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!)