In 2015, I wrote a brief article for this website which examines what might be the implications for Christians should there be conclusive evidence that extraterrestrial intelligent life (ETI) does exist in our vast universe. The recent report issued by the Pentagon about its investigations into numerous sightings of Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon or UAP as they are now called (‘UFO’ has fallen out of favour and even maligned, thanks to the proliferation of conspiracy theories and New Age mania) has prompted me to write another — slightly longer — article on the topic.
In August last year, David Norquist, the US Deputy Secretary of Defense, revealed for the first time the existence of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. In the same year, the US$2.3 trillion omnibus spending and coronavirus-relief package was passed by Congress. Of the many stipulations in this package is one which — curiously — required the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of Intelligence to deliver by the end of June a report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon to Congress.
The long-awaited report was duly published on Friday, 25 June. It examined 144 reports of UAP and was able to find an explanation for only one incident. Here are the salient points from the nine-page report.
- It confirms that the UAP captured by various military instruments were physical objects. ‘Most of the UAP reported probably do represent physical objects given that a majority of the UAP were registered across multiple sensors, to include radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers, and visual observation.’
- The report also stated that a number of UAP appear to demonstrate advanced technology. ‘In 18 incidents, described in 21 reports, observers reported unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics. Some UAP appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernible means of propulsion. In a small number of cases, military aircraft systems processed radio frequency (RF) energy associated with UAP sightings.’
- Limited data and inconsistencies in reporting pose key challenges to evaluating UAP, leaving most UAP unexplained. ‘The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP.’
- Many of the UAP sightings were ‘clustered’ around US training and testing grounds, a cause of great concern for security professionals. But the report tries to downplay these concerns: ‘UAP sightings also tended to cluster around U.S. training and testing grounds, but we assess that this may result from a collection bias as a result of focused attention, greater numbers of latest-generation sensors operating in those areas, unit expectations, and guidance to report anomalies.’
The report stated that UAP ‘probably lack a single explanation.’ It could be technologies developed by other nations such as Russia or China, or even natural phenomena like ice crystals. But the report does not rule out the possibility that some of the UAP are of extraterrestrial origin, even though it avoids mention of such possibilities. A Reuters article states that ‘Analysts have yet to rule out an extraterrestrial origin, senior U.S. officials told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.’
Speculations about the existence of extraterrestrial life can be traced to antiquity, to the very beginnings of Greek philosophy. The atomists believed in the plurality of worlds and were thus open to the possibility of life on other planets. The Aristotelians, on the other hand, in postulating that human beings inhabit a closed cosmos with the Earth as its centre, ruled out this possibility altogether.
Although theology in the medieval period generally dismissed the possibility of extraterrestrial life, influenced as it was by Aristotelian philosophy, there were notable exceptions. In his fascinating article entitled ‘A History of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate’, Michael Crowe alludes to Guillame de Vaurouillon, a fifteenth century Franciscan, who was arguably the ‘first author who raised the question whether the idea of a plurality of worlds is compatible with central Christian notions of a divine incarnation and redemption.’
Even in our time, consensus among scientists and theologians on this issue remains elusive. For example, Antonio Lazcano, a biologist and former chairman of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, is determined to separate science from fiction (he includes theology in the latter category). In his 2012 article published in Nature entitled ‘Astrobiology: Frontier or Fiction’, Lazcano writes:
The search for life beyond Earth is a legitimate scientific question and an alluring intellectual endeavour that can best be served by keeping healthy distance from science-fiction scenarios and from theological musings that somewhat surprisingly find their way into astrobiological meetings.
Some Christians are also sceptical about the existence of ETI, since there is no mention of an alien race in the Bible. There are, however, a number of Christian theologians such as Ted Peters, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Thomas O’Meara and David Wilkinson, who insist that we must not be too quick to dismiss the existence of intelligent alien life.
Atheist writers have long asserted that Christianity and its sacred text — the Bible — would be irredeemably discredited once there is conclusive evidence that ETI exist.
For example, philosopher Hans Blumenberg has maintained that the ‘realisation of the hope for interstellar communication would necessarily result in the death of Christianity as well as of any religion.’ The physicist and astrologist, Paul Davies, agrees. He writes: ‘The existence of extra-terrestrial intelligences would have a profound impact on religion, shattering completely the traditional perspective of God’s special relationship with man.’
Christian authors, such as Father T.J. Zubek, take a different perspective on the possible challenge that ETI may pose to religion, especially Christianity. Zubek writes:
If we understand that our way of encountering the universe and our views of spirituality only begin to express a range of ways intelligent beings deal with Ultimate Reality; we are guaranteed to gain something very powerful: a more humble, more realistic, and yet paradoxically more complete and more extensive understanding of our own place in the universe.
