As you may know from recent news releases, astronomers are excited to find 7 new earth-size planets orbiting around a star 40 light years from us. Of course 40 light years puts them way beyond our reach. It would take a space ship constructed with our current space technology 800,000 earth years to reach it. The main motivation for space exploration has always been our curiosity about ourselves, our origin, nature and destiny. So, we search for extra-terrestrial life or at least planets that could support life. Some people of faith are a bit skeptical or anxious about that possibility. So, I want to calm your fears.
What would it mean if space explorers found proof of extra-terrestrial life? Many people of an atheist bent would conclude that discovery of life elsewhere would disprove divine creation and prove that life here happened by chance. I suppose the argument would have to run like this: since we have another example of the evolution of life in the universe, we know that life on earth is not so unique and improbable that it requires a miracle to explain it. Instead, life tends to arise wherever in the universe conditions are right. And those conditions are not limited to earth. Hence we must assume that life arose on this planet by chance when the conditions made it possible.
Is this the only, or even the best, way to draw out the implications of such a discovery? I think the opposite is true. As long as earth life is the only instance of life we know, we could plausibly think of it as a freak accident unrelated to any purpose. Physical law made it possible, but chance made it actual. In truth, if we found life elsewhere it would make less plausible the idea that life on earth was a chance event. If we discovered that the universe was teaming with life, it would completely destroy the idea that life on earth came about by sheer chance. Why? Because it would demonstrate (at minimum) that the universe has a built in tendency to produce life, ultimately intelligent life. The occurrence of life could never again be attributed to pure chance. We would know it to be matter of law! The law of life would be as much a part of the universe as the law of gravity or any of the other fundamental forces. At its origin, the universe would have been programmed to produce life, to produce us. Producing intelligence is the universe’s goal. And when you and I think and dream and pray, we are enjoying the activity the universe has been aiming at from its origin! Our experience of our own minds is the most powerful telescope or microscope conceivable. It is a window into the beginning and end of all things.
But how could intelligence be the law and goal of the universe unless Intelligence was also present at the origin of the universe? As long as we think of the initial laws of our universe as mere regularities in a material universe—a rather unimaginative viewpoint—we did not have to raise the question of divine creation. But when intelligence comes to be considered an inbuilt aim–as the discovery of instances of ETL would force us to conclude–this explanation will no longer work. Intelligence is not a mere regularity but a real thing indicating the presence of a mind. If the goal of producing intelligent beings is part of the initial conditions of the universe, the only explanation of this fact I can imagine is that a super intelligence programmed it that way.
Hence far from believers have something to fear from the discovery of extra-terrestrial life, we should rejoice at its discovery and say to our atheist friends, “See, we told you this universe was created by Life for life, by Intelligence for intelligence.” It is the atheist who should hope that we are alone.
Good points! I think, though, that the main anxieties concerning the extra-terrestrial question for most Christians has to do with soteriology, not life-teleology of the universe. Would the other life forms be made in the image of God? Would they have fallen and be in need of redemption? Would Christ have to die again on their planet for that species’ salvation? All of this presupposes a preoccupation with getting “saved” to “go to heaven”, which I would problematize to begin with.
Yes. I suppose they would be concerned with soteriology. But that can be addressed. By becoming human the Son of God united himself savingly not only to humanity but to all creation. The Logos is the One through whom God created and creates all things everywhere. Also Jesus Christ is the savior to human beings who live and died before 30 AD and those on the other side of the planet at that time. There is no reason his life could not be the means of salvation of other intelligent life forms 40 or 1,000 light years from us. God and his word are omnipresent. If we ever meet…assuming they do not destroy us, we could tell them the story of Jesus.
Still, I think the concern I addressed is the one atheists would seize on, and we need some sort of answer to it. Thanks for reading this!
I agree that atheists wrongly assume that finding life beyond earth would prove their point. As you have said, it does not. I also like your approach that finding life elsewhere would demonstrate that life is designed, not the product of sheer chance. I do, however, think that it is necessary to define ‘intelligence’ when one speaks of ‘intelligent lifeforms’. Is that intelligence like ants, or like humans, or superior to humans? To share another perspective, somewhat in line with the first commenter, I do suspect that there will not ever be found soul-full life beyond earth (i.e. lifeforms in need of forgiveness from God).
