Flying saucers, aliens, abductions, and channeled messages. In a scientifically enlightened age, global interest in UFOs shows no signs of waning. How can Christians-or non-Christians-evaluate this phenomenon?
Respected polls reveal that half of all adult Americans believe UFOs are real and 12% claim to have seen one.1 Credible UFO experts estimate the number of alleged sightings worldwide in recent decades to be perhaps in the millions.2
This fascination has given rise to a number of UFO religions or cults, including the Aetherius Society, the Unarius Academy of Science, and the Raelian Movement. The Aetherius Society and the Raelian Movement have claimed more than several thousand members at their peak. The Heaven's Gate cult received wide press attention following the mass suicide of 39 of its members in 1997. The group believed that by committing suicide they would join a flying saucer trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
The beliefs of UFO cults are centered on three ideas: (1) flying saucers are physical crafts, (2) people receive channeled messages from alien intelligences associated with flying saucers, and (3) these messages are of immense importance. These groups have an occult ancestry and engage in various occult practices.
While it may be tempting to dismiss the phenomenon as the captivation of eccentric or sectarian groups, most UFO reports come from average people. And while UFO experts estimate between 90 and 95% of all reported UFOs are either natural phenomena, hoaxes, or man-made crafts, some 5 to 10% defy such explanations.
Three popular explanatory hypotheses have been proffered in an attempt to explain these residual UFOs (RUFOs).
The Misidentified Hypothesis (MIH): This position asserts that if 90-95% of UFO reports have natural or human explanations then maybe all of them can be so explained. Cornell astronomer and popular science writer Carl Sagan reflected this view: "Although it is not possible to prove that all UFOs are misapprehended natural phenomena, there are no compelling reasons to believe otherwise."3
The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH): This view states that UFOs are physical realities (literal spacecrafts) piloted by interplanetary visitors. These space aliens represent what is thought to be a vastly advanced civilization (technologically, and possibly morally and spiritually) that studies mankind, and will, at the appropriate time, make contact with humanity. Outspoken advocate of the ETH, Stanton Friedman remarks "the evidence is overwhelming that some UFOs are alien spacecraft."4
The Interdimensional Hypothesis (IDH): This theory holds that UFOs are a real phenomenon that may exhibit physical and empirical effects, but whose origin and nature belongs not to extraterrestrial spacecraft, but to another dimension of reality beyond our time-space continuum. Sometimes described as the paranormal/occult view of UFOs, some UFO experts (especially Christian) have ascribed a demonic interpretation to this alleged extra-dimensional presence. Such leading secular UFO experts as Jacques Vallée have argued for a correspondence between the UFO phenomenon and the occult or demonology.5
Using what logicians call abductive reasoning, the best explanatory hypothesis is balanced between complexity and simplicity, is coherent, corresponds to the facts, avoids presumptions, is testable, and thus has true explanatory power. In applying this approach to UFOs it is evident that all views have their difficulties. Nevertheless, while the vast majority of UFOs have natural explanations (possibly 99%), RUFOs consistently defy a natural explanation. So the MIH does not explain all the data. The ETH, which calls for traversing vast distances of interstellar space, exhibiting behavior that violates the laws of physics, and sustaining untold numbers of spacecrafts, is scientifically, technologically, and logically untenable. The IDH also has weaknesses (physicality of reports, difficulty in validating psychic-like phenomena), but seems to offer the most explanatory power. RUFO-related phenomena strike an objective person as being real, but not physical, being deceptive in nature, and possibly malevolent in intent. Also, a biblical case can be made that RUFOs reflect a demonic influence. One should be cautious, however, about drawing any hard and fast conclusions about UFO phenomena.
Christians can communicate several things when engaging the culture in UFO discussions. First, in the highly improbable event the existence of physical extraterrestrials will be proven, this development would not disprove Christianity. The Bible reveals God created all things, regardless of where they reside. The God of the Bible is not a mere Earth-based deity, but is the transcendent Lord of the entire cosmos. Second, RUFOs are for the most part a religious phenomenon and religious beliefs have real consequences, as was evidenced in the case of the Heaven's Gate cult. And third, historic Christianity provides powerful and livable answers to life's ultimate questions, and those answers are more convincing than anything RUFO phenomena can provide.