Life on Other Planets? What Does This Mean???

Life on Other Planets? What Does This Mean???

Is there life on other planets? 

That is certainly one of the fascinating questions of our age, especially if you are something of a sci-fi geek as I am. Only a few years ago, it seemed to be a question that was very remote. After all, we didn’t even know if there were any planets outside our solar system, let alone habitable planets. But one of the quiet revolutions in our knowledge of the universe over the past decade is the discovery of thousands of planets. A recent New York Times article makes the argument, “Yes, There Have Been Aliens.”

With new advances in telescopic instruments, there may soon be ways for discovering whether or not there is evidence of life on other planets by analyzing the chemical composition of atmospheres.

So that bring us to a question that theologians and pastors may have to confront (as was the case with the Copernican revolution, and the discovery that there were many galaxies outside of our own). And the British Independent last year entitled an article, “The Vatican on space: The discovery of intelligent life wouldn’t mean there’s an alien Jesus somewhere in the universe.”

And this week, the Houston Chronicle did a feature piece on how various theologians across the spectrum, which just so happened to include me, are thinking about the topic.

The question about life elsewhere is a question that may well arise in confirmation classes as well. If life were discovered on another planet, would it undermine or threaten the Christian faith? My initial answer is “no.” It would not bother me for this reason: my faith is not undermined nor maintained by what science discovers or doesn’t discover. Nor does my faith (and holding to Scripture) decide in advance what God may or may not have done elsewhere in the universe. So should life be discovered, how might we think about it? I will do so from the standpoints of God’s works of creation and redemption.

Christian Teaching on Creation

So if life is discovered elsewhere, what might it mean?

First, if life exists elsewhere it means that God created it. What is non-negotiable for the Christian faith, and indeed the cornerstone for it, is that God created everything that exists out of nothing. The distinction of creator and creation is the basis for everything that follows within the Christian story. If life exists elsewhere, then God created it.

Second, if God created life elsewhere, I would not necessarily be surprised. Here’s why. One thing that we do know about God’s work here on earth is that God loves life! Lots of life. And lots of different kinds of life. We see this already in Genesis 1 where the movement of creation is toward the filling of all the spaces on earth (air, water, land) with teeming life. So if God had created life elsewhere in the universe, it will not necessarily surprise me (well, on one level it probably would).

Now that isn’t to say that it won’t raise other (and difficult) questions. For example, if God created life elsewhere, we have no idea how the story of his relationship with that life unfolded because there is no description in Scripture of God’s interactions with any such life. We won’t know or have evidence that life elsewhere has the biblical narrative of sin, redemption, and new creation in Christ as we have on earth. To suggest otherwise would be pure speculation. But we do know that God has made himself known to us on planet earth. And we know the narrative of our relationship to God here on planet earth. And we know that this narrative has implications for all of creation. This includes the following:

Christian Teaching on Redemption

The narrative of salvation begins with an account that establishes a special correspondence between the creator and his human creatures. Whatever else God may have done elsewhere in the universe, we know that God made human creatures in his image. In fact, the image of God is what makes us human creatures. We reflect God both in our relationship to him and in our dominion over the world. This correspondence between God and humanity was revealed and made firm in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Now consider what that means. The creator became a human creature…more precisely, this particular human creature named Jesus! Actually, we can speak of it in two ways. From the standpoint of the Trinity, Jesus is the Son of the creator in the flesh. But from the standpoint of Christology, Jesus is the creator in the flesh.

We also have the narrative of the fall and redemption. We must affirm that in some way, the fall into sin by Adam and Eve sent ripples across the entire cosmos. We know that it is now subject to corruption and decay as Paul affirms in Romans 8. And we know that the entire creation awaits the revelation of the children of God when the entire creation will be set free from its bondage to decay, since Christ by his resurrection has ushered in the new creation.

What does this mean for possible life elsewhere? I don’t know. God has not revealed that to us.

