The title of the Oscar-nominated movie The Theory of Everything might seem a little ambitious, maybe even ironic in its grandiose magnitude, and, in some ways, it is. The title pokes at real-life physicist Stephen Hawking’s initial desire to find a theory of everything, a single equation to explain the creation of the universe. Having never settled on such an equation, Stephen’s ambition ensures an ironic sort of surrender even in the title, which unexpectedly exudes earnestness, too, given that the film’s themes are endless: Everything’s here. The Theory of Everything investigates the very beginning of the universe as well as its end; birth and death, science and faith, friendship and love; the mystery of time. Most striking, though, is the persistent beat of the theology of the cross.

Plot summary: Stephen Hawking meets Jane Wilde at Cambridge. She studies arts; he studies science. She loves to dance, but he’s a stiff. She’s a Christian (“C of E!”); he’s agnostic. And, despite being at odds in nearly every conversation, they fall totally in love. Still, they could never anticipate what happens next: Early in their relationship, Stephen is diagnosed with some form of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, certifying that his body will deteriorate to virtual paralysis with a life expectancy of two years. Jane chooses to stay with Stephen, to love him to the end, even though Stephen’s father, very bluntly, tells her that the weight of science (read: the world) is against her. And she responds by saying, “I may not look like a very strong person. But I am one.” Felicity Jones portrays nearly thirty years of Jane’s internal struggle while Eddie Redmayne’s Academy-Award winning depiction of Stephen shows us his unyielding external decay. Losing his motor skills, his mobility, his voice, but not his brain, Stephen persists in his exploration of the universe as well as his marriage to Jane. They raise kids. They go on vacations. They grow together, stronger, older, always side by side. Remember: Stephen’s 1963 diagnosis gave him a life expectancy of two years, and, in what seems to be evidence of the miraculous, he’s still alive today.

Spoilers ahead: It’s worth watching the movie, now available to rent or buy, before reading the following.

Jane, even as she insists on her own strength, begins to waver, and, in the end, both Jane and Stephen realize that they are not strong enough to sustain this marriage. Jane admits that she thought this would only last a few years, that she believed she would be widowed earlier. A few years ago, The Observer interviewed the real Jane:

…she went into their marriage knowing the worst [Stephen’s death] was almost certainly around the corner. ‘Yes, but at that stage I did not want to think about that. Also, we had this very strong sense at the time that our generation lived anyway under this most awful nuclear cloud—that with a four-minute warning the world itself could likely end. That made us feel above all that we had to do our bit, that we had to follow an idealistic course in life. That may seem naive now, but that was exactly the spirit in which Stephen and I set out in the sixties—to make the most of whatever gifts were given us.’

#YOLO. Jane saw her marriage to Stephen as a lovely but ephemeral gift, not a long-term trial. As the film shows, she soon realized that as Stephen’s crippled life crawled forward, there was no end in sight for their pain. In one of the most critical but heartbreaking scenes, they agree to separate. At this point, Jane, the film’s spokesperson for Christianity, looks a lot like Peter: denying the cross, denying her husband, denying God’s “ordained” marriage. She turns away. And if that’s the case, we have a lot to learn from her, because, like Peter, she’s human (Matt 14:30, Matt 26:31). She realizes that her own strength can’t justify her. And there’s grace for that.

More than this, however—and here is the interpretation to which I’m more inclined—maybe Jane isn’t “just” Peter. Not really. Maybe she’s actually like Christ, fully crucified in this moment. Her pride, her aspirations about strength, her desire to prove to Stephen that she’s right about the existence of God—all of it, pinned to the cross.

In the beginning, she says, the most important theme of her life was her belief that:

Despite it all, everything was going to be possible. That Stephen was going to do his physics, and we were going to raise a wonderful family and have a nice house and live happily every after.

The audience wants her to have these things, too; we ourselves yearn for the have-everything kind of life, so we cheer them on in their pursuit of it. As a self-proclaimed Christian viewer, I found myself willing her to be stronger, to be a better wife, to be more convincing in her defensive apologetics. Maybe then her faith would be strong enough to give her everything she wanted, everything I wanted for her. What unfolds, then, is a theology of glory. Simply put, I wanted Jane to the poster-woman for a Christian revival in the face of Stephen’s disease and atheism. I wanted Jane to be strong enough to keep her marriage together as a testimony to her faith, but that was my own spiritual pride.

