I have two general beliefs/feelings when it comes to life on other planets which are in conflict. Part of me is extremely skeptical. The probability of their being life on other planets given the extremely precise conditions needed to sustain life is exceedingly, vanishingly, absurdly low. Sure, there are unimaginably numerous planets in our universe, any number of which may be earthlike, but I just do not see why we should think that life is inevitable or even likely. On the other hand another part of me thinks that God could just as easily have brought life forth in various places throughout the universe, utilizing it much like an artist uses a tapestry. Our universe could be teeming with life, just waiting to be discovered.
Reading a couple books recently, along with the recent exploration of Mars, have turned me to reflect on the implications of life on other planets for Christian theology. One book, Vast Universe [link at bottom of post], was on Christian theology of life on other planets. Here, I shall be setting aside my extreme skepticism about life “out there.” Instead, I shall consider the following statement: “If there is other life in the universe, what does that mean for Christian theology?”
Science and Christianity
The topic is so oft-discussed that I will not dedicate too much time to it. What would the discovery of life ‘out there’ do for science and Christianity?
I think that Christian theology already has the resources built in it to adapt itself to life on other planets. Although some would be disturbed by such a possibility or reality, I do not see how such a discovery would be damaging to Christianity as a whole. The real problem would lie with those willing to abuse the text of the Bible in order to try to make it say there is no possibility of life outside of Earth or that our planet is the focal point of all creation. Theologies which take such a path those would indeed suffer greatly.
Humanity’s Place in the Universe
The discovery of life on other planets would almost certainly remove the notion that humanity is some kind of privileged being in this universe. It was not all created by God for us. What would that mean for Christian theology?
Again, I do not think this would be very damaging. Although the notion that humanity has a special place in the universe has a traceable line throughout the history of Christian theology, it is hardly a necessary component. In fact, life on other planets would be a great illustration of another thread of Christian theology: the notion of God as a cosmic artist who delights in creation. On this view, God takes such pleasure in the creation of and interaction with various living species that He caused them to arise across the universe. Furthermore, our discovery of these other living creatures could be a reflection of His providence, having set up the world in such a way that we could discover other life and marvel at His creation.
What about salvation on other planets? Did Jesus go to other planets in His incarnate form and save them as a human? Was there more than one crucifixion? Thomas O’Meara, in the book I mentioned above, reflects upon questions just like these. He argues that “All three persons can become incarnate because incarnation is one aspect of boundless divine power… The divine motive for fashioning a universe of galaxies is God’s goodness; the same motive brings incarnation” (47, cited below). He establishes the notion of more than one incarnation as a live option throughout Christian history (63ff).
It therefore seems as though other life in the universe would not destroy God’s salvation plan. The Bible tells us about God’s salvation history for humanity. We know God is good, and we therefore know that God would providentially interact with other beings at their own levels and needs.
Finally, one thoughtful reader pointed out to me one area I had forgotten to add in here. There is the possibility that if there are aliens, then they have not fallen. Perhaps they have lived in communion with God instead of in rebellion against God. The possibility is very real, and must be considered in this kind of speculative theology. Such aliens would possibly be corrupted by meeting humanity; but they may also have much to teach us. As O’Meara notes, they may be some kind of “Star Mentors” with spiritual insights we may miss in our fallen state.
The Sentient Alien and other faiths
What kind of challenge would a sentient alien present to Christianity? What of their faith, their religion?
As far as other sentient species’ religions, I think that Christianity could interact with them in the same way that Christian theology has considered other human faiths. Seek truth where truth exists, and critique where it is untrue. (For my fuller vision of world religions, check out my post on A Vision for Christian Apologetics to World Religions.)
Some could even argue that a Christian interaction with other sentient races should be open to their own incarnations and truth in their religion as revealed by God. What of an alien Bible? Again, it seems that a good God, as we know God is, would interact with all life in a way that reflects His omnibenevolent nature. God’s providence would extend to life across the whole universe.
Would life on other planets somehow discredit Christianity? What of panspermia? How should we treat the discovery of life in the universe, were it to happen?
The Bible does not seem to make any kind of statement about life outside of our planet. However, it does make it clear that there is a spiritual realm of angels and demons. Thus, there is at least life outside of our easily accessible realm. No verse in the Bible states that there is no life elsewhere in the universe. It seems that the possibility is certainly open.
Furthermore, I don’t see any reason to think that life on other planets would somehow justify belief in panspermia or some other pseudo-scientific explanation of the spread and origins of life. We would have to deal with the same questions about life on other planets that we must deal with on our own.
Created life and the universe
Overall, I think that as a purely rational standpoint there is reason for immense skepticism about life on other planets. Although many express optimism and point to the sheer volume of planets in our universe as somehow necessitating life elsewhere, I am not convinced that sheer numbers somehow increase the likelihood of life on other planets. To put it plainly, it is my opinion that the only rational way to hope for life elsewhere in our universe is to conjoin that hope with belief in a God who loves creating and interacting with created life.
A final disclaimer
I realize that many of the points I wrote about in this post are likely to be extremely contentious. What I want to say is that this has been an exercise in speculative theology. I have been writing about something which is a mere possibility and offering possible answers to a number of questions from a perspective which takes this possibility seriously. I am quite possibly wrong on any of these. What I have tried to do here is offer a number of things for Christians to think about when they consider life on other planets. For a great post on the possibility of life on other planets, check out this guest post by Greg Reeves on that very topic.
Thomas O’Meara, Vast Universe (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012).
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Could you say more about why you don’t think that life on other planets won’t change much to Chrisitanity as a whole? My understanding is that main stream Christianity will hold Christ as the sole incarnation of God and the only way to salvation specific to the human race. It seems that a notion of God’s Only Son would no longer stand if God was incarnate elsewhere, also that Christ is not the only way to salvation. Progressives may account for this already by main stream Christianity would feel lost, don’t you think?
Did you read through the post? There is precedent in historic Christian theology to consider the possibility of the other Persons being incarnate and even for God the Son to be incarnate elsewhere. I don’t see how this would undermine the notion of “God’s only Son.” After all, it’s not just “God’s only Son” but God the Son. Surely God is not limited to being incarnate only once. Where in the Bible does it say that it is impossible for this to occur?