In other words, far from signally the demise of Christianity, the discovery of ETI would enable Christians to more fully appreciate the vastness and wonder of the universe that God has created, and their special place in it.
Be that as it may, there is no denying that the possible existence of ETI does pose serious challenges to Christian theology. It will require Christians to re-envision important theological themes such as creation, revelation, sin, salvation and the incarnation. And much of this re-envisioning would be speculative, since it will be based on analogical extrapolations on what we know about God’s dealing with human beings from Scripture and tradition.
In the rest of this article, I would like to briefly reflect on some of the questions that the existence of ETI would raise and how they might challenge our understanding of the central tenets of the Christian faith.
THE BIBLE AND ETI
One of the reasons why some Christians shy away from any discussion about ETI is that the Bible is completely silent about their existence. That is why, as we saw earlier, philosophers like Blumenberg could confidently assert that solid evidence of ETI would ‘destroy’ Christianity.
The subject of the biblical narratives is almost exclusively confined to planet Earth and the creatures that live in it, including the unique creatures that were made in the image and likeness of their Creator. There is not the slightest hint in the Scriptures that there are other races inhabiting distant planets or galaxies in the universe.
Furthermore, the biblical narrative seems to suggest that there are only two groups of intelligent beings in the entirety of God’s creation, namely, humans and angels (including demons). Thus, even the most speculative of the theologians in the early history of the Church, Origen, who postulated a variety of creatures and intelligences in the universe, worked primarily within these two categories. As Thomas O’Meara has rightly observed: ‘Clearly Origen sees a variety of creatures in the universe, but ultimately he follows Jewish and Christian traditions and divides them into angels and humans.’
If there are other intelligent life in the universe, why, some ask, did the Bible not offer any clues to their existence? Why, in comparison, is there so much data on angels and demons? Could this be because ETI in fact don’t exist?
This has led some Christians to argue quite categorically that the silence of the Bible about the existence of intelligent alien life simply means that God has not created such creatures. They simply don’t exist. For example, the Christian Answers Network declares that:
the Bible does not teach that intelligent life exists elsewhere in our universe. Although our all-powerful God could have created such life has he desired, it seems rather obvious from Scripture that he did not.
This is the position of the Russian Orthodox Church. For example, in an interview with Rossiya-24 television channel, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev said: ‘If civilisations really existed on other planets, our Holy Scripture, the Bible would say something about that. If it doesn’t say anything about it, we assume that they don’t exist.’ In fact, the Metropolitan went further to suggest — in agreement with a theory proposed by Hieromonk Seraphim Rose in his book Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future — that people who allegedly saw aliens actually saw demons.
Of course we could respond to the question about the silence of the Bible on intelligent aliens by pointing out that the Bible does not mention many things that we find in creation. It does not mention galaxies and genes, atoms and chromosomes. It is silent about the sea anemone and the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Yet, when science discovers that these things exist, Christians have no problems accepting them as belonging to God’s complex and wonderful creation.
Should the same not apply to intelligent aliens, if they exist?
Now, if ETI do in fact exist, then questions must be asked about the particularity of God’s special revelation, which took place on a small planet at a very brief period in its history. Andreas Losch and Andreas Krebs put it this way:
Why should a complex corpus of narrative, moral, legal, hymnic, prophetic and wisdom traditions relating to the destiny of a small people in a remote area of the Earth during a tiny piece of time have any concern with cosmic matters?
The relevance of God’s special revelation on planet Earth for other worlds is thus called to question. And the particularity of God’s revelation and his salvific acts in Christ will become so much more scandalous if intelligent aliens residing in other planets and galaxies exist.
While the biblical narrative is provincial in scope (and intentionally so), the claims of Scripture, Christians believe, are universal. Genesis 1, John 1 and Colossians 1 clearly emphasise that God is the Creator of the whole universe, the maker of all reality, both physical (material) and spiritual.
Paul writes thus about Christ in Colossians 1:16: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.’
These passages stress that God is not just the Creator of planet Earth, but of the entire cosmos. And even though intelligent life on other planets and galaxies is not mentioned in the Bible, what is implied is that if they do exist, God has created them and they come under his sovereignty and authority.
On the question of the provincialism and particularity of special revelation, we may say that just as the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (a first century Jew who lived Palestine) has universal significance for humankind across time and geography, so this revelation is also relevant to alien beings in the universe, across the galactic divide.
