I will come right out and admit it: I am not an expert when it comes to scientific topics. I took all the science courses that I needed to in order to graduate from high school and get my college degree, and I got decent grades in all of them, but that should not be confused with the kind of serious credentials required to speak authoritatively on scientific issues. Nevertheless, I have found that the older I get, the more I tend to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, and by that I mean the entire universe.
One day, when my brain decided to make such a diversion from the “right side” to the “left side”, I found myself contemplating the possibility of alien life, as in life that exists in the universe but not on planet earth. It was then that I thought to ask my husband the question, “If alien life was discovered on another planet, would it make you doubt your Christian faith?”
Ok, so maybe that was a bit of an odd question. After all, extraterrestrial life is so far more in the domain of science fiction than actual science. From the fearsome Martians in War of the Worlds who were little more than gigantic heads, to the seemingly cuddly Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, to the humanoids in Avatar whose blue complexions made them appear constantly ready to attend a University of Kentucky basketball game, aliens are definitely part of our popular culture. But when it comes to finding hard evidence of extraterrestrial life, scientists have yet to succeed.
However, every idea seems a bit ridiculous when it is first suggested. Before the germ theory of disease gained prominence in the medical community, most people would have thought that concept was downright crazy. Penicillin was discovered as the result of a Petri dish that had gone moldy. Stephen Hawking just reversed himself on the topic of black holes. Everything seems unlikely until it happens, and then it seems like it was always inevitable.
But back to my original question: would the discovery of extraterrestrial life in any way challenge the Christian notion of the universe? This is not exactly a set in stone theological issue. In fact, you might be thinking, “The Bible has nothing to say about aliens.” Well, that is where you would be wrong: the word “alien” actually appears 73 times in scripture. All we have to do is look at them one by one, and I am sure the answer will become obvious.
Ok, perhaps you are miles ahead of me on this one. You are thinking that when the Bible talks about “aliens” it is not referring to extraterrestrial life, but simply people from other parts of the planet earth. I confess that you are correct and I was merely trying to see if I could confuse you. Still, it is interesting to read some of these passages as if they were referring to residents of outer space.
Solomon numbered all the aliens who were in the land of Israel, following the census which his father David had taken; and 153,600 were found. – 2 Chronicles 2:17
Rescue me and deliver me out of the hand of aliens… – Psalm 114:11a
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our houses to aliens. – Lamentations 5:2
See how interesting the Bible becomes when you start interpreting a word in a completely different way than the author intended? Brilliant! But I digress…
No, scripture does not mention extraterrestrial life, unless you are going to throw angels and dead people into that category. None of the great Christian creeds of the past two millennia have even addressed the issue, at least as far as I am aware. (As soon as I publish this, someone will surely complain that I overlooked the little-known Council of Roswell.)
So why does the existence or non-existence of space aliens even matter, or why should I consider it to be a theologically interesting topic? The reason is because Christianity, at least the kind of Christianity to which I have been exposed, is a firmly anthropocentric religion. (“Anthropocentric” is a big word that just means “focused on human beings”. It is the kind of term you can throw out casually at a dinner party and thus appear to be intelligent…or desperate. Do not confuse it with “anthropomorphic”, which is what happens in every children’s movie involving animals.)
Orthodox Christians (not to be confused with adherents of Eastern Orthodoxy) hold that humanity was not only God’s greatest creation, but also the primary reason for which the universe was brought into being. The central narrative of all history, the focus of every event, is the relationship between God and human beings. Man was the only being created in the image of God – imago Dei for our Latin-speaking friends – and the only creature that possesses what I will crudely label a “personal relationship with God”.
For more than a millennium, many Christians were so sure that the earth was the center of the universe that they believed it was literally at the center of the universe. (A simple Google search for “geocentrism” reveals that not everyone has given up on this idea.)
