What would life beyond Earth mean for Christians?
Could intelligent life be living on other planets? Deb shares that there are multiple faithful options which take scripture, theology, and science seriously.
Astronomers are discovering thousands of planets in orbit around other stars. They now estimate that there are billions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy. Could intelligent life be living on some of those planets? This is the subject of much scientific speculation and entertaining science fiction. While we haven’t yet detected signs of alien life, what would such a discovery mean for Christians?
Some atheists claim the discovery of aliens would destroy organized religion or invalidate the Bible. However, a survey of religious people found that most are comfortable with the idea of intelligent aliens and do not see it threatening their beliefs. Astronauts such as John Glenn actually found their trip to space to bring them closer to God and to a deeper faith. The Bible is still relevant in the space age; it makes claims far beyond the people and places of Earth, describing God as the Creator of all life and the entire cosmos. Yet many questions remain.
Let’s think about some of the common questions Christians ask about intelligent life beyond Earth. While we ponder these, we can remember that the significance of humanity is based on God’s actions toward us here on Earth. On our planet, God became incarnate as one of us and sacrificed himself to save us. Whether there are aliens or not, we are significant in God’s eyes. We can stay curious about life beyond Earth and celebrate all life that God chooses to create.
Is anybody out there?
People have speculated for decades about the number of alien civilizations (e.g. the Drake equation) and why we haven’t met aliens yet (e.g. the Fermi paradox). It would be fascinating to communicate with an intelligent species from another planet, but we’re a long way from that, for several reasons.
Aliens haven’t communicated with us yet.
Despite UFO reports and conspiracy theories, there is no credible evidence of extraterrestrial visitors to our planet. More likely is that we’ll communicate through radio waves, which can travel long distances through the galaxy. Our human communications leak into space; what if an alien civilization is also leaking information? Or even beaming a greeting our way? The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a serious scientific search for such communications. Nothing has been detected yet, but groups are scanning the skies for radio and other signals with increasing sophistication and sensitivity.
We don’t know if life beyond Earth is abundant or rare.
We have little scientific information to go on; scientists don’t even understand the origin of life on our own planet. Christians hold a wide range of views. Some believe that God created intelligent life on Earth through a miracle and expect God did it only once. Others have no theological expectations, but since we haven’t heard from aliens, they figure we are probably alone. Still others believe God designed the universe so that intelligent life would inevitably evolve, and expect to find it flourishing in many places.
Even if simple life exists beyond Earth, intelligent life could be much rarer.
On Earth, single-celled life formed soon after the planet cooled, but it took billions of years before multi-celled life got going (see timeline). Intelligent life arrived only 200 thousand years ago (see video lecture by Stephen Freeland, starting around 26:45). Based just on Earth’s history, it seems more likely we will find planets with simple life than with complex life. Conscious, intelligent life could be much more rare.
Even if there is intelligent life beyond Earth, the aliens may not be communicating.
Humans invented radio transmitters and receivers less than 150 years ago. Intelligent aliens might not have developed the technology yet, or have moved past it to other technologies. Or maybe they just aren’t interested.
Even if aliens are sending messages, it would be a SLOW conversation.
Radio waves are a form of light, and light takes time to travel. The nearest exoplanet is 4.2 lightyears away. That means we’d have to wait at least 8.4 years to hear an answer. Most planets are much further away. Could we have a meaningful conversation with only one message every few decades?
Even if we did exchange messages, translation would be difficult.
Most science fiction skips past this problem (a fascinating exception is the movie Arrival). Translating the language of a different species from a different world would be much more difficult than translating between human languages. Would we have any confidence that we’re correctly understanding each other on complex topics like religion and God? Let’s assume that we’re past all of the above challenges. We’ve begun meaningful communication with life beyond Earth that is conscious, intelligent, and interested in the conversation. What would be the implications? Let’s consider five questions.