The Scandal of Particularity

I suspect that the discovery of life elsewhere will only heighten what theologians call “the scandal of particularity.” Basically, this means God has many choices or options about what to do. But God often chooses what appears to be particular, insignificant, and weak in order to accomplish his work. And many find this an absurdity. Hence, the scandal.

Some find it absurd—and perhaps all of us on some level find it absurd—that out of all the messages of the world only the message of the Gospel brings salvation to humankind. Some find it absurd that God chose to become incarnate 2000 years ago, or that God became incarnate as a man, or that God became incarnate as a Jewish man of the first century, or that God chose a Roman form of crucifixion in order to accomplish the redemption of all humanity, and with it, the restoration of all creation. Some find it absurd that out of all the people on earth, God chose Abraham and his descendants in order to carry out his promise of redemption.

We can broaden this out even further. Some find it absurd by what they perceive to be an anthropocentric view of the universe. In other words, out of all solar systems in the galaxy, God chose this solar system on one of its outer arms. And out of all the stars he chose an ordinary yellow star. And out of all the planets in the universe, he chose planet earth to sustain human life in a certain way. And out of all various forms of life on earth, God chose to create us in his image.

In every one of these cases, God had many possible options. That God chose the particular ones that he did was never because of “our” works or that planet earth somehow “deserved” life. That God chose to do what he did where he did it highlights his freedom, and with it, most importantly, his graciousness and love as revealed in the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

(Special thanks to my colleague Paul Raabe for talking through all of this with me!)

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16 Comments

  1. Ralph Hough July 19, 2016
    Reply

    A wonderful treatment of an idea that will help me explain, and not be threatened by, the what if God did create life on another planet in another galaxy. With the thought that man is the crown of God’s creation (Ps. 8), and created in His image (Gen. 2)can a Christian expect to find someone like him/herself if there is life on another planet rather than another life form many put forth that may have greater intelligence? I, too, would be surprised if there were other life ‘out there’ since we know for certain Jesus’ came into the world to die for our sins and reconcile us to the Father with no direct mention of others on another planet/place where grace and salvation is needed!

    • Charles Arand July 19, 2016

      Thanks, Ralph. I agree with you that we need not be threatened or defensive about the possibility. You make a number of good additional points. In the meantime, I will leave the rest of the answered questions to God as he is the Creator and this is his creation.

  2. Steve Newton July 19, 2016
    Reply

    A very helpful response to a perennial question. Thanks!

  3. Ricky Beckett July 19, 2016
    Reply

    Thanks for taking the time to write about this. This is something that needs to be talked about as the secular realm continues to put their faith in the existence of extraterrestrial life. This is a great reminder for us to continue enduring in the faith. It was a great point that since God loves life, of course there might be life elsewhere in the universe; on one level, that shouldn’t surprise us. This wouldn’t change the salvation story of Jesus Christ. We are still God’s chosen priesthood and holy nation.

    Again, thanks for sharing.

  4. Rev. Warren Woerth July 21, 2016
    Reply

    Dear Brother,
    Thanks for the thoughtful post.
    I agree that IF there is life elsewhere in the universe, then God created it.
    However, I know of no evidence in Scripture that there are living creatures elsewhere in the universe. Do you?
    And so far there is no scientific evidence that there is life elsewhere in the universe. Extraterrestrial life is science fiction, not science fact.
    There is much speculation about life on other planets, and that speculation is very much rooted in the religious/philosophical belief in molecules-to-man evolution. News articles often say something like, “There may be liquid water on Mars, and where there is water, there is the possibility that life evolved.”
    There is water on earth, and there is life on earth, because God created it, not because of evolution. No one has ever observed a living creature arising from non-living matter. Indeed, the experiments of Louis Pasteur showed that water by itself does not spontaneously generate life. And no other human experiments since his time have ever even come close to producing life from non-living matter. And if anyone would ever succeed in producing life from non-living matter, it would prove creation by an intelligent designer, not unguided evolution.
    Romans 8 speaks of “the whole creation” being subject to bondage to decay/corruption as a result of man’s sin and also groaning as it awaits being set free in the Parousia. That would appear to be all-inclusive, wouldn’t it?
    Numerous Scriptural descriptions of the events surrounding Christ’s coming at the Last Judgment include the stars falling from heaven and the heavens being rolled up like a scroll. That would seem to indicate that the planets around other stars would be included in the cataclysmic events at the end, would it not?
    Here is a link to an interesting article by Dr. Danny Faulkner, who joined the staff of Answers in Genesis after more than 26 years of teaching physics and astronomy at the University of South Carolina.
    https://answersingenesis.org/astronomy/extrasolar-planets/just-right-for-life/
    He points out that earth really is uniquely suited for life.
    Peace & joy to you in Christ,
    Pastor Warren Woerth

