Reasons to Believe

A Spectrum of Views on ETI

by Sam Conner, Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, and Dr. Hugh Ross

The “Christian position” on extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) has been a matter of debate since the time of Thomas Aquinas.1, 2 Scholars have taken sides for various biblical reasons. Those who believe ETI exists see it as a display of God’s omnipotence and creativity. They argue that God reveals something of the extent of His power by creating many life-sustaining planets and populating them with intelligent life. A God who so obviously enjoys creating would not, they suggest, limit Himself to just one planet and its array of intelligent beings.

Those who believe no ETI exists base their view largely on Scriptures about the incarnation and redemption. They highlight the Hebrews passage, for example, declaring that Jesus, the author of all creation, sacrificed Himself “once for all,” not again and again in world after world.3

In recent decades, C. S. Lewis addressed the issue. He made no theological pronouncements on the ETI question, though he included extra-terrestrials in his fictional works, particularly in Out of the Silent Planet.4 He argues that the existence of ETI is, and must remain, an open question:

We know that God has visited and redeemed His people, and that tells us just as much about the general character of the creation as a dose given to one sick hen on a big farm tells us about the general character of farming in England. . . . It is, of course, the essence of Christianity that God loves man and for his sake became man and died. But that does not prove that man is the sole end of nature. In the parable, it was one lost sheep that the shepherd went in search of: it was not the only sheep in the flock, and we are not told that it was the most valuable—save insofar as the most desperately in need has, while the need lasts, a peculiar value in the eyes of Love. The doctrine of the Incarnation would conflict with what we know of this vast universe only if we knew also there were other rational species in it who had, like us, fallen, and who needed redemption in the same mode, and they had not been vouchsafed it. But we know of none of these things.5

Lewis dryly commented on atheists’ attempts to use both sides of the ETI debate as a weapon against Christian faith:

If we discover other bodies, they must be habitable or uninhabitable: and the odd thing is that both these hypotheses are used as grounds for rejecting Christianity. If the universe is teeming with life, this, we are told, reduces to absurdity the Christian claim—or what is thought to be the Christian claim—that man is unique, and the Christian doctrine that to this one planet God came down and was incarnate for us men and our salvation. If, on the other hand, the earth is really unique, then that proves that life is only an accidental by-product in the universe, and so again disproves our religion. Really, we are hard to please.5

Lewis wrote, of course, before the discovery of the anthropic principle—the observation that the universe and the solar system reflect the exacting characteristics essential for life. He wrote before research began to expose the limits and implausibilities of naturalism. He lived and wrote before astronomers began cataloguing distinct characteristics of the universe (now up to 34) that must be fine-tuned for any kind of physical life to be possible at any time in the history of the universe. He knew little if anything about the 75 characteristics of our galaxy and solar system that must be carefully fashioned to explain Earth’s capacity to support life.6 Given two sets of odds, first the odds that these characteristics would all come together by random processes (less than 1 in 1 with 77 zeros after it), and second the odds that life could arise even on a suitably configured planet by random processes (less than 1 part in 1 with one billion zeros after it),7 Lewis would have had no difficulty backing the assertion that if life exists anywhere in the cosmos, God is its creator.

Odds as remote as 1 in 10100,000,000,000 suggest that life’s existence anywhere represents an incomparable display of power. To multiply it by a few or even many orders of magnitude makes little difference to the human mind and grasp of reality. As for God’s enjoyment of the creative process, Scripture tells us of His plans for ongoing creative expression. Jesus speaks of the new creation to come and John the Beloved sees a startling preview of it. According to Revelation 20-22, when God completes His conquest of evil, He will display His power and creativity in the making of a new physical universe. God has at least one more creation week, perhaps many more creation weeks, blocked out on His calendar.

One biblical hint that human life (intelligent, physical, and spiritual) exists only on planet Earth comes from 1 Corinthians 4. In this chapter we are told that the angels watch events on Earth, human life in particular, to learn the meaning of God’s grace, to observe His conquest of evil. This singular focus suggests, though it certainly does not prove, that the universe is a one-classroom rather than multi-classroom school for God’s creatures, terrestrial and non-terrestrial.

The distinction between human life and other forms of life may be significant to this discussion. Christian doctrines of incarnation, redemption, and grace apply to humanity, to body-soul-spirit creatures subject to sin. If God chose to display all manner of His power and creativity in making plants and animals, even creatures as advanced as birds and mammals, and their appropriate habitats, He certainly could do so without repeating the incarnation and atonement.

The Christian worldview distinguishes between ETI and ETIS (extraterrestrial intelligent spiritual life). Intelligence does not place humanity in need of a Savior. Our spirituality—more accurately, our spiritual “fall”—does. Intelligent creatures devoid of sin existing on any other planet(s) in no way impact Christian doctrine, as C. S. Lewis points out.

Questions about ETI provide a wonderful opportunity for Christians to discuss what the Bible does tell us about life beyond terrestrial life: His life, our future life, and His pre-terrestrial creatures called angels. The Bible says that before God created human beings He created another kind of life.8 Angels, intelligent and spiritual creatures, are not confined to the space-time manifold of the universe (hence, non-terrestrial or extraterrestrial.) The Bible also reveals that some of these creatures rebelled against God, experiencing an eternal, irreversible fall, and remain God’s enemies. Their existence and motives make the search for ETI spiritually dangerous. Without spiritual discernment and protection, scientists engaged in the ETI search could find themselves communicating with fallen angels rather than with physical extra-terrestrials.

So far, the search for ETI (commonly referred to as SETI) has yielded one significant finding. As an article in the most recent issue of Facts & Faith indicates, SETI has virtually eliminated the possibility that our galaxy contains hundreds of thousands of planets populated by technologically advanced societies.9 This limit, though it tells us little, at least poses a serious challenge to Mormon teachings about life on planets all around us.

We see room for differences in the Christian community on the issue of ETI because the Bible itself leaves room for such differences. The three of us hold differing views but these in no way affect our friendship or partnership in ministry. Each of us remains openly committed to adjust our views in light of future research and Scripture study. We hope you do too.

References:

1. The acronym “ETI” is a recent one employed primarily in the scientific literature. Over the centuries, the debate has been framed using the phrases, “plurality of worlds,” “principle of mediocrity,” and “principle of plenitude.”
2. S. J. Dick, Plurality of the Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 23-43. Note that Aquinas held to the uniqueness of Earth.
3. Hebrews 9:23-28, 10:9-14, The Holy Bible, New International Version.
4. C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner, 1996).
5. C. S. Lewis, “Dogma and the Universe,” in The Grand Miracle and Other Essays on Theology and Ethics from ‘God in the Dock,’ ed. by W. Hooper (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990), p. 14.
6. Hugh Ross, “Design Evidences in the Cosmos” (a Reasons To Believe monograph, 1998).
7. Robert Shapiro, Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth (New York: Summit Books, 1986), p. 128.
8. Job 38:4-7, The Holy Bible, New International Version.
9. Hugh Ross, “ET’s Not Home,” Facts & Faith, v. 10, n. 4 (1996), pp. 5-6.

Mr. Conner is nearing completion of his doctoral dissertation in astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Gonzalez is an astronomer at the University of Washington.

Subjects: Astronomy and the Bible, Extrasolar Planets, Habitable Planets, Life on Other Planets, SETI, Space Travel, TCM - Life's Origin

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. Read more about Dr. Hugh Ross.