According to the popular narrative, Copernicus’s assertion that the earth orbited the sun started a relentless process of scientific discovery serving to remove any thought that humanity occupied a special place in the universe. Earth was not the center of the solar system, the sun was not the center of the galaxy, and the Milky Way was not the center of the universe. Many take this idea even further to claim that Earth, including the life inhabiting it, is completely mediocre in every way. The discovery of any kind of life—especially intelligent life—beyond the confines of Earth would forever falsify the notion that humanity has any claim of specialness.
Associated with this line of reasoning, many believe that the discovery of extraterrestrial life (ET) would clearly demonstrate that many of the world’s religions, particularly Christianity, cannot be true. After all, the Bible mentions nothing about life beyond Earth! So, the discovery of ET would disprove Christianity, right? It’s possible, but not likely.
How Would ET Affect Christianity?
The type of ET found influences the answer. Few, if any, theologians would have any concerns about finding microbial life on a distant exoplanet. From a theological perspective, the Bible makes no explicit claims about how God originated life on Earth. However, Genesis 1:2 may imply that God created life early in Earth’s history and then protected it during an era when conditions on the planet were rather hostile for any living thing. A discovery of microbial ET would raise questions regarding the origin of life and whether it requires anything beyond the normal operation of the physical laws governing our universe. It may be that God created a universe where life arises by naturalistic processes, but one can make a strong case based on our best scientific understanding that the origin of life and the development of Earth’s life-friendly conditions both require divine intervention.
Microbial ET represents the more likely find, but the more theologically interesting discovery would be intelligent ET (like humanity that is “made in God’s image”). The Bible is largely silent on the issue of intelligent ET (at least the physical kind), so the dominant position in historic Christian thought is that humanity represents the only intelligent physical life in the universe. Just as people have speculated on the existence of intelligent ET for centuries, theologians have also contemplated how such a finding would interact with historic Christian thought. The following are some of the proposals offered, in no particular order. All of these options, except for the last one, assume that God created intelligent life on other worlds and these creatures chose to rebel against God like humanity did.
6 Theological Theories concerning Alien Life
1. Jesus’s incarnation, death, and resurrection here on Earth were singularly important happenings that resulted in redemption for all intelligent ET. Perhaps humanity will spread throughout the universe, taking the gospel to all these creatures. Or maybe God reveals himself on each of these planets in a way that declares what Jesus accomplished on Earth. This option does present at least one difficulty. The Bible describes Jesus as the second Adam, meaning that both are related physically and in nature. Any intelligent ET in this scenario has no physical relation (and maybe not even in nature) to Jesus.
2. Jesus becomes incarnate on each planet where creatures rebel, taking on the nature of the beings, created by God, on that planet. While God created humanity in his image, perhaps his creations on other planets have a nature that reflects God’s image in different ways. Given the description of the hypostatic union offered by Thomas Aquinas, the addition of other natures besides Jesus’s human one seems plausible.
3. The nature of the rebellion of any intelligent ET results in God having another means of redemption for them. Given that God has only revealed the redemption plan for humanity, any proposals for what these other redemption paths look like are pure speculation.
4. No redemption is possible. This option seems the most offensive to human sensibilities, specifically because of the difficulty of reconciling it with God’s goodness, omniscience, and power. Some would object that an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God cannot create beings subject to eternal hell. In fact, many raise the same objection in the context of humanity. However, a few points warrant mention. First, our finite minds cannot comprehend all that God knows. Second, true free will has consequences. While God is good in his nature, he is also just. Although this option seems offensive, it does have precedent in the Bible. Angels had a choice to either serve God or Lucifer. No offer of redemption exists for those angels who followed Lucifer.
5. God created intelligent life with free will, but these creatures chose not to follow in humanity’s rebellion. Lacking any violation of God’s command, these creatures have no need of redemption. They already enjoy proper relationship with God. C. S. Lewis explores this idea in his Space Trilogy.
6. One final, and very real, possibility: God only created one intelligent creature in the entire universe. If so, then the redemption story of life on Earth is the story of the universe, and this discussion becomes moot.
Science and Theology’s Common Ground
A common objection scientists level against Christianity, and religion in general, is its lack of testability. Stated another way, they charge that Christianity is so flexible and vague that nothing could ever falsify it. Ironically, many people (Christians and non-Christians alike) think that finding intelligent ET would falsify Christianity. The discussion above identifies a number of ways that historic Christian theology would incorporate the discovery of intelligent ET. But doesn’t the wide number of options just validate the charge of inordinate flexibility and vagueness?
Actually, scientists consider that property a virtue. Consider a topic investigated extensively by the scientific community over the last hundred years: What is the proper interpretation of quantum mechanics? One might think that this a settled question considering that quantum mechanics is one of the two most successful scientific models ever developed (the other is general relativity). A quick perusal of the literature reveals that many different interpretations exist for the underlying nature of quantum mechanics. The breadth of options on this topic represents the remarkable efforts of many scientists to address a difficult question. Developing a range of interpretations helps scientists to know the experiments that will distinguish which interpretation best represents reality. Similarly, a range of models for ET’s redemption help theologians discern underlying details of God’s redemptive story.
Einstein’s development of his theory of relativity did not prove Newton wrong. Newtonian dynamics still properly describes the motion of the vast majority of objects through space. Einstein’s relativity just gives a more complete picture. Assuming that we find intelligent ET (and that’s a BIG if), the discovery would not invalidate the historic Christian understanding of redemption. Like Einstein’s relativity, it would give us a more complete picture. Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection still provide the only means of redemption for fallen humans, but maybe God’s redemption narrative encompasses more than just humanity.
The search for intelligent ET raises great scientific and theological questions. And the discoveries made in that search will help us understand the universe better as well as how we relate to the God who created it all.