The Gods And Debaters Of “This Age” Die

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside” (Isa 29:14).

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:18–25; NASB).

Stephen Hawking, the brilliant, great, and famous Cambridge physicist died yesterday aged 76.

Hawking is regarded as one of the great scientific minds of the late modern period. In the latter part of his storied career, he sought a “theory of everything,” a unified theory that explains what is. Under the influence of Hawking’s work we have come to see the world as more wonderfully complex than we thought it to be under the influence of Einstein’s work, who himself had demonstrated the marvelous complexity of the world.

We should celebrate Hawking’s remarkable life and career. What he accomplished would have been extraordinary for someone who was perfectly healthy but he did it with ALS, which is astounding. Further, he demonstrated a grace and humor about his condition that is remarkable. His work and personality made him a celebrity in popular culture. Those whose scientific interest is limited to The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory know who Stephen Hawking was.

Nevertheless, like all mortals, Hawking has died. When I read the news last night my mind turned immediately to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1 (above) and 2:

For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away… (1 Cor 2:2–6; NASB).

Hawking was not the first person to seek a “theory of everything.” The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and scientists also had differing theories of everything but by the time the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians to explain the “mystery” of Christ (1 Cor 2:7), they had all died.

Indeed, when Moses wrote Genesis the Egyptians, by whom he had been educated and among whom he lived and governed Egypt in the royal family before his exile, also had theories and scientists. Doubtless there was great learning among them but they too died as did Moses. Paul himself died on a highway outside of Rome at the hands of a Roman soldier.

So what is the difference between Moses and Paul on the one hand and the Egyptians, the Greeks, and Hawking on the other? Moses and Paul knew the difference between passing theories, which Hawking himself revised and that shall be revised again and the truth as it is in Christ. Moses and Paul engaged the theories and philosophers of their day. After all, they were aware of what had been theorized by the various philosophers and scientists of “this age.” Moses had done spiritual battle with the scholars and magicians in Pharaoh’s court. By him Yahweh did things that they could not replicate, that they could not explain, that defied their paradigm. Finally, Yahweh, Moses’ God crushed Pharaoh’s army and his gods not only in the plagues but in the Red Sea (or the Sea of Reeds, I do not much care which). Moses’ God, Yahweh, we know to have been God the Son, who became incarnate, Jesus. This is what the writer to the Hebrews said about Moses’ faith:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24–26; NASB).

By God’s grace alone, through faith alone, Moses believed in, trusted, and knew Christ. He knew what is true, real, and fixed. He knew him who spoke the cosmos into being, who framed the heavens, and who organized the chaos into such a profound complexity.

So it was with Paul. As many understood the universe then and as many still understand it, the resurrection should not have been possible but they empty tomb and the sane, rational, persistent, and consistent testimony of all who saw it and who saw and touched the risen Christ, it happened. God’s saving actions have a way of breaking our paradigms, even our most complex explanations of reality. Jesus was dead. Put to death by Roman soldiers at the behest of Israel’s religious leaders. Yet he did not remain dead. After he arose he was able to eat food (Luke 24:42–43) and enter locked rooms (John 20:19, 26). He calmed seas (Matt 8:26–27). As John says at the end of his gospel, we could fill volumes with the ways that Jesus defied what we think we know. How many revolutions in physics have their been since the ancient Greeks theorized that everything is one or that everything is many or about the externality of the soul or the externality of matter? Παντα ρει (“Everything flows,” Heraclitus), indeed it does, at least experientially.

Everything flows until it does not. Everything stopped “flowing” at the Red Sea and the empty tomb—do not forget about the way Jesus disrupted what we think we know with the resurrections in conjunction with his (Matt 27:52–53). Created reality is more complex than Descartes thought it was. It is more complex than Einstein thought it was. It is more complex than even Hawking thought it was. The disciples did not testify to a subjective experience of resurrection within themselves. They testified to an objective fact. People saw it. God has a “theory of everything” and it utterly transcends our ability to understand or communicate it but he does give us signs. The cross and the tomb are two of those signs. They are the most important signs. All those who looked to Hawking for an alternate explanation of reality shall be disappointed and all those who listen to and heed the foolishness of the cross and the tomb shall be vindicated.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Indeed, we all return to the dust from which we were taken, no matter how noteworthy our achievements and accomplishments (which for Hawking were many). However, your comment on “gods and debaters” made me think of the following poem:

    I have seen
    The old gods go
    And the new gods come.

    Day by day
    And year by year
    The idols fall,
    And the idols rise.

    Today I worship the hammer.

    Interestingly enough, the socialist poet Carl Sandburg admitted the idolatrous heart of his creed, and all the other modern isms that would deny Christ.

  2. wait. How are you sure that “Paul himself died on a highway outside of Rome at the hands of a Roman soldier.” ??

    I thought there were different theories about this and that nobody was 100% “sure”? That he might have died of old age in a home in Rome, or that he was beheaded? Was that what you meant by the “at the hands of a Roman soldier” part?

    Sorry I am confused on this 1 point.

    • Ryan,

      See Eusebius, 2.25; F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle…, ch. 37. There are traditions dating to the late 2nd century (e.g., pseudep. Acts of Paul) concerning his martyrdom under Nero. 1 Clem (early 2nd cent) assumes his martyrdom. As a Roman citizen he would have been executed by the sword. Tertullian testified that he was beheaded. There is dispute concerning the highway on which he was beheaded (Appian, Ostion, or St Paul’s).

  3. Hi, enjoyed the post, so much so, I re-posted. Although I can assume what you meant, I needed clarity on something. A friend thought the word foolishishness was used incorrectly in the last sentence. And although I didn’t quite know what to call this type of phrase or attitude, if-you-will, I threw out the word facetious…did that make sense? Can you tell me so I can relay why you worded it this way?

    • Tami,

      “Foolishness” is reference to 1 Corinthians 1:23, where Paul refers to the “μωρία” or foolishness of the message that the same Jesus who was crucified has been raised and is ascended and rules. Foolishness is a “mass noun” indicating “lack of good sense,” or “lack of judgment,” or “stupidity” (via the Oxford American Dictionary). The unbelieving world regards the message of the cross as “foolishness” but to those of us who believe it is the power of God for salvation (1 Cor 1:18). Of course, the message of the cross is not actually foolishness—it’s the gospel!—but to the “wise” and “debaters” and “gods” of this age, it seems foolish, until God opens their eyes.

    • LOL, I understand the meaning of the word foolishness used in the scripture reference, as does my friend. I did not have the right vocabulary, however, to explain to my friend your use of the word.

      • Hi Tami,

        Thanks. I wasn’t sure from the comment what the question is. I guess I’m still not certain. Does the usage seem unusual? Are you looking for a grammatical or rhetorical category?

  4. Scott, I think she is asking what figure of speech uses the word “foolishness” in a tongue-in-cheek (ironic?) way.

    • You guessed it, irony! It is an irony that the “wise of this world” call the wisdom of God, the cross of Christ, foolishness! The wisdom of God is considered to be the opposite of what it is. These worldly “wise” think it is foolishness. That is the definition of irony.

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