[Update / Addendum 10/11/2011 – seethe third paragraph.]

I’m betting those of you who lurk on this blog have seen the recent spate (or is it semi-mindless repetition) of news stories about the impact an intelligent extraterrestrial reality would have on religion, particularly Christianity. Give the focus of this blog, you’re probably expecting me to be enthusiastic about the discussion. Actually, I find it irritating since what I’ve read to this point reflects such shallow and misguided thinking on the issue. But maybe I’ve just spent too much time thinking about it. I’ll vent a little here and let you decide.

One recent missive appeared on the Fox News website entitled, “Is Life On Other Planets Part of God’s Plan?” That’s actually a good question. I only wish the content was as good. The article begins by treating us to this insight from Dr. Jason Lisle, an astrophysicist associated with Answers in Genesis: “”The discovery of intelligent life from other planets would be a challenge to the Christian worldview.” Ugh. Correction, Dr. Lisle. It would only be a challenge to your particular Christian worldview. How can I be sure?  Two reasons.

First, theologians with commitments to all the cardinal theological tenets of Christianity have actually been thinking about the existence of other worlds since the days of Augustine, most often expressing enthusiasm in favor of the idea. The reason was largely the so-called “principle of plenitude” (i.e., to say God could not have created other worlds and other life forms on those worlds dishonors the fullness of His omnipotence). A lot has been published on this. Apparently no one interviewed for this article (Ted Peters excepted) knew that.1 That changed with the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution and its subsequent marriage to panspermia theory (life was seeded from space with the building blocks of life and then evolved). Any Christian today who accepts evolution (which need not also embrace human evolution, but many genuine Christians don’t care about that, either) wouldn’t be bothered by panspermia of an intelligent ET. There are other reasons why this isn’t a big deal, but I’ll hit those below. Second, I’ve actually been a guest speaker at a conference where I participated in a panel discussion with Gary Bates, also of Answers in Genesis, and he didn’t think an intelligent ET would overturn the faith, either. But Lisle’s response makes for good journalism since it creates tension (artificially).

[Update: Gary Bates’ organization emailed me shortly after this post for a clarification on Gary’s position: “[Gary] he does believe that intelligent sentient ET life would overturn the Gospel, as documented in http://creation.com/is-the-bible-falsifiable, his book Alien Intrusion (now updated and expanded), and in other places.”  Needless to say, I think this is an extraordinarily ill-reasoned position. If one is going to presume the Bible is invalidated because a discovery is made of something not in the Bible, then the Bible should have been abandoned when electricity, microwaves, blood cells, bacteria, etc. were discovered. – MSH]

The article proceeds an gets to Dr. Ted Peters. Anyone who has read with any depth on this knows Peters is a leader in this area. He raises the issue of panspermia by asking: “How can we be sure life began here on Earth?” This of course isn’t the real issue for the article, but it is raised to suggest the idea that if life evolved here it could evolve somewhere else–and the “else” could have been earlier (but need not be). If you are interested in panspermia, I recommend this paper I wrote some time ago.

The person who seems to be the most quoted in just about every article I’ve seen in the past week is philosophy professor Christian Weidemannof of Germany’s Ruhr-University Bochum. Speaking at the event that seems to have started all the chatter (the “100 Year Starship Symposium”), Weidemannof seemed to think ET life would create a dilemma if ET was capable of sinning. He said, “If there are extraterrestrial intelligent beings at all, it is safe to assume that most of them are sinners too … If so, did Jesus save them too? My position is no.” I’d have to agree with his “no” answer, but keep reading. The Bible is pretty clear that there are intelligent beings who can sin and are not under the atonement. The clearest example are demons (see Matt 25:41; Rev 12:9). And that brings us to the second article (actually a blog post) I’ll mention.

Over at the Science and Religion blog (subtitled “A View from an Evolutionary Creationist”) blogger Jimpithecus has a less enlightened quotation from Professor Weidemannof:

The death of Christ, some 2,000 years ago, was designed to save all creation. However, the whole of creation, as defined by scientists, includes 125 billion galaxies with hundreds of billions of stars in each galaxy. That means that if intelligent life exists on other planets, then Jesus or God would have to have visited them too, and sacrificed himself equally for Martian-kind as well as mankind.