Ultimately, Jane and Stephen’s story bears an uncanny resemblance to Christ’s. The Theory of Everything dupes us into putting our trust in Jane and Stephen, hoping, alongside them, that all our Christian aspirations will be fulfilled through them.

Similarly, Jesus’ first-century posse follows him into Jerusalem, cheering him on with palm branches and cries of excitement, believing that he will fulfill their own spiritual aspirations: overthrowing Rome, delivering Israel to freedom. The Gospel according to Luke tells us:

As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road…the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Shortly thereafter, all their hope is squashed on Good Friday when this same man, their king, dies on a cross. Similarly, Jane and Stephen, who at first appear to be protagonists in the feel-good romance of the year, separate and “remain friends.” Daggers. Beyond this, Jane, who puts on the shirt of the “good Christian” fails to fulfill such a law-based archetype. The reality is that she’s not your typical God’s-not-dead champion. She’s a human being who fed, clothed, and loved Stephen Hawking for thirty long years, and got tired.

In his book On Being a Theologian of the Cross, Gerhard Forde writes that “the real seat of sin is not in the flesh but in our spiritual aspirations, in our ‘theology of glory.’” Forde suggests that the theology of glory creates a space for pride, and thereby a space for sin; conversely, the theology of the cross crucifies the that pride. By giving up their marriage, Jane and Stephen see their pride sentenced to death. Watching their marriage fall apart, I saw that my own Christian aspirations, which I projected onto their story, were crucified.

We might worry, Forde continues, that the theology of the cross is “‘only’ concerned with crucifixion. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, a theology of the cross is impossible without resurrection.” Admittedly, as clear as the cross is in The Theory of Everything, I’m hard-pressed to find a satisfying resurrection.

True enough, the film, in order to sustain itself, needs some sort of redemption—it’s what our hearts crave. Viewers, who for two hours have grown increasingly invested in the Hawkings’ lives, will leave the theater grossly disappointed if the story ends in death and divorce. So the movie smartly provides something like a resurrection: At the end, Jane and Stephen visit the queen together: No longer husband and wife, they “remain friends.” The film shows us smiles and wheelchair-spinning, but (like the end of the Book of Job, i.e. Job lived happily ever after but his kids were still dead), it all seems sort of artificial. Despite the heavy shadow of the cross throughout the film, Stephen nevertheless remains a sick, divorced atheist—not your ideal candidate for “biblical” resurrection. Stephen concludes before his audience, “However bad life may seem, where there is life, there is hope.” This conclusion receives a standing ovation, but nevertheless feels strangely empty, sort of like a non-answer in the face of death. Hawking assures us that there is hope, but hope in what? Seems to me like a string of nice-sounding words as a cheap rest-assurance.


I myself would offer that, for all its heartache, The Theory of Everything left me weirdly uplifted. In the final scene, the clock runs backwards and gives us one last look at Jane and Stephen’s relationship. Montage meets music, resulting in an overload of sentimentality (but in a way that I found favorable), to say the least. The backwards time-travel points to something important: that both time and resurrection are beyond our understanding. At Mockingbird, we’ve looked at the difference between chronological and kairological time, chronological being normal time, day after day, the ordered passing of one moment to another. Kairological refers instead to God’s boundless perception of time, his ability to give a fleeting moment eternal significance. In some ways, I wonder if, in a kairological sense, the entire movie isn’t some kind of resurrection. Chronologically, the movie is devastating: Every hope you had at the beginning is  dashed, yet somehow, because of it’s familiarity, because it leans into questions you’ve wondered about, because you see yourself in the characters, because you’re moved by the convincing acting and colorful cinematography, the whole thing feels redeemed. Unexpectedly so.

I don’t have answers to the questions raised in The Theory of Everything: questions about creation, faith, and suffering. Jesus himself asked “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Forde writes, “We can’t answer Jesus’ question. We can only die with him and await God’s answer in him.”