    • Charles Arand July 25, 2016

      Dear Pastor Woerth,

      Thank you for your thoughts and comments. I appreciate the feedback!

      I agree that Scripture does not mention living creatures elsewhere in the universe. But then again, neither does Scripture preclude the possibility of life elsewhere. So I hesitate to make an argument from silence about whether or not life exists elsewhere in the universe. For what it’s worth, from my perspective, Scripture also does not mention that planets exist outside our solar system. Until 30 years ago, the thought was mostly a matter of speculation. In the last decade, thousands of exoplanets have been discovered (I think nearly 1300 planets last year alone). That’s partly why I posed it as a hypothetical possibility.

      I also agree with you that many of the suggestions for life are rooted in atheistic evolutionary thought. But I was trying to get at it from the standpoint of a possible discovery and not from the standpoint of predicting that life must exist elsewhere. In other words, “if some kind of life (say something as simple as algae) were to be discovered on another planet, how would we account for it?” Some would account for it as the result of evolution. I would account for it as God’s creation. Of course, “if there is life is a big if.” You are correct that many point out that the earth is finely tuned or uniquely suited for life. I’ve even heard it called the Goldilocks planet!

      Romans 8 is important for this discussion. One has to affirm that the fall affected the entire creation. Paul describes it as enslaved to corruption and decay. But what is the precise nature of that corruption and decay? Neither Genesis nor Paul give us many specific details (are supernovae part of the fall or God’s creatio continua?). And yes, the passing away of the present heaven and earth as they give way to the new heaven and earth.

      Finally, I think that, for me, these issues also go to our doctrine of God. I find Luther’s distinction between “God hidden” and “God revealed/proclaimed” to be quite helpful here. We are bound to what God has revealed about his relationship to us and his creation as our creator and redeemer. We cling to what God has done for us and made known to us in Christ. And we hold to this over and against what God has not revealed to us (as well as everything which seems to contradict his love). There is much that we do not know about God or God’s reasons for doing certain things or not doing certain things on earth or elsewhere in the universe. Ultimately, as the creator, God is not accountable to me his creature (e.g., Job). So, I am willing to be surprised by God and by what God may or may not be doing elsewhere in the universe. I know that it will be consistent with his Trinitarian revelation to us as set forth in Scripture and the creeds.

  5. Rev. Warren Woerth July 25, 2016
    Reply

    Dear Brother,
    Thanks for the thoughtful and well-written reply.
    I totally agree.
    My point was not to take you to task, but to point out that at this point (despite all the hype in the media) there is zero evidence for life outside of planet earth. If, however, life should be discovered elsewhere, we know that it, too, is a part of God’s creation. This should not shake our faith. But all of our thinking about this needs to be guided by God’s sure and certain revelation in Christ and His Word.
    And just as we hold to the truth that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father apart from Him, so also we hold to the truth of God’s account of creation — even if the secular world thinks that our belief is scandalously narrow-minded or out-dated.
    Peace and joy to you in Christ,
    Warren

    • Charles Arand July 25, 2016

      Hi, Warren! Hope it didn’t come across that I felt you were taking me to task. Not at all. You simply gave me an opportunity to think further about it…for which I thank you.

      Chuck

  6. Jim Fleming July 28, 2016
    Reply

    Mr. Arand,
    You’ve made many valid points, however, I feel that perhaps you’ve overlooked a few key things.