Of course, God may reveal himself to these alien beings in different ways. We will discuss the question of the possibility of multiple incarnations below. But the point to be made here is that the provincialism and particularity of God’s special revelation do not preclude its universal significance and relevance.
SIN AND SALVATION
We turn now to the question of sin and salvation among intelligent alien life. We will work on the assumption that because they are intelligent beings, these extraterrestrial creatures are capable of relationships and moral judgement. This implies that they are capable of having a relationship with God, one which is based on creaturely freedom and response. And this in turn suggests the possibility (but not the actuality) of rebellion against and alienation (pun not intended!) from their Creator.
In a recent book entitled Cosmology in Theological Perspective, the Finnish theologian Olli-Pekka Vainio suggests four possible scenarios with regard to the question of sin and salvation among intelligent aliens.
The first possibility is that these aliens did not rebel against God and therefore have no need for salvation. There was therefore no primordial fall in these alien worlds and their inhabitants enjoy the intimate relationship with God that Adam and Eve would also have enjoyed had they not eaten from the tree. In his space trilogy, C.S. Lewis imagined some such scenario with respect to intelligent beings residing in Mars and Venus who did not sin against their Creator.
The second possible scenario is that although these intelligent aliens have rebelled against God and are therefore fallen, their relationship with God is so different from ours that we are unable to envision what salvation for them might entail. The Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas O’Meara, makes this point when he writes:
The ways in which supernatural life touches sensate intellect and will, the modes of contact in revelation may be quite diverse, and it is a mistake to think that our understanding of ‘covenant’, the ‘reign of God’, ‘redemption’, or ‘shared life’ exhausts the modes by which divine power shares something of its infinite life.
The third possibility is that these alien creatures have fallen and that their redemption is included in what Christ has accomplished when he died on the cross on planet Earth. These theologians hold that God has only one plan of salvation for the whole universe and that he has chosen to execute it through the eternal Son’s incarnation as a human being on Earth and his human death on the cross. This redemptive plan could have been made known to fallen aliens through special revelation.
And the fourth possibility is that intelligent aliens from billions of exoplanets have indeed fallen, and God brings salvation to them through multiple incarnations. Some theologians who favour this view have pointed out that it is arrogant to hold that God’s redemptive plan for the human race that is carried out on planet Earth applies to alien races across the universe as well. In other words, these theologians reject the third possibility which postulates only one incarnation because it is simply too anthropocentric and geocentric.
Whichever scenario we think is most probable would depend very much on how we answer some basic questions. Is the history of sin and salvation recorded in the Old and New Testaments the history of one planet (Earth) or the history of the entire universe?
In Revelation 13:6, we read that Jesus is the Lamb that was ‘slain from the creation of the world.’ The Greek that is translated as ‘world’ is cosmos. It is also sometimes translated as ‘universe’. Did John have planet Earth in mind when he wrote these words, or the whole creation?
The list of questions similar to these can easily be expanded.
We come now to the question of the incarnation of the second person of the triune Godhead. As Scripture and the creeds testify, the incarnation is a central and therefore non-negotiable tenet of the Christian faith. But how should we think of the incarnation, which has both revelatory and salvific significance, in relation to the possible existence of intelligent alien life in our immense universe?
Some authors are of the view that if these alien worlds are fallen like ours, then separate and unique incarnations must take place in each of these worlds. In other words, these Christian philosophers and theologians are open to the possibility of multiple incarnations.
Some of these theologians ground their arguments on the ancient Patristic axiom: ‘What is not assumed is not healed.’ Thus, in order to heal or bring salvation to extraterrestrials, Christ must assume alien flesh just as he assumed ours. As the late John Polkinghorne speculates:
Theology does not altogether know what to think about extraterrestrial possibilities. God’s creative purposes may well include “little green men” as well as humans, and if they need redemption we may well think that the Word would take little green flesh just as we believe the Word took our flesh.
O’Meara also considered the possibility of multiple incarnations, making the point that these would accommodate the uniqueness and particularities of different alien beings. He argues that extraterrestrial ‘incarnations would correspond to the forms of intelligent creatures with their own religious quests.’
The philosopher of religion, John Hick, also entertained this possibility when he writes: ‘God would become incarnate more than once — and, indeed, in principle, an indefinite number of times — for the sake of separate groups of people … on other planets of other stars.’
Many theologians have found the idea of multiple incarnations attractive. Apart from the theologians I have already mentioned, other Protestant writers who are open to this concept include Paul Tillich, Lewis Ford and Marilyn McCord Adams. Roman Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner, Teilhard de Chardin, and Yves Congar also favour this idea.