1. How should we relate to intelligent aliens?
We may or may not understand them, but as Christians we know they are fellow creatures. They might be friendly, indifferent, or violent toward us. But if they exist, they are creatures that God intended to create, just like life on Earth. As 20th century Christian leader Billy Graham said, “I firmly believe there are intelligent beings like us far away in space who worship God. But we have nothing to fear from these people. Like us, they are God’s creation.” (as quoted by Ted Peters in “Science, Theology, and Ethics”). The God of the Bible is the God of all life in the cosmos, and thus we should treat that life with respect and care.
Sadly, most speculation about intelligent aliens leaves out God entirely. In science fiction, the major religions of Earth are rarely mentioned. Even more rare are stories in which the God of the Bible is also God of the alien species. If religion appears at all, it is often a mystical religion in a primitive alien culture, not something relevant for the human characters. A beautiful exception is The Sparrow, a novel by Mary Doria Russell in which a team of scientists and Jesuit priests travel to another planet to meet an intelligent species. Another is C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, in which a human meets creatures on Mars and Venus who also know God.
2. Does the Bible speak about life beyond Earth?
Some people say that since the Bible doesn’t mention life on other planets, it has nothing to say to the discovery of intelligent aliens. But the Bible also doesn’t mention Saturn’s rings, galaxies, or DNA, yet Christians see these as God’s creation.
Many parts of the Bible are provincial, and intentionally so. Scripture focuses on the work of God in one small geographic region of our planet, centered on the descendants of one family. The Bible does not attempt to be comprehensive about the entire Earth or people living on other continents. Rather, God revealed himself in a way suitable for the first audience in the ancient middle east, leaving out information that would not make sense to them.
And yet the Bible’s claims are also cosmic in scope. Passages like Genesis 1, John 1, and Colossians 1 clearly speak of God as the Creator of all things, with no exception. Paul writes in Colossians 1:16 “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on Earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” It feels like Paul is running out of words in his effort to describe the comprehensiveness of God’s creative authority. There is no suggestion that God is less relevant for life beyond the Roman world of Paul’s day. We can conclude these passages speak not only of the Earth but of the entire cosmos, including intelligent life beyond Earth. God is the Creator of all the worlds and whatever life is in them.
3. Would discovery of aliens reduce human significance?
If we find intelligent life on another planet, would that change how we see ourselves? What would it mean for our relationship with God if we weren’t God’s only children? Christians have offered multiple answers to this.
Some make a case from Christian theology that humans must be the only intelligent species in the universe. Humans have a unique, special relationship with God that is not shared by other species on Earth. This can be extended to say that humans are unique in the universe as well. Humans have an exclusive relationship with God.
Others make a case from Christian theology that humans could be one of many intelligent species. Scripture shows that God is generous, even extravagant, in creating an Earth that is fruitful in producing many life forms. This can be extended to say that God has created a fruitful universe with many intelligent beings. Yet that wouldn’t diminish God’s love for us—just as God loves each individual, God has the capacity to love each species in a special way.
The God of the Bible is the God of all life in the cosmos, and thus we should treat that life with respect and care.
Scripture doesn’t give a clear answer. But this may not be an either/or question. Theologian and astronomer David Wilkinson in his excellent book Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence points out that humans can be exceptional even if not exclusive in our relationship with God.
“[While] sharing much with other life-forms–even perhaps intelligence and self-consciousness—human beings are embedded in the story of God’s particular acts. This is not an appeal to human superiority. It is about exceptional relationship but not exclusive relationship. Human beings can be special without denying God’s love and concern for other intelligent beings.” (p.147)
Wilkinson refers to God’s particular acts toward humanity. These have shown over and over our exceptional relationship with God. God created humans in his image. God continued to love us after we rebelled, then came to live among us and ultimately died to save us. God has crowned us with glory and honor and given us responsibility to care for the Earth (Psalm 8). Whether or not God created other intelligent beings, his love for them would not make humans less significant in God’s eyes.
4. Would meeting aliens change our understanding of the incarnation?
Central to Christianity is the incarnation of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human. If God created intelligent species on other planets, would Christ have been incarnate in those species too? Or is the incarnation unique to Earth?