The first part of this is coherent — Christ’s atonement covers all creation in some way (see Col. 1:15-20; esp. v. 20: “…reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”). The second part is not. Just because a being is intelligent does not mean (biblically speaking) that Christ would have to visit them and die on their planet. This is a common idea among Christian theologians who write on this topic, but it lacks any scriptural merit at all. Where is the biblical passage that says “intelligent beings need a substitutionary atoning death”? Again, demons are intelligent, and they are not the objects of atonement. Additionally, the animal and plant world are included in the “all things in heaven and earth” of Col 1:15-20, but there is no scriptural expectation that every plant and animal that has died after the Fall will be raised again to glory. Zero. Rather, the language there speaks to the idea that “everything in heaven and earth [i.e., the totality of reality to the ancient writer] will be made right or rectified in the end” because of Jesus’ work on the cross. Whether that means all my pets from childhood onward will be in the new earth (with ET) is pure speculation that has no specific anchor in the text of Scripture. My point is that Weidemannof’s statement is a non-sequitur, a conclusion that does not follow.

Jimpithecus’ post goes on to quote what I think is the terribly muddled thinking in Christianity that equates the soul with intelligence. This is frankly dangerous theology, at least if anyone espousing it gives an ET’s butt about abortion, for example. How is it that Roman Catholic thinkers, of all people, can draw this equation and then be firmly pro-life prior to brain development? Sorry, but the last time I checked, the conceptus cannot think (and has no emotions, language, sentience, ability to pray, etc., etc. – fill in the blank with all the lame “explanations” for what the image of God is here) and so, by this logic, would have no soul. And it does no good to say, “well, it has all the potential for a brain.” Great — now it’s potentially a human person. Kiss your first-trimester pro-life ethic goodbye with that thinking. That equation demolishes a pro-life ethic based on the image of God. (If it’s only potentially go the image of God, it’s only potentially sacred, so what would be wrong with aborting it?) We ought not go down that trail since the image of God is not a quality or attribute (despite what so many say, there is a better view based on Hebrew grammar in Gen 1:26).

The Vatican excerpt published by Jimpithecus isn’t any better, as it somehow equates baptism with salvation. Another Scripture alert: baptism has some connection to circumcision (Col 2:10-12) so guess what? If circumcision did not result in salvation, neither does baptism. Every Israelite was circumcised and “elect” — but there was this thing called the exile (discussed quite a bit in the Old Testament) where all the tribes of Israel apostasized and were unceremoniously destroyed for breaking God’s covenant — so, like, what happened to the salvation that came with circumcision? They were still circumcised when God disowned them. Hmmmm …. Maybe election doesn’t mean what so many think it means there ….and so the baptism equation goes down the tube with the circumcision error.

Lastly, Jimpithecus treats us to Ken Ham. Ham’s actually right about the baptism issue (it doesn’t bedtow salvation, so it’s irrelevant), but his wording seems to suggest that the fall made the whole universe sinful: “The Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe.” Well, it did “affect” the whole universe, but that need not mean some thing out there in the universe (ET) is sinful by definition (i.e., in need of making a “salvation decision” based on the work of Christ). Again, ET may just be exempt from this like any other terrestrial non-human life form. We just don’t know.

But the bottom line is this: While I’m sure lots of Christians would be freaked by it, an intelligent ET life form would not overturn Christianity’s apple cart. But when Christians swoon over books like “Your Best Life Know” like there’s deep theology in them there pages, that truth may not matter.

  1. The major book length treatments on the history of the religious discussion and debate on this issue are Michael Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, Antiquity to 1915: A Source Book (Univ of Notre Dame Press, 2008); Michael Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900 (Dover, 1999); Stephen Dick, Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (Cambridge, 1982) There are also many excellent journal articles on the subject that affirm Christianity would remain quite intact if there were ET life. To cite a few: Jacques Arnould, “Does Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life Threaten Religion and Philosophy?” Theology and Science 6:4 (2008): 439-450; Sjoerd Bonting, “Theological Implications of Possible Extraterrestrial Life,” Zygon 38:3 (2003): 587-602; Michael Crowe, “The Extraterrestrial Life Debate,” Zygon 32:2 (1997): 147-161; Thomas F. O’Meara (OP), “Christian Theology and Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life,” Theologcal Studies (1999): 3-30.