QUESTION: Does the possibility of Extraterrestrial Life pose a threat to religion, Christianity or any of its fundamental beliefs about the natural world?
RESPONSE: Thanks for articulating a very often-asked question. To answer, we have to first discern what the fundamental principle in religion or Christianity is which excludes the very possibility of this universe containing other life forms. In other words, what doctrine or Scriptural precedent precludes the existence of Alien life, such that the discovery of Aliens would be fatal to Christianity?
Before answering that, it’s interesting to note that Christians have ALWAYS believed God created AT LEAST one other sentient, intelligent race in the universe. Of course I am referring to angels. So for Christians, the questions “do Aliens exist” and “are we alone in the Universe” have always been settled with a “yes” and a “no” respectively.
Angels, contrary to medieval art, are not deceased humans with harps on clouds, or fat babies with bows and arrows. Angels are powerful beings of pure spirit. Most bible scholars would agree their creation predates both the earth and the appearance of humans on it. The bible records angels sometimes appearing as humans – but in their nature they are nonhuman, non-corporeal, intelligent, morally free, sentient beings.
Despite this long-held belief in angels, the Alien question is thought to be fatal to Christianity for two reasons, one because it’s assumed to undermine the biblical narrative of human centrality and worth, and two because it’s assumed to undermine the biblical narrative about creation. So let’s take these in turn:
Let’s call the first “the assumption of anthropocentrism” – the belief that the man-centered Bible must preclude other races on account of humanity’s unique relation to God. If we accept this, and if Aliens were to be found, the Faith must collapse.
But why should this be true? It’s a false dichotomy. Any parent with more than one child instantly sees it as such. A parent can have more than one child, but the existence of another child does nothing to diminish the love, care and plans the parent makes for the first.
Even so, without denying the specialness of humanity to God, nor the eternal plans he made or the lengths he went to to save it, Christians can still affirm that God may have other races which are equally special to him, and for which he has equally wonderful and long term plans. (Lewis explored these possibilities in his science fiction books, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra).
What about Aliens and the uniqueness of the Incarnation? Well, again if we believe God is dealing intimately with the “alien race” of angels without ever being incarnated as one of them, why couldn’t this be true of some other biological alien race? Perhaps the redemption of the cross is universally applicable (literally!) and the discovery of Aliens would be further cause for mission. This is speculative, but there’s nothing in the mere existence of those beings that is fatal to Christian theology about the cross.
Further, I’m not troubled that we get nothing about such Beings from the Bible. Which is important to state, because inside this anthropocentric objection is another assumption: if Christianity really were true, it would give revelation of this fact to us. And yet the Bible is silent on Aliens, ergo their discovery would be a Christianity defeater.
But this objection fails for two reasons: clearly, up to now, no Alien life has been found! So it still may be that humans are God’s only going concern in the entire universe. Two, even if Aliens were found, the Bible never claims to give us all knowledge of the universe, but only such knowledge as is necessary for our salvation. Galileo’s famous dictum here applies, “God was interested in telling us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
Yes, the Bible affirms that humans are special, alone on earth we are “made in the Image of God.” And it’s also true that Angels are seen serving/helping us as if that were their purpose (Heb 1:14). And it’s also true Jesus said we matter more than the “many sparrows”.
But should we assume by this that no other life forms are special to God? Or that God has no workings with them and purposes which have nothing to do with us? Far from it. Over and over the Bible says the animals have great value to God, as he extols all the ways (some of which unknown to us) that they reflect his character and qualities. (Job chp. 38-40). And when God tells Jonah that he has pity on the city of Ninevah, laboring under sin, he mentions it’s cattle as part of the city he cares for! In addition, Angels at times seem to be God’s primary concern, when even our redemption is painted as God’s act of warfare and glory directed at that race of exalted, powerful creatures (Eph 3:9,10; Col 2:8).
So with other intelligent, sentient life, and with other non-image bearing biological life – in both cases Christian scripture already tells us such life merely existing and having value to God is not mutually exclusive of humans having great worth, even preeminent worth on this world.
The irony is this: the person who raises this objection usually means to take a stab at what they think is the inherent anthropocentrism of Christianity, not realizing that the Bible beat them to it:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.Ps 8:3-5
But now the second assumption in this question is that Aliens would undermine Christian teaching about creation. This objection really is just an offshoot of the creation/evolution objection. Specifically this person assumes that the discovery of the size/age of the universe, combined with the theory of how life evolved on earth by mutation/natural selection means, A) the universe is teeming with life, and B) the Bible’s creation account has been falsified.
Regarding the truth of the Bible’s creation account, John Lennox gives a compelling Christian view of creation in 7 Days That Divide The World. There he notes that the same way Christians eventually saw how Scripture accommodates a heliocentric solar system, we should also see the Bible’s creation account can accommodate long ages and the vast size of the universe.
So the only real problem is not aliens but unguided evolution which supposedly is making aliens all over the galaxy.
But this objection is starting to backfire. Even the most ardent Darwinian scientist will tell you that the theory is weakest at the point of the creation of the first self-reproducing cell. There is currently no working materialist model of how life first arose on earth. Why? Assuming mutation/selection really works to create new structures and life forms (an unsubstantiated assumption as science is discovering), before there were ANY life forms, what does mutation/selection work on? If life evolves by saved copying errors in DNA, what about before there was DNA? Life from non-life is a massive mystery and we’re rapidly moving past the era when science naively thought time and the chance shuffling of chemicals could do the trick.
So ironically it’s at the point where the theory of life’s origin is WEAKEST that the proponent of Alien life has to be the most confident in it. Exactly where we have no laboratory confirmation of how it happened on earth, we have to believe that life came from non-life literally millions of times “out there”. Where does this confidence come from? Not from the science, but from people’s hopes or assumptions.
So while the discovery of other life in the universe wouldn’t be fatal to Christianity, the LACK OF DISCOVERY of other life in the universe may be fatal to materialism! For the materialist, evolution should be “easy”. It should be something that just happens, by chance random processes wherever the conditions are right. And so the universe ought to be teeming with life.
And that is what the early Alien Seekers assumed. The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was a gov’t funded group of such seekers that spent millions of dollars looking for the radio signals of life forms which they assumed had to exist in the thousands if not millions.
But more discoveries put a damper on the Alien euphoria, not just the increasing failure of chemical theories of pre-biotic evolution, but also the multiplying factors necessary to support life. Carl Sagan in the 1970’s presumed only 2 were needed so that if a planet had the right star and was the right distance from that star – wham-o – you’d have life spring up out of non-living chemicals eventually and inevitably.
Today, the factors have jumped from 2 to 200 and counting – making earth a very special place indeed. This doesn’t even begin to touch the finely tuned nature of the universe as a whole.
So while the assumption is that the existence of Aliens is fatal to Christianity’s narrative about creation, it appears that if they do exist, they will only exist by the same intelligent design as designed us, and inside the same finely tuned universe we inhabit. Needless to say, the discovery of an intelligently designed co-inhabitant of this finely tuned universe would not disturb my Christian faith in the least.