Some Christians see Christ as becoming incarnate in multiple races. C.S. Lewis uses this picture in his Narnia series. In The Last Battle, he portrays Aslan as parallel to Jesus on Earth, the same person incarnate in different species on different planets. Supporters of this view argue that the incarnation is an expression of God’s self-giving love for people he has made, and thus the incarnation is just as appropriate for aliens as it is for humans.
Other Christians see Christ as incarnate only in humans. Christianity emphasizes the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and describes his ascension and current heavenly reign in bodily form. Supporters of this view argue that the incarnation has cosmic implications and thus can only occur once. Moreover, a single person cannot become incarnate as multiple individuals without contradiction; which nature would Christ have in heaven? God would still love other intelligent life, but would relate to aliens in ways different than he relates to humans. God could use other means to reveal himself and demonstrate his self-giving love.
While Christians disagree on this issue, both views uphold the incarnation of Jesus Christ on Earth and God’s character of self-giving love.
5. Would meeting aliens change our understanding of the cross?
At the core of Christianity is the death of the incarnate Christ on a Roman cross, bringing redemption for humans. Is redemption unique to Earth? Again, Christians hold multiple views. As outlined in a good recent book Cosmology in Theological Perspective by Olli-Pekka Vainio (p.158ff; see also Wilkinson chapter 10), here are four options:
1. Aliens are not fallen, and thus have no need for redemption.
In C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, the intelligent people on Mars and Venus know God but have not succumbed to sin. Perhaps other worlds have the situation we would have had on Earth if Adam and Eve had chosen to obey God. Or, perhaps life on other worlds is dramatically different from ours in ways that don’t fit with our concepts of sin and redemption.
2. Aliens are fallen, and they have their own relationship with God that is different from ours.
This could be similar to the situation of angels in Scripture. Angels were created by God and some chose to fall into disobedience, yet we do not read of a redemption plan for them. Speculation about this goes back to the 1600s, when scholar Bernard de Fontenelle argued aliens are not not part of the human economy of salvation.
3. Aliens are fallen, but included in Christ’s redemptive work on Earth.
Supporters of this view argue that Christ’s redemptive work was done only once, on Earth. They reject the idea that the second person of the Trinity is dying over and over on millions of worlds. The resurrection has cosmic implications, with all things reconciled to Christ in the new creation. The planet Earth was chosen by God to be the place of redemption for the whole cosmos, just as the Jewish people were chosen by God among human peoples. What would the path to God look like for aliens? Perhaps they receive some special revelation from God about the redemption paid by Christ on Earth, or perhaps they know Christ in some other way and refer to him by a different name. It may even be our responsibility as humans to bring the gospel to them across cosmic distances.
4. Aliens are fallen, but Christ’s incarnation and redemptive work are repeated on their own worlds.
In this view, Christ was not only incarnate on other planets, but died on those worlds for the sins of alien creatures. Supporters argue that it would be arrogant for humans to assume that God’s work for us on Earth applies to other civilizations as well. In Scripture we see a God of holiness and self-giving love, and that same character would be at work with aliens in the same way it is with us. If aliens were invited into relationship with God yet chose to sin, God would show his redemptive love in the same way.
These are four very different answers to the question! The books listed in the References section provide much more discussion. This is a challenging question that touches the core of our faith, but we need not be discouraged. There are multiple faithful options which take scripture, theology, and science seriously. While we ponder these, we can stand firm in our knowledge of what God did for us on Earth: Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, died to redeem human sin.
We can celebrate all life that God chooses to create
God is free to create however he likes. Just as we celebrate all life on Earth as God’s creation, so we can celebrate whatever alien life we might discover. We can be curious explorers, grounded in the knowledge of God as the loving Creator. Christians can encourage scientists in their study of the origin of life on Earth and the search for life on other worlds. We can encourage theologians to ponder the implications of such discoveries before they happen.
All truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found. Let’s explore God’s creation with curiosity, with humility to learn, and with care and respect for any life beyond Earth that we may meet.
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