    1. There have NEVER been a reason for God to explain actions to anyone on earth – not even Donald Trump.

    2. According to what I THINK I’ve learned from reading the Bible there’s NOTHING to indicate that there are OTHER SINNERS anyplace in the universe except earth.

    3. God may have made everyone else in the universe like Himself, a Spiritual being and the planets that we see may actually be heaven. However, man in our need to control everything have decided that God will only do things in a manner acceptable to man’s thoughts and reasoning.

  7. Robert Burmeister July 28, 2016
    Reply

    Not to worry. There is no life as we know it on the planets in our solar system at this time (but looking for it puts claims on the USA budget). As for other galaxies, they are so distant and space travel as we know it so primitive and will be for the foreseeable future that even if scientists discovered signs of life it would be close to impossible to verify it on site (Too much Star trek and Star Wars fools the imagination). As for “little green men” visiting the earth, The first was a snake in the garden and the better angels while plentiful work in secret most of the time although at times they make a grand appearance. ie. the Lord’s birth and resurrection. Science is somewhat like a bottle of bubbles for children’s play. On one occasion Einstein said that the earth is like a child’s sandbox compared to the mysteries of space and the universe (God’s creation). Science is barely able to explain the simplest Quantum realities. ie, something can be in more than one place at the same time, etc. But Luther and the Reformation fathers knew this centuries ago. check out the Marburg Colloquy October 1529. +Peace+ .

  8. Rev Charles Sakpani T. July 29, 2016
    Reply

    Rev Dr. Charles Arand, we want to thank you for reflecting and providing some insights and nformation about questions that will soon rise to challenge the Christian theology. I met only one person in West Africa, Togo who amusingly asked a question about the belief of an existing planet with people with beliefs. I provided no answaers but I know the question is coming back. The Lord bless your work. Rev Sakpani Charles

  9. Doug Punke July 29, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you, brother Arand, for a thoughtful essay.

    I agree with you that we should not say too much about possibilities of extraterrestrial life for the Scripture does not mention it (except for the angels, of course). While the first verse of the Bible speaks to the creation of the universe, the second verse demonstrates that God’s interest in his special revelation is for us here on good ol’ planet earth, for us sinners who need salvation, for us who have been given a Savior, God’s Son, as His loving expression to redeem the whole cosmos (rightly translated world, I think) and give us eternal life, the Son who is the propitiation of the whole cosmos (world).

    With the field test of the new explanation of the catechism in our hands, it seems to me that the section on creation could have a bit more to say; not only about how we begin to assess competing origins accounts, but also how do we assess particular questions — like is there extraterrestrial life. I guess the question is: how does one do that briefly in a catechism?

    God bless your continued work.

  10. David Kruse July 30, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you so much, Charles for your article. Jesus said, “Seek, and ye shall find.” I appreciate your thoughts of seeking.
    Life in the universe is approximately infinite. NASA knows this. But NASA is a part of the government. At this time, the government prefers you not to know.
    Have you read about thought-based technologies like wheelchairs for the severely handicapped? The person thinks, and the chair moves. How fast do thoughts travel? Not at the speed of light; thoughts travel with infinite speed. (Of course! God promises to instantly hear our prayers, no matter where we might be.) So communications using thought-based technology can travel anywhere in the universe instantly.
    There is an organization of some five hundred relatively nearby inhabited planets that call themselves the Confederation of Planets in the Service of the infinite Creator.
    I have read thousands of pages of recorded conversations between humans and members of this organization.
    A wee bit of their “theology” can be summed up as follows. In the beginning there was God. God is love. While love of self is good, love is more complete when shared. So God created the universe and filled it with an amazing variety of life so that He could more fully experience love. If you desire a guide for your life, follow the teachings of Jesus who said “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” A life of love certainly includes compassion and forgiveness.

  11. Pastor Philip Spomer August 30, 2016
    Reply

    I don’t think this is any different from a European discovering people who live in the New World. All creation is fallen and in need of the Gospel. Proxima Ceturi is far away, but so is Jerusalem. Let’s recruit some interstellar evangelists.

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