek. Gadot was one of several tweeters who rejoiced that Hawking was now “free” of the disease that had slowly rendered him helpless. A widely circulated cartoon showed his motorized wheelchair empty, while in the distance a figure of Hawking walked toward the gorgeous cosmos of brilliant stars that he had written about so often and eloquently.
A Perseus shower of backlash followed. “Ableist” and “offensive” were two of the epithets disability-rights activists heaped upon Gadot. “Disablement is not shameful, bigotry is,” one tweeter lectured. They pointed out that Hawking himself had once said, “My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in.” The activists seemed to say that the notion that one might wish to be free from disability arises from the fact that “disability makes our society uncomfortable,” in the words of Teen Vogue contributor Keah Brown, who has cerebral palsy.
One might dismiss all of this as the usual sour victimology of the social justice warriors ever eager to construe the sympathy of the privileged as yet more blows battered upon their tender psyches. And though Hawking was admirably able to turn a barrelful of lemons into a waterfall of lemonade, one might remember that his condition’s onset did not occur until he was in his early twenties, and that as a youth he had not only walked but enjoyed rowing on the Thames at Oxford, where he spent his undergraduate years. He might indeed have wished on occasion that he could “erase his disability” and be “free” from its ravages.
The tizzy over a well-meant tweet from Gadot and a rather touching cartoon does not bespeak our supposed discomfort with disabled people, though it does say something about “our society.” It expresses our very real loss of belief in life after death. The cartoon depicts a man who is freed from his body, as we all shall be one day, and headed toward the heavens—that is, heaven, the face of God. His suffering is ended, and he is about to encounter beauty itself. Belief in life after death—and specifically, in the ultimate resurrection of our physical bodies into immortal and glorified form on Judgment Day—is central to the Christianity that once permeated Hawking’s Britain. It is central to the Christian belief that Jesus Christ—“the firstfruits of them that slept,” in the words of St. Paul—rose from the dead with an immortal and glorified body. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive,” Paul wrote. “The dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
Changed. The word pays tribute to the fact that the human body, created by God, is as valuable as the human soul. But it also invokes another truth: that all of us are to some extent disabled, marred in body or mind or temperament or all three by Adam’s fall. We are none of us perfect, and we are all brothers and sisters with Stephen Hawking—and with that schizophrenic relative of ours to whom life seems to have dealt nothing but tragedy, or the baby with Down syndrome whom the better class of people would like to destroy in the womb. Christian hope teaches us that one day, in Christ, we will be transformed. Our “physical constraints” will indeed be shed.
The irony is that Hawking himself, like most progressive intellectuals, believed none of this. Not only did he sign on to the entire spectrum of fashionable leftist causes, from climate-change-alarmism to boycotting Israel to championing assisted suicide for other disabled people (not himself), but he was a militant atheist. It galled him that people might read the most famous quotation from A Brief History of Time—that theoretical physics might lead us to “truly know the mind of God”—as meaning that he believed in God. For Hawking, there was nothing after death.
And yet, hope lingers on in our culture, if only as a shadow of its former self, expressed in the well-wishing sentiment that Hawking is now “free.” And who knows? This is Easter, the feast of the resurrection of Jesus. Hawking suffered quite a bit during his lifetime, and perhaps he has been surprised by joy. Very surprised.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.