You have written based on the distinction of ‘intelligent’ life, but I don’t think ‘intelligence’ can be sufficiently defined, nor do I think it a biblical distinction of different lifeforms. Dolphins are intelligent, in a true sense of the word (some suspect them to be the smartest animals on earth). I think (non-)intelligence cannot be strictly defined, it can only ever be used in relative terms, so it is not a good way to write about ET unless it’s been stated that we’re talking about intelligence relative to humans. I also think it’s wrong because God has not distinguished humanity from animals based on intelligence per se, but based on us being made in his image. That seems to be the sole biblical criteria for human vs animal. Ultimately, it means humans have a soul, and therefore we are need of forgiveness since Adam, our image-bearer, sinned. Animals do not need forgiveness, as far as I can tell from scripture.
Based on this soul/non-soul distinction (or we might say, image/non-image of God), I find it hard to agree that we will find other soul-full life in the universe that is also in need of salvation. This is based on verses like Hebrews 2:16-17: ‘For surely it is not the angels He helps, but the descendants of Abraham. So He had to be made like His brothers in every way, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, in order to make atonement for the sins of the people.’ i.e. Jesus had to be human solely because humans are the ones needing forgiveness.
You have rightly said that Jesus has united himself savingly with all creation (above post), but I would maintain that this is only because it is only humanity that is in need of forgiveness. The rest of creation is saved as a consequence of humanity’s redemption. The rest of creation is cursed, but not in rebellion like humanity is. Animals need the curse from the Fall removed, but only humanity needs a personal saviour.
So at this point I would also make a distinction in the nature of our plight. Humans are both under the curse AND needing forgiveness. The rest of creation is only under the curse. Jesus didn’t have to die as a dolphin as well, only as a human, and reconciling humanity was enough to allow the curse to be removed from all creation not in need of forgiveness. Thus the bible says all creation is now reconciled, implying on earth and everywhere in the universe (e.g. Colossians 1:20, Romans 8:21).
I see nothing in scripture to rule out finding microbes, animals, or even complex living biospheres like earth, elsewhere in the universe. I think that would actually be quite exciting (though I’m not holding my breath for it). But I do have trouble with the idea that we might find lifeforms in need of salvation elsewhere:
1 – Such life would have been cursed by humanity’s sin (since all creation has been cursed, Romans 8:22), but if they have their own souls and own free will, then cursing them for Adam’s sin on earth, despite their own free will, seems unjust, irrelevant and confusing to them (did God send them their own prophets to tell them that regardless of their free will and faithfulness to God, they are unfortunately now cursed because another species many light years away sinned and are now awaiting a saviour?)
2 – Such soul-full lifeforms would naturally be capable of sinning themselves (which would alleviate point 1 above if their ‘Adam’ and ours sinned at exactly the same time in universal history, thus they brought the curse on themselves too). But for them to have the opportunity of forgiveness, we conclude (based on Heb 2:17) that God would have to also become incarnate amongst them as one of them and die as one of them, but see point 3…
3 – Has not all creation already been reconciled to God by Jesus’ death as a human, thus ruling out the need for any other race in the universe to also be in need of forgiveness?
The only way around this that I can see is for there to be no possibility of soul-full ET sinning, so they cannot ever be in need of forgiveness. Otherwise how can all of creation be reconciled by Jesus’ death as a human here on earth? If ET cannot sin, then they are arguably not soul-full, not bearing a free will, i.e. they are not made in the image of God, and are hence just an animal (in need of God’s love and care, but not in need of his forgiveness).
So no matter which way I approach it I seem forced to conclude that IF life is found beyond earth, it can only ever be animals, plants, microbes and the like, which is fine, and the atheists should recognise that this is not anti-biblical, as you say. But I don’t think we can biblically find soul-full life elsewhere. Does this mean we won’t find ‘intelligent life’? If we use humans as the standard for ‘intelligence’, then I suspect so. God made humans the pinnacle of his creation (Psalm 8:5-6), and so having animals of superior intellect and capability to humans seems unlikely, to me.
Thanks for reading. I’m keen to hear your thoughts. I think this is an important question, as you too have said.
A very intelligent and thoughtful reply. I wanted to let you know I read it, but I’d like to think on it before I give you my thoughts.