However, theologians such as Mark Worthing are of the view that the work of the incarnate Christ on Earth is sufficient for the salvation of the whole of creation. As Worthing puts it,
If there is another intelligent life in the universe then God relates it through Christ — the same Christ through whom God reconciles us to Godself. I do not believe Christian theology can posit a multiplicity of Christs and remain Christian theology.
These theologians may have taken their cue from the sixteenth century Reformer, Philip Melanchton, who argues that:
The Son of God is one: our master Jesus Christ, coming forth in this world, died and was resurrected only once. Nor did he manifest himself elsewhere, nor has he died or been resurrected elsewhere. We should not imagine many worlds because we ought not imagine that Christ died and was risen often; nor should it be thought that in any other world the knowledge of the Son of God that people would be restored to eternal life.
This teaching is echoed by contemporary theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg. In the second volume of his magisterial Systematic Theology Pannenberg argues persuasively that:
It is hard to see … why discovery of non-terrestrial intelligent beings should be shattering to Christian teaching. If there were such discoveries, they would, of course, pose the task of defining theologically the relation of such-beings to the Logos incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, and therefore to us. But the as yet problematic and vague possibility of their existence in no way effects the credibility of the Christian teaching that in Jesus of Nazareth the Logos who works throughout the universe became a man and thus gave humanity and its history a key function in giving to all creation its unity and destiny.
This is the position that I hold because the New Testament speaks about the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ for salvation of sinners and the transfiguration of the whole of creation.
What about the Patristic axiom, ‘What is not assumed is not healed’? To answer this question we have to clarify what is the significance of the incarnation.
Space does not allow me to develop this here, but I am of the view that although in the incarnation, the second Person of the Godhead assumed human flesh, the act signals Christ’s solidarity with all of God’s creatures, terrestrial and extraterrestrial.
Thus, through his death and resurrection, the incarnate Son did not just redeem human beings, or God’s rational creatures. He redeemed the whole of God’s creation, the entire cosmos. Multiple incarnations are therefore not necessary. Theologians should not be cowed by allegations that the single-incarnation view smacks of pre-Copernican Earth chauvinism or geocentricism.
I think we should learn from early Church Fathers like Irenaeus, who has presented one of the most profound understanding of the significance of the incarnation. For Irenaeus, the Son of God became flesh in order to make the creation itself cruciform:
He is himself the Word of almighty God, who in his invisible form pervades us all and encompasses the breadth and length, the height and depth, of the whole world, for by God’s Word all things are guided and ordered. Now God’s Son was also crucified in them, since he has imprinted the form of the Cross on the universe. In becoming visible, he had to reveal the participation of the Cross on the universe.
The Lutheran theologian at the University of Copenhagen, Neils Henrik Gregersen, aptly calls this Ireneaen view ‘deep incarnation’. The Roman Catholic theologian, Peter M. J. Hess offers this arresting account of ‘deep incarnation’:
… in the person of Jesus God took on the quarks of the Big Bang, the dust of supernovae explosions, the DNA of dinosaurs, and the long history of the primate genome. In an evolutionary paraphrase of St Gregory of Nazianzus, God assumes creation by becoming incarnate at its heart in a human person, Jesus Christ.
In the incarnation, the uncreated Creator — the second Person of the Godhead — became a creature. He has assumed in his Person the creation itself by becoming the man, Jesus of Nazareth. As the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has put it so simply and yet so poignantly, in the incarnation God became cosmos.
Although the much anticipated report by the US Department of Defense is mostly inconclusive, theologians must continue to reflect on what the existence of ETI might mean for the Christian faith. A new but promising field of theological research and reflection on the implications of intelligent alien life called astrotheology (previously, exotheology) has emerged and is rapidly developing.
There are many issues that I am unable to explore in this article. Issues such as whether intelligent aliens inhabiting exoplanets are also bearers of the image and likeness of their Creator. And if they are, how will this challenge our understanding of the imago dei and human uniqueness? Another important question that I am unable to discuss here is what should be our attitude towards our extraterrestrial neighbours? Alongside astrotheology, we have to also think about astroethics.
I think it is important that theologians take these questions seriously and not treat them as the interest of a small group of eccentric Christians. As Ted Peters, who has done important work in this area, puts it,
Planetary readiness informed by wisdom drawn from Earth’s historic religious traditions is being called for here. Secular or scientific anticipations are not enough. Religious readiness will be helpful to both spiritual and non-spiritual sectors alike.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.