While I do not believe that there is any great disagreement between the Bible and the currently accepted heliocentric model of our solar system, I do think that the discovery of life on another planet could cause some to question long-held doctrinal beliefs of Christians. Of course, this all depends on what kind of “life” might be discovered. If scientists succeed in finding some kind of extraterrestrial mold, I doubt anyone will see it as a challenge to traditional Christian doctrines. However, if they were to discover what are commonly referred to as “humanoid” species, that would be a much more interesting development.
If there are other organisms out there who are just as intelligent as humans, if not more so, then how do they fit into God’s plan? Why did he create them in the first place? More to the point, did he create them out of nothing (ex nihilo) or did they come about through the kind of evolutionary process that has been described by scientists from Darwin to the present day? Do they have souls like human beings? Were they too created in the image of God? Why did God determine that their existence was so unimportant that they did not require a mention in scripture, or why did he feel a need to keep them a secret for thousands of years?
I must not get ahead of myself: despite billions of dollars worth of research, scientists have not succeeded in finding life in other parts of the universe, settling instead for signs that a planet has the right characteristics necessary to create the sort of life we have on earth. This is hardly the time to hit the theological panic button. In fact, I would bet you every penny I have that no humanoids will be discovered in the course of my natural life. (Of course, if you tried to take me up on that deal, I would be forced to insist that I am opposed to gambling.)
So why even worry about the possibility of extraterrestrials? Because some part of me feels a need to participate in this philosophical exercise. When I asked my husband the alien question, he responded that such a discovery would not alter his faith at all. I admit that I was a bit perplexed by that reaction, because my general sense is that the discovery of human-level life outside of our terrestrial sphere would pose an even bigger challenge to Christian notions of the universe than anything written by Darwin.
First of all, the discovery of other humanoids would seem like a powerful confirmation of the validity of the theory of evolution. From what I can tell, the most common defense given by creationists against the argument that all life evolved from primordial sludge is that our earth is so unique, so “fine-tuned” for life, so obviously the work of a greater mind and not the slow progress of chance. My friends, if there is life somewhere other than earth, then we are not unique, especially if that life is quite advanced. Life on other planets is exactly what evolutionists would expect to happen, though it does not in and of itself prove or disprove any theories about how the universe came into being.
Secondly, as I have already mentioned, Christians believe that the universe was created for a purpose, and that purpose saw its zenith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through which fallen mankind was given a chance for redemption. If there are other “people” out there, then how do they fit into that purpose? Is history not really all about humans as we have supposed? Have the Mormons been right this whole time?
Thirdly, though the Old and New Testaments were never intended to be a full revelation of everything that exists in the mind of God, it would seem rather odd if there were other beings out there like us in at least some way, and yet there was no mention of them in scripture. It is worth pointing out that some Christians already believe that God created other people, but they existed in the past tense. This is called “gap creationism” or the “gap theory”. Adherents believe that there was actually a lot of history that took place between Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.) and Genesis 1:2 (The earth was formless and void…), thus explaining why the earth appears to be so old. (The current scientific consensus is that it is 4.54 billion years old.)
Gap creationism makes me ask the same questions that would result from the discovery of extraterrestrial life right now: Why did God do that? Why did he mention nothing about it? Doesn’t this in some small way pour cold water on the traditional interpretation of scripture? Sure, I understand that there are some divine mysteries out there, but if we are not the only ones created in the image of God, the only ones with souls, or the only ones who figure into God’s redemptive plan, then wouldn’t it have been good for the Almighty to mention something to that effect?
If you are starting to get seriously concerned that I am falling into heresy (or at least lunacy), never fear. This is only meant to be an intellectual exercise. I admit that my expectation that no humanoids will be found is built as much on my theological beliefs as it is on my cynicism about the quality of human technology. I do not have the answers to the mysteries of the universe. I cannot tell you what it was like at the moment the universe was formed, nor can I understand the infinite twists and turns of God’s divine plan.
“I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted,” Job said. “Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:2, 3b) You and me both, Job. You and me both.
All biblical quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.